Hemis Monastery

By Dr Salil Choksi [email protected] | 2012

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Hemis hamlet; hanging on to the cliff-slope for dear life. In Ladakh, life is at the mercy of the vagaries of its harsh and hostile climate.

Wild roses abound everywhere in Ladakh - from roadsides to impossibly steep cliffsides.

The Monastery lies concealed in a deep ravine, amidst magnificent snow covered peaks, alpine green valleys & high altitude passes. It reflects Buddhist Culture & living tradition, and celebrates the harmony & balance of life even in the harsh climatic conditions of Ladakh.

Blind mendicant monks, singing soulful hymms in return for alms.

Young (and not so young) lamas, waiting for the festivities to begin. Traditionally, the youngest son in each family is initiated into monkhood unlike in Punjabis where the eldest son became a Sikh and joined the Army.

A riot of Holy Red.

A wizened Ladakhi with his prayer wheel. Known as Mane Laro, the hand prayer wheel is of Tibetan origin. The mantra ''Om Mane Padme Hum'' is inscribed on the outer wall of the prayer wheel. Inside the wheel is a scroll in which the mantra is written many times. The wheel is whirled clockwise, activating the mantra with each rotation.

An impressive (and impressed) international audience witnesses one of the 8 Quirkiest Festivals in India, under the blazing Ladakhi sun, temperature 42 C.

At Hemis Monastery.

Lama musicians with cymbals, drums, and unwieldy trumpets.

The festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the main door of the Monastery. The space is wide & open apart from two raised square platforms, three feet high, with a sacred pole in the centre. On a raised dais decorated with a richly cushioned seat, is placed a small, finely painted table on which are displayed ceremonial items – cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas made of dough and butter and incense sticks.

During this time, the dance drama celebrations depict the magical feasts of Padmasambahav in his eight different manifestations vanquishing the enemies of Buddhism. The most esoteric of the performances is the mystic mask dances, referred to collectively as Chams.

The essence of the Masked Dance is the fight of evil with good, the progress of the individual soul & its purification and the arrival of Buddhism to Ladakh. The performers are lamas (monks). They are clad in rich and bizarre robes of china silk & brocade & unusually tall tufted hats and wear brightly painted & often wearing startlingly frightful masks. These masks are the most vital part of the dance. The dance movements are slow, and the expressions grotesque; the event revolves around a lavish & extended pantomime. The music is characteristically punctuated with sounds of cymbals, drums, and unwieldy trumpets.

At Hemis Monastery.

At Hemis Monastery.

A full house at Hemis Monastery.

Each colorful mask depicts a different figure in the legend that''s being portrayed. The Padmasambhava dance, which shows the conquest of the ruta demons, includes Yama -- the God of death, and the black-hatted sorcerer, Guru Trakpo -- the vanquisher of all demons.

At Hemis Monastery.

At Hemis Monastery.

Stok range, from atop the Monastery. To see pictures of Bodh Gaya Temple Click here