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The Masks of Hemis

The Masks
of HemisNew Delhi, The Economic Times, New Delhi, Saturday FeatureDownload PDF version - Nestled high up in the mountains southwest of Leh is the Hemis monastery, a 17th century gompa that has acquired preeminence as the largest monastery in Ladakh and the seat of the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism.

The Masks
of HemisIts large central courtyard plays host each year to the charming Hemis festival, a colourful celebration that marks the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, an 8th century monk who was born in the Swat Valley in contemporary Pakistan and spread Vajrayana Buddhism as far as Tibet and Bhutan.

The festival is famous for its mask dance and other rituals monks perform, adorned in costumes that can be as old as 300 years.

Kyabje Thuksey Rinpoche, the 24-year-old monk who is one of the two Rinpoches widely regarded as next in line to head the influential Drukpa sect, presided over the festival this year with grace and good cheer. The monk later told journalists that the government should do more to support the rich heritage of the monastery. As an example of the wealth of heritage the monastery held, the young Rinpoche said that the secret library of the monastery is believed to be in possession of documents with the handwriting of Jesus Christ.

It is unclear if the monk is aware of the history, but the Hemis monastery was dragged into the centre of a hoax in 1887, when a Russian journalist claimed that he had been shown a lost gospel of Jesus Christ by the monks of the Hemis monastery. Max Muller, the German scholar, then corresponded with the head lama of the monastery and the monk wrote back saying no western visitor had been to the monastery in 15 years and they held no documents that relate to the story put out by the Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovich. While mainstream scholars have denied any evidence of Jesus Christ having lived in Kashmir, a slew of popular works continue to claim that he had either visited or lived in Kashmir


Tourist arrival in Ladakh

Not so long ago, tourism in Ladakh used to be predominantly international. The massive success of the Bollywood film Three Idiots, shot partly in this beautiful cold desert, has led to a surge in number of domestic tourists, reports Sruthijith KK

On a sunny morning this week near the Chang La pass, a long queue of vehicles patiently awaited their turn perched on a narrow strip of icy road with a vertical drop of several hundred feet on one side and steep hills with boulders and loose snow that could, on the slightest geological provocation, avalanche down on you, on the other.

At 17,586 feet, Chang La is one of the highest roads on the planet. The air is thin and most people heave to breathe. Those who are not acclimatised can get acute mountain sick- ness. This morning, it had snowed. When a vehicle or two passes over fresh snow, it is pressed together to form a sheet of slippery ice over which thick rubber tyres of the next vehicle can skid fatally. Every time a vehicle is thus stuck, workers of the Border Roads Organisation come by and shovel the snow off the tracks to allow the vehicle to pass. It’s a laborious task. Progress is slow. Bright snow on lofty peaks shone in the summer sun all around.

Vehicles range from muscular SUVs to puny cars with 800cc engines. Registration plates relate the long journeys they have undertaken, from Delhi, Rajasthan, Chandigarh and Karnataka. Once they cross Chang La, they will drive another 65 kms to reach a surreally beautiful blue lake—the Pangong Tso—on India’s border with China. It was on the shores of this vast lake that the climax of Rajkumar Hirani’s 2009 blockbuster Three Idiots was shot, featuring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

Ladakh’s stunning mountains, streams and monasteries have been justly famous for long. But the success of Three Idiots has shaken up the patterns of tourism in Ladakh, causing a surge in the number of domestic tourists and affixing at the centre of the tourist trail locations from the movie, such as the Druk White Lotus School and the Pangong lake.

Three Idiots has had a big impact on tourism in Ladakh. Inbound tourism to Ladakh used to be small, and most of it was international traffic. After the film, the domestic tourist traffic jumped massively and now we are getting nearly 1.7 lakh tourists in a year,” said Rigzin Spalbar, chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.

Hit to Superhit

Three Idiots released in December 2009. That year, according to the local tourism office, 48,517 domestic tourists visited Ladakh. In 2010, when the film became the highest grossing Bollywood film at the time, 55,685 domestic tourists made their way to Ladakh. The next year, the domestic visitors more than doubled to 142, 829. Last year, 1.4 lakh domestic tourists visited, contributing to a record number of 1.79 lakh visitors in all.

“Ladakh was always a hit. Three Idiots made it a superhit,” said Nissar Abdu, promoter of Hotel Spic and Span in Leh. “Earlier we had to suggest that people include Pangong lake in their itinerary. Now they all know Pangong and want to go there first,” he added.

At the Druk White Lotus School, an award- winning residential school run by the Drukpa order of Buddhism, there has been such a surge of visitors that the school had to build a new visitor’s facilitation centre. Last year, 65,000 tourists visited the school, which was little known before featuring in the film. After a round of the school’s sustainable architec- ture, solar panels and Montessori methods, visitors can have a snack at the Rancho coffee shop within the school premises, named after Aamir Khan’s character in the film.


School principal Prasad Eledath says the film has made the school very popular but the surge of visitors had started to disturb classes. Once they put in place a mechanism to regulate visitors, things have improved. Locally, the school has come to be known as Rancho school. Eledath shakes his head in mock exasperation when this is mentioned. “As far as I am concerned, this remains the Druk White Lotus School or the Druk Padma Karpo School,” he said, during an interview in his office that looks out to snow-capped peaks across the Shey valley.

Tough Shoot, Pretty Picture

But if all had gone as per Three Idiots director Rajkumar Hirani’s plans, another Ladakh lake, Tsomoriri, would have become more famous. It was there that Hirani first tried to shoot. But the unit got snowed under and the shoot was disrupted. When he went back the next year, Hirani picked Pangong.

“The story required that we show Rancho as having reached a very serene place. We had done a lot of recceing in Sikkim and the north east and eventually picked Ladakh,” Hirani told ET, speaking on the phone from Belgium, where he is shooting his next film, Peekay, starring Aamir Khan.

Hirani recalled that the shoot at Pangong was tough. “There was nothing there at the time. We found a small lodge in a village an hour- and-a-half away from the location. It had tiny rooms. Aamir and Sharman (Joshi) would share a room. Kareena (Kapoor) had to wake up at 3am to do her make up because she had to appear as a bride. We would shoot at 6am to get the perfect light. At that altitude, it is exhausting to work. It was very challenging logistically. Some unit members got sick and had to go back. There was no electricity and we had to get a generator from Delhi. It was a really tough shoot but it paid off in the end because it looked really pretty on the screen.”

So pretty that it now causes traffic jams on mountain passes where it is difficult to breathe.

“Obviously it is heartening to know that it has helped the area and its economy. The people of Ladakh were very warm and welcoming,” Hirani said.

But the happy story of the surge in tourism, some fear, may not end well if left unchecked. Candy wrappers, broken bottles and empty cups of instant noodles have started dotting the shoreline of the pristine lake at Pangong, where eateries with names such as Rancho café and Three Idiots café serves warm food to hungry travellers.

“There are concerns that if we allow tourism to grow unregulated in this manner, it might wreak ecological havoc. Ladakh is a very frag- ile ecosystem and people polluting lakes and mountains is a major concern,” said Spalbar, the chief executive councillor.