Guide to the Hemis Monastery Festival, Ladakh, 23-24 June 2018
The Hemis Monastery, 43 kilometres from Leh, is one of the richest and most important monasteries in Ladakh. It is also one of the few monasteries to hold its annual festival in the summer. Therefore, it’s very popular with tourists. If you’re lucky enough to be in Ladakh in June/July, it’s worth making the trip out to the Hemis Monastery Festival. In 2018, this will be held on 23 June.
I first visited the Hemis Monastery as part of a sightseeing trip to four different monasteries east of Leh in the summer of 2016. When the festival isn’t on, the Hemis Monastery is a peaceful spot, eight kilometres uphill from the main Leh-Manali highway. Unlike many Ladakhi monasteries, Hemis is not perched on top of a craggy hill or cliff. It’s tucked at the end of a small valley, with rocky mountains surrounding it. It doesn’t announce its presence boldly, like the hill-top monasteries, so feels like a bit of a discovery once you reach it. Even though it’s one of the most visited monasteries in Ladakh, it’s still unlikely to be crowded. There were only a handful of other people there the first time I visited.
Not so during the Hemis Monastery Festival! It was particularly busy that year, because 2016 was the first year in 12 years in which the monastery’s giant thangka painting was unfurled from the roof. This is only displayed in the very early morning however (I presume to protect it from the sun). So it had already been put away by the time I arrived.
I had read that one should aim to get there early, in order to get a ‘good’ seat, but I didn’t really know what ‘early’ meant. I arrived at 9am, by which point the monastery courtyard was already packed, and traffic jams had formed on the narrow, hilly road leading to the monastery. But the festivities didn’t start until after 10am, so I don’t know what use arriving any earlier would have been. It would have just meant more sitting around in the intensifying sun. Plus, I don’t know what getting a ‘good’ seat really means. Half of the courtyard was roped off and reserved for pre-paid groups of tourists, army personnel and nuns. The other half was a free-for-all in the sun. I don’t think it really matters whether you arrive early or late. You will have to squeeze yourself in uncomfortably somewhere.
The attraction of the Hemis Monastery Festival are the colourful costumes and masks that the monks dance in. I had never seen a performance like it. But this wasn’t just a show, it was a sacred ritual held once a year to bring the blessings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dakas, Dakinis, gods, goddesses and other protector deities to the community.
The festival runs for three days, only two of which are open to visitors. I would have loved to be there all day on both days, but after three dances (about two hours) it was just getting too hot in the sun. Plus, the crowds were starting to because very uncomfortable. I had quite a good view from a step right near where the monks processed out in their costumes. But whenever the monks needed to come past, the crowds around me were ushered forcefully back, and I felt myself start to panic as people pushed around me on the steps. It wouldn’t have taken much for a nasty accident to happen.
I retreated upstairs, into the cool of one of the large halls presided over by a beautiful, serious and enormous Guru Rinpoche.
If you’re not in Ladakh during the Hemis Monastery Festival, it’s still worth visiting this monastery, as it is one of the most beautiful in the region. The two large halls contain exquisite murals, many of deities in sexual poses. Don’t forget to go upstairs, too. The dark stairways can be found to the side of the main downstairs halls. The fearsome Guru Rinpoche, with his bloodshot eyes and fantastic blue gowns, should not be missed. The views across the monastery and the surrounding hills and valley are also good from the flat rooftop.
You can also visit the Hemis Museum, in the basement of the monastery. It’s not the world’s best museum, as it’s a bit dry (this is India, after all). But the Buddhist artifacts on display are interesting, if usually better viewed within the monasteries themselves, rather than in a separate museum. A nice touch was the ornate Tibetan cabinets in which everything was displayed.
Practicalities for visiting Hemis Monastery and the festival
Hemis Monastery can’t be reached from Leh by bus, so any trip there will require a taxi. Hiring a taxi around Leh can be quite expensive, but it’s the only way to get to some places. Most taxis are comfortable 4-wheel drives. I always called the Leh Taxi Union and got prompt, efficient service with good drivers. Their number is 01982 252 723. Their office is next to Leh’s main bus stand.
On the day that I visited four monasteries (including Hemis) east of Leh, I paid Rs 3300 for a full day. On the day when I just visited Hemis Monastery, for the festival, I paid Rs 2500, which included about three hours’ waiting time.
There is a cafe situated just outside the monastery, serving rather average food. During the festival, other stalls set up outside, again serving rather average food. There are reasonably clean toilets next to the monastery.
If you’re not visiting during the festival, be aware that the monastery and museum closes for lunch between 1 and 2pm.
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.
This post originally appeared on my website in 2016.