by Dr. Cynthia Rekdal
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling on many fine Indebo excursions, but at my request one year a special privately escorted tour was created for my daughter and me. The most surprising and pleasing highlight of that fabulous adventure was a 10-day journey into an isolated area of Buddhist India. There we explored several of its most extraordinary monasteries. It was a region of India before which I had been totally unfamiliar, but now count among one of my most favorite travel experiences.
Ladakh (land of high passes) is a sparsely populated region in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. Known as “Little Tibet,” due to strong influences from Tibetan culture, it is one of the few centers of Buddhism in South Asia. The Hemis Monastery (Gompa), the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh, dates back to 1630. A World Heritage Site. it is the most famous Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in India. With its rich collection of ancient relics and exquisite objects, colorful and intricate wall paintings, gold and silver stupas, and sacred thankas, it’s become an important destination for native Indians and foreign tourists alike.
We were extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the renowned Hemis Festival while at the monastery. An important religious gathering, devoted to commemorating the birthday of Lord Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), Hemis produces a major sacred extravaganza. Thousands of observers visit the annual festival, which takes place in the large monastery courtyard on the 9th and 10th days of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar. Every twelve years, in the Year of the Monkey (the zodiac sign of Guru Rinpoche), there is a very special celebration during which a large, sacred thangka of the Guru is unfurled and placed on display.
A major part of the festival involves the monks performing 1,300-year-old mystical dances, called cham. Observance of these sacred cham and accompanying rituals is believed to promote spiritual strength and moral instruction, bringing one closer to enlightenment. Once carried out in private, cham today are open to the public. The monks, dressed in the guise of deities, demons and animals, wear special masks and elaborate costumes while repeating sacred mantras as they stage elaborate cham performances. Accompanied by musicians playing traditional music with cymbals, large-pan drums, small trumpets and long horns, the ritual dances are rich with religious significance and deep cultural significance. In some monasteries, cham spectacles can last several days.
Witness to this remarkable event was an experience like no other, and remains one of the most memorable of all my travels. Check the video below.