A Day of Enlightenment at the Hemis Gompa


In Ladakh, there are only 2 things that truly fascinated me: The Gompas and the desert surrounded by the mountains. Well, that may actually be three, and if I count the Indus and the various water channels, I can expand my list. Truly, most of my sightings in this part of the country have been really bizarre. Nowhere in my travels have I encountered such beautiful buildings and structures in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama arriving in Leh to inaugurate a renovated mosque
His Holiness the Dalai Lama arriving in Leh to inaugurate a renovated monastery Chokhang Vihara

I get up and am informed that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is scheduled to visit the city at the local Gompa and inaugurate a new mosque in the town center. While everyone is excited about his visit, nobody knows the time when he is expected. Nevertheless, there is a huge crowd waiting to catch a glimpse of him outside the Chokhang Vihara, the local monastery. I make my way through the waiting sea of people. Burning incenses imparts the air a very flavorful yet smoky odor. Traditional Ladakhi women join the rendezvous bringing with them huge bouquets of flowers. As the faithful line up the streets, I find it increasingly hard to get a good view or shot. I head up to my favorite restaurant, the Leh View Cafe, right across the street. I have a good omelette’s for breakfast and in due course am blessed to watch the Dalai Lama arrive. I see him later in the day again when I am out looking to book myself a flight two weeks from now.

After lunch I head out to the Hemis Gompa. It is on the way to Manali, about 40 kms south of Leh. All bikes seem to be rented out for the day, so I decide to take a cab to the monastery. It is neatly nestled in the mountains, with not an iota of evidence of its existence, unless you decide to pursue the road across the Indus. Hemis is the biggest gompa in Ladakh, representing the Mahayana culture of Buddhist thought. It was built around the 1630s and has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Hemis Gompa is a UNESCO World heritage site
The Hemis Gompa is a UNESCO World heritage site

There are about 500 resident scholars and it is a treasure house of priceless manuscripts, paintings, thankas and other precious objects. It also has a museum, that was contributed by a Malaysian couple. The museum houses the appointment letter of HH the Dalai Lama, hand written on an exquisite yellow silk cloth. The pillars at the monastery are a work in craftsmanship, with paintings and intricate patterns that date back to the origins of the monastery itself.

The carving and paintings on a pillar that supports the courtyard in the Hemis Gompa
The carving and paintings on a pillar that supports the courtyard in the Hemis Gompa

After a brief stopover at the Indus, I make my way to the Leh View Cafe for dinner. I am joined by some Italians, A Spanish and an Aussie. While most of them are pretty laid back and cheerful people, the Aussie is a little more aggressive. I think it comes from his being a Vietnam war veteran. A few people ignore his zealousness and have a nice warm conversation. As the only Indian on the table, I am quizzed about a range of topics, from religion to region, from sports to politics, culture to army etc. The Aussie gets all excited by the Kashmir conflict and starts passing his own judgments on the issue. It would have been alright if he was objective and rational in his thoughts….but then most people are not rational. I know it is a tough issue to comprehend, but people who have had only the western news channels to feed them stories about Kashmir should refrain from pretending that they know how to resolve the crisis. Sensing that the discussion might take a serious turn, I ask the Aussie to leave the table. Knowing that he is outnumbered, he leaves with more aggression, but for us happiness is restored across the table. The Spanish guy commented and I quote: ” I will remember you throughout my life as the Indian guy who protected the honor of his country against an unreasonable Aussie.”

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