January 22, 2018

10 Must visit Buddhist Monasteries near Leh


Heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and way of life, the monasteries of Ladakh transport you to a world of red robes, prayer wheels, thangka paintings, kangyurs, mural art, tantric elements and chortens. Following Vajrayana and Mahayana form of Buddhism, the monasteries which are also referred as gompas, have numerous deities such as Sakhyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava, Avalokiteshwara, Vajrapani, Tara and many others. While it is popularly believed that Tibetan Buddhism spread from Tibet to Ladakh, it is apparently the other way round. Buddhism took root in Ladakh during the times of Ashoka and then inspired people across Tibet, but slowly declined in India. With migration from Tibet around 9th and 10th centuries, Tibetan Buddhism spread back to the regions of Ladakh. Most of the monasteries in Ladakh were built around 16th and 17th centuries.

1. Hemis Monastery

Located across river Indus, on the cleft of a mountain is the 17th century Hemis gompa, the largest monastic institution in Ladakh. The monastery follows Drukpa sect under Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and was built by Taktsang Repa, a great Drukpa master with the support of King Sengge Namgyal. With colourful entrance gates, wooden window frames and a large courtyard, the gompa has two large assembly halls which are beautifully adorned with art work. The premise also has a three storeyed tall shrine of Guru Padmasambhava.  Hemis museum near the courtyard has a huge collection of Buddhist artefacts, sculptures and various other displays. The monastery is popular for Hemis festival dedicated to Padmasambhava which takes place every year on the tenth day of the Tibetan lunar month (mostly falls either during June or July). During the celebration, locals are dressed in their traditional attire with headgears. The monks perform the Chaam, where they dance wearing sacred masks accompanied by various musical instrumrnts. Hemis monastery has more than 200 branch monasteries under it across the Himalayas which are home to more than thousand monks.

Location: 40 Kms from Leh via Leh- Manali highway.






2. Stakna Monastery

Stakna is probably the most picturesquely located monastery in Ladakh. Atop a hillock and along the Indus river, the monastery can be spotted after Karu as you ride into Leh from Manali. The 16th century monastery follows the Drukpa sect under Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and its name literally translates to Tiger’s nose. Though a small one, Stakna monastery has quiet surroundings with panoramic vistas all around. The colourful interiors has wonderful art works on its walls, a huge collection of Kangyurs and Thangka paintings.

Loaction: 24 Kms from Leh via Leh- Manali highway.







3. Thiksey Monastery

The 15th century Thiksey monastery is a fairly large one with numerous temples and is built similar to the Potala palace in Lhasa. Spread over a hillock, the monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (Yellow hat) and is home to more than 500 monks. Bright maroon colours adorn the outer walls of the structures with prayer wheels and chortens  in the courtyard. There are numerous halls here dedicated to various deities and all have well maintained mural paintings and other art work apart from ancient manuscripts.  The main assembly hall has an old charm with exquisite paintings on its walls and fragrance of incense sticks. It also has an inner chamber with shrines of Padmasambhava, Maitreya etc. Of all the temples in this monastery, shrine of the three storeyed beautiful Maitreya known as Chamkhang is undoubtedly the big attraction here. Also referred as future Buddha, Maitreya statue has wonderful works on it and is adorned with art work on the walls. Tara temple dedicated to Tara Devi has 21 forms of the goddess.The other attractions here are the Protector temple or Gonkhang which has many tantric deities, and a shrine with silver stupas. The higher floors offer nice views of the landscape.

Location: 18 Kms from Leh via Leh- Manali highway, near Shey Palace.










4. Matho Monastery

Tucked away from the hustle of Leh, Matho monastery is located across the Indus river. The brightly coloured monastery is a fairly large one and is located atop a hill. The 15th century monastery is the only one in Ladakh that follows Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was built by a monk, Dugpa Dorje and is known for its tarnished wall paintings and 14th century thangkas. The Dukhang or the assembly hall has been recently re-built and has colourful interiors and fresh art work on its walls. Matho monastery is known for Oracle Matho Nagrang festival held here annually in the first month of the Tibetan calendar.

Location: 22 Kms from Leh via Choglamsar.





5. Lamayuru Monastery

Lamayuru gompa is one of the oldest ones in Ladakh and is believed to have been built by the monk Rinchen Zangpo and the Indian scholar Naropa in the 11th century. The cave where Naropa meditated and the oldest part of the monastery under the Dukhang are all in a dilapidated state.  The monastery has numerous buildings and shrines such as Main temple, Avalokiteshwara temple, Singay Lakhang etc. The main temple has wonderful art works on its walls, carvings on its door frame and a huge statue of Vairochan Buddha. The monastery also has numerous chortens or stupas apart from prayer wheels. Lamayuru monastery has an ancient aura to it and the weird landscape surrounding it accentuates its charm.

Location: 115 Kms via Leh- Kargil highway.







6. Alchi Choskhor

Along with Lamayuru, Alchi monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh and was built in the 11th century by Rinchen Zangpo. Located across the Indus river off the Leh- Kargil highway, Alchi Choskhor is a monastic complex with temples spread across the villages of Alchi, Mangyu and Sumda Chun, and comes under the Archaelogical survey of India. Alchi monastery probably has the most elaborate and exquisite art work amongst all monasteries in the Himalayas. The monastic complex has a few major shrines which are Dukhang, Sumtsek, Vairochana temple and Manjushri temple. Dukhang or the main assembly hall has decorated cloisters with marvelous art work on its walls. The passages of Dukhang have extensive mural art with scenes from secular life and paitings of various mandalas which has deep tantric interpretations. The three storeyed Sumtsek has beautiful wood work on its outer facade apart from a well carved entrance door. The interiors are adorned with magnificent mural art which has been well preserved over the centuries. It also houses large figures of Bodhisattvas along with Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushri.  Also known as Jampe Lakhang, Manjushri temple has a beautifully carved entrance door with paintings on its ceiling. The complex also has numerous chortens.

Location: 66 Kms from Leh via Leh- Kargil highway, near Saspol.




7. Likir Monastery

Relatively isolated from the highway, Likir monastery was built in late 11th century by a monk, Duwang Chosje during the time of the fifith king of Ladakh, Lhachaen Gyalpo. Nestled in a picturesque location, the gompa follows Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. The main prayer hall is a colourful one with wall paintings, thangkas and kangyurs apart from statues of Sakyamuni, Maitreya and a few others. The monastery also has another assembly hall which too has wonderful art work. On the way out from monastery is the huge statue 75 feet high gilded gold statue of Maitreya.

Location: 54 Kms from Leh via Leh- Kaergil highway, near Saspol.










8. Spituk Monastery

Located close to Leh airfield, Spituk monastery was one of the earliest monasteries to be built in Ladakh in the 11th century. Though it belonged to the Red hat sect (Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya), it later came under the Yellow hat sect (Gelugpa) in the 15th century. Though there are a couple of shrines here, the main attraction is the shrine of Tara Devi which has 21 manifestations of the goddess and displays excellent work of art. Next to the shrines and atop a hillock is the shrine dedicated to the tantric deity, Vajra Bhairav. Beside this shrine is the protector room. The monastery celebrates Gustor festival annually in the eleventh month of Tibetan calendar.

Location: 6 Kms from Leh, near the airport.





9. Basgo Monastery

Basgo was once the capital of the Namgyal rulers of Ladakh and the monastery stands amidst the ruined fortifications. The 16th century monastery has two shrines dedicated to Maitreya, the future Buddha- Chamba Lakhang and Serzang Chamba temple. The interior walls of the temples have magnificent frescos and large statues of the deity. While Maitreya in Chamba Lakhang is made of clay and was built in the 16th century, the other shrine has Maitreya made of copper and was completed in early 17th century.

Location: 40 Kms from Leh via Leh- Kargil highway








10. Phyang Monastery

Built in early 16th century, Phyang monastery is spread over a hill and follows Kagyu sect of Buddhism.  It is popularly believed that the monastery was founded by king Tashi Namgyal. Home to more than a hundred monks, the monastery’s old colourful prayer hall has numerous art works on its walls. The premise also has a protector room and an old museum which has a huge collection of displays.  The new monastery is under construction presently and would be open soon.  Gang Sngon Tsedup festival is held annually at Phyang monastery in the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar.

Location: 19 Kms from Leh, off Leh- Kargil highway.





Travel Tips:

  • All these monasteries can be visited from Leh and can be covered over a couple of days.
  • Some of the monasteries do provide accommodation to visitors. Do check in advance before you go.
  • Photography is prohibited inside some monasteries like the one in Alchi. Please check with the authorities before you click photographs. 
  • Most of the mural works are many centuries old, please switch off the flash of your camera and be a responsible traveller.

January 16, 2018

Leh- Beyond the Monasteries


When we speak of Leh what conjures up in our minds are lovely snow clad mountains, ancient monasteries and red robed monks.  However, Leh has more to it as it was an important centre on the trade route to Central Asia centuries ago and was the 17th century capital of the Namgyal empire when it ruled Ladakh. Though people come to Leh to visit the monasteries and understand more about Tibetan Buddhism, the city has over the years developed into a bustling one offering people a blend of both worlds. Beyond the surrounding monastery villages, Leh has ancient palaces, breathtaking landscapes and vibrant markets.

Perched atop a hillock, the 16th century Leh Palace overlooks the city of Leh. Built by Sengge Namgyal, the nine storeyed palace along the bank of river Indus is modeled on Potala Palace in Lhasa. Made of mud, wood and stone, the palace stands tall with wonderful wood carvings. While most of the rooms remain closed or are in a dilapidated state, the palace still holds a shrine and has a huge gallery of photographs from yesteryears on display. The palace also offers lovely vistas of the city and the distant mountains.





A short drive through the alleys of Leh leads to the beautiful Shanti Stupa atop a vantage point in Chanspa. Built in collaboration with Japanese assistance as a part of the Peace Pagoda mission, the foundation for the stupa was laid by H H Dalai Lama XIV in 1985. The gorgeous white structure is of great religious significance and holds relics of Buddha apart from numerous carvings from Buddhism depicting various characters and stories. The premise also has a couple of Buddhist temples and also offers panoramic views of the Zanskar mountains.



On the road to Thiksey monastery and by the highway, Shey palace looks attractive atop a hillock. Shey palace was one of the earlier homes of the royal family who later shifted to the palace in Leh. Built on similar lines like the Leh palace, the internal rooms of this 16th century palace are mostly in ruins. However, the palace enshrines a large copper glided statue of Buddha which is known as Dukhang. The interiors of the shrine are adorned with beautiful mural art. The premise also has the largest victory stupa in Ladakh which has its top purely made of gold.





Tucked away from the bustle of Leh, Stok palace has been home to the Ladakhi royal family after the Dogra invasion. The brightly coloured palace is probably the most well maintained one in Leh. The beautiful fa├žade and the open courtyard with lovely views of the surroundings add to the charm of the palace. However, with many private rooms which are still occupied by the royal family, the palace is more of a museum with a large display of royal paraphernalia. Apart from artefacts, utensils, armoury and royal attires, the museum also has a huge collection of photographs of the royal family. The museum is a great insight into the life of the erstwhile royal family of Ladakh.





Located near the airport, Hall of Fame is a museum which has extensive detailing of wars, display of ammunition and various war artefacts. The museum is also dedicated in memory of all the Indian soldiers who lost their life during Indo-Pak wars over the years.  It has a huge war memorial with a parade and a flag ceremony at 6 PM followed by a video screening of snippets from various wars. Hall of Fame also has a section dedicated to Ladakh with information regarding their history, culture, festivals etc.  A couple of kilometers away from Hall of Fame is the mud fort of General Zorawar built a couple of centuries ago.








Situated on the Leh- Kargil road, Pathar Sahib Gurudwara is a 16th century gurudwara which was built to commemorate the visit of Guru Nanak to Ladakh. The gurudwara gets its name from the fact that there a stone shrine in the shape of the Guru. Visitors can have langar here.



Ladakh is fed by rivers such as Indus, Zanskar and Shyok which meander through the mountains for thousands of kilometers and also form an integral part of the life of Ladakhis. The aerial view of the confluence of Indus and Zanskar near Leh is a beautiful sight. The place also offers adventure activities such as rafting.



The vibrant Leh market is a colourful one with a wide range of things for sale. From junk jewellery to local attires to artefacts to fruits, Leh market has a plethora of titems to keep the shopping buff excited. The place also has a couple of restaurants that serve authentic Ladakhi and Tibetan cuisine. It is well recommended to take a stroll through the market in the evening.





Navigator:

Leh is well connected to other major cities of India by flights. The road to Leh from Manali remains open only from June to October. There are regular buses and shared taxis plying during those months.

Food and Accommodation:

There are numerous restaurants serving Ladakhi, Tibetan and North Indian cuisine in the city. For the local cuisine, Amdo restaurant in Leh market is recommended. There are hostels, guest houses and hotels in Leh city catering to all budgets. I stayed at Hostelavie.

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