Ladakh is predominantly inhabited by people of Tibetan descent, leading to a very rich Buddhist culture. There so many beautiful monasteries that dot this high altitude desert that you cannot but visit them to be awed by their architecture and history. These monasteries in Ladakh are truly a living heritage of the Buddha and definitely warrant a visit.
The Hemis Monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in this region, belonging to the Drukpa or Dragon order. It stands on the western banks of the Indus River, about 50 kilometres southeast of Leh on the Leh-Manali highway. The monastery was founded in 1630 by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso when he was invited by the then King of Ladakh, Singey Namgail and offered a religious estate. Beautiful statues and mural paintings adorn the monastery halls. It has a great collection of sacred thangkas and other artefacts in its 900-year-old museum. The most important festival here is the Hemis Festival where you can witness the enchanting sacred mask dance. It is held on the 9th and 10th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan calendar.
Built on the side of a hill, the Spituk Monastery also known as the Spituk Gompa was founded in the 11th century by Od-lde as a monastic community. Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, the great translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan, gave the monastery its present name, meaning exemplary, as he felt an exemplary religious community would arise here. The old gompa has been restored, while a new one has also been constructed within the monastery complex. The largest building, the Dukhang Hall, has seating along the wall with a throne at the far end. Miniature stupas and sculptures adorn the altar. A little higher up the hill is the temple of Goddess Vajrabhairva. The statue of the goddess is kept covered and is unveiled only once during the Spituk Festival.
One hundred monks reside in the monastery and during the annual two day Spituk Festival held in the 11th month of the Tibetan calendar, the monks perform masked dances representing good over evil and stories depicting the life of Buddha.
Located just seven kilometres south-west of Leh, it is not a very difficult climb up to the monastery. The views of the airport and town below are spectacular, as are the sunrises and the sunsets visible from here.
This is undoubtedly the most beautiful of all monasteries in the region. A fine example of Ladakhi architecture, the Thiksey Monastery is located 17 kilometres south of Leh. It is a smaller version of the Potala Palace of Lhasa in Tibet. First built by Sherab ZangpoIt in Stakmo, it was later established on a hilltop by his nephew Paldan Sherab, where it stands now. The monastery belongs to Gelukspa or the Yellow Hat order.
There are 10 temples in this 12 storied monastery with the main prayer hall housing a 40-foot statue of Buddha seated on a lotus. Many precious and rare statues, mini stupas and swords are on display inside the monastery. There is also a temple dedicated to Goddess Tara here.
The Thiksey Gustor Festival is held here during the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar when the sacred mask or Cham dances are performed by resident monks and nuns as a part of a ritual.
The Alchi Monastery, built in the 12th century, is the oldest Buddhist learning centre in Ladakh. Located 70 kilometres west of Leh on the banks of the Indus River, it is also the largest and most famous of the gompas built by Lotsaya Rinchen Zangpo. With the lack of a monarchy, he appointed four families to look after the monastery till the 15th century when it was taken over by the Lekir Monastery.
Different from other monasteries, this one is built on flat ground instead of on a hill top. It has three main structures. The Du-khang is the assembly hall and the largest part; the Sum-tsek is a three-storied structure with a four armed statue of the Bodhisattva occupying two storeys with figures of Maitreya Buddha, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri on the ground floor; the third structure is Jampe Lhakhang, a temple of Manjushri. This temple also has a sculpture and painting of Rinchen Tsangpo.
Here’s some movie trivia – parts of Bollywood hits like Dil Se and Tashan were shot at Alchi.
Stok Gompa and Palace
Located just 15 kilometers south of Leh, this gompa is the residence of the Royal Family of Ladakh. It was founded in the 14th century by Lama Lhawang. The library at the monastery has 108 volumes of Buddha’s teachings. The entrance veranda has beautiful mural paintings of the guardians of the four directions. The main assembly hall is decorated with thangkas and banners. The walls have images of Vajrapani (the deity with the thunderbolt), Sukyamuni (Buddha as a sage) and Avalokitesvara (the four-armed deity). The Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the Avalokitesvara.
The Palace has a museum with a collection of the king’s crown, the queens head gear with 108 turquoise pieces, royal dresses, jewellery, old currency, the wooden palanquin in which the queen arrived here when she got married and various other personal items of the Royal family.
Early June sees a ritual mask dance being performed near the monastery. The two-day Stok Guru Tsechu Festival is held here every year in February. The interesting thing about this festival is that the prayers are not offered by a priest but by a common man, who is selected by the lamas and then groomed for the occasion.
Shey Gompa and Palace
En route to the Hemis Monastery, 15 kilometres from Leh is the Shey Gompa. Shey was originally the capital of Ladakh and Lhachen Spalgigon, the first king, built this hilltop fortress. In 1655, King Deldan Namgyal built the Shey Palace. There are hundreds of stupas and the Dresthang Gompa built around the palace. Currently, the palace is a monastery with the largest Buddha statue made of gilded copper, covering three floors of the building. Beautiful paintings and murals adorn the walls and the sculptures are marvellous. The lower chapel has a library with the largest collection of thangkas in Ladakh. Below the palace, along the roadside, are five Buddhas carved out of rock. Close to this monastery is the Druk Padma Karpo Institute, now renamed Rancho School. This was the school featured in the Hindi movie 3 Idiots.
There are two festivals held at this monastery every year – Shey Srubla on the 30th day of the 1st month and Shey Rul-lo on the 10th day of the 7th month.
Seventeen kilometres west of Leh, on top of a hill is the Phyang Monastery. It is one of the two monasteries that belong to the Dri-gung-pa sect of Buddhism. Legend has it that Denma Kunga Drakpa laid the foundation stone of this monastery. He pitched his tent on top of the hill and during meditation, saw the protector Achi riding her blue horse. He took this as a sign and built the monastery there. The monastery has a 900-year-old museum housing a vast collection of idols, firearms and weapons, old thangkas, wall paintings and murals of Mahakala. The old temple of Mahakala (the Gomkhang) was built at the time of the foundation of monastery.
Phyang Monastery is home to a school, which imparts modern education along with Buddhist studies to its students. The Phyang Tseruk Festival held on the 2nd and 3rd of the 6th month of the Tibetan calendar attracts a large number of tourists. The spectacular Cham dance is the highlight of the event.
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