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Updated: December 26, 2012 10:26 IST

Chronicler of heritage

Taru Bahl
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On a spiritual journey: Nawang Jinpa
On a spiritual journey: Nawang Jinpa

Having turned to Oriental philosophy in search of existential questions 15 years back, French national Nawang Jinpa is now documenting the rich history of the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism at Ladakh’s Hemis monastery

The 45-km-stretch from Leh takes a small detour, snaking through about seven km of winding road, to lead up to the Hemis monastery, home to more than 1,000 resident and visiting monks and nuns who pray, meditate and work with their present spiritual leader, the Gyalwang Drukpa.

They work with the communities that dot the fascinating albeit harsh landscape of snow, mountains and barren patches of rocky land. What few know is that the Tibetan Buddhist monastery is also the hub of a lot of study and research activity with international scholars, volunteers and Buddhists being in residence and/or visiting on a regular basis. Belonging to the Drukpa lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism, Hemis was founded in the 13 century and later re-established in the 17th century.

Fifty-three-year-old Nawang Jinpa has been coming to Hemis for the last 15 years, staying for three to six months at a stretch. She is working on documenting the 800-year history of the Drukpa lineage. A French national, she turned eastwards seeing the immense wisdom that Oriental philosophy and religion offered following her own disillusionment with the western way of life which was “so empty, shallow and directionless”. She came initially in search of answers to some of her existential questions and then stayed on. Her search took her to Lahaul, where she spent a few years studying and working with children before moving to Ladakh.

She is presently recording local stories and is often the first point of contact for visitors at Hemis, taking them around, telling them about the Drukpa lineage and its fascinating tales. She tells you that all erstwhile kings of Ladakh had their religious gurus at the Hemis. And though the formal powers may have been surrendered, the dynastic culture and social status of His Holy Highness has stayed with hundreds of thousands of people thronging the place during local festivals and through the year to hear and seek his blessings. The monastery is like an institution which traces its intellectual order from the Vajrayana school of Tantric Buddhism which is divided into several sects like Kargyu, Sakya, Gelug. The practices in the monastery are direct lineal descent of the teachings of the Mahayoga Tantra school.

The Hemis monastery is the biggest land owner in all of Ladakh. Its funds are used to promote culture, education and religious studies. According to Nawang, Ladakh has a lot in common with Bhutan which is why so many leaders from Bhutan were present for the Annual Drukpa Council in October this year. Earlier the Prince of Ladakh used to became the spiritual leader of Bhutan. The Drukpa Council meeting was held for the fourth time in Ladakh and first time in Hemis. She is piecing every bit of information, engaging in conversations with people in person, through an interpreter and on email with disciples across the world.

What she finds most fascinating is that the lineage’s spiritual tradition is of renunciation. With change in time and culture, however, the masters began to feel the need to connect more with the people, talking about their rich and ancient lineage.

In an 800-year plus lineage, it is expected to find books, notes, records of meetings and religious manuscripts but not much is there in the archives. According to Nawang, “a lot of it got destroyed with invaders who attacked Ladakh and threw them in the Indus river.” She adds that though there is an abundance of information on the political history of the region, not much is available on the religious and spiritual history. “The Drukpa lineage was known as the pure or white lineage. It did not propagate its teachings through written content, but focused on people to people interaction, which was more private.”

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