Almost every Ladakh tour takes people to Leh, the largest town in the mighty plateau. The average altitude here is 3500 metres and the weather is always on the cooler side. In summers, the temperature touches an average high of 25 degree Celsius and in winters, the mean low is around -2 degrees. However, the temperature may occasionally touch 30 degree Celsius in summers and drop to below -30 degrees in winters. Despite the rugged topography and extreme cold, people practise agriculture and grow barley as the main crop. Since ancient times, salt, grains, cannabis and wool have been traded from this town, passing along the silk route between India and Tibet. Buddhism is the chief religion of Leh, followed by Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Among the tourists attraction in this cold desert are various Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples, gurdwaras, lakes and museums.
Hemis Monastery: History
The Hemis Monastery is situated in the town of the same name, about 40 km from Leh. According to legends, it has been in existence since the 11th century and was established by Naropa, a Buddhist sage. According to his biography, which was found in the monastery, he was a teacher in the Nalanda University of Bihar. The Turkish and Afghan invasion of the site forced him to leave Nalanda and go towards Ladakh. Tilopa, his teacher, gave him 24 tasks to enlighten him about the frivolities of the material aspects of life. Naropa is hailed as the founder of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; hence, this monastery is the seat of this Himalayan sect of the faith.
Large chunks of tourists visit this place of worship, mainly in June, to attend the festival celebrated in its courtyard. The namesake festival pays homage to Padmasambhava, who is considered an incarnation of Gautama Buddha and is also known as Guru Rinpoche. His purpose of life is generally taken as improving the spiritual well-being of the masses. He was born on the fifth day during the year of the monkey; and so, this day comes once in a 12-year cycle. The celebration of the birthday of Padmasambhava is thought to induce health and strength to revellers. It is held in the huge rectangular courtyard, which is in front of the main entrance of the monastic complex. Early in the morning, the entire town wakes up to the beating of drums, clashing of cymbals and the musical sound of pipes. A huge portrait of Dadmokarpo and many paintings known as thangkas are displayed for everyone to see.
On a raised square platform, a small and painted table on top of a decorated cushion is kept. Ceremonial objects including cups filled with holy water, raw rice, figurines made of flour and butter, and incense sticks are placed on the Tibetan table. A group of musicians plays traditional and ritualistic tunes on trumpets and long pipes, accompanied by cymbals and pan-drums. The best part of this celebration to witness during a Leh Ladakh tour is the colourful mask dance known as Cham. Elaborately-designed masks, symbolising various Buddhist deities and malicious creatures, are worn by the resident monks. Through complex movements, complemented by music, these performances signify the supremacy of goodness.