Hemis Gompa, is the biggest monastery in Ladakh and the site of the annual festival commemorating the birth of Guru Padamasambhava, who is said to have brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet. Revered throughout the Himalayan ranges and considered the second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, the Lotus-born (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Master) was invited from India in the 8th century to conquer the dark and hostile forces transforming them into guardians and protectors of the pure dharma. In the process the guru brought Vajrayana Buddhism - a revelation of the complete and perfect path to awakening.
Followers believe that their path is the purest form of Buddhism with the goal of liberation from suffering and attainment of enlightenment. It is believed to be the path actually practiced by Buddha with the teaching indelible, even still today within the entire Himalayan region.
This morning we make our way to the Hemis monastery (1.5 hrs drive), the largest and richest monastery in all of Ladakh. In the courtyard filled to capacity with local Ladakhis and pilgrims (at 9am) Guru Padamasambhava birthday celebrations will commence.
A raised dais with a richly cushioned seat with a finely painted small Tibetan table is placed with the ceremonial items - cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas made of dough and butter and incense sticks. A number of musicians play the traditional music with four pairs of cymbals, large-pan drums, small trumpets and large size wind instruments. Next to them a small space is assigned for the lamas to sit.
The festival highlight is the gathering of the lamas around the central flagpole performing the mystic mask dances (Chams) and sacred plays. Chams are essentially a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in the gompas that follow the Tantric Vajrayana teachings and where the monks perform tantric worship.
Dressed in colourful bright brocades with vibrantly decorated and richly adorned paper-mache masks (some extending over 1 metre in height) the masked dancers simulate combat between good spirits and evil demons to the cacophony of drums, cymbals and long horns.
The crowd unites in uproarious song and dance when the dough idol of evil is destroyed by the leader of black hat dancers signifying that good has prevailed.
This afternoon offers a guided sightseeing tour of the town, dominated by Sengge Namgyal’s, nine storey palace. The colossal stone structure is one of the most captivating architectural ruins of the region. Built in traditional Tibetan style it sits on the foothills of the barren landscape. Constructed in the 17th century as the residential palace for the King to mark the reunifying Upper and Lower Ladakh.
Above Leh Palace, on Namgyal Tsemo (Victory Peak) overlooking the town, are the ruins of the earliest royal residence at Leh a fortress type structure built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century.
Visits will also be made to Sankar Gompa to view the image of Avalokitesvara, inset with turquoise and shown with 1000 heads, arms and feet and 100,000 eyes, Shanti Stupa - built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and inaugurated by his holiness the Dalai Lama in 1985.
Overnight - Leh & Ladakh
(B, L, D)