Commemorating the millennial birth anniversary of Naropa, the Naropa Festival sees the enthusiasm of thousands of Ladakhis who wait under the sun, with the chants of music, drums, cymbals adding spiritual chants to increase the level of festivity, giving the literal Kumbh Mela feel surrounded by the Himalayas. The festival is held just once every twelve years and the crowd that gathers is massive with people from all over- Bhutan, Thailand, Nepal and of course, Ladakh joining together. The festival begins even before reaching the region as one sees beautiful views of Ladakh on the way.
We were there to see the magnificent festival- often referred to as the Kumbh of the Himalayas. Though, it is our belief that the festival need not attach itself to the Kumbh since it is majestic in its own space. The festival takes place near the Hemis Monastery of Ladakh which is also the largest Monastery of the reason along with being most distinguished where millions of people gather around to witness it in entirety. It is located at a distance of approximately 40km from Leh. Though Buddhism is at the core of the festival, that isn’t entirely what it is all about. There are music, dance and excitement like any other festival, perhaps even a college fest but with a vast population. One is surprised even looking at the various types of crowds, some braving the sun with the colorful umbrellas while families and nuns sit patiently waiting for something to happen, often chatting with each other and even chanting occasionally. The festival was a historical event made special by the disciplined crowd along with the events.
Many Buddhist philosophers have come and gone, preaching about life, learning, patience and just living in general. Saint Naropa (1016-1100 CE) was one such saint who preached about learning through experience and pioneered the thought of infinite love. He was once a philosopher in the Nalanda University who later on moved to Ladakh, around a 1000 years ago gradually attaining the highest level of spiritualization (becoming one of the mahasiddhas). His thoughts and ideology shaped the Drukpa sect of Buddhism. He is also credited as a fundamental pillar in Vajrayana tradition for creating the Six Yogas. His life reflects perseverance, endurance, and compassion. His teachings are still followed largely in Ladakh region. He was adorned with the six bone ornament by Dakinis after his enlightenment, the same ornament which is now donned by His Holiness.
When we reached the place, the whole stage was set, with artificial lotuses and dragons hanging all around. The picturesque view of the mountains and the Naropa palace could be seen. For as long as the festival lasted, that was the only destination for every traveler on the road. The people gathered together, passing the local ‘tsampa’ dish to each other while chit-chatting, until it was time for His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa’s speech because, at that point, everyone fell silent. We weren’t allowed to click the picture of the six bone ornament but its unveiling was done in a beautiful manner. There was this spiritual air all around us. The six bone ornament is protected with strict levels of security since it has a holy and sacred status for the people. But we still felt special for having a glimpse of it since people in thousands gathered to have just one look through the display. As strong as the philosophies are of Saint Naropa, the ornament manifests itself to be a physical legacy and as such holds a lot of importance for the people.
We were quite awed by the presence of His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa as well. With millions of followers worldwide, he has such great power among a whole set of people, who came to the festival specifically to see him live. The devotees bowed down before him as he passed and it just showed the level of devotion and love they had. We had plenty of opportunities to observe him during the week and it just seemed like a sharing of mutual faith and good humor. He used the stage to address all the people to spread social messages, while marveling at the performances, clapping excitedly whenever he liked something
The various important events for one to look out for are:
Thangka Unfurling- Thangka was a mammoth silk brocade which has the incidents from the life of Padmasambhava (a Buddhist master) embroidered on it. It is the largest brocade of Ladakh and spreads far, hanging from the roof of the monastery to the floor.
Then there are the various song and dance performances to look forward to, especially by lamas. It was the first time in our life that we saw the dragon dance in reality and we were awed by it. Another type of dance to look out for would be the Tsam Dance. There was a light show coordinated by French lighting experts who showed 3D images mapping the images of Ladakh’s culture and wildlife while projecting them on the monastery walls.
When the prayer session of Drupka masters begin, with one of the largest assemblies of people witnessing and watching them, it is an out of the world experience. The Kung-fu monks had conducted a bike ride from Nepal to Ladakh which turned out to be the major highlight of the event. They also spoke and spread great messages to the people about various issues like animal cruelty, gender inequality, environmental pollution and education. These talks rose over the boundaries of spiritualism and it was amazing for us to see the spiritual leaders rising above the religious bounds.
This festival has never been all about spiritual activities like we just described, it has social welfare, the picturesque views, the incredible art and culture performances and another special highlight would be the Bollywood performances. There were a number of Bollywood performers who came attracting the audience and captivating them with their performances. There was also one Ladakhi instrumental session which we were quite pleased with.
Those 7-days that we spent in Ladakh for the festival would be our most memorable times in Ladakh. It was so many different cultures, different kind of entertainment all together in one beautiful valley. From the exotic dancers to the cultural performances, to the small shops and souvenirs, everything was perfectly managed and coordinated. Even after we returned to our home, we could still hear the ringing of those chants, cymbals and music in our ears because this was the experience of a lifetime. If you would like to experience all this firsthand, plan a trip to Ladakh, for when the festival happens again in twelve years.
A simple tip for first-time travellers though, give yourself some time to acclimatize with the environment. Try the local roadside food, it is amazing. Strike random conversations with people and try to make the most of your trip to Ladakh.