The horns breach the silence and monochromes are replaced by a splash of colours during a festival at Hemis Monastery in Ladakh

Hemis Monastery is the biggest and the wealthiest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. The headquarters of more than 200 branches of Drukpa ‘lineage of the dragons’, this 11th Century monastery is situated at an altitude of 12,000 feet, and is one of the highest settlements of the world. Nestled in a gorge inside the Hemis National Park, at a distance of about 45 km from Leh in Jammu & Kashmir, Hemis gompa withstood plunders unlike other gompas. A recently built museum showcases its rich collection of huge stone and copper-gilt monuments of the Lord Buddha, gold and silver stupas studded with precious stones, and an impressive collection of sacred thangkas (religious paintings).

Drukpa is one of the oldest among the four major Buddhist sects of Ladakh. “In 1206, exactly 800 years ago, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje saw nine dragons flew up into the sky from the ground of Namdruk, and he named his lineage ‘Drukpa’ or ‘lineage of the Dragons’ after this auspicious event,” says Gyalwang Drukpa, Spiritual Head of the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism.

Drukpa Buddhists follow the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in philosophy of “seeking enlightenment by helping others” through methods based on the Tantrayana teachings. Gyalwang Drukpa adds, “Tantrayana is also called the ‘Vehicle of the Text’. It is distinctive from the other paths in Buddhism as it seeks liberation from the cycle of rebirth in Nirvana and makes full enlightenment or Buddha-hood possible in a shorter time frame, or perhaps, in a single lifetime.”

Starting 10th day of Tibetan lunar calendar, the long horns breach the silence and monochromes are replaced by a splash of colours during this two day festival when the monastery commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, the 8th Century Indian Buddhist mystic and founder of Tantrayana Buddhism. People from different religions, from across the world, throng the Hemis Monastery to witness an ancient tradition, flourishing virtually unadulterated. The festival draws huge crowds which reaches its crescendo every 12th year when the two-story-high giant thangka, beautifully embroidered with pearls and semi-precious stones, depicting Guru Padmasambhava, is unrolled for public viewing. The Hemis festival, this year, was blessed by the spiritual head, Gyalwang Drukpa, and was attended by over 25000 guests from across the world.

The highlight of the Hemis festival is the Masked Dance, also known as Cham performance which is essentially a part of tantric tradition. The dance is a culmination of a month’s training by the monks and is performed only in Drukpa gompas. The performances have a strong significance and the observance of these sacred rituals is believed to give spiritual strength and good health. The symbolic masked dance, in the backdrop of traditional cymbals, drums and long horns, performed by the monks dressed in brightly coloured 17t Century silk gowns and masks, depicts the victory of Buddha over sinister forces through exorcisms. “It also serves as a reminder to the local people of their rich cultural heritage and showcases Himalayan living traditions which have always been very friendly to the ecosystem. People living in these harsh conditions, unless over exposed to western modernisation, learn from the young how to preserve their environment and how not to waste,” said Gyalwang Drukpa.

A major contributor to Ladakh’s cash economy, tourism has brought clear economic benefits to the minority involved in this trade. While the influx of tourist money has allowed the monasteries to make renovations and repairs at a time when the number of young monks is declining, the synthetic table tops, plastic floor coverings, cement steps, and bright, new, synthetic-based paints, have replaced the traditional material.