The Naropa Festival is said to be one of the biggest Buddhist festivals in the world. It was held at the Hemis Monastery near Leh in Ladakh this year from 16-20th September. The festival celebrates the life and teachings of the 11th-century philosopher and teacher Naropa.

Set against the backdrop of the stunning snow-capped Himalayas, the Naropa Festival is usually held every twelve years. However, in recent years a smaller festival has been held annually to better promote tourism. The tradition of twelve years will still remain, with grander festivities taking place every twelfth year (the next will be in 2028).

Hemis Gompa Ladakh Naropa Festival
The Hemis Monastery in Ladakh is the centre of the Drukpa Lineage

The festival is an important Buddhist occasion, and sees Rinpoches from many lineages, along with representatives and dignitaries from numerous countries, arrive to pay their respects. Hemis Monastery, where the festival takes place, is located near Leh and is one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh. The monastery, and Drukpa monks who live there are also known for their annual celebration of the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava.

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Who Was Naropa?

The saint Naropa was an 11th-century scholar who is said to have been born in modern-day Bengal. He served as the chancellor at the famous Nalanda University, before moving to the Himalayan kingdoms to propagate the teachings of Buddha.

Naro Photang
The commemorative Naro Photang stupa where the festivities were held (Image by Naropa Festival)

Naropa’s guru, Tilopa, is said to have given him 12 tests of hardship, and upon completing them, he attained enlightenment. He was then presented with Six Bone Ornaments by the ‘Dakinis’ (a crown, necklace, earrings, bracelets, seralkha and apron). Naropa believed that these sacred ornaments would always remain in his lineage.

He heralded the beginning of a rich tradition in Buddhist philosophy, shaping the cultures and identities of many. His teachings, the Six Yogas of Naropa, have also become fundamental pillars of the Himalayan Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.

The present Gyalwang Drukpa (head of the Buddhist Drukpa Lineage) is the twelfth incarnation. Every 12 years he wears the six bone ornaments to celebrate the festival and the connection to Naropa. However, this year, as in other ‘ordinary’ festival years, only one of the relics – the crown – was on display.

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The Naropa Festival And What Happened There

Naropa Festival Holy Relics
Holy Relics of Naropa being brought to Naro Photang

The Naropa Festival 2018 took place over five days, celebrating the spirituality, heritage, and culture of the region. While connected to the Hemis Monastery, much of the festivities actually take place at the Naropa Stupa (also called Naro Photang) that was built in 2016. In 2018, the festival coincided with the announcement of the Naropa Fellowship, which is meant to empower the youth of the Himalayan region.

With the sound of traditional drums echoing across the mountainside, the grand opening of the festival began with the arrival of the relics from Hemis Monastery. These rarely-seen holy artefacts were on display for all five days of the festival, drawing large crowds of tourists, devotees, and pilgrims. This was enhanced by a spectacular display of cultural events including dances and music, as well as prayers led by His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche.

Naropa Festival Thangka
The unfurling of a sacred thangka at the Naropa Festival

The highlight of the second day was the unfurling of a sacred thangka; the largest silk embroidered brocade of Buddha Amitabha which stands at 70 feet tall. In stunning and vibrant colours, it tells the story of Guru Padmasambhava. He was an 8th-century guru who also worked to spread Buddhism across the Himalayas.

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Cultural Displays and Dances Enhanced the Festival

An archery competition, fashion shows, and concert performances by both various artists followed each these enthralling ceremonies. Among these were a traditional dance by the students of the Naropa Fellowship Program, and a choreographed “Dharma Dance” by the famous “Kung Fu Nuns” of the Drukpa lineage.

Performance by Kung-fu Nuns Naropa Festival
Performance by the Kung-fu Nuns at the Naropa Festival

As darkness fell each day, a very different form of entertainment began, with popular Bollywood artists regaling the crowds with their music. Headlining were singers Sonu Nigam, Kailash Kher, Papon, Aditi Singh Sharma and Akriti Kakar. They performed to excited audiences at one of the highest altitude concert venues in the world.

The magnificent festival concluded with a traditional dance (“Shondol”) by two hundred ninety-nine Ladakhi women. It also created a new Guinness World Record for Ladakh, earning the title of “Largest Ladakhi Dance.”

Akriti Kakar performing at Naropa Festival
Akriti Kakar performing at the Naropa Festival

The Naropa Festival is planned to take place each September, and has been called the “Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas”. So, if you’re planning to visit Ladakh during this period, make sure to stop at this thrilling display of culture and spirituality. In the meantime, you can also read about why you should visit Ladakh.


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