10 Spectacular Monasteries In Ladakh
There are many impressive monasteries in Ladakh – most of them outshine everything else in the village and are usually also great vantage points from where to enjoy beautiful sights. They are often architectural masterpieces, with both their facades and inner areas impressively decorated with wall paintings and wood carvings. It is very hard to say which monastery deserves more attention, as every site has their own special qualities and passionate fan club. For this reason, this can never be a completely objective list
From Leh to Hemis
Of the several possible excursions from Leh, the one to Hemis is, arguably, most popular. Under 50 km. from Leh on the Leh-Manali highway, which runs southeast along the crystal waters of the Indus river, Hemis is one of the region’s most famous monasteries, and has the added advantage of including many interesting sights en route. The usual circuit includes Shey and Thiksey, both within 5 kms of each other and under 20 km. from Leh. In fact, many visitors – particularly during the peak summer season – find that Thiksey provides a more ‘monastic’ ambience than the relatively crowded Hemis. The trail below details these well-known stops, but also includes diversions along the way, to intrigue both the adventurous traveler and the avid student of Buddhism. So we have Stok – almost across the river from Shey – which not only has a palace and monastery, but is also the starting point for the Stok Kangri trek. Even more off the beaten track are the monasteries of Matho, Chemrey and Takthok. Matho, about 5 km. off the Stakna road, southwest of the Indus, is home to some unique Buddhist art and a fascinating festival of oracles.
For those who want to continue exploring beyond Hemis, Chemrey and Takthok are beautiful, isolated villages with charming hilltop gompas. Within 10 kms of each other, both monasteries are on a road that winds northeast from Karu, a village on the Leh-Manali highway. It is from Karu, too, that a small road goes west to Hemis. Hidden behind the pretty village of Hemis, on the banks of the clear blue Indus just off the Leh-Manali highway, and arguably the most popular day-trip from Leh, is Hemis. Unlike most other monasteries in this region – havens of seclusion in an already distant land – Hemis brims with tourists throughout the peak season, and is especially crowded during its annual festival. The richest, largest and most well-known monastery in Ladakh, Hemis was built in the 1630s by Ngawang Gyatso, a monk of the Druk-pa (Red Hat) sect; and today, it has over 200 branches and 1,000 monks spread across Ladakh. Set in a gorge below azure skies, Hemis gompa covers almost every inch of the hilltop on which it is built, an imposing, fortress-like construction, its entrance flanked by fluttering prayer flags and mani walls. From here, you walk into a spacious courtyard with magnificent views of the mountains that tower all around. This is also the venue for the Hemis Tsechu festival – greatly popular with both locals and tourists.
Hemis comprises seven temples, including the tshogs-khang, du-khang, gon-khang and lha-khang. The tshogs-khang has an image of a blue-haired Sakyamuni Buddha at the center with a large silver chorten next to it. There is also a life-size image of the Red Tara here. A lacquered throne in this hall is said to have been a gift from an erstwhile ruler of Kashmir.
The gompa is known for its beautifully preserved thangkas, of which the massive, pearl studded thangka of Guru Padmasambhava is the most sacred. In fact, this thangka is only brought out on every 12th occurrence of Hemis Tsechu, an annual festival that celebrates the birth of the Guru. Hemis Tsechu is best-known for its wonderful masked or chham dance performances, a sacred element of Buddhist Tantric ritual. The celebrations take place in the gompa’s large courtyard, which has two raised square platforms for the purpose, 1 m high with sacred poles at their center. A third platform has a cushioned seat and a small, finely-painted table arranged with ceremonial items such as cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, and tormas – colorful ritual figurines made of dough and butter – and incense sticks. Since the dates of the festival are set according to the lunar calendar, they change every year, and visitors should make inquiries before confirming their plans. Even if you cannot coordinate your visit with the festival, it’s still possible to get a sense of Ladakh’s unique spirituality by attending the morning prayers at Hemis. To do so, though, it is best to spend the night in the village, which has many small guesthouses. Terrace restaurants are popular here, since they allow patrons to soak up spectacular views of the surrounding valley, while sipping on salty gur gur tea and biting into fluffy momos. Hemis monastery also has a museum, housing stone and copper-gilt Buddha miniatures, gold and silver chortens embellished with precious gems and an exquisite collection of sacred thangka paintings. A small souvenir shop outside the museum is a good place to pick up gifts, or books on Buddhism, Ladakh and more. A gentle and picturesque walk of about 3 km. along the Hemis hill leads to a cave where a Tibetan saint is said to have meditated, well before Hemis was founded. You may still see his foot- and hand-prints outside the cave. Hemis also gives its name to the sprawling Hemis National Park, the highest in India and home to the elusive snow leopard.
Shey 3,415 m 15 km from Leh Ladakh
The beautifully located Shey village is enlivened with patches of green fields that contrast beautifully with the barren, snow capped mountains that form its backdrop and are reflected in the mirror-like waters of the Indus flowing alongside. Like many villages in Ladakh, Shey is dotted with chortens, rock-engravings of the Buddha, and fluttering prayer flags. However, this charming little hamlet is distinguished by the Shey Palace, a remnant of its glory as the erstwhile summer capital of Ladakh. The palace was built by Deldan Namgyal in the early 17th century, and it includes a monastery and a chorten. The chorten, one of the largest in Ladakh, stands in the palace courtyard and boasts a spire made of pure gold. The palace temple meanwhile, contains an incredible three-storey – over 12 m – high statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, made of gilded copper. This magnificent image, with its elongated ears, beautifully-shaped eyes and benevolent expression is flanked by smaller images of Sariputra and Maudgalayana, two of the Buddha’s chief disciples. The giant Buddha can be seen from three levels; the lowest level shows his huge feet and soles pointing upwards and a mural of Shambunath, an important leader of the Druk-pa sect. The middle floor, containing the Buddha’s torso, has murals of the Buddha in different postures, while the upper floor is illuminated by butter lamps that burn day and night before the head of the gently-smiling Buddha. The palace was recently restored and boasts stunning views from its rooftop. Those willing to brave a small trek further uphill will find the ruined bastion of an old fortress, accessible by a winding and stony path.
On the road at the foot of the hill are images of five Dhyani (or ‘celestial’) Buddhas carved on the surface of tall, flat rocks. Just outside the Shey palace is another monastery called Dresthang. This gompa has a gigantic, two-storey, rock carved statue of a seated Buddha, which was installed during the reign of King Singge Namgyal. Its walls have some fine mural paintings of Guru Padmasambhava, Atisa, Tsong-kha-pa and other Buddhist saints. Also in Shey is the revered Shah Hamdan mosque, said to have been built by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (or Shah Hamdan), the great Sufi saint-scholar who visited Ladakh in 1381. Legend has it that Hamdani was invited to Shey by the queen of Ladakh, who wanted to be blessed with a child. When, indeed, her first child was born after the saint’s visit, the queen gifted Hamdani a piece of land in Shey. Another story goes that Shey was once flooded; Hamdani touched the water with his stick and it receded, which pleased the queen and she gave him land. Though the Shah Hamdan mosque is the first mosque in Ladakh, the current building is quite recent: a single-stored, flat-roofed, mud-and-stone structure with a little garden outside. It is busiest during the month of Ramadan. The Druk Padma Karpo Institute in Shey became a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, flash floods in 2010 greatly damaged the school, though it is now being rebuilt.
Stok 3,560 m. 17 km. from Leh
Across the Indus, almost opposite Shey and in the shadow of the mighty Stok range, stands the sparsely populated village of Stok, with a palace and monastery. In 1834, when Leh was annexed by the armies of Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, the royal Namgyal family abandoned their palace at Leh and moved to Stok, where their descendents continue to live. The four-store Stok palace, has 80-odd rooms, most of which are open to the public and display a treasure of thangkas, costumes and jewels, including the Namgyal queen’s turquoiseand-gold yub-jhur (crown). A small café outside the palace offers hot drinks and lovely views (though you may find it’s closed early if there aren’t enough visitors!
Near the palace is the 14thcentury Stok monastery, founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus of the Geluk-pa sect. Though some of the original construction remains, the monastery’s main assembly hall is relatively recent – it was renovated about 50 years ago, and freshly painted with murals of Vajrapani, Avalokitesvara, Sakyamuni and Amchi (the Medicine Buddha), and more. A throne in this hall is reserved for the Dalai Lama.
Only 10 kms from Leh on the way to Shey is the pretty little village of Choglamsar, boasting a rare greenery in this otherwise stark landscape. Look out for the two long stretches of mani stones, carved with the Buddhist incantation to peace, Om Mani Padme Hum. These mani ‘walls’, are dated to the 17th century. As you near Choglamsar, fields of barley and wheat appear before you, dotted with low, whitewashed houses and poplar trees. Choglamsar is home to the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, established in 1962 to enable advanced research in Buddhist art and philosophy, and give students the opportunity to study a range of subjects, from Sanksrit to Mathematics. Travelers may like to visit the small museum, with its collection of Buddhist sculpture, thangkhas, archival photographs and more. Golfers may like to try out the nine-hole, 3,350-m golf course here, reputedly the second highest in the world, and called the ‘dragon’ course.
Stok Kangri (6,153 m), the highest peak in the Ladakh range, is a popular trek. Both amateurs and skilled mountaineers can easily scale its heights in summer; but only skilled mountaineers should attempt the trek in winters. Foreigners will need permits from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.
Thiksey 3,600 m. – 20 km. from Leh
Only a few kilometers from Shey on the Leh Manali highway is Thiksey, a relatively large village, with small shops, a school, hotels and eating places, besides its picturesque gompa – all of which make this the most popular fixture for tourists on the Leh-Hemis circuit. A motorable road leads uphill to the magnificent Thiksey monastery, one of the most-visited monasteries in Ladakh, not only for its proximity to Leh, but also because of its stunning location and architecture. The gompa was built in ascending levels on a low hill in 1430; and, like the Leh Palace, its distinctive, ‘terraced’ style of architecture has earned it comparisons with the 13-storeyed Potala Palace in Tibet. In fact, Thiksey gompa is often called ‘mini-Potala’. An enormous, 15-m tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, colored with gold paint, is the gompa’s main attraction. Crafted as recently as 1970 under the supervision of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, it took many years to complete. The gem studded jewels on its earlobes and around its neck, the elaborately carved crown and the enigmatic half-smile reflecting the deity’s divinity – these are both a worshiper and a photographer’s delight. Besides, the gompa’s assembly hall has murals of protector deities and some musical instruments. Those who want to enrich their visit to Thiksey – and don’t mind an early start – should try and arrive in time for the early morning prayers, which begin at 6.00 am, and feature ethereal music and chants.
Equally otherworldly are the panoramic views of the Indus valley below, with its small plots of earth and green stretching into the horizon, where the cloud-flecked sky of deep blue meets grey mountains, the highest of which is Stok Kangri. Thiksey’s Museum displays Buddhist artifacts, including Tantric ritual objects, some carved from human bones. The monastery also runs a school, which provides free education to any child who needs it; as well as an excellent restaurant, located at the foot of the hill, that serves sumptuous Tibetan food. Thiksey’s annual Gustor festival in October/November is a crowd puller. Gustor, meaning ‘sacrifice’, is a two-day celebration that concludes with the head lama ritually cutting a torma (dough cake) and scattering it in the four cardinal directions. The assassination of the Tibetan apostate King Lang Darma by a Buddhist monk in the mid-9th century is also enacted during this festival.
Those in the mood for a little adventure might like to visit Nyarma monastery, southeast of Thiksey and about 1 km north of the highway, along an unpaved road, from Rambipur village. Though entirely in ruins now, Nyarma is one of the monasteries built by the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo, and those willing to climb through the rubble will be rewarded with fragments of paintings from that time.
Stakna 25 km. from Leh.
Only a few kilometers beyond Thiksey, on the western bank of the Indus, Stakna village is accessible by a narrow bridge lined with colorful prayer flags. Perched right on top of an isolated hill, a little removed from the village, is Stakna gompa. Its name, meaning ‘Tiger’s Nose’, derives from the shape of the hill which resembles – for those with the imagination to see it, of course – a tiger leaping skywards. This quiet, peaceful monastery has Bhutanese roots – it was built on land granted to a Bhutanese scholar by the then Namgyal king, circa 1580. Its most valuable possession is a statue of Avalokitesvara said to have been brought from Kamrup in Assam, which is kept in the prayer hall. There is also a new 2-m high silver chorten. Another chapel houses a revered Bhutanese deity called Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, while smaller shrines house many works of art, including newly-painted murals and 400-year old sandalwood statues.
Takthok Gompa 46 km from Leh.
About 20 km off the Leh-Manali highway to the northeast, a little beyond the village of Sakti is Takthok gompa, the only surviving monastery of the Nyingma sect founded by Guru Padmasambhava in Ladakh. Literally ‘rock-roof’, Takthok Matho gompa Admission 20 was thus named because its roof and walls are made of rock – an unusual feature in Ladakh, where construction is commonly done with mud. In fact, the anomaly is easily explained, since the monastery is actually built around a rock cave. Guru Padmasambhava himself is said to have meditated here. The cave, called duphug lha-khang, is a popular pilgrimage with Buddhists who come to be blessed by the sacred water that drips from its ceiling. Called dubchu, the water performs the miraculous feat of flowing in winter, when temperatures in the region plummet far below zero and the world is ice. The cave also contains eight gilded statues of Padmasambhava; while more recent murals of the Guru decorate a new temple nearby, consecrated in 1980.
Matho 4,850 m. 26 km. from Leh
Perched on a hill west of the Indus, Matho gompa is off the main highway from Leh and thus not part of the Thiksey-Hemis circuit. Beautifully located, the monastery is fringed by poplar trees. In the summer months, these shine green like emeralds set in the otherwise rocky coronet of mountains. The monastery is precious in other ways too: this is the only gompa of the Sakya-pa sect of Buddhism in Ladakh. Founded in 1410 by Dorje Palzang, a Tibetan pilgrim, Matho is also known for its rather unique ‘oracle festival’ called Matho Nagrang. During the festival, two lamas are made receptacles for receiving oracular wisdom. These blindfolded monk-oracles then perform death-defying feats, engage in ritually cutting themselves with swords – and also make predictions for the future of Matho and Ladakh. Though much of the building is rather dilapidated, it contains some beautiful and valuable examples of Buddhist art. The monastery’s du-khang, for example, was recently renovated and enshrines a clay sculpture of Sakyamuni Buddha, gold and rust colored, sitting cross-legged on a lotus base. Besides its beauty, this image is also notable for its size: it is tiny, weighing only a few grams. In fact, Matho is known for its rather unusual collection of miniature sculptures, which stand in stark contrast to the enormous, larger-than-life figures housed in other monasteries in Ladakh. An international collaboration between two art institutions in Britain and France has founded the Matho Museum Project to preserve the most precious of the monastery’s sculptures, thankgas (dating from the 14th to 21st centuries) and ritual objects such as brass horns, ornaments made of bone, and the masks worn during Matho Nagrang. The museum is currently being built. The gompa’s gon-khang (chamber of protector deities, and here prohibited to women) is a windowless room with images of two oracle gods, the White and Red Rong-bstan, looming in the dark opposite the entrance. Ancient weapons, including ceremonial daggers, hang from pegs on the pillars here.
Chemrey 3,817 m 40 km from Leh
Sprawling along a low hill against a backdrop of vast, dream-like mountains, Chemrey gompa is best known for the fields of mustard blossoms that stretch below. When these flower, it is to create a veritable carpet of gold, reminiscent of the mustard fields of Punjab and a truly remarkable oddity in the otherwise barren Ladakh landscape. About 10 km off the Leh Manali highway to the northeast, on the Pangong road, Chemrey is a monastery of the Druk-pa Kargyutpa order, founded by Lama Tagsang Raschen and dedicated to King Singge Namgyal. Like many others in the region, the gompa was besieged and conquered by Mongol warriors in the late 17th century. Legend has it, however, that as the victorious Mongol king sat sipping a cup of tea, Chemrey’s head lama, hiding in a dark corner, shot a bullet through the king’s cup, which exploded in his hand – as if by magic! The king was stunned, and convinced that Goddess Kali ruled over this gompa. Not wanting to test the goddess’s patience, he made peace with the monks. So, even today, a Kali temple stands below the gompa’s hill. From here, a maze of pathways leads up to the gompa’s main buildings. Its assembly hall boasts a silver chorten and a set of ancient Tibetan texts with their title pages inscribed in silver and gold. The highlight of the monastery, however, is a giant, one-storey brass statue of Guru Padmasambhava, housed in the revamped lha-khang. Housing medieval Mongol costumes, weapons and Tibetan manuscripts, the gompa’s museum is a must-see. The monastery’s annual festival, Chemrey Angchok, with its colorful masked dances and parades, is also well worth a visit, even though it usually falls in bitterly-cold November.
Lamayuru 3,420 m 127 km. from Leh
The National Highway 1A that charts a fairly straight route north-westwards along the Indus from Leh to Kargil contains some of the oldest and most beautifully located monasteries of Ladakh Alchi, of course, with its miraculously preserved murals, is a favorite with historians and photographers as well as tourists. Being under 70 km from Leh, it is easily visited in a day-trip, and you may even want to take in one or two more sights en route, such as the uniquely built Spituk (only 9 km. from Leh), or the mud castle at Basgo (about 30 km. before Alchi). Those with the time and inclination to venture beyond should certainly not miss the extensive – and extensively renovated – Lamayuru gompa, built in ‘terraced’ levels along a mountainside. A short diversion leads to the more isolated Wanla gompa, built about the same time as Lamayuru, and one that those with an explorer’s streak will enjoy discovering. Since Lamayuru is almost 130 km. from Leh – indeed, half-way to Kargil. It is a good idea to spend the night here at one of the many small guesthouses before either returning to Leh or proceeding to Kargil, from where it is another day’s drive to the lonely treasures of the Zanskar valley.
Tucked in a bowl-shaped valley, surrounded by dusty mountains on all sides, Lamayuru leaves most travellers awestruck by its beauty. About half-way between Leh and Kargil, the village also has one of the oldest and most spectacular monasteries in Ladakh, precariously positioned on a high, craggy spur. The monastery is sometimes called ‘Yun-dung’ (or ‘swastika’) following a story that tells of how there was once a big lake here, whose water was drained by a greatly spiritual monk, who formed grains of corn into this shape in a libation performed here. In its architecture, the gompa ‘adheres to the traditional mandala plan, of a central temple surrounded by four temples in the cardinal directions’ (M N Rajesh, The Buddhist Monastery). Little of the original, however, remains today. While Lamayuru town was long an important stop on the Silk Route, the monastery was established in the 11-century by the sage Naropa. The Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo, too, is said to have contributed to its construction. Though much of the gompa is newly-built, some of its ancient heritage survives in the murals along the walls of the Senge-Sgang, which may date to Rinchen Zangpo’s arrival.
The Senge-Sgang’s antiquity is further proved by a central stucco image of Vairochana seated on a lion throne, with Garuda and a pair of sea monsters on either side. Lamayuru’s newer buildings include a du-khang, gon-khang and two zimchhungs. The du-khang has wall paintings of Avalokiteshvara and other deities, and a mandala of Vairochana. The gon-khang’s walls are brightly painted with murals and dancing skeletons. Lamayuru hosts two annual masked dance festivals, when all the resident monks and monks from the surrounding gompas gather together to pray and participate in the esoteric chham dance. Those who plan their trip to coincide with the festivals will also see a unique chorten made of coloured butter!
Less than 10 kms before you reach Lamayuru, a 7 km. diversion off the Leh-Srinagar highway goes south to Wanla village, which has a gompa dedicated to Avalokiteshwara perched on a ridge above it. The most ancient parts of the Wanla monastery may be up to 600 years old, and a few ruins of the medieval fort that once enclosed it stand nearby.
Located on the bank of Bhaga river, Darcha in Lahaul at an elevation of 3,360 meters is a small village that is mostly inhabited by the Himalayan tribes. It is well mentioned in the book ‘Rough Guide to India’ as “a lonely cluster of dry-stone huts and dingy tent camps”. The popular Darcha Lamayuru trek is a journey that connects the remote terrains of Himachal Pradesh with the ancient hues of Indo – Tibetans in Lamayuru at Ladakh. The trail passes through a wide barren landscape and cascade of snow fed ranges, high altitude mountain passes and quaint villages. Further, it embarks upon the beautiful vicinity of alpine lakes where one can get acquainted with the wild whispers of several Himalayan wildlife, which includes migrating birds endangered animals. Interestingly, this rugged trekking tour to Lamayuru from Darcha will also travel across different high passes including Shingo la 5,090 at meters, Parfi la at 3,950 meters, Hanamun la at 4,800 meters, Sengge la at 5,060 meters, Sirsir la and Prinkti la. The trekking routes also require crossing magnanimous rivers like Chandra, Bhaga, Tsarap, Doda, Zanskar and Indus. The Darcha Lamayuru trek goes deep into the far-flung monasteries and gompas and the major attractions are the Sani Gompa, Mani Gompa, Bardan Gompa, Karsha Gompa, Lingshed Gompa and Lamayuru Gompa.