Naropa 2016: A Himalayan Odyssey

Naropa 2016:
A Himalayan Odyssey

Naropa is a festival that comes once in 12 years in Ladakh, the land of the lamas. This year was particularly special.

Once in a Dozen Years

Shitanshu TyagiShitanshu | CNN-News18 @shitanshutyagi

Published: October 5, 2016

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STRIKING BLUE skies with fluffy white clouds floating about in tranquility appearing to be almost meditating amidst the chants of Om Mane Padme Hum.

Ladakh, the land of the lamas, was celebrating a festival that comes once in 12 years. Naropa 2016 was an amalgam of spirituality, festivity, dance and music.

The short flight gets you to one of the highest commercial airports in the world, the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh. And if you manage a window seat - it is a pure joy ride. The rolling clouds, the snow-caps and views of monasteries tucked away in the mountains, transforms you into a curious child peering out of a small window wondering at the magical world below.

  • Himalayas

    The Himalayas as seen from inside the aeroplane (Photo: Shitanshu)

I was welcomed with a white traditional Khadask by the local youth volunteering for the festival. Many of them returning from the metros for the Naropa festival -- girls and young men dressed in the traditional 'gonchas'.

  • Himalayas

    On arrival at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, Leh

Naropa 2016

(September 16 to September 22, 2016)

It is called the 'Kumbh of the Himalayas' and for good reason. Tens of thousands of locals and travellers had gathered at venue at the foothills of the Hemis Monastery. Prayer wheels spinning away in some hands, while some holding umbrellas shielding them from the piercing sun. We were, after all, more than 11,500 feet above the sea level.

Standing proud, against the backdrop of the stark mountains was the centrepiece of the celebration -- the Naro Palace. The stupa in white, gold, blue and orange, before which sat monks, nuns, practitioners, believers and even skeptics (there to witness the grandeur and the spectacle).

The inaugural day was especially charged with energy. The conch shells and drums announced the arrival of a moment that the people of Ladakh had been waiting for, for 12 long years. The Naropa festival was even more special this time as it marked the 1000th anniversary of Naropa's visit to the sacred land.

Who was Naropa?

Naropa was an Indian scholar -- a yogi, mystic and monk, in the 11th century who heralded the beginning of a rich tradition in Buddhist philosophy.

He was born a Brahmin but from an early age showed an independent streak, hoping to follow a career of study and meditation. Succumbing to his parents' wishes, he agreed to an arranged marriage with a young brahmin girl. After 8 years they both agreed to dissolve their marriage and become ordained.

At the age of 28, Naropa entered the famous Buddhist University at Nalanda where he studied both Sutra and Tantra. He gained a reputation as a great scholar and faultless debater, essential at that time as the tradition of debate was such that the loser automatically became a disciple of the winner. He eventually gained the title 'Gatekeeper of the North', engaged in many debates, taught and won many students.

  • Durga idol

    A mural of Naropa

Six Bone Ornaments

The Six Bone Ornaments were worn by His Holiness, the Gyalwang Drukpa, as he sat on the golden leaf throne and amidst chanting and the beating of the larna. These were later put for display at the Naro Palace for endless lines of visitors.

It is said that when Naropa attained enlightenment, he was given the Six Bone Ornaments by Dakinis (Tantric priestess of ancient India who "carried the souls of the dead to the sky"). Today, these ornaments are one of the most revered relics of Buddhism.

Many believe the Six Bone ornaments are so blessed that they are manifestations of deities. By merely seeing them, or by being in their presence one will be blessed. A look at these ornaments, it is said, can ensure a favourable rebirth.

The celebrations

From then on it was a big celebration. From a sea of monks, Khadaks came hopping up to the front and the mischievous young monks made quite a game of it.

It was then time for the cultural performances and I found myself surrounded with dancers in traditional Ladakhi attire. Some of them even gave me a short course in dancing.

The Ladakhi dance was as beautiful as expected -- a hundred smiling faces, singing and moving in rhythm of the drums. But there were even more colours in the festival.

  • Dragon dancers (Photo: Shitanshu)

  • Dancers from Nepal (Photo: Shitanshu)

  • Traditional dance by Kung Fu Nuns (Photo: Shitanshu)

  • Ladakhi music band (Photo: Shitanshu)

  • Young local musicians (Photo: Shitanshu)

The rockstar monk on a mission

I am happy being a rockstar, if people can follow my work like they do of rockstars.

— Gyalwang Drukpa

The Gyalwang Drukpa is regarded as the reincarnation of Naropa and he works in the fields of environment, sustainable development and gender equality. I got a chance to sit with him with a few questions that I had in mind.

In my interaction with the youngsters earlier, they had called him a 'Rockstar' monk -- a man believing in practicing what he was preaching. So when Gyalwang Drukpa wants locals to save the Himalayas, he actually goes out on a padyatra collecting plastic waste in the treacherous terrains. "I am happy being a rockstar, if people can follow my work like they do of rockstars".

Religion, he says divides. When asked, what is it that he practices then? He smiled and said "cycling" and laughed a hearty laugh.

The Kung Fu Nuns

They are called the Kung Fu nuns, but when you see them in action, there is no doubt in your mind that they are the real Kung Fu warriors. These women of the Druk Amitabha Mountain nunnery are breaking stereotypes in every punch and kick. On the second day of the festival, these women impressed the audience with their on stage heroics.

The night brought with it sparkling stars and a bright full moon peeked out from behind the Naro Palace -- the place was packed full each night for the Bollywood performances. Entertainers such as KK, Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Shreya Ghoshal, Neeti Mohan, Shakti Mohan and Terence Lewis performed at the festival.

The festival wasn't devoid of Hollywood glamour as well. I caught up with international actor Michelle Yeoh who is the Global Ambassador for Live to Love -- an organisation founded by Gyalwand Drukpa.

If you were lucky like me, you were a part of the Naropa 2016. But if missed it, you can catch it the next time. 12 years later.

(Video: Shitanshu; Video Editing: Nitin Sharma; Produced by Soumyadip Choudhury)

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