Thanks to its famous festival – one of the few held in summer, when the passes are open – HEMIS, 45km southeast of Leh, is visited in greater numbers than any other gompa in Ladakh. Every year in mid-July, hundreds of foreigners join the huge crowds of locals, dressed in their finest traditional garb, which flock to watch the colourful two-day pageant. However, at other times, the rambling and atmospheric seventeenth-century monastery can be disappointingly quiet. Although it’s one of the region’s foremost religious institutions, only a skeleton staff of monks and novices are resident off-season.
The main entrance opens onto the large rectangular courtyard where the festival chaam dances are performed. Accompanied by cymbal crashes, drum rolls and periodic blasts from the temple trumpets, the culmination of the event on the second day is a frenzied dismemberment of a dummy, symbolizing the destruction of the human ego, and thus the triumph of Buddhism over ignorance and evil. Once every twelve years, the Hemis festival also hosts the ritual unrolling of a giant thangka. The gompa’s prize possession, which covers the entire facade of the building, it was embroidered by women whose hands are now revered as holy relics. Decorated with pearls and precious stones, it was last displayed in 2004. There is a museum in the corner of the courtyard but the modest collection of thangkas, masks and musical instruments barely justifies the inflated fee.