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Every 12 years, the most important pilgrimage of the entire Himalayan region is held at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh to celebrate the life of the 11th century Buddhist sage Naropa. The Naropa Festival, which will take place during the entire month of July this year, brings tourists from around the world to the monastery according to a news report last week.

Mahasiddha Naropa

Mahasiddha Naropa (Source unknown, in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Naropa lived in northern India in what is now Bihar state and became a celebrated scholar. He was associated with the Nalanda University where legends say he interviewed applicants for admission to the ancient institution. He traveled to Ladakh, also according to legends, one thousand years ago and meditated there in caves.

The festival this year will be an especially grand celebration, an extended version of the annual Hemis festival. Hemis, located 20 miles south of Leh, is the largest and most famous monastery in Ladakh. The festivals held there attract many tourists every summer. The lamas put on ancient masks to become gods, devils, or demons for the day. They dance to the rhythmic music produced by drums, gongs, pipes, and horns.

Masked lamas at the Hemis Festival, July 2014

Masked lamas at the Hemis Festival, July 2014 (Photo by Amiya on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One of the features of the festival will be that His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Order, will display the sacred Six Bone Ornaments that belonged to Naropa. Also this year, a statue of Naropa will be dedicated and consecrated.

Another feature of the Naropa Festival will be the unfurling of a huge silk thangka, an ancient embroidery that is several stories high. It depicts another saintly figure of the Drukpa Order, Guru Padmasambhava. That ceremony was scheduled for July 14. The tapestry is only displayed to the public every 12 years at the Naropa festivals.

Gyalwang Drukpa received the Millennium Development Goals Award from the United Nations in 2010

Gyalwang Drukpa receiving the Millennium Development Goals Award from the United Nations in 2010 (Photo by Drukpa Publications Pvt, Ltd in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

According to the news report, the Drukpas are well known in India for their practice of channeling compassion into action. Gyalwang Drukpa has received the Millennium Development Goals Award from the United Nations and the Green Hero Award from India for his work. He champions sustainable development and gender equality.

Another figure in the Drukpa hierarchy, Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, argues that the festival shows that the ancient traditions are still relevant today, not just for Buddhists but for all people. He points out that while the festivals promote tourism, they also promote the cultural heritage of the Ladakhi people. He suggests that the festivals at Hemis are really “a great way for local people to celebrate and bond among themselves as well as connect with those who show interest in knowing and understanding them…”

The Naropa 2016 website indicates that about 1.5 million visitors were expected for the festival this year. The crowds that do not stay in local hotels and homestays will be able to camp out in a 300 acre field that the monastery has purchased for the celebrations.