Guru Padmasambhava’s birthday in Hemis
It is difficult today to believe that the Swat Valley, once the ancient kingdom of Oddiyana, was the birthplace of no less than Guru Padmasambhava (‘Lotus-Born’) who spread tantric Buddhism in the north and northwest of the sub-continent in the 8th century.
However, his jayanti is still celebrated each year in India at the Hemis Festival in Ladakh on the tenth day of the Tibetan lunar month, usually in June, and this year it is between June 17 and 19. The citizenry dress in their best and watch ritual masked dances in the courtyard of the Hemis Gompa, overseen by the local order of monks, the Drukpa.
The fascinating figure of Guru Padmasambhava is also known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Guru) and has two powerful consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal, a former queen of Tibet who was also a dakini (sorceress) and Princess Mandaravati, another king’s daughter.
Guru Padmasambhava is depicted with them like Mahavishnu with Sridevi and Bhudevi. They say Guru Padmasambhava was an amsha or aspect of Lord Buddha as Amitabha and that he took avatar as an eight-year-old in a priest’s family in the Swat Valley.
The tradition also goes that when the 38th king of Tibet became its first emperor, he sent for the Venerable Shantarakshita, the abbot of Nalanda, to set up the first monastery in Tibet. According to one story, there was an outbreak of small-pox and the abbot was blamed for it by court factions and deported.
Guru Padmasambhava was then invited over from Oddiyana to restore order. He is said to have brought ‘the demons of disease’ in line with the dhamma - perhaps an allusion to then-known best practices in health and sanitation since these were strong Buddhist precepts - and the abbot was invited back.
Abbot Shantarakshita and Guru Padmasambhava are said to have worked with many gifted students on another massive project for the new emperor —the translation of scripture from Sanskrit and Pali into Tibetan.
He is credited with the translation of the texts on tantra. He is said to have left Tibet due to court politics before he could complete his teaching, and accordingly left a cache of hidden texts (‘terma’) buried in secret places across the Himalayas, with the help of Queen Yeshe Tsogyal.
Guru Padmasambhava’s ‘loka’ or ‘pure land’ (celestial region) is called ‘Zangdok Palri’, the Copper Mountain, in Bhutan and neighbouring regions. If you visit Hemis this year you will see the auspicious two-storey-high tangkha of Guru Padmasambhava that is exhibited once in 12 years.