Ladakh, Jammu Kashmir
The Hemis Monastery in Ladakh is one of the largest and best known Buddhist monasteries in India. Perched on a hilltop with the Himalyan Mountains for a backdrop, it recalls the grandeur of the great monasteries of Tibet. It is closely associated with the Guru Rimpoche who is honored here every year with one of India’s largest Buddhist festivals. The monastery is also associated with a legend of Jesus traveling to and studying in India in the years prior to his ministry. The Hemis Monastery is held to be the center of Kagyu Buddhism.
The Hemis Monastery traces its history back to the Middle Ages. According to tradition, it predates the arrival of one Naropa, who arrived at some point in the 11th century. Naropa, a prominent Buddhist teacher, served as the head of the monastery of Nalanda in what is now Bihar. During his tenure, that monastery was sacked by an invading Muslim army, and Nalanda was forced to flee.
He relocated to the Hemis Monastery, where he continued his work. His arrival at Hemis apparently put that monastery on the map, and interest in the place as a Buddhist education center appears to have increased at this time. According to tradition he established the Kagyu school of Buddhism here, and Hemis remains its spiritual center to this day.
One of the odder traditions associated with the Hemis Monastery is that a lost Christian gospel was discovered here in the 19th century. This gospel, ‘discovered’ by a Russian writer, indicated that Jesus Christ spent time in India studying and meditating, and it was here that he learned many of his ideas as a rabbi. Although this lost gospel ultimately proved to be a hoax, there are many who still believe there is some truth to the story.
Every year a festival is held here honoring the Guru Rimpoche. A semi-legendary personage, Guru Rimpoche is credited with many teachings, and the purpose of his festival is to evoke strength and health for individuals and the community. Traditionally the festival was once every twelve years, in the Year of the Monky, in which the Guru Rimpoche was born.
The Hemis Monastery is very impressive site. Covering a large, rocky hill, it consists of a thick cluster of whitewashed, red-tile roofed buildings climbing their way up the hillside. The architecture calls to mind the Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet, though not quite as grand. Surrounding the monastery are more scattered buildings on the hillside interspersed with sparse vegetation and a few trees. The entire site is crowned by the magnificent main monastery building.
The monastery itself is a sprawling maze of interlinked buildings, alleys and courtyards. The primary sites of interest are the spectacular collection of Buddha statues that can be found around the place, and the great central courtyard which can accommodate large crowds and where the famous Hemis Festival is held every year.
The Hemis Monastery is located in one of the remotest corners of India, just north of Hemis National Park in eastern Jammu and Kashmir, more than 350 miles from New Delhi. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: http://leh.nic.in/tourist/hemis (official website).
The town of Ladakh is not too far from the city of Leh, another major Buddhist center in Jammu and Kashmir province. Leh is home to several major sites of Buddhist interest, including the Shanti Stupa and the Thikse Monastery.