The Hemis Monastery, 43 kilometres from Leh, is one of the richest and most important monasteries in Ladakh, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also one of the few monasteries to hold its annual festival in the summer, peak travel season to Ladakh, so it’s very popular with tourists. It’s definitely worth planning a trip to Ladakh around the Hemis Monastery Festival.
Every other day of the year, the Hemis Monastery is a peaceful spot, a few kilometres off the main Leh-Manali highway. Unlike most monasteries in Ladakh, Hemis is not perched high on a cliff, but tucked into the hills, at the end of a small valley.
During the annual festival, thousands of people converge on the small settlement. Cars snake along the roads leading uphill to the monastery. Get there as early as you possibly can to avoid the traffic and to get a good spot from which to watch the dancing, although this doesn’t normally start until around 10am.
Like many other Buddhist festivals around the Himalaya, a major attraction of the Hemis Monastery Festival are the colourful costumes and masks that the monks dance in. These are sacred rituals intended to bring the blessings of protector deities to the community.
The Hemis Monastery Festival runs for three days, but only two of these are open to the public. If you’re visiting Ladakh at another time of year, the Hemis Monastery is still a must-visit site, as it’s one of the most beautiful in the region. The two large halls contain exquisite murals, and upstairs is a fearsome Guru Rinpoche. From the flat rooftop there are also great views of the surrounding hills and valley. The basement museum is a bit dry and won’t take much time, but worth a quick look.
Another source of Hemis’ fame is the fact that in 1894, Russian traveller Nicholas Notovitch wrote about the ‘Jesus Scrolls’, Tibetan manuscripts that tell the story of Christ’s supposed trip to India and Ladakh (which wasn’t part of India in those days). Notovitch claimed that Jesus visited Hemis Monastery, and others have corroborated the story. But, the scrolls have never been found.
The date of the festival changes every year, as it’s observed on the 9th, 10th and 11th lunar days of the 5th month (June/July).
If you’re not visiting during the festival, be aware that the monastery and museum closes for lunch between 1 and 2pm. There are some places to buy lunch just outside the monastery.
In the Hemis Museum gift shop you can buy a nice little book called Hemis Festival Ladakh, by Khanchan Tsewang Rigzin, and published by the museum itself. The text is in English, Ladakhi and Hindi. It details each of the dances of the festival, and is a good companion to the festival.
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