Sunday, June 27, 2004

Hemis festival: Legacy of Ladakh’s past

Hemis Gompa is the venue for the most significant festival of Ladakh, writes Kishie Singh

His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukchen
His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukchen

The Hemis monastery
The Hemis monastery

HEMIS Gompa is known as the Chang-Chub-Sam-Ling, the solitary place of the Compassionate One. His Holiness, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche, Supreme Spiritual head of the Drupka Kargyud lineage and head of the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh has graciously consented to grant a public audience of the Six Ornaments of Naropa. This will be in addition to the masked dances at Hemis on June 28 and 29. The audience will be granted at Shey Monastery on July 2 and 3.

The story of Hemis and of Naropa is fascinating. Centuries ago, Janyang Namgyal, the King of Ladakh, wanted to introduce Buddhism to his country. He approached the First Tagtsang Repa Rimpoche who was meditating in Orgyan Drog in Ladakh. The Rimpoche was unable to oblige as he, Rimpoche, did not have permission from his Guru the Fifth Gyalwang Drukchen Rimpoche. Repa Rimpoche returned to Tibet. King Janyang died but his son, Senge Namgyal, appealed to the Fifth Gyalwang Drukchen to allow the First Tagtsang Repa to return to Ladakh to preach Buddhism. Both, the Gyalwang Drukchen and the Tagtsang Repa, shared a vision concerning the future of Buddhism in Ladakh. They also had a vision concerning the future of Buddhism in Tibet.

The Gyalwang prophesied that a time would come when foreigners would invade Tibet, bringing ruin to the people and their religion. Buddhism in Tibet would be finished. It would be necessary to have a safe haven for Buddhism and it would have to be in Ladakh. Almost 400 years ago, the Hemis Gompa was founded by the 1st Tagtsang Repa in 1630, under the patronage of Senge Namgyal, King of Ladakh, who presented the land and provided men and money to build this new centre of Buddhism. Thus the most impressive, powerful and richest monastery in Ladakh and most important outside Tibet came into being.

A long time passed before the prophesy of the fifth Gyalwang Drukchen Rimpoche came true with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951. By this time Hemis had already established itself as a major centre of Buddhism. It was a treasurehouse of wealth as well as knowledge. The largest Thangka in existence, 62 ft in length, is at Hemis, where it is displayed every 12 years. This year it is the first time in this millennium that it will be displayed. It has gold Buddhas and stupas studded with precious stones and is richly embroidered with gold thread.

The present 12th Drukchen’s previous reincarnation, the 11th Gyalwang Drukchen
The present 12th Drukchen’s previous reincarnation, the 11th Gyalwang Drukchen (Tenzin Kyenrab Gelek Wangpo)

The Hemis Festival is held on the 10th and 11th day of the fifth Tibetan month has an extraordinary significance. It is written in the Padma Kathang, the prophecy of Guru Padmasambhava, that on this day the faithful and sincere devotees will actually be blessed by a live vision of Guru Padmasambhava. On this day devotees from far and wide come to celebrate the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist sage who introduced Buddhism to Tibet.

In the chill of the early June morning, the lamas who have been practising dancing for weeks creep silently into the main hall. Butter lamps are lit, conch shells wail, prayers begin and there is Om — the centre of the universe, the perfect sound of silence. The eerie silence is broken by the sun creeping up over the mountains that hide and protect Hemis. Shadows and silence are chased away and a human wave descends on Hemis.

Everyone, man, woman and child is in his Hemis-best dress. This is the greatest festival in Ladakh. The lamas who turn dancers wear costumes and masks hundreds of years old and become demons, devils or gods for the day. They portray the forces of evil and god. They show how Guru Padmasambhava triumphed through love, conversions and failing that, through destruction. The forces of destruction are always present, the skull, a constant reminder that the Great Void is where all of us are headed.

Gyalsay Rimpoche who succeeded the second Tagtsang Repa Rimpoche was the prince of Ladakh, being the grand son of King Senge Namgyal. Under his supervision, Hemis expanded and flourished. It was after his return from his spiritual training in Tibet that he introduced the present Hemis Festival. This thangka is displayed on the second day of the festival unfailingly, as a mark of gratitude to his contributions for the spread of Buddhism in Ladakh and as a source of inspiration for his devotees.

Usually, presiding over the occasion of the Hemis dances is His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukchen Rimpoche, head of the Drukpa Kargyud sect of Tibetan Buddhists. It is interesting as well as ironical that His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang at the moment should be head of the Hemis monastery. Interesting, because it was He, who in his fifth reincarnation had the vision that led to the founding of Hemis. Ironical, because the actual head of Hemis Taksang, Repa Rimpoche, is now in Tibet. In 1956, the Sixth Taksang Repa Rimpoche journeyed to Tibet for his spiritual training was captured by the Chinese and "liberated". He is a victim of the Great Revolution and has been "rehabilitated" from being the Head of Hemis to a truck driver.

— Photos by the writer