An offer to visit Leh to cover a religious-cultural winter festival at the mysterious and splendidly located Hemis monastery does not come your way often. And when it does it is well worth fighting for, even if it means losing a few friends among your colleagues. Just the view from the flight would be worth the week-long unfriendliness in the work place. The view from your hotel window (or any window anywhere in Ladakh) is just another incentive for not letting the chance go by.

The Hemis Monastery (45 km from Leh), built in the year 1630, is now the largest monastic institute in Ladakh with over a 1,000 monks in residence. Unlike other monasteries, usually built over a hill and hence visible from a distance, Hemis Monestry nests in the gap between two mountains and jumps suddenly into view only when you are quite close. It was established by Durk Taktsang Repa a disciple of the 5th Gyalwang Drukpa of the Drukpa sect of Buddhism.

The Drukpa sect came to Ladakh with Durk Taktsang Repa when the King Sengye Namgyal invited him to set up a monastery in Hemis and provide spiritual guidance to the royal court and the people of Ladakh. The monastery was constructed under the holy cave where Gyalwa Gotsangpa, a great disciple of the 1st Gyalwang Drukpa, meditated for years. A curious attraction at the Hemis Monastery is the “Speaking Tara”. This statue of Goddess Tara is believed to grant blessings of longevity and has often given teaching instructions and predictions in the presence of enlightened yogis. The monastery also boasts the largest collection of artifacts in the country, dating back to over 2000 years.   Standing in the yard of the Hemis Monastry, looking at snow covered mountains peering at you from above and listening to mysterious tales of the Drukpa Buddhism; it is hard not to start believing in them. Especially when one is immersed amidst people and believers, not just from Ladakh, but from across the world, sitting and meditating for hours following the buzzing sound of prayers coming from inside a large room filled with golden idols and little lamps which come to view as the curtain parts at the passage of the wind.

But lost as you might be in the magic of the place, the sub-zero temperatures force you to ask yourself why these people would leave their warm houses and travel through snow covered landscape to pray at this time of the year. His Holiness Gyalwnag Drukpa Jigme Pema Wangchen, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, explains the reason behind this. “Though the name is new, this practice is at least 800 years old. We call it Winter Festival just to make it easy for the people to understand it. According to lunar cycle and considering the time of the year the Buddhists tantric practices which this festival entails have a deeper physiological effect on the human body during the first part of the year,” His Holiness said.

He continued giving a simpler explanation for a layman “like himself”, “In earlier days Ladakh would become inaccessible in winters and life would be on hold till the season past; people would come and pray just for the sake of doing something. It was also a good chance for learning and increasing your understanding of spirituality and basic facts of life.”

This year the Winter Hemis festival coincided with the 54th birthday of His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, increasing the participation and excitement of his followers by many folds. Leh came to a standstill last Sunday when thousands of devotees performed Gochak (moving ahead while prostrating) to mark the start of the holy month of Tangpo. According to the Tibetan lunar calendar, Buddha gave his first sermon around this time of the year. The Gochak procession, if looked at from a height, looks as though a long caterpillar is making its way through the city streets. The long, impeccably organised human chain consists of people from all walks of life and all ages. The wavy moment is synchronized with a harmonic chant that flows through the crowd changing in pitches as it flows from the front parts of the chain consisting of male devotees to the latter part where the sweet female voices make it more musical.

In times where people all around the world are distancing themselves from religion, observers of the Tangpo Gochak say that the numbers of devotees participating in the ritual have grown over the year. The surreal human caterpillar circles various stupas in the area and culminates at a particular spot where the devotees perform hundred more prostrations. By the end of the procession each devotee has performed roughly up to three thousand prostrations.

The Durk Gawakhil or the Shey nunnery was the site of His Holiness’ birthday celebrations. A simple yet daunting structure built on plain land with high mountains surrounding it in a semicircle. The nunnery is home to a community of 300 nuns and was started by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa to ensure equal rights for nuns who for generations have been considered second to the male monks. A ground breaking step was taken by the Gyalwang Drukpa when he gave the nuns the charge of the Vajra dance ceremony during the last Naropa Festival in 2004. The ceremony entails playing the Kangling (the traditional trumpet) and wearing the ritual hats, both traditionally reserved solely for monks. His Holiness’ steps for gender equality resonate deeply with the Ladakhi community. A ready example of this was our guide miss Jigmet, who has been a tour guide to domestic tourist for over seven years, a fact that shows her vast reserve of patience. His Holiness will take steps for further integration of nuns during the 2016 Naropa festival which will take place from 1 to 31 July. The festival dubbed the Kumbh of the Himalayas is the largest coming together of the followers and practitioners of Drukpa sects and it happens once every 12 years. The festival ends with the display of the famed, sacred Six Bone Ornament belonging to Naropa, the 11 century Indian saint. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa gives his followers an audience donning the ornament.At a small distance from the Shey nunnery is the Shey palace (15 km from Leh), the erstwhile seat of the royals of Ladakh. The temple at the palace houses the biggest metal statue and the second largest Buddha statue in the Ladakh region. The Buddha sits on a lotus in the dark ante chamber of the temple, and one has to crane one’s neck as far back as possible to see the top of the statue. The light from the high windows illuminates just the statue’s face and lower part, which you have to go around in pitch black darkness. Also the room is quite small around the edges, so one risks getting stuck between the statue and the walls — entering the room is quite a test of your faith. Once safely out of the room, your reward is the view from the back of the palace — a sight of miles and miles of weather-beaten landscape with dead trees and frozen rivers, yet beautiful as can be. A good time to behold this sight would be nearer to the sunset when the soft yellow light augments the effect it has on you.

Though the sub-zero temperature makes Ladakh a less desirable tourist destination during the winters, it is the other side of this coin that makes it a great retreat during this time. The cold will keep both the average tourist and the high prices away. The true adventurer who wishes to brave days of -10 and nights of -20 degree Celsius, armed with the warmest of garbs, will be peaceful in solitude and with like-minded company.   

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