Once every twelve years, the Hemis festival also hosts the
ritual unrolling of a giant Thangka. The Gompa's prize
possession, which covers the entire façade of the building, was
embroidered by women whose
hands are now revered as holy relics. Decorated with pearls and
precious stones, it will not now be on show again until 2004.
Among the treasures on permanent display is an exquisite Buddha
Shakyamuni, also inlaid with jewels. The serene faced colossus
sits in the Cho-khang chamber at the far end of the courtyard,
along with a couple of richly inlaid silver Chortens.
The festival draws pilgrims, dressed in their finest costumes,
from all over Ladakh and since 1975, tourists from all over the
world. Apart from being one of the largest in Ladakh it is one
of the few major religious festival in Ladakh, which is held in
the summer, when the passes are open.
Hemis Gompa is the largest and one of the most important in
Ladakh quite apart from its annual festival. It was founded
about 350 years ago by Stagtshang Rinchen, who was invited to
Ladakh by king Singe (also spelt as Sengge) Namgyal.
One can gain an impression of the extent of the monastery area
on the climb to the so called "Eyrie", a hermitage reached by a
one hour, 3-km climb to 3,900 metres, 1,000 metres higher than
Hemis. The 13th century monastery predates the Hemis Gompa and
was built by Syalwa Gotsang-pa, who meditated in a cave nearby.
A small shrine has been built around the cave, where one can see
his foot and hand print in the rock.
Trek Towards The Gompa
There are about a dozen monks living there the small Gompa
serves as a retreat for many of the lamas from Hemis and it also
services many of the monasteries in Ladakh by printing religious
texts using carved wooden blocks, yak oil and lamp black, and
rice paper imported from Burma (also known as Myanmar). The
climb is quite strenuous because of the altitude; one should not
undertake it lightly. While the Ladakhis, who are used to the
scarcity of oxygen, will virtually sprint up the mountainside, a
visitor will need to take quite a few rest breaks.
The thousand square metre courtyard of the Hemis Gmopa is
entered from the northeast. The two prayer flags, in front of
the first steps up to the Du-khang, form the middle point during
the festival. A few places are reserved for guests but it is
sometimes possible to buy 'admission tickets' to the gallery
from business minded monks! The day before the two-day festival
is devoted to demonstrations.
The Celebrations & Performances
On the first day of the festival the part, which foreigners can
watch, begins at 10.00 am with ceremonies in the courtyard.
After prayers in the Dukhang the Rimpoche climbs the steps up to
the courtyard, accompanied by musician monks, crosses it and
takes his place underneath the gallery.
Shortly afterwards the dances begin which have as their theme
the struggle against evil and infidels and the inevitable
victory of good and of Buddhism. The Padmasambhava dance, which
shows the conquest of the 'Ruta' demons, is part of this dance.
Other figures, which the dancers represent, are 'Yama' - the god
of death, the black hatted sorcerer guru Trakpo the vanquisher
of all demons, and various other forms of Padmasambhava. The
sequence of the dances changes with time - often to present a
different finale for the benefit of distinguished guests!
The dancing continues to late afternoon, with a brief stop at
midday. Locals and foreigners find time to patronise the many
small stands outside the monastery walls where tea, soup, Tsampa,
sweets and other refreshments are sold. If one wishes to take
photographs take account of the position of the sun when
selecting the vantage point. In the crowded conditions during
the dancing it is virtually impossible to leave one's place.
The Tranquil Ambience
If one visits the Gompa outside the festival time one will be
impressed by the stillness of the valley. One will also have the
opportunity to see the various chapels, the opportunity to see
the various chapels.
Dukhang & Lakhang
Near the Dukhang is the Lakhang, which is the first one after a
small set of steps from the yard. The doors are placed inwards
so that the front room stands behind, its roof supported with
four poles. The sidewalls of this front room are covered with
partially damaged frescoes of the watchers of the heavenly
directions. In the Dukhang, the general assembly room, the
throne of the Rimpoche dominates the sitting places of the
In the Lakhang there is a large gilded statue of the Buddha
Sakyamuni with blue hair, surrounded by several silver Chortens,
which, as in Spitok Gompa, are decorated with semi precious
stones. There are also beautiful frescoes in the Lakhang Nyingpa,
which is otherwise practically empty. The hands of the artists
who prepared the Gompa's giant Tanka are revered as holy relics,
but Hemis also has many lesser, but still interesting, Tankas.
Hemis also has an excellent library, particularly well-preserved
wall paintings and good Buddha figures.
Rimpoche Or Head Lama
In the second and third storeys, near the other chapels like the
Zankhang, there is the Kharrabgysal, the rooms of the Rimpoche
or head lama. The Rimpoche, Spiritiual overlord of Hemis, is a
reincarnation of the monastery's founder, Stagtshang Raspa, who
built Hemis in the first half of the 17th century, under King
Singe Namgyal who also established the monasteries of Chemre,
Hanle and Themisgang.
The last overlord of the Gompa was a reincarnation who, as a
five-year-old child was undergoing training in Tibet when the
Chinese invaded. Since then the Chakzot, a brother of the late
king of Ladakh, has conducted the business of the Gompa. Because
of the Chinese takeover of Tibet the monastery has had no
communication with its Rimpoche since the '60s. During the 1975
festival Drugpa Rimpoche, a 12 -year old youth, became the new
Rimpoche as a new incarnation. He is at the same time the
overlord of the Drugpa Kargyupa, one of the six divisions of the
red cap sect who, before the Chinese invasion of Tibet,
possessed influence practically only in Bhutan and Ladakh. In
Ladakh the Stagna and Chemre monasteries belong to this order,
while Spitok belongs to the yellow-cap. Drugpa Rimpoche
currently lives in Darjeeling, where he is completing his
Most of the 500 monks who were once based at Hemis have now
moved to other monasteries throughout Ladakh and the monastery
is maintained almost entirely for tourism. The monastery is
growing rich from the proceeds of its festival.
By car, Hemis is an easy day trip from Leh . By bus,
services are only frequent during the festival; at other times a
single daily service leaves at 9.00 am and returns at 12.30 pm,
leaving no time to have a good look round.
however stay here in very basic rooms, the one adjacent to the
Gompa; or in the village below in a small tent camp in the woods
where one can rent mattresses and blankets. There are several
secluded camping sites beside the stream. The monastery also
runs a café at the base of the Gompa and another one in the