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Thousands flock to Indian Himalayas for rare Buddhist festival

Once every 12 years, the week-long festival commemorates the birth anniversary of Buddhist saint Naropa.
Published 19 Sep, 2016 03:55pm

HEMIS: Hundreds of thousands of monks, devotees and tourists have flocked to India's remote Ladakh region for a rare Buddhist festival, dubbed the "Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas" by promoters.

Dancers in bright, silk costumes and striking headgear performed to drum and pipe music as part of the festival being held in a mountain village to commemorate the 1,000th birth anniversary of Buddhist saint Naropa.

In this photograph taken on September 16, 2016, dancers perform during the Naropa festival, popularly known as the 'Kumbh Mela of the Himalaya', a Buddhist gathering that takes place once every twelve years at Hemis village in Leh. — AFP
In this photograph taken on September 16, 2016, dancers perform during the Naropa festival, popularly known as the 'Kumbh Mela of the Himalaya', a Buddhist gathering that takes place once every twelve years at Hemis village in Leh. — AFP

Performers gather at the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP
Performers gather at the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP

The Indian saint and scholar is heralded by followers for starting a rich tradition of Buddhist philosophy in the 11th century.

Held only once every 12 years, the Naropa Festival draws huge numbers of Buddhists, especially those from the Drukpa branch which is traditionally practised in Ladakh and Bhutan.

Among those in the crowd in Hemis village for the week-long festival was award-winning Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh.

Performers wait to dance during the Naropa festival. — AFP
Performers wait to dance during the Naropa festival. — AFP

The head of the Drukpa Lineage, Gyalwang Drupa, wearing sacred six-bone ornaments, gestures to media. — AFP
The head of the Drukpa Lineage, Gyalwang Drupa, wearing sacred six-bone ornaments, gestures to media. — AFP

India is renowned for its numerous religious festivals ─ including the main Kumbh Mela pilgrimage for Hindus held every 12 years ─ during which masses of devotees gather at sacred rivers and temples in often chaotic scenes and in searing temperatures.

In contrast, the Naropa Festival is being held in the tranquil Himalayan village that includes a palace and monastery, located some 45 kilometres from the region's main town of Leh.

Buddhist monks gathered at the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP
Buddhist monks gathered at the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP

Young Buddhist monks look on during the Naropa festival. — AFP
Young Buddhist monks look on during the Naropa festival. — AFP

A highlight of the week-long festival that started on Friday was the display of the sacred Six Bone Ornaments ─ believed to have belonged to Naropa ─ in an hours-long outdoor ceremony.

The Drukpa spiritual leader or the Gyalwang Drukpa unveiled the ornaments - which include a crown, earrings and a necklace - to scores of chanting maroon-robed monks and devotees seated under colourful umbrellas as prayers were performed.

A Buddhist devotee looks on during the Naropa festival. — AFP
A Buddhist devotee looks on during the Naropa festival. — AFP

Buddhist monks attend prayer during the Naropa festival. — AFP
Buddhist monks attend prayer during the Naropa festival. — AFP

"I come from south India. Now I came here to see this festival... there are many people (who) came by airplane and from south India and other countries," Sonam Phuntsok, a monk from India's southern city of Bangalore, told AFP.

"(It's a) very nice place here. And the weather is very good. Lots of people came here, I'm very happy."

a Buddhist monk walks through the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP
a Buddhist monk walks through the Naro palace during the Naropa festival. — AFP

Another highlight is the ceremonial unfurling of a huge silk tapestry of Tibet's patron saint Padmasambhava. The brocade, known in Tibetan as a thangka, was last exhibited in 2004.