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Pilgrim's Progress

Sunday Express, August 2, 2009, article by Madakini Gahlot and photos by Prashanth Vishwanathan - (click to view original article in PDF format) - In his controversial 1894 account of Jesus's lost years La vie inconnue de Jesus Chris (The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ)

, Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch claimed that it was in Hemis, a tiny town about 40km from Leh, that a previously unknown Gospel, "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men," originated. The gospel is said to be an account of Jesus's travels in India and east Asia. While the town's links to Christianity have never been proved, over the last 400 years, it has become one of the most important centres for Mahayana Buddhism in the world.

At an altitude of 12,000 feet, the journey to Hemis is not recommended for the faint-hearted. About two kilometres before the monastery, all traces of a motorable road disappeared. Our driver informed us that from thereon it would have to be on foot. For those fond of trekking, the climb up to the monastery is exhilarating. For others, the steep slopes and pebbled paths can prove to be exhausting.

Over the years, Hemis has become synonymous with the monastery. Most of its local population choose to reside in Leh and the surrounding villages located at a lower altitude of 11,000 feet. The only inhabitants are 350 monks who live and train here in austere simplicity. There is little by way of comfort, and the temperatures border on the extreme.

The Hemis monastery was established in 1672 by the Drukpa Lineage, a sect of Buddhism that owes its origin to Naropa, a Bengali Pandit. It is now the oldest and wealthiest monastery in the country.

Most monks are brought to the monastery when they are about five, the age at which they begin learning Buddhist scriptures. Over the next 10 to 15 years, they live here in complete isolation except for a few trips to Leh to stock up on essential commodities. Despite their training, the loneliness gets to them.

One of the most awaited days on the calendar, therefore, is the Hemis Festival, held each year in the last week of June or early in July. We too were here to attend the festival, which marks the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have taken Tantric Buddhism from India to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century.

This year, visitors were lucky to see a fascinating spectacle. A train of monks in maroon marching up the mountains, carryng sacks of plastic bottles, wrappers and soft drink cans - the detritus left behind by tourists of the world. This was part of a 400km long pilgrimage that 750 Drukpas went on, led by the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the current spiritual head of the lineage.

Crossing arduous high-altitude mountain passes from Manali to Hemis, they attempted to raise awareness about a very modern cause - global warming. Along the way, they collected 60,000 discarded plastic bottles, 10,000 chewing wrappers and hundreds of soft drink cans. Bio-degradable canvas bags were distributed among the 30 villages that the Drukpas crossed and the message was loud and clear: "Say no to plastic." The return of the monks from their long march marked the beginning of the festival this year.

When the performances began, it was easy to see why this tiny town is a big draw. Tourists from all over the world climbed on to the rooftop overlooking the monastery's courtyard to get a better view. There was a riot of colours as the monks, who train for months for this spectacle, streamed out into the courtyard, dancing to invoke the spirit of Lord Buddha. About mid-way through the festivities, a thangka (Buddhist embroidery on a patch of silk) depicting the image of Guru Padmasambhava was lowered from one of the high windows.

Visitors to the fest are also advised to go on a hunt for souvenirs. Local Ladakhis put up stalls selling artefacts, silver and gold turtles, exotic Tibetan jewellery and antique candlesticks. But the real artwork lies in the Hemis Museum, one of the oldest repositories of ancient Buddhist art. The museum, opened to the public just two years ago, displays artefacts preserved by the monastery for more than 400 years. Some of the intricately embroidered thangkas displayed in the museum are said to be a thousand years old.

As the day's festivities came to an end, Buddhists from South-east Asian countries made a bee line for the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. At 46, the current Gyalwang Drukpa is a perfect blend of the modern and the traditional. When not at Hemis, he blogs to reach his disciples all over the world. His speech is littered with colloquial fillers such as "whatever" or "sort of" and he always carries his Blackberry. But he warns young Ladakhi youth against "looking for shortcuts to enlightenment" and says "the Internet cannot be your guru".

The monks we left behind to another year of rigorous isolation in this little town perched on steep Himalayan cliffs would agree.