Today we witness the celebrations of the Hemis Festival, which commemorates 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 was invited from India in the 8th century to conquer the dark forces and transform 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 – practised by Buddha himself, with the goal of liberation from suffering and the attainment of enlightenment.
This morning we make our way to the Hemis Monastery, the largest and richest monastery in all of Ladakh. At 9am the birthday celebrations of Guru Padamasambhava begin in the courtyard, filled with local Ladakhis and Buddhist pilgrims. A raised platform with a richly cushioned seat and 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 enjoy a guided sightseeing tour of the town, whose skyline is dominated by Royal Palace. Constructed in the 17th century, this imposing nine story stone palace is one of the most captivating architectural ruins of the region. Situated in the foothills of the barren landscape, the palace was built as a residence for the King and to mark the reunifying Upper and Lower Ladakh. Above the Royal Palace, on Namgyal Tsemo (Victory Peak), are the ruins of Leh’s earliest royal residence, a fortress type structure built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century.
There will also be a stop at Sankar Gompa to view the image of Avalokitesvara, inset with turquoise and shown with a thousand heads, arms and feet and one hundred thousand eyes. Next up is Shanti Stupa, which was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and inaugurated by his holiness the Dalai Lama in 1985 and Stok Palace - a museum where the Sengge Namgyal family heirlooms and relics can be seen on display.