How Hemis Festival Helps Understand The Buddhist Traditions Of Ladakh And Leh

Tourists wish to visit Ladakh and Leh only during the monsoon season because the most colorful and highly popular Hemis Festival is celebrated at the Buddhist monastery of Hemis Jangchub Choling only during this season. This monastery that is situated near Leh is more than 3 centuries old and therefore, if tourists visit the place during this festival, they can know the ancient history of the place and also the monastery culture.

During this festival, locals will display the handicraft items they have made and hence, tourists may love to buy these attractive hand-made items. Many cultural programs like the masked dances and the traditional music of the place are conducted to provide the tourists with entertainment and an unforgettable experience.

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Hemis festival is the celebration of the birth, the life, the teachings and the times of Padmasambhava, who is regarded as a great Buddhist Guru. He is also known as Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche was born during the fifth lunar month. It is on the tenth day of this Monkey month he is believed to have been born.

During the Hemis festival, dancers wearing black hats walk down the steps inside the monastery moving their hands, feet, etc. gracefully and in a synchronized fashion. There will be a dancing arena at the center and the group will move towards it.

The dancers chant religious lines and sway rhythmically for warding off the evil spirits and cleansing the negative vibrations of the place and this signals the beginning of the Hemis Festival. This ritual is also for creating imaginary boundaries that should not be crossed by any entity that may violate the sacredness of the place.

The outfits of these dancers will also be strange with fine brocade and aprons that have the images of skulls printed on them. These outfits are worn with an intention to remind people that life is not permanent. There will be 13 dancers for denoting that there are 13 yugas. It also represents the 13 rings on the Stupa or the chorten.

Second Buddha

Hemis is a monastery that was created during the 17th century. It belongs to the Drukpa lineage. It was Yaktsang Repa, a dragon yogi, who established this monastery. This yogi took the help of Senge Namgyal , the then king of Ladakh for building this large monastery, that is one of the richest in the whole region.

Guru Rinpoche is considered a great teacher because it is said that his aim has always been to liberate human beings from the sufferings they encounter in their lives. So, his followers believe that he comes back to the earth repeatedly for accomplishing this aim. In fact, his followers consider him as the second Buddha. That is the reason they dance and sing and celebrate his eight manifestations as the Hemis Festival.

During the course of the festival, 16 dakinis follow the dancers. These dakinis are none but followers who wear copper-gilded masks. They present themselves as divine fairies. Vajra Varahi, who is the chief fairy and also the queen of the dakini group lead these fairies. They hold the drums, bells, etc. that are known as damarus in their hands and dance. While dancing, they keep chanting the appropriate mantra for invoking Guru Padmasambhava. The mantra chanted by these dakinis is said to purify everyone and everything within the purview of the monastery. This includes not only the place where the monastery is situated and the lineage of the masters and the followers but the objects that are worshiped as well.

Eight Manifestations Of The Guru

It is said that Guru Padmasambhava assumed different forms at various stages of his life. So, eight of his manifestations follow the fairies. Eight monks represent these manifestations by wearing different masks. When these monks reach the central arena, monk-musicians greet them by rising from their seats.

There will be a group of musicians who follow Padmasambhava and there will also be two men with masks holding instruments like drums, cymbals, etc. The Guru wearing a golden mask will be surrounded by the eight personifications. There will be absolute and meditative peace in the face of the Guru just like the peace and poise that can be seen in the Buddha’s face.

The masks worn by the monks representing the eight manifestations are nothing but the various aspects and stages of the life of the Guru. All the stages right from his birth till he moved to Tibet for spreading the Buddhist principles and dharma and till he could see the various deities that belonged to the yoga mandala and acquire miraculous and unbelievable powers are depicted by these masks. There will be a special dance for every manifestation.

The manifestation with a blue mask is that of Guru Padma Vajra. Though there seems to be an angry expression in his face, there is peace beneath this expression. This Guru has got this name because of his miraculous and sudden appearance from a lotus flower on lake Dhanakosha.

Following Guru Padma Vajra is another avatar or incarnation with a red headgear, skin-colored mask and also a vajra, that denotes compassion as well as wisdom. In this incarnation, Guru Rinpoche is believed to have controlled the evil forces that were dominant in Tibet and converted the place into one of Dharma.

Only after the Guru accomplished these feats, followers and devotees started calling him as Guru Padmasambhava and from then on, they could see a meditative equipoise in his face. Following the manifestations with serene and calm masks are the angry ones in blue as well as red and these masks show the Guru in various forms. The various moods denote that a teacher must identify the differences among his students and disciples and be friendly with a few and be angry with others so as to impart his teachings in everyone of them. This means that to make human beings learn and to help all of them, the guru has to manifest in various forms. The dance moves of the mask-wearing monks are elegant and enchanting to show the love, respect and affection they have towards their guru.

In a nutshell, the Hemis Festival helps the tourists understand the culture, history and background of the Buddhist traditions of the place.

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