Hemis is located in the Ladakh division of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, however, it best known to tourists because of its colorful festival held in July.
The courtyard of Hemis Gompa-the biggest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, is the stage for the famous 'Hemis' festival, which celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The colourful two day pageant falls on the 10th day (Tse-Chu) of the Tibetan lunar month. The local people are seen dressed up in their finest traditional garb for the occasion.
It is difficult to establish when Buddhism was introduced into Ladakh. It is however definite that its first influence was under the reign of the Emperor Ashok. The true representative of the ancient practices and artistic traditions of Buddhism, dating back to over a thousand years are the monasteries. These Ladakhi monasteries are excellent examples of Tibetan architecture and impart the special impression of living a moment of eternity to all its visitors.
Buddhist Festivals are the days for joy and celebration commemorating some significant events related to lord Buddha. Apart from religious significance, Buddhist Festivals also imparts an opportunity for the people to meet and meditate in local temple or monastery. The principal Buddhist festivals celebrate 'the Three Jewels', the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddhist Teaching), and the Sangha (the spiritual community).
The Hemis festival is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava (Gur Rimpoche) venerated as the representative reincarnate of Buddha. He is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as predicted by the "Shakia Muni Buddha". It is also believed that his life mission was, and remains, to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings. And so on this day, which comes once in a cycle of 12 years, Hemis observes a major extravaganza in his memory. The observance of these sacred rituals is believed to give spiritual strength and good health.
Rituals and Celebrations
Splendid masked dances and sacred plays by Lamas called 'chhams' are performed around the central flagpole, to the accompaniment of cymbals, drums and long horns. Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism is believed to have fought with demons for the safety of the local people. The Lamas wear colourful costumes, i.e. long brocade gowns set off by quaint headgears. Masks worn by the lamas represent various guardian divinities of the Dugpa order, of which Hemis is the leading establishment in Ladakh. The dances end with the ritual destruction of a sacrificial offering of a human figure made of dough by the leader of the Black Hat dancers. The pieces are then scattered in the four directions depicting a re-enactment of the assassination of the Tibetan apostate king Lang-dar-ma by a Buddhist monk in AD842 or cleansing of the soul after death.
'Rimpoche' or the head lama presides over the function. The lamas recite mantras associated with the various episodes of the 'chhams'. The festival takes an auspicious turn every 12 years in the Tibetan Year of the Monkey, when the two-storey high ' Thanka' depicting Padmasambhava is displayed. This famous 'Thanka', richly embroidered with pearls and semi-precious stones, was displayed last in AD 2004.
A colourful fair, displaying some beautiful handicrafts, is the special highlight of the festival.
The so-called 'devil dances' constitute an important element in the social entertainment of the Ladakhis. The uproarious song-and-dance mirth, created by these mask dances, which invariably depict the victory of the right over evil, is kept by the all-round consumption of huge bowls of 'chang', Ladakhis own country liquor.
These festivals are a colorful events that take the form of dance-dramas in the Gompa courtyards. Lamas, robed in colorful garments and wearing often startlingly frightful masks, perform mimes representing various aspects of the religion such as the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil.
Everyone is invited to participate in these festivals, irrespective of caste, status or religion. Local people flock from near and far to these events, and the spiritual benefits they get are no doubt heightened by their enjoyments.
Other Festivals in Ladakh
Most of the festival events in Ladakh are the annual monastic festivals. The monastic festivals are dance-dramas in the gompa courtyards. The performers are the lamas, the monks themselves. Wearing colorful garments and often frightful, at times comic masks, the monks perform mimes representing various aspects of the religion, be it the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil. There are some non monastic festivals such as Losar or New Year celebrations. All the festivals represents the age old cultural heritage of Ladakh. Few of the famous monastic festivals are:
Celebrated on the first day of the eleventh month of every year, Losar is the New Year celebrations which is the most elaborate of all the socio -religious events of Ladakh. It involves the entire population of the region. Interestingly, the rites and rituals are a mixture of Buddhist and the pre Buddhist Bon religious practices.
Gu-Stor literally means 'Sacrifice of the 29th day'. It is traditional to the monasteries of the reformist Geluk-pa order of Tibetan Buddhism. This two-day long festival is held mainly in the Spituk, Thiksay (also spelt as Thiksey) and Karsha (Zanskar) monasteries, at different times every year.
An ancient tradition started by the kings of Ladakh , Docmoche is still celebrated every year in February with great pomp and fervour. The courtyard of the chapel below the gates of the Leh of the Leh Palace comes alive with the music of drums and the thumping steps of the masked Lamas from different monasteries performing the sacred dance-drama. The Lamas prepare, consecrate and eventually destroy the sacrificial offerings as the climax.
Yet another festival of oracles, this is held in Stok, the present seat of royal residence. The two Stok oracles, unlike those at Matho are laymen, spiritually cleansed and prepared by the lamas of the Spituk Monastery to receive the spirit of the deities.
On the 15th day of the 1st Tibetan month, a 2-day festival is held at the Matho Monastery- the only Saskyapa monastic establishment in Ladakh . During this festival, the two oracles of the monastery make a public appearance in their full spiritual form. These oracles, actually monks of the monastery, meditate in complete isolation fro a full month in preparation of entering in a state of trance and invoking the spirit of the deities.
This 2-day festival is celebrated during July, in the spectacularly situated monastery of Lamayuru, about 127-km west of Leh . The masks worn by the lamas during the dances represent guardian divinities from the Dringungpa pantheon.
The Hemis monastery
The Hemis monastery was established in 1672 AD by the then king Senge Nampar Gyalva. Across the stillness of the wide expanse, the Hemis gompa stands upright built in Tibetan style, jutting out of the mountain top. The practices at the Hemis monastery are a direct lineal descent of the teachings expounded in the Mahayoga Tantra school, or the esoteric school of vajrayana.
Hemis Monastery simply conjures up an image of magnificent snow covered peaks, alpine green valleys and high altitude passes. It reflects the Buddhist culture and living life in harmony among such harsh climatic conditions of Ladakh. There are a number of shrines around this great courtyard, all of them of considerable interest.
The Hemis festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the main door of the monastery. The space is wide and open save two raised square platforms, three feet high with a sacred pole in the center. A raised dias with a richly cushioned seat with a finely painted small Tibetan table is placed with the ceremonial items - cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas made of dough and butter and incense sticks. A number of musicians play the traditional music with four pairs of cymbals, large-pan drums, small trumpets and large size wind instruments. Next to them, a small space is assigned for the lamas to sit.
Location and Transport
Situated at a distance of around 40 km southeast of Leh, Hemis is located in the Ladakh division of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. It takes its name from the world famous Buddhist Gompa situated here. Many of the annual festivals of the monasteries take place in winter, a relatively idle time for the majority of the people.
Air : The nearest airport is at Leh
Road : By car, Hemis is an easy day trip from Leh. By bus, services are only frequent during the festival; at other times a single daily service leaves at 9.00 am and returns at 12.30 pm, leaving no time to have a good look round.