Once every 12 years, people from across the Himalayas gather at Hemis monastery in Ladakh to celebrate Buddhist yogi Naropa’s life in a spectacular pageant. This month-long festival of dance, music and spiritual teachings brings people together, both physically and spiritually, not just from different sects of Buddhism but from communities across the globe as well.
With around half a million visitors, this important festival is rightfully billed as the Kumbh of the Himalayas.
Naropa was a revered 11th century Buddhist scholar-saint who heralded the beginning of a rich tradition in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. His life is upheld as an example of determination, perseverance and endurance and his teachings, especially the Six Yogas of Naropa, are one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. One of the 84 Mahasiddhas of Buddhism (a person who has gained Siddhi, that is, a higher level of spiritual realisation and awakening), his legacy of experiential learning and active compassion continue to have a lasting impact on the modern world.
Legend has it that Naropa was the gatekeeper of Nalanda University and posed questions on theology and philosophy to people who came for admission before deciding whether they deserved entrance or not. Later, he came to Ladakh where he meditated in caves near Lamayuru and Zanskar.
As 2016 will be the 1000 year anniversary of Naropa’s visit to Ladakh, the Naropa Festival, held during the entire month of July, will be especially different and grand. It is an extended version of the annual Hemis festival where monks in colourful costumes and masks dance to the beats of traditional instruments to commemorate Guru Padmasambhava’s birth anniversary.
The greatest festival of Ladakh, Naropa Festival is held at the beautiful Hemis Gompa (monastery), also called the Chang-Chub-Sam-Ling or the Solitary Place of the Compassionate One.
Tucked in a hidden valley 40 km from Leh, Hemis Gompa is the most renowned and biggest monastery of Ladakh.
In the chill of July mornings in Ladakh, the lamas who have been practising for weeks silently enter the main hall of the monastery to light butter lamps. Prayers are said and conch shells blown as the sun steals up over the mountains, chasing away shadows and the quiet of the monastery.
Soon, a human wave descends on Hemis to see the lama-turned-dancers wear centuries-old costumes and masks to become demons, devils or gods for the day. Every spot of shade is immediately claimed while the not so lucky sit patiently in the sun.
As the monastery resonates with the clang of gongs, horns, pipes and drums, the masked monks twirl to the mesmerising rhythm. Older people touch their foreheads in reverence every time a masked performer comes close to them, while wide-eyed kids cower in terror.
The magnificent chham (masked) dances are based on manifestations of Padmasambhava – wrathful, benign, feminine, royal, saintly, leonine – that he assumed at different times for the benefit of mankind.
One event that should not be missed by devotees who attend this festival is the display of the sacred Six Bone Ornaments belonging to Naropa, by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Order. These ornaments symbolise the origin of many practices of Tibetan Buddhism and are considered some of the holiest treasures in the Himalayas. His Holiness then addresses the audience seated at the centre of a giant mandala, which is shaped like the 9th century Borobodur temple complex in Java.
After the event this year, a statue of Naropa will be installed and consecrated as a monument.
The festival will also witness the largest assembly of Drukpa masters offering their teachings and sermons, besides the ceremonial unfurling of the historic silk thangka on July 14, 2016.
The thangka, depicting the beloved Buddhist saint Guru Padmasambhava, stretches several stories high and is only displayed to public audiences during the Naropa festivities.
Besides an elaborate fair (with stalls selling fun souvenirs and handicrafts), free health camps and tree planting programmes have also been organised. The Drukpa charity organisation, Live to Love, will attempt to break its own Guinness record of a million trees planted simultaneously.
The Drukpas have made their home in major parts of the Himalayas, especially in Ladakh, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti in India, as well as in Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan, also known as ‘Druk Yul’ or ‘Land of Thunder Dragons’, honours the Drukpa lineage. The Drukpas are known for their efforts to tackle global challenges by converting compassion into action. In a rare recognition given by the Indian government to a particular Buddhist lineage, the Department of Posts celebrated Buddha Purnima in 2014 with the release of a stamp on the Drukpas.
The head of the Drukpas, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, is the recipient of the UN Millennium Development Goals Award and India’s Green Hero Award. A champion of gender equality and sustainable development, he is today recognised as the preeminent voice on the several issues facing the Himalayas.
Strengthened by his support, the nuns of the Drupka lineage started learning the martial art of Kung Fu, which was forbidden for women for a long time (they later featured in a documentary titled Kung Fu Nuns ).
Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, second in the Drukpa lineage hierarchy, believes that the festival demonstrates that centuries-old traditions still hold relevance even in contemporary times, not just for Buddhists but seekers across faiths. As he says:
“These festivals play a critical role in promoting tourism and cultural heritage. Don’t you think that they are a great way for local people to celebrate and bond among themselves as well as connect with those who show interest in knowing and understanding them?”
A team of French lighting experts will also be organising the world’s largest 3D Video Mapping at the festival this year. A celebration of extraordinary significance, the Naropa festival deserves to be an integral part of the summer calendar of locals and tourists alike. With 10,000 people from Vietnam already confirming their attendance and people from countries like UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, and Poland evincing their interest, this is definitely going to be a not-to be-missed extravaganza that displays Ladakh’s unique culture at its best !