In the late 19th century a Crimean adventurer called Nicholas Notovitch broke his leg while visiting Ladakh and was taken to the Hemis gompa (monastery) to recuperate. While there, he claimed to have discovered a document which said that Jesus had joined a merchant caravan and travelled east to Ladakh when he was a teenager. The document supposedly said that Jesus (named in the text as Issa) studied with Buddhist holy men for several years, before he returned home in his late twenties. The whole story was published in Notovitch’s 1894 book “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ” and made him a lot of money.
Today the tale is regarded as a hoax, although others have also played with the idea that Jesus was one of the original founders of the hippie trail. True or not, Hemis Gompa is today the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. It is also one of the few that are hidden, tucked into a cleft in the rock rather than perched showily on a hilltop. Its annual two day festival had just started when we arrived in Sakti, half an hour away. Our hotel’s owner, Thinley, a regal looking chap dressed in the dark reds and yellows of a Buddhist monk had tried to find a taxi for us but it was their busiest day of the year, so eventually he gave us the use of his own car, driven by his cousin for pretty much free – which was incredibly generous. Thank you Thinley. Everyone had told us the ceremonial dancing would take place in the morning and we should get there before ten for a chance to see anything. So at nine, we were off.
To get to Hemis Gompa, you cross the Indus on a narrow bridge and switchback up the side of the mountain with the town of Hemis spreading out dustily below. The road peaks a little way below the monastery and loops back down.
A line of cars dropped people off at the bottom of a steep path up to the monastery steps.
We followed on through knots of monk teens encircling their mobile phones, and a bouncy castle full of delighted little monklets sproinging away for all they were worth, in their dark red robes.
This is in part a fundraiser for the monks and we were met by several asking for donations for which they provided pink receipts, filled out with serious concentration and torn off from a book. Around the Gompa, the lanes had a carnival feel with people selling t-shirts and snacks, pashminas and hats.
The loudest and busiest stall was the one with a couple of Ladakhi-style roulette wheels surrounded by an excited crowd of men.
The final flight of steps hugged the monastery outer wall and as we climbed we could hear the smash of cymbals and the bellow of monastic horns. In the central pavilion a dance was under way; monks in elaborate costume with big skull motif pendants slowly gyrating around the courtyard.
Either side of the main entrance, monks in sharp red hats like elaborate Mohawks blew long trumpets.
It is a blaring sort of sound that can somehow be nothing else but a Buddhist ceremony.
The monks whirled solemnly and when it was over, they filed into the Gompa and the music stopped. We found seats and settled in for the morning, fully expecting the next dance to begin at any minute.
But it didn’t of course. There was much adjusting of reliquaries, and swinging of incense and anxious running about by monks with mobiles and sunglasses.
It was a great opportunity to people-watch, and particularly to see some of the older villagers in traditional hats and clothing, quietly taking their seats together.
There were a fair number of tourists too including some who were frankly stomach-churningly awful in their behaviour. Give some people a fancy camera and they think they have the right to shove it in people’s faces for as long as they like; the older people had banks of five or six tourists standing just a couple of meters away and taking endless photos for minutes at a time (we were the other side of the courtyard).
Then the camera herd would find another victim somewhere and hassle them for a bit. They seemed to have had no appreciation that they were photographing actual people, not exhibits. Dutch lady in the green trousers, I’m talking to you. Anyone has a right to take a photo of someone in a public place, but to shove a camera in someone’s face for minutes at a time is a real invasion of personal space and the older people looked very uncomfortable.
Given the hiatus in proceedings we had a look inside the monastery. The main prayer hall was lit with oil lamps; full of the smell of incense and the low hum of monks chanting prayers. Silk prayer banners in soft yellows, golds and dark reds hung from the ceiling and the walls were covered in faded murals. It was a scene unchanged in five hundred years. Apart from the tourists with cameras ignoring the strict “no photography” rules. Honestly, some people just shouldn’t be allowed off the bus. Philippa said when she went in, one guy was told repeatedly to stop using his camera and kept moving around the room to take pictures furtively, until another tourist told him to “have some respect” grabbed his camera and deleted all the images. I salute you sir.
Outside, the monks with instruments suddenly appeared on the Gompa roof and started playing again, sending shivers up my spine once more. Surely now the dancing would resume we thought.
So two hours went by and no more dancing and we had arranged to meet our car and Norbu our driver at 1230. We had no means of contacting him and he had to drive half an hour each way from Sakti, so at 1215 we had to leave. I guess the rest of the masked dancing resumed at some point in the afternoon and it was infuriating not to see it having given ourselves two nights nearby to do just that, but at least we had a taste of it.
I consoled myself with a walk up a nearby hill when we got back to Sakti, to see the ruins of an old castle.
The area is known as the “land of nine castles”. None are there any longer, but the Kingdom of Ladakh must have been a heck of a place back in the day. It’s a heck of a place now.