The thing about the monasteries in Ladakh is that not only are they religiously important, but they are also one of the most visited tourist destinations here. A trip to Ladakh is incomplete unless you have visited its great and magnificent monasteries. These ancient, hundreds-of-year-old structures attract a fair share of visitors each year. Some people even keep a day on their itineraries for the “monastery tour” in and around Leh. Even if you are unable to do so and cover many of them, we still strongly recommend that you visit at least one monastery during your trip. That way you would have visited and paid respect in a religious place; and get an important insight into the lives of the people of Ladakh. One monastery I will discuss in this article is the beautiful Ladakh Hemis Monastery.
This article is the second in a series, in which I discussed in detail the local tourist attractions of Ladakh. The first article talked about Gurudwara Pathar Sahib and how you can plan a trip there; from the city or traveling to or from Srinagar.
Hemis Monastery is located about 40 kilometers from the city of Leh and at an elevation of 3,524 meters (11,562 feet). It was restored in 1672 by King Ladakhi, Sengge Namgyal, but it existed before the 11th century. The monastery has a very interesting history and also a controversial theory related to it. It is ranked as one of the richest monasteries, not only in Ladakh, but throughout India.
History of Hemis Monastery
Naropa, a student of Yogi Tilopa and teacher of the Marpa translator, is said to have laid the foundations of this monastery in ancient times. Naropa is also considered the founding father of the Kagyu lineage of Himalayan esoteric Buddhism, which makes Hemis the main seat of the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism. Hemis has over 200 branch monasteries in the Himalayas and over 1000 monks under his care.
In the 19th century, the monastery of Hemis faced a siege by General Zorawar Singh. It was only because the lama leader at that time was able to negotiate and deal with the situation with skill, because of which the monastery and his monks were saved from the invasion. Hemis is believed to be the only monastery in Ladakh that has never been looted. In the year 1956, the main mud of this monastery mysteriously disappeared without a trace. He was never found or seen again by anyone. After his disappearance, a 12-year-old boy was brought from Dalhousie and appointed as the Main Lama.
The Hemis Monastery has been under the patronage of the Ladakh Royal Family since it was restored in the 17th century. It is the seat of the Red Hat Drukpa order and all monasteries in Ladakh are administered from here. It is also the place where young lamas train for the royal monasteries of Leh, Shey and Basgo.
Hemis and Jesus Monastery
There is also another legend related to the Hemis Monastery, which is now widely considered a scam. In the year 1894, a certain Russian journalist named Nicolas Notovitch claimed Hemis as the origin of an unknown gospel, the “Life of Saint Issa, the Best of the Children of Men.” Isaa is another name of Jesus Christ and in this gospel it is said that Jesus traveled to India during his ‘lost years’; the period of Jesus’ life between his childhood and the beginning of his ministry.
Notovitch said the work had been preserved in the Hemis library and was shown to him by the monks as he recovered here after a fractured leg. This story is said to be false, with Notovitch confessing in his adult life that he fabricated the evidence.
Hemis Monastery Location
The Hemis Monastery is located 40 kilometers south of the city of Leh, just off the Indus road near Karu.
How to get to Hemis Monastery
To reach Leh’s Hemis Monastery, you will need to travel towards the small town of Karu on Manali Leh Highway. In Karu, you will come to a junction where the road on the left will take you to Pangong and the right on the way to Hemis Monastery. Ask locals if you were unsure of the detour and someone can point you in the right direction. You will have to cross the Indus River and travel about 7 km from Karu to reach the monastery.
When traveling from Leh to Karu, there are also other places where you can cross the river and get right to get to Hemis. My recommendation would be, however, that you stay on Manali Leh Road to Karu and then turn right. The road on this route is better and a little shorter too.
Bus from Leh to Hemis Monastery
There is a bus that travels from Leh to Martselang village; and passes by Changa and Hemis. This bus leaves Leh at 8:30 am and arrives at Martselang at 9:30 am. For the return trip, this bus leaves Martsellang at 4:30 pm and arrives at Leh at 5:30 pm via Changa and Hemis. If this time is appropriate, you can travel by this bus. Otherwise, you will have to rent a private taxi, motorcycle or an automatic bike like Leh’s Scooty. Another great option would be just hitchhiking, which you definitely can during the tourist season.
Altitude of Monastery
The Hemis Monastery is located at an elevation of 3,500 meters (11,482 feet).
Is a permit required to visit Hemis Monastery?
No, you do not need to get a permit to visit the monastery. You can get there, buy the ticket and get in. In fact, internal line permission is not required to visit anywhere in Leh city. It is only necessary when you travel from Leh to other areas of Ladakh like Nubra or Pangong.
Times of Hemis Monastery
Visiting hours of the Hemis Monastery and Museum for tourists are from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. The Monastery remains closed from 13:00 to 14:00 and you can visit here every 7 days of the week. It is open even on all holidays.
Entrance fee to Hemis Monastery
The registration fee for the Hemis Monastery is Rs. 50 per person, which is actually slightly higher compared to other monasteries. It is said that the entrance fee and admission are for the museum only, but you will have to buy it even if you do not want to go to the museum and visit only the monastery.
Once inside the monastery, you will immediately know why it is claimed as the richest monastery in India. It houses some golden statues and Stupas decorated with gems, which are its biggest tourist attraction. It also has a large collection of Thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist cotton painting, silk appliqués, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala). There is a Thangka here that is considered the largest in existence and displayed only once every 12 years.
The Hemis Monastery is divided into two sections. The meeting room is known as Dukhang and the temple is known as Tshogkgang. The ticket you will receive will have a small map of the monastery printed to help you navigate your way.
The main assembly hall is marked 1 on the ticket map. This hall is called Dukhang Chenmo and houses an idol of a fierce protector named Gyalpo; believed to look over the entire Hemis Monastery. This idol represents the highest and most powerful form of Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism. The second meeting room, called Dukhang Barpa, is marked number 2 on the note and has the idol of a peaceful golden Buddha. On the upper floor of the monastery there is also a huge statue of Guru Padmasambhava; Also known as Guru Rinpoche.
There are several other small temples on the monastery premises and will be marked on the ticket itself. While you are here, I strongly recommend that you visit them all. Before leaving the monastery, climb to the roof and enjoy incredible views of the surrounding area. You will also see a statue of Lord Buddha mounted on the hilltop of Hemis.
Hemis Monastery Museum
The Hemis Monastery also has a museum that has a reputation for being as rich as the monastery itself. The museum will be on your left as you climb the stairs and enter the monastery. It houses a large collection of historical Buddhist Thangkas, weapons, artifacts and carriers. There is also a library here that has an impressive and massive collection of Tibetan books, manuscripts and relics. On the museum’s ground floor there is a small shop that sells various souvenirs, such as items; like books, T-shirts, trinkets and Ladakh magnets. Photography is strictly prohibited within the museum.
There is another sacred hermitage a little farther from Hemis, founded by Gyalwa Kotsang. It is a pleasant 3 km walk on the mountain side above the monastery. Here, inside a cave, you will find the footprints and handprints of Gyalwa Kotsang on the sacred rocks and shrines. Many Ladakhi people visit here to pay respect.
Hemis Monastery Festival
The Hemis Festival celebrates the life of Lord Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), whose life mission is said to be to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings. It is celebrated on the birthday of Guru Rinpoche, who curiously falls only once every 12 years. The festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the monastery’s main door. Several musicians play traditional music with four pairs of cymbals, large drums, small trumpets and oversized wind instruments. The festival is marked with the mystical mask dances by the lamas; referred to as “Performance chams”.
The festival and rituals start early in the morning to the sound of drums, cymbals and pipes. The portrait of “Dadmokarpo” or “Rygyalsras Rinpoche” is ceremoniously displayed for people to admire and worship. The mud mask dances of Hemis Monastery are performed and the festival concludes with a sacrificial offering on the second day. During the sacrifice, a sculpture made of mass and representing the powers of evil is destroyed by the chief of the Black Hat dancers as a depiction of warding off evil spirits. The broken pieces of the sculpture are thrown in four different directions. The incredibly vibrant silk costumes worn by the Lamas while dancing along with long horns and musical drums during their performances are a feast for the eyes.
Hemis Festival Dates
The Hemis festival is celebrated in July and the date changes every year. For the year 2019, it will be celebrated on July 11 and 12. For the year 2020, it will be celebrated on June 30 and July 1.
Hotels Hemis Monastery
The monastery has the option of overnight for tourists. Please note that the accommodations here are very basic, so take a look before you decide to check in. Don’t expect a luxury hotel to stay and for some people it may even be a little uncomfortable. If you still want to spend the night here, you can ask about it at the museum inside the monastery. If for some reason you can’t find a place to stay in the monastery, look for a hotel or hostel in Karu.
Hemis Guest House Monastery
The option of staying at the Monastery is known as Hemis Monastery Guest House. The building is separate from the monastery, so you are not in the monastery, but in a guest house run by the monastery. There are a total of 4 floors in the building and the rooms are not so well maintained.
The worst part, however, are the bathrooms. Each floor has only one bathroom and all its occupants share it. Pay attention to my warning, before you decide to stay in the guest, check the bathroom. In fact, check the bathroom first and then the bedroom. Chances are that his own view of the bathroom would change his mind about staying here. Rooms and bedding will be clean.
The stay rate at Hemis Monastery is Rs. 900 per room. This fare is increased to Rs. 1800 per room during the Hemis Festival. Another important thing to know is that the monastery guest house has no kitchen; so if you stay here you will have to eat out.
If you were already thinking that Ladakh is a little too cold for you, you should give up the idea of staying in the monastery. The temperature here is a little colder than the city of Leh and, given the condition of the room and the blankets, you will not be as comfortable and warm here as in another commercial hotel.
Where to eat
There is a small restaurant or pantry in the monastery, where refreshments such as tea and cookies are served. For proper meals, however, you will have to leave the monastery and eat in the restaurants near it. For a better menu, you can go to Karu and dine there.
Best time to visit Hemis Monastery
The best time to visit Hemis Monastery would be around the dates of the Hemis Festival; which can be in June or July. That way you can see the whole monastery decorated for the big celebrations to come. If you cannot visit the Hemis Festival, then it is the right time. The road from Leh to Hemis opens year round, including winter. So the only thing you have to worry about is when you can visit Ladakh. But regardless of the month you visit here, the Hemis Monastery will always be a delightful experience.
Mobile connectivity at Hemis Monastery
Only BSNL and Airtel have coverage at Hemis. All other phones will be off-network here. Also for BSNL and Airtel, you must have a postpaid connection to stay in service. Prepaid phones do not work here or anywhere in Ladakh.
How to plan a visit to Hemis Monastery
There are two ways to visit Hemis. The first is that you keep a day just visiting the local attractions in and around Leh; including Leh Palace, Shanti Stoopa, Hemis Monastery, Magnetic Hill and Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. Another way would be to take a short detour from Karu, heading for or returning from Pangong Lake. Most people opt for the second option.
- Photography is allowed inside the monastery but not allowed in the museum.
- There are lockers available to deposit your cameras and phones while visiting the museum.
- Restrooms are available near the monastery.
- You can also cover other monasteries like Shey, Thiksey and Stok while visiting Hemis.
- Opening hours: 06:00 AM
- Closing Time: 8:00 pm
- Open daily
- Closed on public or national holidays: No
- Application Fee: Rs. 50 per person
- Required Permissions: No