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Research on the life of Himalayan Hermits

Doc. dr. Nina Petek

Publish Date: 23.09.2020

Category: Researchers in focus , Our contribution to sustainable development goals

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 Asst. Prof. Nina Petek, Ph.D., professor at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, and her research team are currently researching the life of hermits, or yogis, in Ladakh, the northernmost part of India, and the tradition of Buddhism in the Himalayan wilderness.

Globally, Petek and her team are the first to focus on this subject, since to date, there has been no academic research on the life and practices of Tibetan hermits. While researchers are most concerned with institutional Buddhist monasticism, Petek was drawn to the hermit tradition, Buddhism beyond monasteries which, as she says, is wilder and more authentic.

Petek came across the hermits by chance while on field research in Ladakh last year, right at the time when the hermits came from their remote mountain dwellings to attend the Sani Monastery festival in the Zanskar region of Ladakh. She was fascinated. Tibetan Buddhism is very interesting as it is quite different from traditional Buddhism, and the hermits’ way of life and their special abilities are quite amazing.

Puščavniški festival


Buddhist hermits are yogis who practice meditation in solitude. Their dwellings, meditation caves known as hermitages, are located in the high, remote Himalayan mountains. Some are beautifully painted with various mandalas, demons and intricate Tibetan symbolism, so that different elements can be visualised in meditation. This indicates the influence of Tibetan shamanism, based on visualisations and communication with various spirits, which is why Tibetan Buddhist meditation is more vivid and colourful. These meditation caves should be better protected; unfortunately, the authorities have not yet started taking care of their restoration, leaving them to deteriorate.



One of the yogis in the vicinity of Lamayuru Monastery, with whom Petek established a close relationship, allowed her to enter his meditation cave and be present during meditation. He also gave an account of the yogis’ abilities – some are able to read minds and direct dreams, among other things. Night after night, yogis are engaged with their dreams in their remote Himalayan meditation caves. In the West, this ancient practice is today known as lucid dreaming. The yoga of dreaming is the most important practice on the path to liberation. Its importance is that a certain teaching is usually revealed to yogis in their dreams. In their dreams, yogis also confront and overcome deep psychological traumas and fears.



In this, Tibetan Buddhism differs from traditional Buddhism, where the meditator must strive not to dream, since dreams are considered no more than a mental modification that constantly unsettles us and leaves us with impressions. Instead, Tibetan Buddhism emphasises meditation through images, where the mind is highly active and approaches enlightenment through various representations and dreams.

All yogis practice tummo – the “yoga of the inner fire”, which allows them to heat their body, whose temperature rises to just over 40 degrees Celsius.

The practice of tummo is practical in origin, as yogis have to survive severe Himalayan winters. Even then, yogis remain in their caves, dressed in light robes. With the yoga of the inner fire, they produce such heat in the body that snow around them melts a little.

As a member of Western society where reason predominates, Petek admits she was always somewhat sceptical of these extraordinary abilities. But when she came in contact with the hermits, she realised that reason must sometimes be set aside, and that it is actually possible for yogis to develop various powers through meditation, which they use to manipulate elements of reality.

Nina Petek Pri gompi


In Ladakh, there are also a few Buddhist nunneries and the tradition of female hermits is alive to this day. One notable feature of Buddhist hermitage is that hermits can be married couples, yogis and yoginis; while this is not common practice, there are still a few such couples in Ladakh today. The tradition of hermitage does not prescribe complete celibacy. Tibetan Buddhism has also been influenced by Tantra, a Hindu tradition from India that emphasises the importance of sensuality, its immeasurable energy and immense power, which should be encouraged rather than suppressed, so it can transform into spiritual energy. Since the tradition of hermitage incorporates elements of Hindu Tantra, hermits also perform various sexual practices.

Male and female hermits are also distinguished from monks and nuns by their appearance: their signature feature is long hair. As they explained to Petek, they do not have time to cut their hair or wash, as they prefer to spend it on meditation. They dress as lightly as possible so as not to encumber the body. They wear a red robe, like monks and nuns; on special occasions, when they return to society from their solitary and remote meditation caves, they are dressed in a white robe. White is one of their symbols, representing the purity of the meditator’s mind and the power of hermitage.

It is also interesting how well the hermits are taken care of in Ladakh. The monks provide them with food and carry it to the mountain hermitages. Society accepts them as people who are spiritually superior to everyone else, which is essential for hermits to be part of a community and spread their knowledge when they occasionally descend from the mountains. In exchange, society ensures their survival so that they can continue their way of life.

Author: Zarja Kambič

Photo: Nina Petek


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