The history of Hemis Monastery goes way back to the middle ages. According to the legend, it is dated to the arrival of Naropa, a prominent Buddhist teacher, who arrived at some point in the 11th century. He was once the head of a monastery in Nalanda, from where he was forced to flee due to a sacking by an invading Muslim army. After that, he relocated to the Hemis Monastery and established the Kagyu school of Buddhism here. A written documentation by A. Grunwedel about the life of Naropa and his disciple Tilopa was later found in the neighbourhood of the monastery. It states that he met with Tilopa, Tantric scholar and assigned him the task of translating Marpa.
After its establishment, the monastery went into oblivion for several centuries. In the 1630 Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso founded it which was then re-established in 1672 by the Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal. It is owned by Drukpa Lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa is the supreme spiritual head of this sect.
Another very odd legend associated with this place is a lost Christian gospel which was discovered here in the 19th century. The gospel indicated that Jesus Christ spend a few years in India, studying and meditating as a Rabbi. After a few years, it was proved that the gospel was a hoax. However, there are still many who believes that there might be some truth in it.
Architecture of Hemis Monastery
Hemis Monastery is an awe-inspiring site, covering a large rocky hill. It has a Tibetan style architecture which is very colourful and attractive. Surrounding the beautiful monastery is a few more building intermingled with sparse vegetation and trees. The monastery itself is like a maze of buildings, courtyard and alleys. It is divided into two main parts - the assembly hall which is known as Dukhang and the main temple known as the Tshogkhang.
The walls of the main building has a serene white color. The entrance to the complex is through a big gate which reaches to the rectangular courtyard. The courtyard is also the venue for the all the functions and public celebrations. The place is wide and open and has two raised platforms and a sacred pole in the center. It has a raised dais with richly cushioned seat and a Tibetan table containing ceremonial items such as holy water, uncooked rice, and incense sticks.
The walls are decorate with paintings of religious figures. The Hemis Monastery also houses a number of gold statues and stupa decorated with precious stones. It also has a collection of thankas (paintings) that are displayed only once in 11 years during the Hemis Festival. On the north side of the Monastery are two assembly halls that can be accessed from the stairs. As in most Buddhist Monasteries, the wheel of life and guardian deities can be found in here. It also houses a library of tibetan religious books.
The Hemis festival is dedicated to Buddhist Lord Padmasambhava whose actual name was Guru Rinpoche. He is a prominent figure within the ranks in Buddhism leadership hierarchy. He is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of monkey year. His life's mission was to enhance the spiritual experience of all living beings in the world. This Hemis Festival at the monastery is celebrated to acknowledge his life, memories and contributions. The observance of various spiritual customs in the festival is believed to give strength and good health.
The festival takes place in the vast and picturesque courtyard of the Hemis Monastery in June /July for two days.
Musicians play traditional music in the courtyard, and next to them a place is assigned for the Lamas to sit. Several masked dances are also held on this day. The famous thankas that are showcased once in 11 years during the Hemis festival were shown in the years 1980, 1991, 2002, and 2013. The next showcase is in the year 2024.
During the festival, the locals dress up in traditional Tibetan clothes. Men wear cummerbunds and women wear vibrant headgears and jewellery. The Lamas perform make dance known as Chaam, accompanied by drums, horns and cymbals. This Chaam dance is a sacred Tibetan dance performance and is a fundamental part of the tantric tradition. The festival is a major tourist attraction.
Best time to visit Hemis Monastery
The best time to visit Hemis Monastery for both tour and trek is between May and September During this part of the year weather is quite pleasant. The trekking routes are closed from November-April due to heavy snowfall.
How to Reach Hemis Monastery
Both buses and private cars/jeeps are available for reaching Hemis. Two routes are available to reach by road- Srinagar-Leh highway and Manali-Leh highway. It would take an average of 1 hour to reach the Hemis Monastery from Leh.
Apart from that, you can also hire a bike (Royal Enfield) to reach the Monastery.
Where to Stay
Both budget and luxury hotels are available near the monastery. The Hemis Monastery also provide overnight accommodation. Food arrangements are also available at Monastery Stays.
Restaurants and Local Food in Kargil
1. Photography is allowed inside the monastery. So, make sure to click beautiful pictures for your keepsake.
2. Even though you can reach the monastery by bus/car, there is no parallel to a bike ride in this region.
3. The Hemis Monastery is open from May-September, but plan your trip to coincide with the 2-days Hemis Festival.
4. Don't miss the delicious butter tea available at the eateries outside of the monastery.
5. Footwear is not allowed in the here, so it's best to leave it in your vehicle.
6. If you are staying the Monastery, do not the miss the beautiful morning prayers.