Monday, 28 November 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 5: Mask of the Buddha - The Hemis Festival

Our trip to Ladakh had been planned and timed in such as way so that we wouldn’t miss the Hemis Festival which we had read so much about on the internet. We had started with Srinagar, then moved on to Kargil, then Leh and Nubra valley. Hemis was home to Ladakh’s richest monastery, and once a year, they had a gigantic festival where a masked dance called “Cham” was performed. Websites gushed about the festival – great photo op, unforgettable experience – you know how it is. But before I tell you about what the festival is really like, let me give you a bit of a backgrounder on the Hemis Monastery itself.

Masks of the Cham Dance


The Hemis Monastery was founded in 1672 by Sengge Namgyal, the greatest king of the Namgyal dynasty of Ladakh. He installed in Hemis idols that he brought from the ancient monastery of Miru, which he declared to be the “mother” of Hemis monastery. When Miru monastery faced destruction at the hands of Zorawar Singh and his invading armies (more on that here), Hemis rose considerably in political influence. Hemis is also connected with one of the greatest names in Tibetan Buddhism, Naropa. It was in Hemis that Naropa is said to have met his teacher, the great Tantric practitioner Tilopa. Both Naropa and Tilopa were from Bengal. Naropa would be educated in the then famous University of Nalanda before its sacking by invading Turkic forces caused him to move to the mountains. Tilopa and Naropa’s teachings would form the basis of the Dagpo Kagyu, from where the Kagyu schools of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism would spring.

Hemis Monastery


I was guilty of poor research before our Ladakh trip. I had read that we would be in Ladakh at the time of the Hemis festival. But when we got there, we found the entire valley plastered with posters of something called the Naropa Festival. What was going on? Two very distinct, and potentially chaotic things were happening at the same time. The Hemis Festival is dedicated to Buddhist guru Padmasambhava. That was a name we had encountered previously in Sikkim, where legend says he created the Gurudongmar Lake (more on that here). But the Naropa Festival, which the posters said was “The Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas”, happened once in 12 years, and was dedicated to Naropa (duh!). This was where the bone ornaments of Naropa, said to have been given him by Dakinis, were displayed and just the sight of them could give a believer spiritual liberation, or so they say. But what did I know? I just wanted photographs of the famed “cham dance” of Hemis. I had read that it would be crowded, but I had no idea what I was in for.

Traffic jam in the Himalayas

The plan was to leave as soon as the hotel could serve breakfast, but when 5 adults share 2 bathrooms, delays are only to be expected. There was a Japanese family living in the same hotel with us, and they had prepared to leave a couple of hours before sunrise. The gentleman who seemed to be the leader of the group was carrying a Nikon D4S, a D500 and a Fujifilm XT-1! All of it hanging from his neck! What we failed to grasp was the fact that this was a serious photographer who had come half way across the world to shoot the Hemis Festival, and hence it would probably be wise to follow his lead. We just shook our heads and laughed. We were Indians, in India. We were smarter than these foreign tourists, right? WRONG!

Tourists at Hemis

When we finally reached Hemis we realised why the Japanese wanted to leave before sunrise. Imagine a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Now imagine someone pours a cup of chocolate sauce on top. That ice cream was Hemis, and the chocolate sauce was people! It was more crowded than Calcutta during Durga Puja! People occupied every square of space around the courtyard where the cham dance was being performed. More people were trying to make their way to the top, buying things from makeshift stalls beside the road or just hanging around. Once we reached the courtyard, I realised the only way I could take photos was to use the rear screen of my 70D (which luckily would pop out and swivel), raise my camera above the heads of the crowd, and fire away in high speed continuous. Spray and pray. The only trouble with this plan was that my arm would start hurting after 20 minutes, so I would need a break. And in the middle of all this, I met her…
Raena Shah on her father's shoulder


It was a sight that made us all smile - a girl, not yet in her teens, seated on her father’s shoulder, watching the cham dance. Her vantage point put her a good foot above the crowd. “Don’t you wish you could do that”, Prasenjit giggled. The girl’s father had a better suggestion. “You want to give her your camera? She is quite good with photos”. What’s the worst that could happen, I thought. So, I showed her how to focus and zoom, and handed over the camera and surprise surprise! She took some very decent shots! Her name was Raena Shah and she was thrilled when I told her I’d be writing about her in my blog. I took down her email address and promised to send her the photos and the links to my post. And with that, we were done with the Hemis festival.

The crowds at Hemis. Photograph by Raena Shah


Leh Palace
Having had quite enough, we decided to return to Leh for lunch and chill at the hotel for the rest of the day. The girls wanted to go shopping and I remembered that the Leh Palace could be seen from the market and I wanted to get a shot of it. After a sumptuous lunch, we broke up into two groups. Harsha and I decided to go for a walk in the market, while Prasenjit, Ananya and Sreyashi went shopping for shirts and other gifts. The walk would prove a strenuous one. Harsha was far more fit than I was and even was panting after just a few feet. But after a few attempts, we eventually found a supermarket which had a good view, climbed to the roof, and I managed to get my shot. We were back in the hotel by 6 and I stood on the balcony and watched the setting sun turn the Himalayas pink.

Sunset at Leh

The next day we would be leaving Leh for the spot where Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots ended – Pangong Tso!

-          by Deepanjan Ghosh



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Jina, Prem Singh - Recent Researches on the Himalaya
Sharma, Usha - Festivals In Indian Society
Buswell, Robert E. Jr./Lopez, Donald S. Jr. - The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
Jacobs, Alan - When Jesus Lived in India: The Quest for the Aquarian Gospel
Lovell-Hoare, Max/Sophie - Kashmir: Jammu. Kashmir Valley. Ladakh. Zanskar
Handa, Omacanda - Buddhist Western Himalaya: A politico-religious history

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