The Kumbh of The Himalayas: The Naropa Festival Returns to Ladakh After 12 Years

Over a million attendees expected at the Hemis Monastery this September.  
Hemis Monastery cham dance
Hemis Monastery, built in 1630 A.D., is the biggest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. The monastery hosts the Naropa Festival every 12 years, and the Hemis festival annually. Photo courtesy Hemis Monastery

It’s been a 1,000 years since the birth of the enigmatic Buddhist scholar-saint Naropa, and the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh is pulling out all the stops in celebration. Drukpa nuns from Ladakh, popularly known as “kung fu” nuns for their practice of the martial art, will give a drumming performance on 16 September 2016. The same night, French lighting experts will project footage of Ladakh’s culture and wildlife on the monastery walls. All events are open to the public and will be conducted at the 17th-century Hemis Monastery, situated in a spectacular gorge about 45 km from Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Tibetan-Buddhist Naropa Festival has been compared to the Kumbh Mela for its promise of spiritual liberation and the large crowds that it attracts. It is conducted every 12 years. Among this year’s festivities is the unfurling of Ladakh’s largest silk embroidered brocade, an ancient thangka of Buddhist master Padmasambhava, over several storeys of the monastery. The festival closes with a week-long pilgrimage within Ladakh that ends at Egoo Tso, a lake that is esteemed by locals for enabling prophecy. “If you have clear vision, you can see your future on the surface of the lake,” a festival spokesperson told National Geographic Traveller India.

The highlight will be the ceremonial display of Naropa’s bone ornaments: an assortment of necklaces, bracelets and other jewellery made of bone and precious stones that were given to the saint by dakinis (tantric deities) when he attained enlightenment. The ornaments are some of the holiest Buddhist relics in active use, and treasured as living Himalayan heritage. It is believed that worthy spiritual seekers only have to see the ornaments to receive enlightenment.

The erudite Naropa was the chancellor of Nalanda university, an ancient Buddhist centre of learning in modern-day Bihar. The festival gives ample opportunity for anyone who wishes to learn from the world’s greatest Drukpa masters. There will be teachings by Drukpa nuns, chanting sessions, and a council meeting, a public discussion on matters of spiritual importance that will be attended by Drukpa masters from Tibet, Bhutan, Ladakh and other parts of the Indian Himalayas.

The Naropa Festival runs from 13 Sept-1 Oct at the Hemis Monastery, 45km/1hr from Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. The festival is not ticketed. For the schedule, see here. For a list of expert-recommended places to stay in Ladakh, click here. 



    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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