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6/20/08 – Hemis Monastery. [I think I was suffering from altitude sickness. In my journal I wrote that I experienced aching, fever, sinus problems and a sore throat – ugh!] I am pretty confident I have been to this monastery in the past (lives). Here is why I speculate on this. Hemis Gompa is across the river from the main road, and actually it is quite hidden, tucked away in a mountain valley, far from view. Apparently the maharajas of India heavily taxed (raided) many monasteries for their wealth, but thankfully they never found Hemis.
The way one gets to this monastery is to cross a narrow bridge. Then you drive up a switch-backing road which seems to lead into a mountainous valley (no sign of a monastery until you are right on it). As we were driving on the main road, I remarked to someone, “I think the monastery is back there.” I pointed ahead to the valley where the monastery was hidden. Technically it did not make much sense, as aside from a couple of decrepit stupas, there was no sign of a large wealthy monastery.
The lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that I practice is Drikung Kagyu, a smaller sub-lineage in the larger Kagyu umbrella.
Hemis monastery is a Drukpa Kagyu establishment, so there was much in common. It was definitely the wealthiest monastery we visited. Actually someone told us that at some points in history, Hemis was so wealthy that it contributed to keeping the northern Indian government going when they ran low on money. Also, in most of the monasteries we visited, there were not many precious stones or jewels to be seen. At Hemis, there were many statues covered in turquoise and gold.
The main shrine room had a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that was four meters tall. This was a pleasant surprise – there were multiple stupas also covered in beautiful gold, silver, turquoise, lapis and other stones. Hemis had a long row of prayer wheels to be spun, which was novel and it turned out to be a significant ceremony in most of the monasteries we visited. The prayer wheels ranged in size from eighteen inches tall, to eight feet tall. Of course the larger wheels required a lot of strength or a lot of people power to get going. And remember – always spin them clockwise!
I found multiple facets of the monasteries very fascinating, and one question sticks out in my mind – why does a culture which produces people of shorter stature (in general) have monasteries with such large, steep steps? Don’t get me wrong – the steps are made of some beautiful, dark-colored stone, worn down from centuries of use – I am simply curious. Hemis was no exception to this rule – the stairs were very steep, and generally without hand rails. I am guessing that as one devotes oneself to a life of monasticism and mindfulness, being careful about where to put one’s feet would follow suit. Also, the Ladakhis were amazing when it came to physical fitness at altitude – all the young people would bound up a series of steep stairs (or play soccer, or have no difficulty climbing a section of a mountain) like it was nothing. For me, it was a little challenging merely being at altitude!
One such set of stairs led up to the Guru Lhakang – the guru temple. Briefly, in Tibetan Buddhism, Guru
Padmasambhava (the Lotus Born in Sanskrit), or Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, was one of the main figures in vanquishing or conquering the local, unruly gods – local deities – of Tibet and allowing Buddhism to stay and flourish, even in a land that had been extremely barbaric. All the monasteries that we visited had some kind of temple dedicated to his honor, but Hemis had one of the most elaborate. I have written in my journal that the statue of Guru Rinpoche was fifteen meters tall (whoa! might be a slight exaggeration). I certainly recall that it was a large statue, at least two stories tall. Guru Rinpoche is generally depicted as having a very intense face and the statue followed suit. He was sitting in his enormous alcove, glaring down at us. I am really regretting that my camera ran out of batteries here and I did not take any pictures of this particular temple. The high walls of this temple were covered in beautiful paintings of emanations of Guru Rinpoche and other enlightened Buddhist deity images.
We were told that there is a hermitage above Hemis monastery and that there are always about 20 monks in meditation. I say “above” because it was at least an hour and a half walk up the mountain to get to it. For most of us westerners, this might have translated to a three hour trek, so we did not explore it. However, Hemis has its own museum – a testimony to Tibetan Buddhism, the monastery and its history.
The museum had many ancient and some more recent pieces. I would call a lot of their pieces treasures – the word “antiques” just does not communicate what we witnessed. There was a large desk that was at least two hundred years old, very intricately carved and painted. There were old letters from high lamas – like H.H. the Dalai Lama and H.H. the Drukpa Kyabgon etc (previous incarnations of these lamas of course). Carved wooden blocks from printing pechas (monastic texts and prayers) were on display along with texts that had been printed in gold. There was also a glimpse through the history of Ladakhi clothing – ceremonial pieces that made a procession back through the centuries. Unfortunately I do not remember many specific details and with my camera out of juice… You will just have to visit the museum yourself!