1st June 09
I woke up really early and reached the bus stand (I walked some distance and then hitch hiked) where I expected to board a bus to Hemis, one of the well known monasteries to the south of Leh. There were four places to the south of Leh that after much enquiry and reference of the travel guide, I had decided to tour; Hemis Monastery, Thikse, Shey Palace and Stok Palace. They were all located a few kilometers from one another along the same route, Hemis being the furthest from Leh, and I hoped to cover them all in one day without difficulty. I am usually optimistic!
It was a ramshackle old place full of dilapidated looking buses and vans and SUV’s and smaller vehicles. The faraway snow mountains and poplars, though obstructed by the omnipresent electric wires, compensated for the ugliness of my immediate surroundings.
I found out soon that I had been misinformed. There was either no bus to Hemis on that day or it would start really late and I would lose much time.
Hungry as I was, I entered this small Dhaba in the bus stand and had chai and bread toast. I enquired with a few people who were most helpful, one of whom was a taxi driver (Tashi) and decided to consider the option of taking a taxi and I was assured I would cover all the places. The farthest place Hemis, was just 43 kilometers away and it would cost 1100 after haggling! Private transportation in Ladhak is very very expensive!
We started. Me and Tashi.
This day and this journey would reveal Ladakh to me in all it’s glory and splendour.
The roads are maintained by the army and they are in excellent condition. You sometimes feel you are sailing. We sailed for a short while and as we left Leh behind, we were ‘in the open’. There were vast sandy stretches for miles and miles away and from them arose the mountains, brown, reddish, jagged and rugged. And above them, was the clear blue sky, made pale by the golden wash of an unusually strong sun. The landscape took my breath away. I got down every 5 minutes and stood in awe of what was before me.
Hundreds of white stupas, strewn in the midst of what seemed like a no man’s land stood out in contrast against the brown sand…
As I turned to take a panoramic 360 degree view, what I saw was a landscape that changed every 30 degrees.
Some distance away, I stopped to take another picture. A lone Buddhist establishment in the middle of a vast desert was attractive.
So deep rooted was my belief that I loved greenery and water and that alone of all the landscapes!
I had never imagined that I would ever like a landscape that was barren, sandy, dry and completely devoid of water and greenery! Now, I was breathless at this strange beauty!
Layers of mountains… who ever conceived such a design?
And just when you are sure this will continue forever, you are surprised by a monastery and a picture perfect village of neat houses perched on a hill at the next turn with a smooth black winding road leading up to it.
And soon after you have passed the hill, you find yourself once again in the vast empty desert and no footprints on the sand as if the monastery and the village were a dream, a hallucination…
A magician’s work…
While all this was on one side of the road, there were on the other side, poplar grooves and snow on distant mountains
The pattern of the stripes and lines on the mountains were no less artistic or enchanting than temple carvings
The Sindhu … a name that had brought me all the way.
We crossed the river to the other side and found ourselves closer to the mountains
Ours was the only vehicle on a lone road with stretches of space, sand and mountains all around, no trace of civilization anywhere within sight and only the strong winds to speak to us. What a feeling it was!
My excitement reached the crescendo as we drove close to this mountain. The ridges, the carvings became clearer. What was brown all this while suddenly burst forth into different shades and hues that distance had so far hidden
At the next turn, we were really close to the mountain
First view of the Hemis monastery
Hemis is Ladakh’s most well known monastery. Hemis Gompa or at least it’s oldest sections were built in 1630’s under the aegis King Sengge Namgyal. This has long been Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery.
Hemis currently has some 200 lamas attached to it.
As we entered,
I first entered the Dukhang or the prayer hall.
Climbing the steps to the Dukhang, you first see the fierce guardian deities painted on the walls of the entrance portico.
Stepping in, you see the vast chamber; a total of 36 wooden columns hold up it’s roof, with the central four supporting a clerestory (a portion of an interior rising above adjacent rooftops and having windows admitting daylight to the interior).
The light is mostly inadequate and the hall, dark and antique is very atmospheric.
On one of the Dukhang’s wooden columns near the back wall is hung a frightful mask with silken scarves about and a small altar with butter lamps and sculptures. The mask represents Pehar Gyalpo, revealed as the protector deity of Hemis.
Some of the murals in the dukhang have been repainted but most are old faded originals.
Here is where the rows of monks are seated facing one another during prayer
Statues in glass chambers
Preserved in the Dukhang is a gigantic Thangka (painting on a rectangular cloth) embroidered with an image of Padmasambhava; unrolled only once in 12 years during the annual festival. Unfortunately it was not the time of unrolling it when I visited the place.
Hemis’s oldest temple is the Dukhang Nyingpa (Nyingpa means old) dating back to 1630’s when the monastery was established by Stag-tsang Raspa.
It is the image of Stag-tsang Raspa sitting cross legged the dominates the rather bare temple. Made of silver, the statue bears the expression of a man about to speak, hence it is called Stag-tsang Raspa Sungjon, Sungjon meaning speaking.
The only other statue in the chamber is that of the White Tara.
A passage leading to the upper level of the building brings you to the Som Lhakhang, a temple built in the early 19th century. An 8 feet tall silver stupa dominates the shrine which also has other statues – Hayagiva, Vajrapani, Sakyamuni…
Continuing up the steps , you reach lhakhang Kachupa(Kachupa means 10 pillared), along rectangular low roofed chamber, that is a sculpture gallery , its glass fronted shelves displaying a host of divinities.
The Guru Lhakhang, further to the east of the terrace, is Hemis’s newest temple. It houses a giant statue of Padmasambhava in a wrathful aspect, his eyes glowing, created by Nawang Tsering, Ladakh’s most famous modern day sculptor, best known for carving the giant Maitreys in Thikse.
Murals in the chamber
In the front courtyard, Lamas were dancing…
The lama at the centre was the one who took me to all the shrines and chambers
It was time to leave… I took the last pictures of Hemis