Stories From The Camp: Excursion To Hemis Monastery

The guests at the camp love the Hemis Monastery excursion. And Rupert Winchester is one of them! Read on to know why

Believe it or not, it is said that the Hemis Monastery existed even before the 11th century

Believe it or not, it is said that the Hemis Monastery existed even before the 11th century

An easy day out today, with a trip to Hemis Monastery, some 20 kilometres from the camp.

The drive itself was spectacular, along the banks of the Indus River, which, this close to its source, is small and easily fordable at this time of year: shallow and clear as glass. It is thought by many that the valley of the Indus here marks what they call the ‘suture,’ the place where the Indian tectonic plate creeping northwards meets the Eurasian plate to create the Himalayas, and certainly the mountains on either side of the valley are markedly different.

To the south, the slopes are sharply defined, buckled and striated. To the north, they are long and softly sloping, and seem to be made of a different kind of rock entirely. A quick search on the internet seems to suggest that geologists need to do more research before deciding that this is definitely the meeting place, but it certainly isn’t outside the realms of possibility.*

Hemis Monastery is perched in a deep cleft in the Zanskar Range, to the south of the Indus. It is widely thought to be the richest monastery in Ladakh, and has existed since the 11th Century, although in its present form it was established in 1672 by the Ladakhi King Sengge Namgyal.

Inside, there is a large square courtyard with two separate doors opening to the east side, to two separate prayer rooms. Both are magnificent, complete with astonishingly lovely paintings of meditation subjects around the inner walls. In one of them is a vast statue of Padmasambhava, the deity of the sect, which dominates the room. Monks chant and bang softly on drums, and the air is cool and calming.

From the roof of the monastery, the views north are stunning as the valley in which Hemis is perched open out onto the mountains north of the Indus. Although the monastery is a popular destination for tourists, the numbers are not overwhelming, and the feeling of peace and meditative calm is unbroken.

Hemis is also infamous because in 1894 a Russian journalist called Nicholas Notovitch claimed to have uncovered an unknown Biblical gospel, the Life of Saint Issa, in which Jesus Christ is said to have travelled to India after his crucifixion. Although many Biblical scholars have dismissed Notovitch’s claims, and the gospel has never been seen again, many people still travel to Hemis because of the potential power of the story.

Hemis is an easy journey from the TUTC camp at Thiksey, and makes for a lovely, soul-warming, and entirely fascinating morning. It’s just one of many highlights of a journey to Ladakh.

*If the following, from a geological textbook on the area, doesn’t read like a kind of poetry to you, then I worry: “The Indus Tsangpo suture zone in Ladakh lies between the Phanerozoic sequence of the Zanskar Zone of Tethys Himalaya in the south and Karakoram zone in the north. The five palaeotectonic regimes recognized in the suture zone are: The Indus palaeosubduction complex, the Ladakh magmatic arc, the Indus arc-trench gap sedimentation, the Shyok backarc and the Post-collision molasse sedimentation. The Ladakh magmatic arc, comprising intrusives of the Ladakh plutonic complex and extrusives of the Dras, Luzarmu and Khardung formations, owes its origin to the subduction of the Indian oceanic plate underneath the Tibet-Karakoram block.”

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