Four monasteries in Ladakh you must not miss
Buddhist Monasteries in Ladakh
Travelling around Ladakh, the Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh beckon you. Breathless landscapes, fascinating stories, ancient histories and beautiful paintings take you into a different world. As i delve a little more into Buddhist iconographies and stories, here are my favourite monasteries in Ladakh.
As you drive around , you see several monasteries or Gompas hanging silently from a cliff or sloping down from a peak. They often look like fortresses with prayer wheels and mani walls built around them. Standing amidst the countless chortens that are scattered around the landscape, I look around and take a deep breath. It is not just the landscape that is breathtaking, but I pause to catch up with some air too, taking in the little oxygen around. There are so many monasteries in Ladakh but these are my favourites
Alchi Monastery in Ladakh
Lying in a village down the Indus valley on a plain, Alchi Monastery is an ancient gompa that is neither imposing nor is it full of life. For a visitor , it is just another sleepy hamlet with a few random houses thrown in, a lone shop selling artifacts and a couple of lamas sitting under an apricot grove exchanging conversations. And hidden amongst these silent houses is the oldest monastery of Ladakh which houses some of the most unique paintings .
Alchi monastery lies in the chos khor or monastic complex of four separate monuments, and is deemed to be very different from the rest in terms of architecture and monastic order. The Gompa nestled in a courtyard is connected by narrow alleys that lead to several small shrines with wooden pillars and walls that brightly display paintings like the Thousand Buddhas and the wheel of life. Looking at every wall with a torch, these paintings do not look like the typical Ladakhi images as we see in the other monasteries .
Inspired by the Kashmiri tradition, the monastery complex was built, by Guru Rinchen Zangpo around 10th century. However, according to the inscriptions ,it is attributed to a Tibetan noble called Kal-dan Shes-rab who is said to have built it in the next century. A fusion of the artistic and spiritual aspect of both Hinduism and Buddhism is seen in the wall paintings of this monastery while the Kashmiri style is also seen in the Dukhang or assembly hall and the main temple , Sumstek which is a three storied dedicated to the three incarnations of Buddha – Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushree. We cannot see the heads of these deities as they stand in the first floor and there is no access to reach there .
Read more about Alchi Monastery here
Most tourists would think if they see one form of Buddha , it is the same across every monastery – actually it is not so . Every monastery has several forms of Buddha like Sakyamuni, Avalokiteshwara , Maitreya . As you get deeper into Buddhist iconography, you lose yourself in the 50 feet tall statue of Maitreya Buddha in Thiksey Monastery, one of the largest Gompas in Ladakh, The lamas are however kind enough to explain about the two storey tall Maitreya Buddha, seated in a lotus position . The colourful murals behind the statue depict scenes from his life, which is the future, say the lamas.
“We believe it is the future Buddha ,” they say, adding that the prophesy is he will soon appear on earth , as the next avatar or reincarnation of the historic Sakyamuni Buddha, the form as we know today.
Thiksey Monastery was founded by the Gelukpa or the monastic order of the yellow hats under the guidance of Tsongkhapa by one of his disciples, Sherab Sangpo in early 15th century. It is believed that he built it at Stagmo, closer to the present site. The present monastery was built on the ruins of an earlier Gompa built by another monastic order called the Kadampa.
Thiksey known as Mini Potala resembles the palace in Tibet with ten temples dotting its slopes and is almost 12 storeys high. Looking at the vast expanse of the Indus valley from this height, the lamas explain that this was the vision of the Tsongkhapa, who believed that his doctrine will be spread across the valley. As you look down , one can see tourists rotating the prayer wheels, while a monastery guide explains the murals. A row of prayer wheels, mani walls and chortens fill the landscape while the prayer flags flutter in the sky .
The most popular of all monasteries, Hemis nestles in the hills along the Indus , barely 40 kms away from Leh. Hemis grabbed the tourist attention with its colourful festival that takes place in summer when people from around the world flock to Ladakh. Dedicated to Padmasambhava, the dances in Hemis Monastery mesmerize the locals and tourists who watch the vibrant spectacle. We are told that an elaborately embroidered thangka of Guru Padmasambhava is exhibited and decorated during the rituals.
On another day however, the monastery is just another quiet spiritual monument with colourful paintings of Buddhist iconography depicted on the walls. Built in the 17th century under the royal patronage of Sengge Namgyal, Hemis Monastery has several chortens – some of them in silver , some elaborately designed . But the paintings here seem to be faded in a world of their own, although parts of the monastery seem to have been remodeled recently. A lone lama sits guard in front of the main Gompa holding on to his prayer wheel . A Gompa means a solitary place and as you walk past it, one realizes the true meaning of solitude
The starkness of the landscape becomes more pronounced as you drive down one of the ancient trading routes. However as you plunge downhill, the landscape changes dramatically . Look around and you can see the Karakoram range around us, the Siachen glacier in the distance and the river Shyok flowing beside us. Some desert flowers bloom here and there , as the Shyok joins the Nubra or the Siachen river and creates a lush valley here filled with apricot and apple orchards.
Our destination is Diskit Monastery , where a 14th century gompa awaits you founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of Tsong Khapa, founder of Gelug-pa order. Here you can see a mighty Maitreya , some fierce guardian deities and a wonderful fresco of the Tashilhunpo Gompa of Tibet. The Diskit monastery celebrates the Festival of the Scapegoat or Desmochhey with a mask dance that depicts the victory of good over evil . Legends speak of a story of a Mogul demon who haunts this Gompa even after he was killed. Locals believe that the Gonkhang or the temple of the guardians still houses his wrinkled head and arm .
Another gompa that you must visit is the Lamayaru Monastery and you can read all about the lunar landscape of Lamayaru Monastery.
While these are my favourite Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh do share your recommendations as well.
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