Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 4

On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.

In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.

Cham at Hemis Monastery: 1

Cham is a ritual dance in the tantric Buddhist tradition of the Himalayas. We were lucky that it was on at the Hemis monastery at the time we visited. I was well enough on the last day of the festival to struggle uphill to watch it. I have only shown you stills from the festival before, but a dance is movement, and stills do not capture it.

So here is a video that I stitched together from the snippets I took. I have called it the Dance of the Skeletons before, but I’m not sure that this was it. Maybe I should call it the Dance of the Eleven Masks. In the video I have been agnostic about the name. Being the first dance of the sequence, it is possibly about ritually cleaning the space for the next dances. You can see tourists busy taking photos and videos, but the locals sit still and watch it. Our driver for the day, Tsering, was happy to join the crowd. He later told us that it may be a dance for us, but it was prayer for him.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 3

A two-storeyed building runs around two sides of the inner courtyard of the Hemis Gompa. It is built in the traditional style. The supporting walls start as a sturdy wooden frame, and are then filled in with unfired clay blocks, plastered and painted. The roof rests on an elaborate carved wooden section which stands on this. The plastered panels contain paintings which tell stories.

These exposed panels probably weather fast at this altitude, with its high UV flux and annual extremes of temperature, and are probably repainted. I saw different panels are in different states of weathering. Even in a heavily weathered state, the iconography of Gautama Buddha in the panel on the right above is clear from the elongated ears. He is shown with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which indicates that he is shown teaching.

The Hemis gompa perhaps first became famous in the west after Nicholas Notovich, a Russian journalist, wrote a book in 1894 (titled La Vie inconnue de Jesus-Christ, The Hidden Life of Jesus Christ) claiming that he had visited this monastery in 1887 and studied two scrolls which gave an account of Jesus’ missing years. According to Notovich, the lost gospel was named “”Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men”, and described how Jesus spent time learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, before returning to Galilee. In complete disbelief, Max Mueller wrote to the chief Lama of the monastery, who wrote back saying that no foreigner had visited in 15 years. This was corroborated by J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who traveled to Hemis and spoke to the Lamas. Nevertheless, Notovich’s book sold very well, and went through eight impressions in one year.

Public religious art is always meant to instruct, and is an open book to those who grow up in the culture. When I see paintings of the Ramayana in south east Asia, I have no difficulty following the story, even though they seem to emphasize what are sometimes considered obscure bits of the epic in India. But when it comes to the stories of Vajrayana Buddhism I’m a little lost. The myth of the Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is unfamiliar to me, even if you start with the story that the Buddha predicted “After my parinirvana, after ten and two years, in the land of Udiyana, a man called Padmasambhava, will come who will be better than me.” The stories of the Guru preaching to Dakinis, purifying the Himalayas, and his return in his various lives are not stories I know well enough to follow the story told in these panels. However, panels of his receiving alms and flying to the mountains are recognizable.

The colours in these paintings may have faded but they remain extremely attractive. They are painted on a dry wall, but there are several layers to the colours. The underpainting serves to intensify the colour of the outer layer, an effect that is easily visible in the paintings one sees inside shrines. As the outermost layer weathers, its effect on the underpainting gives a wonderful luminosity which one does not see otherwise.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 2

On the walls of the main shrine inside the Hemis monastery are paintings in the usual Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist iconography. The first was a painting of the three powerful deities who helped Guru Padmasambhava to pacify the demons who were troubling the mountain kingdom. The most powerful of them was the central figure of the Yamantaka. I’m not an expert in this iconography, but I could tell him by the water buffalo which he rides (the buffalo seems to be somewhat weighed down by him). All these pictures are meant to educate, so they designed to be easy to interpret.

Detail of the painting of Yamantaka

The Yamantaka is often shown as devouring a snake, which denotes time. This is a symbol which emphasizes that he conquers time, and illustrates the meaning of his name, the conqueror of death (Yamantaka = Yama + antaka in Sanskrit). Here he holds a snake in two hands. Interestingly, he is the aggressive aspect of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of learning and wisdom. That’s a bit esoteric, but it is meant to show people how to conquer death.

Painting of Shridevi, known in Tibet as Palden Lhamo

I should have taken photos of all three of these deities, but I only have this other photo of the painting which shows the wrathful aspect of Palden Lhamo (whose name in Sanskrit is Shridevi). She has many aspects as a guardian diety, and again, one of her attributes is wisdom and learning. Hemis monastery belongs to the Red Hat school, so she is given a secondary role. In the Yellow Hat (Gelug) school she might have had the central role.

The skeleton dance

Rituals of dance are common across the world. But in each place its form and appearance is difference. The festival at the Hemis gompa, which celebrates the birth of the Guru Padmasambhava, was on for three days near the beginning of our visit to Ladakh. This festival has a long history, having been started by Gyalsras Rinpoche in the 18th century. I was excited about seeing the Cham dance. This is a Vajrayana ritual whose origin is said to be a dance performed by the Rinpoche Padmasambhava in order to rid the Himalayas of evil spirits. I could only think of visiting on the last day. The ceremony did not go by the clock. We reached at 11 in the morning, certain that we would catch only the end of the Cham dance. After a long wait we caught the beginning.

The first dance was supposed to be the dance of the Chitapati (although my identification is very shaky). In legends, these are the original members of Vajrakilaya Cham started by Padmasambhava when he established the first monastery at Samye in the 8th century. The masked dancers represent skeletons, which are supposed to remind us of the impermanence of all things: bodies as well as thought. The masks here are quite different from those I’ve seen further east, in Sikkim and Bhutan.

A part of the courtyard of the monastery had been fenced off for the ritual. Tourists had to pay for access to two sides of it. A very large fraction of tourists were foreigners; clearly this was a well-known festival. The other two sides were free to access. Locals had been thronging to the monastery for hours, and they had found either ringside places there, or found the best places further off. We had seats close to the musicians, and the strong beat set my feet tapping as we watched the energetic dance.

Artworks from Hemis monastery: 1

Hemis monastery is famous in Ladakh because of its collection of art work. I spent a lot of time at the festival which celebrates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, watching the Cham dance. As a result, I didn’t get to see the collection. I did see the main temple with its interesting copper statue of the Buddha and the lovely paintings that decorate the shrine. One example is the painting of the Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, which you see above. All these paintings are meant to instruct. They have no hidden meanings, only a language that you need to learn in order to “read” the painting.

Here are some “words” that I know. A green halo always denotes a spiritually powerful person. The long ears almost always belong to the Sakyamuni. Each hand position, a mudra, denotes the context. This one, the bhumisparsha mudra (right hand touching the ground), denotes the moment of enlightenment, the eyes open in wonder at what the mind has just grasped. Overhead is the chhatri, the umbrella which protects him. Around him are the lesser figures, their relative importance denoted by their sizes. Most prominent among these are two itinerant monks, with their staffs and begging bowls. Other powerful figures are also in attendance, you can see them with green and red halos. The latter denote worldly power. Finally note the smallest figures, the ones without halos, the ordinary people like us.

Across the hall from the Sakyamuni was a painting of White Tara. The roof of the shrine is constructed such that an opening illuminates Tara during the morning prayer. The camera saw everything else in deep shadow, and I had to work at recovering part of the image. Tara is a female Bodhisattva, a counterpart of the compassionate Avalokiteshwara (=Kanon, Guan-yin). Her role is to guide every person’s spiritual journey. She is shown seated in vajrasana. In each hand she holds a three part utpala flower, which represents the Buddhas of the past, future, and present eras. This picture dispenses with her extra eyes, representing wisdom, and a fully open lotus, representing compassion.

The paintings are immense, and with my hand-held camera the images were distorted. It takes a long time to work on each image and restore it to some semblance of reality. That is part of the reason why these paintings will make up a series on which I will work whenever I find time. The intricate painting above shows the wheel of life. At its center are the three poisons of the mind, ignorance, desire, and hatred, denoted by the cock, the bull, and the snake. Around it are the hells and heavens you make of your life according to your own actions. Notice the promise of redemption and change in each of them, represented by a figure of the Buddha in each compartment. All the world is in the grasp of Kala, time.

Below the painting of the Sakyamuni was a mandala, the container of an essence of thought. The drawing of each mandala proceeds from the bindu at the center, into the square which represents the human realm and into the outer circle which is a depiction of the rest. This one must have been drawn before the festival began, at the center of the mandala is the lotus of compassion.

Monks in red hats

… in the world sometimes there is no plausibility at all”

― Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, The Nose

Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk, was invited to Tibet by the king to drive away demons that infested his kingdom, the story goes. He killed many, in very gory ways that the old stories describe in great detail. Then finally he made a ball of dough, enclosed it in great circles of chalk, and danced. That dance attracted the remaining demons, who came and sat in the ball. He danced closer and closer, and finally set fire to the dough, to rid the kingdom of the last demons. Whether you know about this legendary origin of the Cham dance of the Himalayas or not, you probably know that Buddhist monks are traditionally regarded as guardians of the people. Like the monk whom you see in the featured photo, I thought. But then I realized that he was playing a role, waiting for his cue to join the Cham dance in front of him. Dali said “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Isn’t it a culturally truer vision to take that photo out of context and see the monk there in his role as a metaphysically heroic protector of people? In which case the photo is surreal.

I certainly didn’t think that I would see one monk on a balcony overlooking the festival, eagerly scanning the scene below for a good photo. That’s what tourists do! And he has a rather good phone with him. Not like my less-than-Nothing Phone. Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, which spread across the Himalayas and crossed over to China and Mongolia during the expansionist phase of Tibet, contains four main schools of thought. The Dalai Lama belongs to the Yellow Hat, or Gelug, school, the one that was carried to large parts of North Asia during the Mongol ascendancy. The other three schools are collectively known as the Red Hats. As you can see, the monks in this monastery wear Red Hats.

This was the first day in the mountains when I was up and about. Sitting and watching a monastery festival had seemed like a good idea when we started from the hotel. In my eagerness to be up and about, I’d completely forgotten that Buddhist monasteries are at the top of a hill. Since it was crowded, we had to get off the car halfway up and climb on foot. I was a bit tired after that and dozed off in my ringside seat. When I woke up I thought I’d been hauled to an ecclesiastic court and this panel of judges was listening to the prosecution. The Family saw that I was awake and handed me a bottle of water. What a relief!

The Taoist monk Zuangzi is said to have woken from sleep to say “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” When I looked around and saw these young novices at the edge of the ring, one wearing the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the Occupy Movement of a decade ago, I had the same disconcerting thought. It did not help that the face on the mask is only a little different from that of Salvador Dali, and with that change the colour scheme looks a little like the famous Spanish TV serial La Casa de Papel, more well-known in the Anglophone world by the name Money Heist.

On my laboured climb up the path I’d seen a couple of young novices playing with toy guns. I’d paused to take photos, thinking of how incongruous it seems. But I realize that I had been misled by the Dalai Lama and his constant messaging of peace and understanding. He is trying hard to keep the hotheads in exile with him working at a long-term solution to the political problem that their exile in India poses. But the story of Padmasambhava, and the history of Bhutan, tells us what he is working against. Buddhism believes in people trying to improve themselves through cycles of rebirth. In that system of belief, these youngsters might have to go through another cycle to purge these violent games from their souls.