Toothless grins, melodious chanting and spinning of prayer wheels while attempting to glimpse the famous relics of Buddha – the atmosphere at the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas ignites all your senses. The Naropa Festival in Ladakh drew not just its devotees but every visitor to this land of passes. Celebrated at the famous Hemis Monastery near Leh, this festival rejoices the life of the famous Buddhist philosopher and teacher – Naropa.
Quite like the Kumbh Mela, the festival is celebrated every year with it becoming grand every 12th year (2028 being the next one). Set against the backdrop of the glorious mountains of Ladakh, the Naropa festival is a great way to experience the culture of the land. You not just get to interact with the locals, but also, get a beautiful insight into the legend behind the festival.
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Legend of Naropa
Hailing from Bengal, Naropa was a scholar from the Nalanda University. He moved to Kashmir to propagate the teachings of Buddha. During the course of his life, he was directed to his guru Tilopa, who put him through 12 tests of hardships. Upon completing that, Naropa achieved enlightenment. He was presented with Six Bone relics by a Dakini, which he in turn, passed on to his disciple Marpa. He prophesized that these sacred ornaments (crown, necklace, earrings, bracelets, seralkha and apron) would remain in his lineage and would always provide devotional support.
The present-day head of the Drukpa lineage – His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa – is said to be from the Naropa lineage and every 12 years, he dons the Six Bone relics to celebrate the festival. In the other ordinary years, one of each of these relics is brought out of the Hemis Monastery during the festival and is put up as a public display. The Naropa Festival 2018 had the crown on display.
The procession of the relics
The Naropa Festival 2018 began with the arrival of the relics from the Hemis Monastery. Eyes scoured the road that winds down to the newly constructed Naropa Stupa (called Naro Photang) – a little away from the monastery. The sounds of the traditional wind pipes and drums echo across the mountainous landscape announcing the arrival of the famous ornament. Covered with a cloth, the relic was taken around the Naro Photang to the top where it was finally, unveiled. The crown of Naropa with, what they say, the original hair of the Buddha awaited the devotees to arrive.
Unfurling the biggest Thangka
If the relics of Naropa were the highlight of the festival on day one, it was the unfurling of the biggest silk Amitabha that became the focus on the remaining days. 70 feet in height, the Thangka was opened every morning on the days that followed and closed by noon. The traditional art has the story of Guru Padmasambhava in vibrant colours. It is not just the Thangka piece that was enthralling but also the ceremonies that went with it.
Fun, frolic and food at Naropa 2018
Before the relic display was opened to the public, a short cultural fiesta followed the unveiling. From performances by the first class of the Naropa Fellowship Program to the Ladakhi dances by famous Kung-Fu nuns of the Drukpa family, there was enough to keep one occupied. Around the Naro Photang, several local food trucks served delightful local delicacies while the flea market kept the shopaholics busy with their wares.
As the sun went down, the evening brought in a different vigour in the form of popular Bollywood and pop artists that swayed the crowd with their famed tunes. Naropa 2018 also turned out to be epic as it entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the World’s Largest Ladakhi Dance performance, where 299 Ladakhi women gracefully performed the famous dance of “Shondol”.
The Naropa festival takes place in September every year and there is always something new in store for its visitors at this Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. The bonus along with the cultural fiesta is the surreal beauty of the land- a perfect combination for any traveller.