Hemis Monastery
Destinations,  India,  Jammu and Kashmir

Hemis Monastery Guest House: How it feels like to stay in a monastery for a day

The evening light is waning in the horizon. Breathless, we trudge along Changspa Lane trying to catch a taxi. A smiling man in a Maruti Omni finally relents to our request and agrees to charge us a little less than the rates fixed by Ladakh Taxi Union. It is already 6.30PM when our ride from Leh to Hemis Monastery commences.

Hemis Festival, a two days long Budhhist religious ceremony which celebrates the birthday of Padmasambhava, is scheduled to start the next day. The festival takes place at Hemis Monastery, a Budhhist monastery of the Drukpa lineage. Standing at 12000 feet above sea level, Hemis is also considered the richest monastery in Ladakh. In an attempt to not miss a single minute of the festival, we came up with the plan of staying nearby the monastery. A bit of research revealed that it is possible for tourists to stay at the monastery guest house within the Hemis monastery complex. We established contact with the lama of Hemis who takes care of the guest house and managed in booking a room.

If our plans had worked right, we would have reached Hemis by afternoon, but some unforeseen events delayed us. We reached Leh from Nubra Valley at 6 PM and alerted the lama of Hemis of our potential late arrival so that the room is not rented out to someone else.

Adventures enroute Leh to Hemis Monastery Guest House        

“Sir, madam, I am going to drive slowly. I am driving tourist vehicle from the past 30 years but I haven’t been careless a single time,” says the taxi driver. We meander around the curvy roads of Ladakh. These hills are temperamental— at times austere and at times genial. Barren sand swept land on both sides of the highway speaks for the rampant wind erosion.

The driver takes a diversion to the right, and pointing to a clutch of whitewashed buildings says, “That is your destination.” Hemis Monastery is tucked away in a secret corner of the mountains, hidden from the sight of the general traffic which populates the highway. Taking several twists and turns on a gentle slope with stone bordered asphalt road, the vehicle struggles its way to the top.

After reaching we notice liquid leaking from the bottom of the car. The coolant had left a green trail all along the road. Our driver has to find a mechanic but nothing can happen before he goes downhill to Karu, the closest village with amenities on the highway, from where the road forks right. Since we have reached Hemis extremely late and our booking only involves oral commitment, we doubt if we would get any accommodation. The taxi driver waits until our problems are sorted.

Our Kolkata based BSNL postpaid connection is out of network range. Observing how frantically we are trying to call home, our taxi driver whips out the phone from his pocket and makes sure we speak with our folks.  His postpaid Airtel works fine.

We have no clue how to find the right person who can show us our room. The sky is already draped in deep violet hue. The lamas are busy preparing the monastery for the upcoming festival. Occupied shopkeepers load goods in the makeshift stalls. There is barely anyone to answer our concerns. The cellphone of the lama with whom we had established prior contact is out of coverage.

There is no locality within the immediate 7 kilometres of Hemis monastery. It is perched on a secluded hillock and a private vehicle is the only way to reach it. Few metres down from the monastery is Hemis village, which is nothing more than a cluster of few private residences. If the taxi driver would have decided against waiting for us and if Hemis monastery had turned us away then we would have been stranded there. But given the immense kindness of the Ladakhi people, we are quite sure someone would either give us shelter at their place or drop us to Leh.

Our requests are passed around in the lama circle and finally the caretaker of the guest house takes us under his wings. Wearing a spotted white jacket with blue trousers, the short man in his 50s shows us our room. Relieved that we got a place, the taxi driver goes his own way.

Hemis Monastery Guest House — our introduction

The first building adjacent to the first set of staircases which leads to the main monastic complex is the guest house building. It is either four or five storey high (sorry, we forgot) and our room is on the first floor. Inside the thick walled building the lights are dim. Pulling our luggage we huff and puff our way up the steep staircase scared of developing AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). The corridor wears a deserted look. A humble green carpet runs all along it and the rooms are lined to the left of the corridor. The wall which is painted white has developed faint cracks and fissures.

As we walk towards our room, the last in the corridor, we peek inside the half open doors of the other rooms. Some are piled with bedding materials dumped haphazardly, some have stacks of papers, while others have no furniture. It looks like we are the only room occupants of that row. Clearly, the guest house is as simple and humble as your imagination permits. The aura is certainly a grim one.

A tube light lit our room up revealing its large size and its occupants— three beds with three pillows, one modest side table and a dusty chair. The floor is carpet laden, a thick red one but without any aesthetical work. The glass window is tight shut and the shiny white drapes are drawn over it . We sink under the comfort of two blankets but soon we notice something unusual—one blanket has chunks of white fur stuck to it—probably a cat had lounged over it. Fortunately, there are three blankets in the room so we discard it and take the third one.

Room of Hemis Monastery Guest House
Room of Hemis Monastery guest house
Furniture in Hemis monastery guest house
Room of Hemis Monastery guest house

When I had called the lama to book the rooms, the lama had explicitly mentioned to me that there would be no private washroom. I was okay with spending one night with shared washroom facility. Even though I was not expecting much in terms of cleanliness, the first sight of the washroom horrified me.

Each floor has one washroom and all occupants of the floor are expected to share it. The washroom is dimly lit with tiled floor, a small washbasin, a tap, a shower, a bucket, a mug and a western toilet. The frosted glass of the window is half broken. The pot is extremely dirty with traces of human faeces. Unfortunately, I see faeces stuck to the bucket and scattered in granular form on the floor (I never thought I would write something gross like this on my blog but that’s the truth). Going to the washroom turns out to be a horrible chore so we limit our water intake which is again not advisable in Ladakh.

We have already gathered from our research that food would not be available at Hemis Monastery guest house, so we came here prepared. Before reaching Hemis we have already loaded our backpack from Karu with our dinner for the night—cakes and biscuits. But after reaching Hemis, we notice several temporary food stalls, albeit non functional at the moment. We request a stall owner if he could serve us one of the items listed in the menu—vegetable noodles. Thankfully, he says yes and we enjoy delicious noodles under the starry sky at the expense of INR 100 per plate.

The sky is lit with millions of stars. Outlines of constellations are clearly visible. But the night is harshly windy. Our plan of enjoying a light pollution free dark sky is thwarted by the howling wind. When we cannot take the chill anymore, we hurry inside the guest house building and sink in our bed. Though it is comfortably warm inside the blanket, the room and the location of Hemis in itself is severely colder than Leh.

The ring of the alarm wakes us up at 6 AM in the morning. Though the masked dance of Hemis is scheduled to start at 10 AM the rituals preceding it would start at 7 AM. We remember the caretaker telling, “The puja would start at 7.” Opening the solitary window of the room uncovered breathtaking views of the mountains. I can see the staircase buzzing with lamas—kids, youths, middle aged and old.

The dirtiness of the washroom has grown ten folds in the morning. It is being used by the monks. Though we are the sole tourists in that floor of the guest house (or may be in the whole building), the building is also being used to host lamas from other monasteries who have come for religious reasons. Having a shower is obviously not an option. We even restrict answering nature’s calls. Also, there is no provision of hot water.

Making payment and finding a ride home — Adventures in itself

We rush to the main temple complex at around 7.30 AM, by then the puja has already started. We spend the rest of the day in the monastery courtyard observing the religious festivities and chaam dances. While booking over phone, the lama had told me the charge for one room for one night at Hemis monastery is INR 900 on regular days but double (i.e INR 1800) during the Hemis Festival. However, paying the money took great effort! The caretaker declines and tells us to contact the lamas and pay them directly; the lamas decline and ask us to contact one specific lama who is unreachable and busy.

Eventually, the festivities of the day wrap up and we are ready to go back to Leh, but the concerned person to whom we need to pay the money still gives us a miss. After many rounds, we end up in front of a lama at the Hemis library.  He tells us to pay INR 1500 instead of INR 1800.

Since we have no private vehicle with us and there is barely any public transport, we ask for a lift from a fellow Bengali documentary film maker. We have just met him at Hemis Festival complex and we are willing to split the cost of the ride. The kind man drops us back to Leh and doesn’t charge us any money; rather he treats us to piping hot tea and a plateful of bhajia. (You can check out his work here )

Settled in a chair of a roadside cafeteria in Leh, we wonder what would it feel like to live in the guest house of Thiksey Monastery— and we already start planning our next Ladakh trip.

Have you been to Ladakh, have you stayed inside a monastic complex? Can I help you with further information? Comment below and let me know!

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