Prayer flags fluttered over the iron bridge as we crossed the mighty Indus and started ascending a serpentine road towards Naro Photang, a beautiful white stupa that oversaw the venue of the festival. Ladakh, the land of high passes, reverberated with good vibes as it hosted the Naropa Festival 2018 at Hemis, welcoming pilgrims, delegates and tourists alike to this Mahakumbh of the Himalayas.

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Naro Photang near Hemis, the venue for Naropa Festival 2018

A large crowd of monks dressed in red robes and members of the general public lined up the path leading to Naro Photang, waiting for the procession that would bring the holy relics to the stupa and mark the beginning of the festival. It was an amazing kaleidoscope of humanity, people of different races, religions, nationalities and age groups converging together to celebrate this occasion. It was a splash of colours, a window into the rich and diverse heritage of one of the remotest corners of Asia. I remember walking aimlessly in the crowed with camera in hand, at times too overwhelmed to capture a proper photograph.

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The Legend of Naropa

Naropa was an 11th-century Buddhist spiritual leader, famed as the ‘Guardian of the Northern Gate’ for his acumen and understanding of dharma, who is considered as one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhism. Naropa inherited and nourished the Kargyu tradition of Buddhism from his guru Tilopa and passed it on to his disciple Marpa and subsequently to Milarepa. The legacy flourished across the Himalayas and branched into many lineages, namely Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and the Drukpa lineage, all of them surviving to this day.

A scholar from the Nalanda University, Naropa is remembered for having collated the ‘Six Dharmas’, practices that help to attain enlightenment, that was said to be handed over by Buddha himself and had passed on to Tilopa in an unbroken lineage.

Legends say that when he attained enlightenment, Naropa was gifted the Six Bone Ornaments by Dakinis or spirits who carry the dead to the sky. He handed the ornaments over to Marpa and instructed him to spread the message of the Buddha in the Himalayas. The holy bone relics were passed on through an unbroken lineage of masters and are said to be so sacred that mere look of those can help one attain salvation.

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The Celebrations

Everyone was electrified as soon as the procession carrying the holy relics reached the venue. The monk-musicians started playing a timeless symphony that echoed across the valley creating a most magical experience. The celebrations had begun…

The festival started with prayers and customary addresses and transcended into a cultural extravaganza showcasing the people, costumes, music and dance of the region. There were performances from school children and troupes representing different parts of Ladakh.

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The Kungfu Nuns

One important facet of the cultural programme was a performance by the Kung Fu Nuns, a fascinating order that we had never heard of before.

In 2008, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa changed an age-old tradition which allowed only the male members of the Drukpa lineage to practice the martial arts. The nuns at the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery in Kathmandu were free to practice martial arts and even beyond and got their present name.

The Kung Fu Nuns are primarily based at the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Nepal but many members of the order also live in Ladakh and other parts of India. They are an adventurous lot and besides mastering the art of Kung Fu, they have actively been involved in systematic afforestation in the Himalayan states, Eco Pad Yatras and Bicycle trips around the country. When a devastating earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, these brave nuns refused to be evacuated to a safer place and became one of the first responders in the relief work.

You can read more about the inspiring Kung Fu Nuns HERE.

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The performance of the Kung Fu Nuns

The Drukpa Efforts and Initiatives

On the first day of the festival, we had an opportunity to interact with His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche. He talked on length about the social and environmental initiatives that the Drukpa lineage has been working on, like Live to Love – a collaborative initiative for scientific afforestation of Ladakh and creating awareness about making this paradise plastic and litter free.

The trust also runs educational initiatives like the Druk Padma Karpo School (or Rancho School as it was made famous after the Hindi film 3 Idiots), which is a mix of the values and traditions of Ladakh and the scientific temperament of the 21st Century. This school has been built keeping sustainability and environment in mind and the design has been appreciated globally, being adapted in buildings worldwide.

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His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche

If you travel in a taxi in Ladakh, you may notice a bag at the back of the driver seat. This bag is meant for you to keep all the trash in it and not throw that outside. The driver will empty the bag when the trip is over and put the trash in a bin. Additionally, you may find stickers on the dashboard where the driver has taken a pledge to keep Ladakh litter free and not to wash the vehicle in the Indus or other waterbodies.

These are some soft approaches that the Drukpa is taking to win hearts and reform by the help of people, not by ordering them around.

The Naropa Fellowship

An important event of the Naropa Festival this year was the declaration of Naropa Fellowship. This one-year high impact postgraduate programme aims to create and nurture next-generation change leaders to aid sustainable development, employment generation and entrepreneurship in the Himalayan region.

The academic program is backed by faculty from some of the most premier instructions of the world and will empower the next generation to recognise their potential and convert the challenges into opportunities.

The inaugural founding class of 50 fellows commenced on 1st Sep 2018 and is based in a residential campus at the Hemis Monastery. To know more about the Naropa Fellowship, click HERE

A Collage Of Beautiful Faces

While I was not covering the event, I was preoccupied with the beautiful, kind and happy faces around me. The Naropa Festival was an excellent opportunity to get closer to Ladakh, watch its traditions, beliefs and interact with its wonderful people. Made the best use of my time there and did what I know a little, capture the awesomeness in my camera. Here are some of the colours of Ladakh for you.

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A Visit To The Hemis Monastery

The rugged terrains of Ladakh are a reminder of not only the might of nature, but the indomitable spirit of the human enterprise which does not cease to strive and tame the elements, and creates a habitat for itself in the process, in the most difficult places of this planet.

The Hemis Monastery remained tucked away in a valley hidden from the invading armies and was saved from the plunder that followed decades of turmoil. The monastery and the nearby village perched against such formidable terrain are a reminder that anyone can survive if there is enough determination.

We visited the Hemis Monastery on the second day of the festival and explored while it snowed. While returning to Naro Potang which is about 3 KM away, we chose to walk instead of taking the vehicle and the reward came in the form of scenic views of the rugged landscape and some good photographs.

More on the Hemis Monastery in another blog post…

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The Colours Of Night

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During the evenings, when icy cold winds swept the land, the Naro Photang shone in colourful lights and swayed in music. Every night of the Naropa Festival was marked with dazzling musical and dance shows with the very talented local bands as well as guests from neighbouring countries coming to Ladakh to celebrate the occasion with everyone. To up the glamour quotient, we had artists from the Film and Music Industry like Kailash Kher, Papon and Sonu Nigam flying all the way to the top of the world and entertain us with some really good music. It was an amazing experience, sitting huddled with thousands of people, listening to music from across the Himalayas and beyond, and being one with all…

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The venue at night…

The Naropa Festival 2018 was a great opportunity to get a glimpse of the vibrant colours of Ladakh and experience its amazing hospitality. It was also a launchpad for us to start explorations of the interiors of this region. We had a great time, made new friends and came back wiser. Many thanks to the organisers for making our stay comfortable.

As I write this, I cannot wait to be back to the mountains and start from where we left. Hoping to return soon…