Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Visting Hemis Monastery & festival - a Photo Blog

Ladakh – the moonland of Monasteries
(Visting Hemis Monastery & festival)

Panoramic view of Hemis Monastery
       After having had a hectic one day journey to Tso Moriri and back, as detailed in my previous blog, it appeared that it truly wad Divine intervention that we were able to visit the Hemis Festival on the opening day itself i.e. 18th June, 2013 since we had planned to attend the same on the second day as per our revised itinerary.  Had we attended the festival on the second day, we would have been bereft of the spectacular display we saw during the opening day.  We stared for Hemis at 9.00 A.M. sharp, as Tashi our driver, had warned us that there would be huge rush of tourists and local residents alike and we may not get a vantage seat for watching the festival.  As it takes about an hour to reach the destination, the moment we crossed over the bridge, we saw a plethora of vehicles trudging uphill towards the monastery.  I had some local reference from a friend of mine and to my surprise, found that he was waiting at the monastery and he being of Royal lineage, hosted at the premises in the monastery, wherefrom the royalty used to watch the festival during the ancient times and it was indeed a visit of a lifetime for me, thanks to Mr.Tsewang Namgayal. 
As we enter the famed Hemis Monastery
Local residents enjoy Thukpa at Monastery entry - various stalls have been set up
Hemis monastery is situated in the on the south side of the Indus approximately at a distance of 42 km from Leh, the monastery is accessible by a motorable road.  Traveling to Hemis monastery itself is a rejuvenating experience, as just after crossing the Shey & Thiksey, one heads across the Sindhu River and takes the winding route towards Hemis, which is a memorable oneCrossing the river by a cantilever bridge, the road skirts up, towards the village of Chushod. Then it passes over to a green oasis in the middle of rugged mountains and high altitude desert plains, lined with poplar and willow trees. As one nears the adjoining hills, the Hemis gompa, comes in view. Across the stillness of the wide expanse, the Hemis gompa stands upright built in Tibetan style, jutting out of the mountain top.  Hemis Monastery is the largest monastic institution in Ladakh. It belongs to the Drukpa Lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism, with His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa as its supreme spiritual head.  Hemis is the main seat of the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism.
The courtyard of Hemis Monastery where the rituals/dance take place
Statute of Lord Buddha set atop a hillock overlooking the Hemis Monastery
            There is an interesting fraud related with the history of Hemis Monastery.  In 1894 a Russian journalist named Nicolas Notovitch claimed that Hemis was the origin of an otherwise unknown gospel, the Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, in which Jesus is said to have traveled to India during his “Lost years”.   According to Notovitch, the work had been preserved in the Hemis library, and that it was shown to him by the monks there while he was recuperating from a broken leg. But once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence.   As per  the Widipedia, in contradiction to the claims made by Mr. Notovitch, Bard D. Ehrman states that "Today there is not a single recognized scholar on the planet who has any doubts about the matter. The entire story was invented by Notovitch, who earned a good deal of money and a substantial amount of notoriety for his hoax".
The present Drukpa - His Excellency Thuksey Rimpoche
            As per the ancient texts, Gyalwa Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje (1189-1258), a main disciple of the 1st Gyalwang Drukpa, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje (1161-1211), and one of the most celebrated yogis in the Himalayas, came to Ladakh in the 13th century and established the Drukpa Lineage here. "Druk" in Tibetan means "Dragon" and it also refers to the sound of thunder. In 1206, about 800 years ago, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje saw nine dragons fly to the sky from the ground of Namdruk, and he named his lineage "Drukpa" or "lineage of the Dragons" after this auspicious event. In this way, Tsangpa Gyare became the founder of the lineage and was known as the First Gyalwang Drukpa.  In his life, Tsangpa Gyare unveiled many treasures of holy teachings and objects in Southern Tibet, and he also discovered Tsari, a very famous, holy and powerful place in Tibet. Because of his spiritual attainments, Tsangpa Gyare became popular as Druk Thamchey Khyenpa, the Omniscient Dragon, and reverentially called 'Je Drukpa' (Lord Dragon master).  When Tsangpa Gyare passed away in 1211, on the cremation day, a rainbow canopy appeared and showers of flowers fell. Many could hear celestial music and smell a beautiful aroma in the atmosphere. When his body was cremated, his heart, tongue and eyes remained intact. His skull bore the images of Arya Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani; the twenty-one joints of his backbone turned into twenty-one mini statues of Avalokiteshvara. Many of these relics are still available in various Drukpa monasteries for reverence and these are proofs of Tsangpa Gyare's spiritual attainments.
The cleansing of the courtyard rituals underway
The lineage acquired the name "Drukpa" in the twelfth century when, assuming the human form, Avalokiteshvara - the Great Lord of Universal Compassion - manifested in Tibet as the outstanding disciple of Mahasiddha Lingchen Repa. This sublime being was called Drogon Tsangpa Gyare, the meaning being: Drogon - the Protector of Beings; Tsang - born in the land of Tsang; Gya - from the noble clan of Chinese (Gya) origin; Re - a cotton-clad yogi.  The Kingdom of Bhutan, considered as one of the few remaining Buddhist kingdoms in this world and a pure land in the Himalayas, also takes the name of "Druk" or "Druk Yul", meaning "the Land of the Thunder Dragons" and its people are also known as "Drukpa". 
Sanctifying the sacred flag staff in the Hemis courtyard
As per the legends, it is said that Gyalwa Gotsangpa meditated in a cave on the edge of the mountain above Hemis Monastery, where a meditation centre named after him was established.  Hemis Monastery existed even before the 11th century. Naropa, the pupil of the yogi Tilopa, and teacher of the translator Marpa is connected with this monastery.  Naropa is considered as the founding father of the Kagyu-lineage of the Himalayan esoteric Buddhism and accordingly, Hemis monastery is considered as the main seat of the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism.  The Annual Hemis Festival that takes place on the 10th and 11th day of the 5th Lunar Calendar was introduced by Gyalsey Rinpoche.  From the time of Rgyalsras Rinpoche around the year 1730, the Hemis Festival has been observed year after year without break and has now become well known internationally.
All gathered to watch the rituals
According to the Tibetan calendar, the great annual festivals held in the villages of Ladakh takes place in winter, with the exception of thseshu held at Hemis in summer. This is one of the most important events of the valley, its chief feature being the presentation of a mask dance-drama for two days at a stretch. The festival commemorates the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, the celebrated founder of the Lama tradition and the presiding authority of Tibetan Buddhism. According to the records in Sikkim, Padmasambhava came northward and convinced the Lamas of Tibet that he was sent to Tibet as an incarnation of Buddha. The festival both eulogizes the great deeds of Padmasambhava and reiterates the victory over evil for the protection of Buddha dharma. Guru Padmasambhava is the founder of the Tibetan tradition and the source of the Terma tradition of the nyingma. He is popularly known as Rinpoche, the precious teacher. Nyingmas honour him next to Buddha and refer to him as the second Buddha. It is believed that guru Padmasambhava descends as a representative incarnate of all the Buddhas, to bestow grace and improve the conditions of living. He does so on the 10th day of each month and all of the 10th dates which come in a year or the most important of the 10th of the Monkey year in a cycle where the thangka of the guru is exhibited. The purpose of this sacred performance and the dances is to bestow good health, subjugate disease and conquer evil spirits. Guru Padmasambhava is regarded as one of the most extraordinary teachers in the history of Buddhist sages, a possessor of enlightened power. He was a great esoteric practitioner, said to have been born in a lotus, led an ascetic life and taught numerous followers about the esoteric approach to enlightenment and had the distinction of assuming different forms at different places.
The festivities set to begin - the dancers start from the Monastery
The first of the dancers emerge from the Monastery door
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 centre. The platforms mark out the centre of the performance space, in front of the main door to the monastery. 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 incence 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.
Another view of the Hemis Monastery
The traditional Tankha painting of Hemis Monastery
The Mask Dances of Ladakh are referred collectively as chams performance. Chams performance is essentially a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in those gompas which follow the Tantric vajrayana teachings and the monks perform tantric worship. The chams are performed in strict adherence to the prescribed texts orally transmitted, from generation to generation. Chams are performed with masks, and costumes of various meditative and protective deities. Each monk assumes the personage and personality of the deity he is meant to characterize. They then come out into the open courtyard and dance around the central pole with slow and solemn movements of legs and hands to the special music of drums, cymbals and wind-instruments. Tibetan ritual music played during chams performance contains a variety of protean forms. Tibetans believe that religious music has its origin in the teachings of the dakinis. Legend also holds that a lama named Takpo Dorjechang (1543-1588), transmitted the most complex and beautiful music the yang (olbyangs) through dakinis. Music is looked upon as a sacred offering to the deities. Aurally beautiful, it enhances the dance-drama by sustaining and lending the whole performance an orderly rhythmic element. The music that is played in monasteries is often categorized in terms of the deity to whom the offerings are made. The musical offerings are often suited to express the nature of the deity.
The procession begins with the musicians leading the parade in Hemis Monastery festival
Another view of the ritualistic parade during Hemis festival
Close-up of the musicians - Hemis festival
Tsamchot Dance: Dance of the Black Hat (Janaka) Dancers
After the preliminary preparations, the show gains momentum. Thirteen dancers with large black hats with wide round rims enter the scene. From the backside of these hats colored ribbons stream down. Their robes are heavy and made of rich Chinese silk with brocade. They wear rich capes and aprons and a necklace with a skull emblem, which is a potent symbol to remind the viewers of the impermanence and brevity of life. They slowly dance their way round the courtyard, clock wise. Each dancer is given a few sprigs of dried sacred herb by a lama, and then they slowly make their way to the exit. The purpose of this tantric dance is to dispel evil forces and mark out the exterior limits of the performance space and ‘bind’ the quarters by their sacred movements. The number thirteen is identified with the thirteen yugas of the Cosmos and thirteen rings of the chorten.
Close-up of a Tsamchot or Black Hat dancer during Hemis festival
The foreigners watching the Black Hat dancers intently during the Hemis festival
Another pose of the Tsamchot or Black Hat dancers during Hemis festival
Dancing pose of Tsamchot or Black Hat dancer during Hemis festival
Another dancing pose of Tsamchot or Black Hat dancer during Hemis festival
Dance of The Sixteen Serbak / Zangbak : Compassionate Dakinis
Sixteen males dressed as compassionate dakinis with metal masks enter the arena of the performance. Each of these dakinis hold a damaru and a bell in their hands. They dance in slow steps around the sacred pole to the chant of cymbals and drums chanting in a low melodious voice the mantra of Padmasambhava : Om Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum.
They chant the mantra four times and offer their benediction. Their task is to purify the sacred space, the objects of worship, the lineage of teachers, as well as the disciples.
Pose of a Serbak or Zangbak - Compassionate Dakinis dancer during Hemis festival
Dance Honouring the Eight Aspects of Padmasambhava
This is the most spectacular aspect of the whole performance, infact, the centre-point of the ritual dance. The great guru Padmasambhava, in whose honour the festival is performed, makes a dramatic entry with his entourage. The Guru Padmasambhava wears a golden mask with benign countenance, and a serene Buddha like face found so often in the sculpture of South East Asia. The guru is led by a procession of musicians, some masked and otherwise, to the resounding sounds of music, two lamas hold incense pots (phoks) and two blow wind-pipes (rgya gling), two play long trumpets (dugchen). They enter the arena in rows. Then follows Guru Padmasambhava, accompanied by a disciple, who carries a parasol for the guru. Guru Padmasambhava is accompanied by his seven more personifications. It is interesting to observe that the bodily size of Padmasambhava is nearly one and a half times more than his other incarnations. Their details are given in the chart below :
Eight Aspects of Guru Padmasambhava –
Colour of mask
Lolden Machhog
Flesh colored
Padmar Gyalpo
Flesh colored
Niyama Odzer
Shakiya Singe
Senge Dadoks
Blue Black
Dorje Tolod
Reddish brown
(You may compare the masks & manifestations in the photograph)

Procession leading the entry of Guru Padmasambhava & his entourage during Hemis festival
Close-up of f Guru Padmasambhava & his entourage during Hemis festival
Appeasing Guru Padmasambhava & his entourage during Hemis festival
Thereafter, four masked heroes praise the qualities of body, speech and mind of Guru Padmasambhava and dance before him. Then the five heroines, who represent the five skandhas, the five senses, the five elements, the universe of five Buddhist categories, dance in front of Padmasambhava and praise the three bodies of the guru. Then each of the incarnations of Padmasambhava wearing masks of different colours, dance one after another and display their majesty and prowess to protect and bless humankind by articulating their qualities by their gestures. A group of sixteen dakinis pay homage to the guru for his kindness and compassion for humankind. They praise him for descending on earth by riding the rays of the sun. They recall his deeds and entreat him to come again in the future.
Jokers accompanying the entourage of Guru Padmasambhava during Hemis festival
       After Guru Padmasambhava is appeased through the above rituals, the second most important part of the performance takes place. Concerned mainly, with the protection of Buddha dharma, banishing the evil, so that Dharma retains its unshakable strength, on the face of all the other destructive forces and obstacles that lie in its path, the  twelve Dharmapalas, who are especially assigned the task to protect the teachings of Buddha, now emerge, wearing their colorful masks and holding their respective weapons. They dance in ecstasy to protect the teachings of Buddha.
The young monks intently watching the proceedings during the Hemis festival
Dance of Turdag: Masters of the Graveyard
Four dancers emerge wearing white masks representing graveyard ghouls with sunken cheeks, gaping mouths and protruding fanged teeth. They are the masters of the graveyard. Their task is to locate evil and carry those evil and demonic entities to higher deities who have the power to destroy them. Their bodies are covered with white cloth on which skulls and ribs are depicted by red streaks.
The masters of the Graveyard or Dance of Turdag
Dance of the Four Protectors of Dharma
Four figures with ogre-type masked faces with a third eye on their foreheads appear. Their mouths are open with a protruding tongue curled upwards. Each holds a weapon with which the demonic and evil forces can be defeated. They dance for nearly ten minutes, and then they symbolically cover the object of their weapons. The evil spirits who pose a threat to dharma are caught by the ‘hook’, tied with the ‘rope’, rolled with the ‘iron chain’ and paralyzed by the resounding sound of the bell.
Dance of the protectors of Dharma during Hemis Festival
Dance of the protectors of Dharma during Hemis Festival - check out the third eye on forehead
Dance of the Herukas
Another procession of dancers then comes down the steps. They are the four herukas or the wrathful forms of Buddha. These forms of Buddha dance and put an end to evil. They transform the negative traits of the psyche into pure nectar of enlightenment.
Herukas or wrathful forms of Buddha during Hemis festival
Dance of Tsoglen Na, Who Puts an End to Evil
Five dancer-deities enter with grotesque masks, in red, white, yellow, green and brown. One amongst them, who leads the procession, wears a big devil mask, with curled tongue and tusks. Monks enter and hold out the offering, which is sprinkled, the remainder is placed by the uncovered effigy made of dough. The leader with the demon like mask, approaches the effigy and cuts it into two. This signifies the ultimate death of the evil spirit. The monks remove the remnants of the figure. In the final episode of the performance, five heroes, (saking) who belong to the earth and five from the heavens (namking), appear with masks amid the drum beats, demonstrating their triumph at the destruction of the enemy. The common people of Ladakh refer to them as the heroes of the sky and earth. In the final act, the thangka of the guru is rolled back to the resonance of the music.
Dance of the Tsoglen Na during Hemis festival
The next day the first act of devotion consists of preparation of the high altar and the seat for the incarnate lama. Seven cups full of water, grains and butter tarmas are kept in position. The ceremony begins by unrolling the thangka of silk patch-work of the great Lama Rgyalsras Mipham Rinpoche, the great teacher and guru who established this monastery. Thangka is unrolled to the music played by lamas with yellow robes and red hats, who stand in a row in front of the small altar. Thirteen, dancers enter the performance arena. They are led by lamas playing instruments and two hatuks, who play the role of police-jesters. The dancers carry dried barley sprigs. And as they go out they throw the sprigs all around. Then a young lama walks in with an incense pan and fumigates the place of performance. After the dance, the stage is cleared. The focus of worship shifts inside into the prayer hall to offer worship to the deities who protect the land of Ladhak.  Although I did not visit the monastery to attend the festivities on the second day, I have collated this information for the benefit of my readers, who might have attended or intend to attend the festival on the second day.
Monkey masked dancer in Hemis festival
Dance of Maha Dongchen: The Bison/Buffalow Masked Deity
The Maha Dongchen, with a Bison faced Mask, and his entourage come and dance in a group, encircling the flag-staff. Two monks inscribe a triangle-mandala in blue with white and red outline. Another lama walks in with an effigy made of dough concealed with a veil. The effigy is placed in the centre of the mandala on which a mantra is inscribed. The Bison Masked figure emerges from the hall. He dances with his troupe with symbols of death and destruction and is accompanied by eight dancers. The gruesome group in succession dance around the mandala. Four figures appear carrying a bell and a dorje accompanied by two lamas, one carries a samovar, the other four holy cups. These lamas make offerings of chang and barley grains to the four demon-deities. While the music plays on these four, empty the cups and chant the mantras, ringing their bells and swinging their dorjes. The ceremony of filling and emptying the cups is performed four times. The final episode of the dance drama displays the interplay between the teacher and the disciple. Once the ego, represented by the effigy is slain by the demon-deity with horned mask, all acts of reverence come to finality. It is now left for the tradition to remind the audience of the ‘eternal’ quality of the message sustained and preserved through a reverential teacher-pupil lineage.
Dance of the Maha Dongchen or Buffalo/Bison masked deity during Hemis festival
The clam dances performed at the Hemis festival, embody a host of implicit meanings. Firstly, there is no concept of a dancer, as a dancer is an empowered deity in the body of the human. Seen from this perspective, the monk dancer is a dancer-deity, whose human character undergoes a significant transformation through the masking process. The use of masks while it veils the immediate and mundane reality simultaneously reveals another dimension of the divine, mythical beings and supersensible forces. The shifting of the boundaries between the sacred and the mundane and the transformation of the players from ascetic monkhood to the plane of the deity reflects certain meaningful categories of vajrayana Buddhism. The mask retains its significance as an image of transformation, whereby the dancer assumes the nature, posture and the very character of the deity. The most outstanding feature of the masked dance is their emphasis on the ideal of Bodhisattva represented by Padmasambhava, and the opposition between dharma and adharma. The origin of the cham dances goes back to year 811 AD when the guru Padmasambhava performed the black-hat chams to banish evil spirits who were an obstacle for building the Samaye monastery. Both these motifs, of the enlightened Boddhisattva as Padmasambhava, who had mastered the ten stages of Dharma-megha-bhumi by which he spreads the saddharma to wipe out the turbidities of beings, and the slaying of the enemies represented by the effigy are the two key motifs of the performance. The performance aims to bring out the grandeur and majesty of Guru Padmasambhava and the necessity of continuous renewal and reaffirmation of the Buddha dharma. Chams performance is characterized by nine dance movements, postures and gestures, and each of these has to be performed by every dancer-deity. Outside the scope of ritual, the monastic masked dance can be seen to reflect a certain social process. In the Hemis festival, the lamas and the lay people meet for a common aim of accumulating merit and resisting evil. The festival is akin to the Hindu festivals of Dusshera/Durga Puja held in other parts of India, both in importance & scale of festivities.
A visitor intently photographing the Hemis festival
Traffic jam during Hemis festival
(Acknowledgement -  ‘The Hemis Festival’ Research paper by Ms. Madhu Khanna -

 Here is a link to the video of the festival -


  1. Hey!

    Nice article and photo!

    How are you? I guess good.

    Im a compulsive traveler too, (you can check my blog: ),

    Thing is this: I looking for the way to contact with the Rimpoche Office of Hemis Monastery and I think you can help me?

    Thanks in advance!

  2. My husband and I had the good fortune of trekking through Kashmir and Ladakh in 1986. We arrived at Hemis Gompa on a festival day and that is a day we will never forget. Thank you for such a marvelous website and the video of the festival dances is magnificent!

  3. Hemis Monastery existed before the 11th century. Naropa, the pupil of the yogi Tilopa, and teacher of the translator Marpa is connected with this monastery.