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Naropa Festival: The Kumbh of the Himalayas

Arid Ladakh is enlivened with colour, frenzy and ecstatic music as the Naropa Festival engulfs the valley in an unmistakable spirit of spiritual fervour

Come autumn and the stark arid landscape of Ladakh transforms into a magnanimous medley of colours. The spirituality that hangs in the air has the capability to transcend you to a new plane of experience. It is time for the Naropa festival: the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. The Naropa festival has everything that a typical Indian festival holds – ample amounts of colour and a healthy dose of spirituality while being the largest annual congregation of Buddhist monks from all over the world. Half a million people from across India, Central Asia and beyond gather in Ladakh to commemorate Naropa's birth anniversary.

Who was Naropa?

Naropa was an Indian scholar and saint who heralded the beginning of a rich tradition of Buddhist philosophy in the 11th century. The Naropa festival not only marks his birth anniversary but also celebrates his teachings which form one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, thus making him a prominent name amongst the Buddhist community. Although originally hailing from Bengal, he completed his education from Nalanda University before heading to the Ladakh valley to further propagate the teachings of Buddha. His teachings were spread across the whole of South-East Asia soon after and formed the basis of many Buddhist traditions. The festival brings together the largest assembly of Drukpa masters, leaders of the Buddhist community from all over the world.

Locating the Naropa festival

Every year, at the rooftop of the Himalayas, at the Hemis Monastery, the melancholic landscape converts into a sea of maroon as pilgrims from all over the world make their way to Ladakh. As Naropa started his sermons from this monastery, it has the honour of preserving the six bone ornaments that have been used as relics of devotional support. The six bone ornaments include the crown, earrings, necklace, seralkha, bangle and an anklet, and are considered to be among the most important aspects and holiest treasures of Himalayan Buddhism. It is believed that the devotees who sight these ornaments will have the trajectory of their current life altered, which will ensure them a favourable rebirth. Every year, these ornaments are put on display for the pilgrims as they flock to the Hemis to pay their respects. But, every 12 years, the festival becomes even larger as the Gwalung Drukpa (the de-facto leader of the Buddhist faith) wears the ornaments and meets the many followers who passionately arrive at the valley.

Celebrations galore

As lakhs of pilgrims head to the mountainside to seek blessings, thousands of camps are set up to feed and entertain them. The festival starts amidst much fanfare as the ornaments are transported from the Monastery to the Naro Palace, located about three kilometres away. The procession proceeds slowly as a number of drums and gongs envelope the valley in an ecstatic cacophony of sounds. Dressed in the most resplendent of attires, His Holiness The Gwalung Drukpa and other Drukpa leaders proceed down the mountain before heading to the Naro Palace where he declares the festival open by hosting the flag of Naropa. A series of prayers are held before the pilgrims are allowed to witness the ornaments. The enchanting sounds and smells emanating from the incense is a heady mix that envelops all in the vicinity.

The festival in itself is filled with colourful cultural performances. One of the most interesting ones are the dances by the Kung Fu nuns who cycle all the way from Kathmandu while impressing with their percussion skills on the drums. Professional dancers with intricately-carved masks perform the traditional Dharma dance that has the ability to transcend audiences to an altogether different level of experience. But what really attracted me about the Naropa festival is its acceptance of modern culture while staying bound to its roots. Although the procession hogs all the limelight on the first day, it is the unfurling of the 70-foot silk Thangka that remains the star of the show on the remaining days. Embroidered with rich gold and blue zari work, it showcases the different stages of the life of Amitabha Buddha.

The "Rock Star Drukpa" resonates with the Buddhist youth and quite a few Bollywood celebrities make their way to the evening performances. It's quite interesting to see the young Buddhist Monks swaying to the rock beats while dressed in their traditional maroon garments. Even their Drupka leaders, including His Holiness, join in with the young ones, lip-syncing and swaying to the beats with them. There's a host of food trucks that allow you to sample some of the local food while having a gala time. A line up of shops that spring up during the festival offer the perfect souvenirs to take away as memorabilia as you make your way back home to the plains.

The Naropa Festival is an exhilarating exhibition of colours, sounds and smells that envelops the Ladakh valley every year and should definitely be experienced once in a lifetime.

Snigdha Bhowmick

Snigdha Bhowmick

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