Ladakh, the newly formed Union Territory, the land of clear azure skies, crystal clear blue-green gurgling rivers, snow-capped Himalayas and friendly smiling people, is predominantly Buddhist region and home to many monasteries.
The minute you reach Leh, the sight of fluttering colorful flags, prayer wheels installed on streets or symbols representing Buddha are in abundance. There is a peaceful vibe to the town.
Time seems still in this land of Lamas as I venture out away from town of Leh into the surrounding mountains to the Gompas or monasteries. Tucked away in the folds of Himalayas, the monasteries are home to Buddhist monks. A mystical aura emanates from the structures that loom out from the landscape in grays, whites, gold and reds. Buddha idols, dragon, lotus and dhamma motifs take center stage.
Of the many of these Buddhist preaching centers and shrines, I could visit just a few which are easier to access and more frequented by the visitors.
Here are some of the important Gompas of Ladakh:
This monastery is one of the most prominent in Ladakh and popular for Hemis festival in honour of Padmasambhava in month of June.
Hemis existed from before 11th century but was re-established in 1672. A copper statue of Buddha, elaborate wall murals and thangkas adorn the monastery. Associated with Drukpa lineage of monks, the monastery has a large rectangular courtyard surrounded by galleries and cells. A small museum and curio shop also find place in one side of the monastery courtyard.
During the festival which is an extravagant affair, sounds from cymbals and drums create a mystic aura and Cham dance adds to the intrigue.
There is another statue of Buddha in second prayer hall which is not allowed to be photographed. I however did bring back lot of magnets and gifts from the curio shop.
How to reach:
Hemis is quite popular among tourists and is about 45 kilometers from Leh accessible by roads. Taxis and bikes for hire are best bet.
Resembling the Patola Palace of Lhasa(Tibet), Thikse Gompa is the largest monastery in central Ladakh and only second in importance to Hemis, with a separate residential area for nuns. Located at a height of 11,800 feet on a hill in Thikse in Indus valley, the monastery is a 12 storey complex with stupas, statues, thangkas, wall murals and swords. It has a 15 meter tall Maitreya Buddha statue that covers two floors of the monastery. Established in 15th century, it is undergoing renovation by ASI.
I had every intention of visiting the main prayer hall despite being breathless on a seemingly never ending sloping pathway interspersed with stone steps but a thick cloud cover threatening to pour down heavily discouraged me and I returned to the safety of my taxi…a decision I regret till date. The clouds did send down a torrent but it was a quick short one and had I not driven away, I could have seen the insides of the monastery.
But as they say in Ladakh, mountains call you again…..
How to Reach:
Thiksey is just about 19 kilometers from Leh and easily approached by road. A small parking area is at the foot of monastery. Permission at the entrance is required to venture inside.
Gustor festival is celebrated in October-November.
Located in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh, this monastery too belongs to Yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was founded in 14th century.
A stupendous statue 106 feet in height of Jampa or Maitreya Buddha constructed in 2006 sits on another hill below the monastery with its face overlooking the Shyok river towards Pakistan. The Maitreya Buddha attracts lot of tourists leaving monks and monastery to function in peace.
Dosmoche or Festival of the Scapegoat is celebrated at Diskit monastery. When Khardungla closes due to snowfall, it is here at Diskit that Cham festival of masks draws the local villagers.
How to Reach:
The monastery is approachable by road through Diskit village which is about 150 kilometers from Leh via Khardung La. The road is maintained by Indian Army and remain inaccessible during snowfall and landslides.
Hired local taxis are the best bet to manoeuvre the difficult terrain.
I visited this monastery almost 18 years ago. Me and husband rode on a borrowed bike from Airforce Station that is located quite close to the monastery.
Founded by Od-de in 11th century, this Gompa is at an elevation of 10,852 feet just 8 kilometers from Leh. The monastery taken over by Yellow hat sect of Buddhists in 15th century, belongs to order of Tsonkhapa. It has about 100 monks.
The intriguing part of the monastery is the presence of a giant statue of Goddess Kali. I remember when I visited the gompa so many years ago, the monk refused to uncover the Goddess. I was told that the statue depicted Goddess in enraged avatar and the expression was so fierce that young married women should not see it to avoid adverse effect on their womb.
Though I do not believe in such a thing but I had heeded the monk’s advice out of respect. The statue is, it seems, unveiled during the Gustor festival celebrated on 27th day of the 11th month of Tibetan calendar.
How to reach:
The monastery is only 8 kilometers from Leh. A hired taxi or bike is good for ride along the gently sloping road.
Located atop the picturesque hill near Indus River west of Leh is this another important monastery at an elevation of 3700m. Established in 11th century, Likir means ‘The Naga Encircled’ and represents the two Nag kings Nanda and Takasako.
Likir monastery with about 120 monks is also home to many old manuscripts, thangkas and earther pots. Its courtyard has a rare Jupiter tree. The roof of monastery has a large 23m high gilded statue of Maitreya Buddha. A school is also run by the monastery where Sanskrit, Hindi and English is taught.
How to Reach:
Likir is little isolated though it was once an important stop for trade route to Leh via Hemis. It is about 52 km west of Leh. Hired local taxi will be the best choice.
Located near once-upon-a-time summer capital of Ladakh, Shey palace which is mostly in ruins, is the Shey Gompa. Established in 1655, the monastery has a statue in seated posture of Shakyamuni Buddha which might be the second largest statue of its kind. The surprising thing of this monastery is that only one monk resides here and hence the inner sanctum with Buddha’s statue is mostly closed. A special permission may be required to access the monastery.
There are also several rock carvings on the nearby hill surface and numerous chortens along the way to this monastery.
Shey Doo Lhoo and Shey Rhupla festivals that involve performance by dancers in tiger costume, soothsayers and special prayers are observed in the monastery.
How to Reach:
Shey Monastery is on Leh-Manali road 15 kilometers south of Leh. While road leads to foot of monastery, it can be reached by trekking 4 kilometers from Thiksey along the path which is largest chorten field.
There are more Gompas in Ladakh which are among the important Buddhist shrines like Stok, Alchi and more. I wish I had visited few more. 18 years ago I had visited a few more but I did not have a digital camera at the time to store my memories. But the mountains will call me again….
Have you been to Ladakh? What all monasteries did you manage to visit? How was your experience of the region? Do let me know in the comments.
I was invited by The Grand Dragon hotel for Ladakh visit who customized the itinerary for me to explore as much. For more information on stay and tours by The Grand Dragon visit their site here.