Naropa Festival 2016 in Ladakh: The Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas

Naropa Festival 2016

A festival held once in 12 years, rich in tradition and history, steeped in religious mythology and beautiful rituals, and fervently attended by people from across the globe.

If this seems to be an apt description of the renowned Kumbh mela of India, you need to step beyond the river valleys of the country and head north to the Himalayas. Here, the barren cold desert of Ladakh seems to come alive during the Naropa festival held every 12 years. This unique festival commemorates the visit of Yogi Naropa to this land and celebrates his life and spiritual teachings.

Hemis to host Naropa Festival

Early this year, in January, the Drukpa Order announced that the Himalayan Buddhist festival, the Naropa Festival, will be held in July this year. The seat of the Drukpa Order, the largest monastery in Ladakh, the Hemis monastery, will host the festival this year.

The 17th century Hemis monastery (40 kilometres from Leh) had to postpone the celebrations to September due to a visit from the Dalai Lama in July. It is now scheduled to commence on 16 September, 2016. The month-long festival is said to be the largest Buddhist celebration anywhere in the world.

Kumbh of the Himalayas

This particular edition of the Naropa Festival – the fourth such celebration to be held in Ladakh, is believed to bear special significance. It coincides with the 1000th anniversary of Naropa’s arrival in this land, where he taught compassion and spiritual values. Apart from the leaders of the Drukpa Order, it is expected that about 200,000 visitors from across the world will attend the festival. Most of those who will attend are likely to be Buddhists from Ladakh and the rest of India, from Bhutan and Nepal.

During the Naropa Festival, the entire district of Ladakh breaks out in a riot of colours. Traditional music and dance performances keep the visitors busy all month long. Cultural plays depicting the lives of Buddha and other leaders of the Buddhist faith enthrall the audience. Professional masked dancers from across the Himalayan terrain are expected to arrive here and perform their act as a tribute to the yogi and saint.

The festival also attracts its share of celebrity interest. According to news reports, Robert Kennedy Jr and Michelle Yeoh are expected to attend the Naropa Festival this year. Some 200 nuns belonging to the Drukpa sect are expected to arrive on cycles to participate in a theatrical performance.

Along with song and dance routines, ritual prayers are offered with the blowing of conch shells and the sounding of gongs and drums. One of the highlights of the festival is the appearance of the 54-year-old reigning head of the Drukpa Order, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, decked in 6 bone ornaments. The head of the Drukpa is considered to be the reincarnation of Yogi Naropa himself and the six bone ornaments are symbolic of the six dharmas or yogas taught by Naropa.

It is believed that devotees who behold all these six bone ornaments are granted “liberation on sight”, that is, they are elevated to gain enlightenment (Chakrasamvara empowerment).

A gigantic silk brocade tapestry bearing the image of the celestial Buddha (Thangka of Buddha Amitabha) is also likely to be displayed. Not surprisingly the festival is gaining popularity as the “Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas”.

Yogi Naropa – Life and Spiritual Teachings

The Buddhist Yogi Naropa is believed to have lived between 1016 and 1100 AD and was a disciple of the Master Tilopa, who formulated the basic tenets of the Bka-Brgyud-pa school. Naropa was the master of Marpa and formulated the Six Yogas (Dharmas) of Naropa – a system of accelerated path to enlightenment.

Naropa was born into a royal Brahmin family of Bengal and was believed to be a kind but highly learned man. The erudite young man sought spiritual knowledge and dissolved his marriage in order to go after his quest. He entered the Nalanda University, a main centre of Buddhist studies and became an authority in both Tantra and Sutra. He became a renowned master of spiritual debate and went on to gather many followers.

Naropa’s quest to discover further meaning in Dharma, the teachings of Lord Buddha himself and his desire to find a quick path to enlightenment led him to the teacher Tilopa. Training under his teacher, Naropa underwent many hardships, but managed to master the Mahamudra or the ultimate realization. Naropa’s contemporary, Atisa is believed to have gone to Tibet to spread the teachings of Buddha, while Naropa himself visited many places including Ladakh.

Here, he meditated in the caves of Zanskar and Lamayuru. Naropa spent the last years of his life in a place called Phullahari (presently in the state of Bihar).

Naropa is regarded to be one of the 84 saints or adepts (Mahasiddhas) worshipped by the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. The Six Yogas of Naropa are some of the most important teachings of Vajrayana.

The Drukpa Lineage

The Drukpa Lineage, often referred to as the Dragon Lineage is one of the central schools of Buddhism as practiced in Tibet and the Himalayan region. It is a branch of the Kagyu school. The Drukpa branch is Buddhism is much revered and practiced in Ladakh. In Bhutan, the Drukpa Order is considered to be the state religion. The order has over a 1000 monasteries across the Himalayan mountains and is headed by the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader and master of the Buddhists in these parts. The name Drukpa or dragon comes from a legend in which the leader of the order, Tsangpa Gyare, saw nine dragons soar in the skies.

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