His Holiness- Gyalwang Drupka addressing the devotees at the Naropa Festival 2016
I returned from Ladakh or the ‘Land of High Passes’ on Tuesday morning but I can still feel the excitement and energy that had taken over Naro Palace for the last few days. While Ladakh witnessed the world’s largest assembly of Drukpa masters at the unique Naropa festival, today it will to see a grand closing ceremony with 100,000 Ganachakra offerings and presentation of certificates and prizes. It was my first time in Leh but I must say I was truly blessed to have an opportunity that comes only once in 12 years. It was a blessing to attend the fourth edition of Naropa festival rightly called the ‘Kumbh of the Himalayas’. This year, the festival marked the 1,000th birth anniversary of saint Naropa (1016 -1100 CE), the one who is not only revered as an Indian scholar-saint who spread the Buddhist philosophy but also whose teachings of Six Yogas of Naropa are known to be one of the fundamental pillars of Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.
For the uninitiated, I must tell you that Ladakh based Drukpa Order is the leading sect of Himalayan Buddhism. Every twelve years, a month-long celebration takes place at Hemis Monastery, the seat of the Drukpa Order in Leh. It is called Naropa because Saint Naropa resided in Ladakh, where he mastered the “Six Yogas of Naropa.” These are now pillars of meditation of Vajrayana Buddhism, and are fundamental to nearly every school and lineage of the greater Himalayas.
Once every 12 years, Naropa festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm.
First day at Naropa Festival
While the culminating event is taking place today, I will narrate my experience from the days I visited the festival. I reached Leh on 15th September. The aim was to acclimatize with the high altitude conditions and then explore the festival from the next day. The week-long celebrations of Naropa festival began on September 16 and I was really excited to be a part of this rare cultural event that I had much heard of. I was told that half a million people from across the Himalayas had gathered to celebrate this occasion because it came only once every 12 years.
We started early and yet it took us more than an hour to reach the venue of the event. Every other vehicle on the road seemed to be going there. The first sight of the venue and the cavalcade of vehicles spoke of its grandeur. When the group of media reached there, we were pleasantly surprised to see the humongous gathering. Despite of the tough terrain, scorching sun and long day events, there were enthusiastic followers all around us. Folded hands, colorful umbrellas, varied ethnics, maroon robes and the placid mountains made for a lovely sight in the valley, 40 kilometers from Leh.
Naropa festival – A rare cultural event!
On the first day, too many emotions played inside me. Initially, I was overwhelmed. Next, I was both surprised and shocked to see the huge number of the followers. My curious eyes rolled around at a faster pace than my heart beat. For some time I was in a befuddled state but even then I was tried my best to make sense of every little detail that appealed to my eyes. Next, I was in for loss of words because there was so much happening at one place and I could not fathom it the way I wanted. For some time I sat down at one place and observed people around me but I could not stay there for long. My heart and mind were anxious to walk around. I wanted to move around, talk to people, click pictures and understand the essence of this festival. While the programme continued as per the schedule, the number of attendees kept growing in.
Soon ‘His Holiness- Gyalwang Drupka’ took the center-stage and there was pin drop silence to hear him. His chants and words of enlightenment resonated all around. Next began the auspicious process of donning of the Six Bone Ornaments. This was one of the most important aspect of the festival and while he wore those precious elements, he grasped the attention of each and every devotee present there. It was quite a significant moment for everyone as these ornaments are considered to be one of the most revered relics of Buddhism and historic symbols of great Himalayan odyssey. I was told that hundreds of thousands of people had gathered only to see these precious Six Bone Ornaments. Devotees believed that seekers of truth attained enlightenment by simply seeing them. I further read that the sight of the Ornaments had the power to alter the trajectory of the current life and it ensured a favorable rebirth. Honestly, I feel doubly blessed after seeing them closely and now writing about them here.
A unique mix of spirituality, culture and diversity
Post lunch, the cultural excitement gripped the stage. The cultural performances were vibrant, unique and colorful. They gave a good doze of entertainment too. The sight of colorful dresses, sounds of drums, beats of local music blended in with local flavor weaved a magical atmosphere. From Bhutanese to Nepalese to Indian folk, there was enthusiastic participation from different parts of the world. In the evening, a Ladkahi fashion show took place. Next it was followed by performance by KK and his band where they paid a tribute to the Naropa. In my view, there was absolutely no need to glamorize the event with celebrity performances. I would have loved to see more of local art and culture. And I reiterate, it is my opinion and I could be wrong too.
Overall, I came back with lovely memories of the first day. From moments of introspection to goosebumps to embodiment of gratitude, I felt it all. No doubt, it was a celebration of tradition, beliefs, community, teachings and legacy.
Unfurling of the Thanka
On the fourth day of the festival, I returned again to catch up yet another important aspect of the festival. The audience was in strong numbers. Everyone was making the best of the opportunity to to sight the Six Bone Ornaments which were showcased for public display. No one was allowed to click pictures but yes it was open to absorb in the blessings and spiritual liberation.
We had gathered together for very important significant event of the festival. We witnessed the ceremonial unfurling of one of the greatest regional treasures. A silk embroidery of Buddha Amitabha that stretched several stories in height was unveiled in the presence of ‘His Holiness- Gyalwang Drupka’. An extensive ritual was also performed along with the unfurling. This largest silk embroidered brocade is believed to grant blessing of longevity and good health. I had goosebumps when I saw it unfurl in the air. While I was deeply engrossed in looking at the whole process and then at the painting on the cloth, suddenly I felt an intervention of spiritual power. I felt blessed and I expressed my gratitude to God for giving me this beautiful moment in my life.
Later in the evening, there was a theatrical performance of the life story of Staksang Raspa, a great Drukpa yogi who founded Hemis monastery, Chemdrey Monastery and their branches. Later, the night became all the more beautiful with the sight of lovely moon in the sky and with the divine voice of Shankar enthralling the stage. Only Shanker and Loy had come for the event and they performed with the artists from Ladkah and Himalayas.
However, I was really disappointed with one basic arrangement i.e. the absence of clean washrooms. When hundreds of thousands of devotees were expected to come for the the grand festival, it was important for the organizers and volunteers to meet these requirements too. When every little detail had been looked into, I wonder why no one thought about this important aspect that everyone needs a clean loo too.
I visited the festival as part of Media group that was invited for this festive occasion. This opportunity of attending the Naropa festival will always count as a special, spiritual and unique experience of all my travel stories. More stories from Pangong Lake and Kahrdungla Pass are on the way.
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