The first thing that people do when you tell them you’re flying to Leh is to coax you to travel by road. Naturally, everyone wants you to breathe in the natural beauty that you’ll get to view on the drive. But I flew to Leh and the road trip had to be put on the back-burner. However, even the view when you’re about to touch down is breathtaking. And when you finally land, you are stunned by the stark beauty of the snow-capped mountains that surround Leh.
We were greeted with sweet masala tea at our hotel, and after breakfast, advised to sleep. This helps your body acclimatise to the high altitude. As evening set in, we decided to explore the local market. The people of Leh are among the friendliest I’ve come across anywhere. Happy with my acquisition of a Buddhist prayer bell, I returned to my hotel looking forward to visiting the Hemis monastery the next morning.
Founded in 1630 by Lama Stagsang Raspa, the monastery was the venue of the Hemis Festival held earlier this year on June 28 and 29. In 2013, it will be organised in the third week of June.
Following a rushed breakfast, we got ready for the two-hour trip to watch Leh’s carnival of spirituality.
Road to salvation
Due to the huge crowd at the festival, we had to get down at, what felt like, a tiny hill’s distance away from our destination. After what seemed like a Herculean task, we reached the monastery. Since there was still some time before the festival began, we visited the Hemis museum, a treasure trove of memories and stories.
Visiting the museum was like walking through the pages of history, with carefully maintained costumes and ornaments worn by monks while performing religious ceremonies.
Soon, it was time for the festival to commence and we occupied our seats, eagerly waiting for the monks to perform to the sounds of horns and drums. The Hemis festival commemorates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), the eighth century monk revered for spreading Tantrayana Buddhism. The festival is traditionally celebrated by Drukpa Buddhists who are believed to follow the Mahayana tradition passed down from the Indian saint Naropa.
As the performance began, monks dressed in colourful costumes and beautifully painted masks danced in slow movements to sounds emanating rhythmically from cymbals, trumpets and drums. Almost all the dances (there were eight in all) involved similar steps, that of slow stomping and turning.
The first dance, called Setting Limits, or the 13 Black Hat Dancers, was enacted by 13 monks dressed in black hats. It is believed that with their spiritual power, they cut off evil spirits, thus setting a physical boundary so that no entity may bring obstacles.
Consecration, the second performance, had 16 dancers wearing copper gilded masks. Their objective was to invoke blessings of Guru Padmasambhava. This was followed by recreating the eight different avatars of the guru in the dance.
I felt fortunate and blessed to witness the performance, which does leave one feeling spiritual.
We decided to skip the lunch served at the monastery, and couldn’t wait to head to a shack that was serving Maggi and tea. Trust me, there’s nothing like this killer combination in the mountains!
During the trip I learnt that in Ladakhi, thank you, goodbye and good-day can be expressed by saying just one word: Julley. In the evening, we visited the Druk White Lotus School, best known for the filming of 3 Idiots there.
Our second day at Leh was spent sightseeing. Though just one day wasn’t enough to admire the ‘moonscape’ beauty that Leh has to offer, exploring the place itself was an adventure. From visiting the Hall of Fame museum, which is sure to make anyone feel patriotic, to a destination called Sangam, which is the meeting point of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers; from crossing a river in a makeshift wagon, to savouring tea and Maggi – Leh was exhilarating enough to make me not to want to go back to city life.
As I prepared to bid adieu to the snow-capped mountains, I could muster just enough to say, "Until next time, julley!" The writer’s trip was sponsored by the Drukpa Lineage
By Air: There are regular flights to Leh from Delhi, Chandigarh, Jammu and Srinagar.
By Road: Try the Kashmir valley via the 434-km Srinagar-Leh road, which remains open for traffic from early June to November.
The J&K State Road Transport Corporation (J&KSRTC) operates regular bus services between Srinagar and Leh.
The 473-km Manali-Leh road is another approach to Ladakh and is open for traffic from around mid-June to early October.
The Himachal Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation and J&KSRTC run bus services between Manali and Leh.
Keep the first day free, so as to acclimatise to the region and altitude
Take warm clothes, mufflers, warm socks and covered shoes
Pack sunscreen and sunglasses
Take medicines for nausea, headaches and nose bleeds
If you are asthmatic, consult a doctor
Drink enough water
Avoid oily food
From HT Brunch, October 7
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