At 11,562 ft above sea level, a duff pair of lungs gasps for breath. It requires pails of oxygen. Not squawks of instructions. But at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, warnings arrive before the bags tumble on to the carousel. Rest for at least 24 hours. Do not step out for sight-seeing. Do not sleep during the day. You might get disoriented. If you get a nose bleed, headache or feel nauseous, see a doctor. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
I had landed in the world’s 22nd highest airport for the five-day Naropa Festival with piety packed in my heart. But it was panic that I stumbled upon first. Fatigued travellers were debating over dos and don’ts, rattling off names of medicines in their pouch — one with a guffaw confessing that he is carrying an entire ‘pharmacy’. “You never know… ICE. In case of emergency.” I heard him unfold an abbreviation nervously, fetch his bags and hurry out in the cold desert.
My mind stepped back 1,000 years. No, I was not disoriented. I was thinking of a young boy called Naropa (1016–1041), who later became the Keeper of the North Gate of Nalanda University, attained enlightenment and structured the Six Yogas which now form an essential part of Vajrayana Buddhism. Considered one of the 84 mahasiddhas of Vajrayana, there’s the lore of the day when Naropa attained enlightenment – dakinis gifted Six Bone Ornaments to Naropa and flew into the sky.
It was the Six Bone relic that had lured me to the 2018 Naropa Festival in Leh. The road to Hemis Monastery was rutted, the poplars tall and the terrain desolate. Army personnel in camouflage were many, so were Royal Enfields and monks in maroon. On the way lay the Rancho School (the one featured in Hindi film 3 Idiots) and a million posters of the festival pasted with faces of singers Kailash Kher, Sonu Nigam and Swaransh Mishra. I sped past familiar faces, ancient monasteries, the gurgling Indus, and bustling villages to the 17th century Hemis.
The crowd was milling around the main venue of the festival, often called the ‘Kumbh of the Himalayas’. But this was not the big Naropa, the one held every 12 years. This was the first time the festival had broken the 12-year routine and was being held two years after the mega festival of 2016.
Sitting on a red rug, I waited for the relics that included anklets, bangles, crown, earrings, necklace and seralkha. Devotees believe that the mere sight of these ornaments would confer blessings so great that the doors to the three lower realms — animal, hungry ghost, and hell — are closed. I was not looking for salvation or the doors of the lower realms to close. I sat there without beseeching the Naropa for anything. Except blessings for the entire world.
When the palanquin with marigold yellow satin umbrella drew closer and the sound of the cymbals hit a crescendo, I was caught in the melee. In a sea of humans. Young monks stood with murmurs of prayers on their lips. A man in fake Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses ambled with a prayer wheel in hand. A little girl in pink fleece scurried by, whooping at the sight of the palanquin. The more pious sat there solemnly in belief that the Naropa will bless them. However far they are from him.
I sat on the red carpet with the curious, the onlooker, the pious and the agnostic. The air was redolent with the whiff of incense, the sky resonating with the sound of oboe, drums, trumpets and cymbals. Entry to the sanctum was restricted and photography strictly prohibited. Stern securitymen were ushering the crowd and there was not a moment extra to gaze at the ornaments. I got a glimpse. That is all.
There was more to the day. Traditional dances, spiritual discourses, official launch of the Naropa Fellowship, release of Ladakh’s first EDM CD and lunch in a large tent with the snow-capped mountains staring at my bowl of rice and vegetables. The shops were laden with local handicraft and women in intricate jewellery were pouring yak-milk salted tea from gigantic flasks.
His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, the 12th reincarnation of Naropa and the current head of the Drukpa lineage, was not present. But I sat at the feet of His Eminence Thuksey Rinpoche as he talked of compassion, the need to save the environment, and the no-littering, no-plastic initiative of the Buddhist order. On way back to the hotel, I stepped into the Stray Animal Rescue and Management Centre founded by His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, where injured and abandoned dogs, camels, donkeys, horses, poultry are looked after. In the cold desert, compassion has found home.
Another day, another bumpy ride to the Hemis to look at the Thangka of the Buddha Amitabha. One of the largest thangkas in the world, the 60 ft silk embroidered brocade of the Buddha Amitabha was unfurled on Day 2 of the Naropa festival. Perched on a metal scaffolding, the Thangka was open for public viewing between 8 am and noon for four days.
As I hurried up the steps of the main monastery of Hemis, a snow flurry descended from the blue sky. Science would call it a light snowfall that results in little or no snow accumulation. At Hemis, I believed the snow flurry was a benediction of the Naropa. Perhaps he closed the doors of the three lower realms for me. Perhaps he blessed the entire world.
I sought no shelter from the snow. At the Naropa Festival, I let the snow flurry dress me in white.
Pictures by Preeti Verma Lal
What to eat
Thukpa : A noodle soup with boiled vegetables, chunks of chicken, pork, beef or mutton
Tigmo : A vegetable or meat stew with fermented bread placed in it
Khambir : Thick bread
Mokthuk : Essentially, momos in soup
Skyu: Stew with thumb-sized wheat balls cooked with meat/vegetables
Chaang : Local fermented brew
Chupri : Cheese made of yak’s milk