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Enlightenment - a leap & a whirl away

WALKING TALL (Above) Drukpa nuns and monks on their Himalayan padyatra.

Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine, July 12, 2009 - The Hemis Festival and its tantric mask dancers pull thousands of visitors to Ladakh each summer. Sourabh Gupta relives that spiritual vibrancy. Click here to download the news in PDF version.

Every summer, as the sun warms the mighty Himalayas and its snows begins to melt and fill up the Indus river, the 17th century Hemis Monastery of the Tibetan Buddhist Drukpa Lineage, hidden away far up between two brown mountains of the Zanskar Range near Leh at over 11,000 feet, ritually bursts into life, bringing rainbow colours and festivity into the monastic, monochromatic life of the monks and nuns of the 800-year-old spiritual lineage.

Thus begins the Hemis Festival, the two-day long exhilaration, to celebrate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, the monk from India who brought Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century.

This year's festival, from July 2 to July 3, was special, because of the presence of Ladakh's spiritual head, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drupka. He is 46-year-old Jigme Pema Wangchen. The Drukpa lineage is one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism practiced across India, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia, Europe, USA and many other parts of the world. (Druk in Tibetan means the dragon and Druk-pa means the dragon people.)

If you think a holy man just sits on a cushion and prays, you haven't met Jigme Pema Wangchen. Amazingly, the spiritual head was not driven or flown to the monastery. He walked to it, with his spiritual heir, the Ninth Khamtrul Rinpoche, the 28-year-old soft-spoken Jigme Pema Nyinjadh, and 600 Drukpa nuns, monks and followers from over 20 countries. It was a grueling 400-km 45-day padyatra across mountain passes and valleys of the Himalayas. The object was to spread his message of 'Live To Love' and environmental protection among his devotees in faraway villages and pull in funds, the Buddhist way, for humanitarian causes.

Hence, Ladakh's faithful people had waited for the lama and his enthusiastic entourage at every village corner with folded hands and prayer on their lips. This was the homecoming they had been waiting for.


The padyatra of Gyalwang Drukpa and his followers had begun at Manali on May 23. And on the morning of July 1, after two months, we saw the thin maroon line snaking across the Leh valley towards Hemis Monastery, the sun-burnt nuns, wearing trainers and carrying big backpacks, chanting mantras in unison to renew their strength as they trekked up in a single line ahead of their guru, who was walking fast and focused under an yellow umbrella. Leading and trailing the padyatris were the exhilarated locals, hurrying men and smiling women in traditional fineries, along with gaggles of rosy-cheeked children. We overtook the padyatris to reach the gompa's first gate and saw hundreds of monks in blazing yellow robes, school kids and humble villagers, and jawans of the Ladakh Scouts silently standing in neat rows to welcome the lama and his entourage. As the walking nuns began arriving, the silence gave way to music and festivities.

Some hours later, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa was sitting on an ornate throne in the courtyard of a temple at the gompa's entrance, the Drukpa nuns and monks sitting on the floor, heads bowed with mountain fatigue and faith, as the priest chanted mantras, as offerings to the guru on his perilous journey.

"We did not feel a thing. Not even the knees hurt," said Jigme Tenzing, a Drukpa nun from a monastery in Kathmandu who was part of the padyatra.

The little hills around had filled up with the faithful-villagers with families, old people, all wizen, excited, eager, tired, squatting, standing, their houses in faraway villages all empty, locked. It was their day. Then the celebrations gradually woke up-with the shehnai and drums, followed by the slow circular Cham dance by the Zangbag mask dancers in front of their guru, and a tribal Ladakhi dance by a group of Ladakhi rural men and women. Above, at the monastery, rehearsals were in full swing for the next day's Hemis Festival.


On Thursday, all roads in Leh led to Hemis Monastery, thousands of devotees and Indian and foreign visitors ascending to large gompa since the chilly and windy dawn to secure the best seat to savour fully the famous mask dances. The monks were also on the roof and the courtyard with trumpets, pipes, drums and cymbals. In the air was incense and sweet herbs. And soon, with the Twelfth Gyalwang
Drukpa seated, the Hemis Festival began.

Amid the flickering cameras and murmurs of crowds arrived the 13 black hat dancers in tantra dresses to perform in a lugubrious circular way what the Drukpa called the Setting Limit: using spiritual
power to drive away evil spirits.

The Benediction Ceremony by 16 dancers in copper gilded mask dancers followed this. "The dancers, like the day before, are symbolically purifying the land and objects into Buddha land with the chanting of mantra and beating of damroos," said a Young Drukpa Association (YDA) volunteer.

After this arrived in the courtyard to the tunes of pipes and trumpets, the eight incarnates of Guru Padmasambhava, followed by 16 dakinis and 16 fairies. Soon, seven gurus presented a special dance turn by turn, except for the dancer who represented Guru Padma Vadjra. He remained seated in the centre in a fair mask and lotus hat. Padmasambhava preformed in blue mask, Blo-edan Machhog Sred danced in a human-skin like mask, Guru Padma Gyalp also in a similar mask but with a moustache, Guru Nyima Odzer in a yellow mask and tiger skin dress, Guru Shakia Senge in a wrathful blueblack mask with a lion skin and tiger skin dress, and Guru Dorje Tolod, in a reddishbrown mask. This was followed by the dance of 12 zing skyong Dhramapalas, who protect the Buddha's teachings.

The second day too saw an equally big crowd with more dances: worship of Gyalpo, emergence of 11 Acharyas, dance of deity in buffalo mask and dance of Hashang - the Chinese smiling Buddha.

"I love coming here. Ladakh has been part of my films," said Rakeysh Ompraksah Mehra, whom we spotted at Hemis.

All the gyan on Hemis

The Hemis monastery was established in 1672 AD by the then king Senge Nampar Gyalva. The Hemis monastery finds place in the Drukpa tradition. 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.

ALL DRESSED UP! (Above) Zangbag dancers get ready to welcome the Gyalwang Drukpa.

Monks perform at the Hemis Festival.

A monk in a Guru's mask enters the gompa's courtyard.

Then arrived in the courtyard, to the tunes of pipes and trumpets, the eight incarnates of Guru Padmasambhava

'Happiness comes from helping others'

The Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa's lineage follows the Mahayana school of Buddhism which says that a person can attain enlightenment by helping others. After his 'padyatra' from Manali to Leh, the spiritual head is undertaking a 'padyatra' from Leh to Kargil.