We were recently invited as part of the official media delegation to cover the Naropa Festival and jumped at the opportunity. Ladakh had been on our bucket list for a long time and the “Kumbh festival of the Himalayas” as it is popularly called, seemed an apt stage to experience it for first timers like us. Through this post, we will try to explain the story behind the festival, what one can expect and if it is worth attending.
Who was Naropa and why is the festival Celebrated?
Naropa was an 11th-century Buddhist spiritual leader, famed as the ‘Guardian of the Northern Gate’ for his acumen and understanding of dharma. He is considered as one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhism and is the one who inherited the Kagyu school of Buddhism. A scholar from the Nalanda University, Naropa is remembered for having collated the ‘Six Dharmas’, practices that help to attain enlightenment, that was said to be handed over by Buddha himself and had passed on to Tilopa in an unbroken lineage.
Legends say that when he attained enlightenment, Naropa was gifted the Six Ornaments by Dakinis who can be equated to angels in western mythology. The holy relics were passed on through an unbroken lineage of masters and are said to be so sacred that mere look of those can help one attain salvation. It is believed that the ornaments were created by different body parts of Buddha including his hair and bones and for close to a thousand years, have been used as a relic of devotional support. Till this year, devotees could only catch a glimpse of these holy ornaments once every 12 years when his Holiness His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual head of the Drukpa lineage, unveiled and donned the ornaments—a crown, earrings, a necklace, a seralkha, a bangle, and an anklet—in front of chanting monks and the attendees.
Naropa festival is an effort by the Drukpa Lineage to remember the great saint Naropa. The festival is celebrated every 12 years and given the importance and the scale of this spiritual gathering is often referred to as the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. The festival has a number of sessions on Buddhist teachings, cultural performances, archery performances and the unfurling of the largest hand painted Thangka (cloth painting, can be equated to a canvas) of Saint Naropa in the World spread out over a period of 7 days. The Millennial year celebrations in 2016 was the largest celebration in the history of the festival and saw nearly a million attendees. His holiness and the organizing team have since taken a decision to hold the festival every year starting from 2018 in order to make it more accessible for both the devotees and cultural enthusiasts.
What can tourists expect from the Festival ?
The festival has a mix of religious and cultural activities which makes it ideal for a wider audience. Apart from the Buddhist teaching and discourses, there are a variety of cultural performances organized including dances from various regions of Ladakh, a performance by the Kung-fu nuns, music performances by the Naropa fellowship students, archery performances among others. There are also a variety of music performances on all evenings by top Bollywood artists. To give you a reference, Kailash Kher & Sonu Nigam were the artists performing on the opening and closing day of the festival. There is also a range of stalls both at the venue and outside of it with options for trinkets, clothes, souvenirs and food. We had half a mind to try on some gorgeous ladakhi robes for a shoot but couldn’t find an opportunity to do it, but the landscapes and environment of the festival would be ideal for it even if it’s the most touristy thing one can do. If you take your food seriously, it is best to carry some with you. Although the organizers have made arrangement for meals for all visitors, there are no dedicated gourmet food stalls should you want options. You get a solid basic meal of rice, curries, lentils and salads with possibly a sweetdish and indian breads included but given the scale of the festival it is best not to expect something fancy. That said, there was a bakery stall with muffins, cupcakes, patties along with coffee and tea, as well as numerous maggi stalls. We did go through our trip with atleast a meal dedicated to maggi on multiple days. What can we say, maggi just tastes better up in the mountains.
Where is this festival ? Should I plan for Naropa ’19
The Naropa festival is organized at an empty patch of land near the Hemis monastery (the same venue as the millennial celebrations) and can accommodate a large audience. It is about an hour’s drive from Leh and just 5-10 minutes from the Hemis Monastery. It can be easily reached via car or bus and you are planning to visit the festival over multiple days, it is possible to cover Hemis Monastery, Shey Palace and Thiksey Monastery either while going or coming back.
Although it is apparent that it is a recommended thing to do if you’re in Ladakh, the important question is if you should plan a trip around it. Our answer would be yes as it is a very important festival in the Ladakhi Calendar with a lot to offer in terms of cultural experiences especially for a first time tourist. Most other Ladakhi festivals are specific to a monastery or a region and do not have the same breadth of experiences offered at a single place except maybe the Ladakh festival. Even if you discount the actual festival, the timing is perfect. It is celebrated in September when it is nearing the end of the tourist season and is possibly the best time to visit Ladakh given that the weather is starting to get colder and the hotel rates have become affordable. Infact we had planned our trip in such a way that we were able to attend the festival, explore some parts of Ladakh like Pangong Lake & Nubra Valley and still make it in time to attend the first couple of days of the Ladakh Festival before catching a flight back home. All this in a trip spanning 8-9 days. Although it’s impossible to cover everything the region has to offer in such a small trip, we feel we managed to get the best out of it.
If you have any questions on the festivals or wish to ask for help planning your maiden Ladakh trip, feel free to drop your questions in the comments, ask us via our comment form or chat tool or simply say hello on any of our social media channels. We’re always happy to help.
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