8 magnificent monasteries you must visit in Leh-Ladakh
For some, Leh-Ladakh epitomises the spirit of adventure, for others it’s a spiritual journey. Spiritual tourism is a major attraction in Ladakh, and now with better roads and connectivity, it’s no longer difficult to reach Leh. There are over 15 monasteries spread out all over Ladakh, and you have to spend more than a week in Leh to soak in the divine experience.
Here are a few monasteries that you should not miss:
1. Thikse – Located on top of a hill in Thiksey village, the monastery is affiliated to the Gelug sect (Yellow Hat) of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s notably the largest gompa in central Ladakh. The entire structure is a twelve-storey complex that houses many such items of Buddhist art, wall paintings, swords, statues etc. One of the prime attractions of the monastery is the 15-metre high statue of Maitreya Buddha installed inside, which is the largest in Ladakh and occupies almost two storeys of the building. The monastery is also known as the ‘mini Potala’ because it resembles like the Potala Palace in Leh, which used to the seat of the Dalai Lamas.
2. Shey – The monastery and the palace are situated on a hillock in Shey, neary 15 km south of Leh city. It used to be the summer capital of Ladakh. Built in 1655 by King Deldan Namgyal, the major attraction in Shey is the large gold-plated copper statue of the seated Shakyamuni Buddha. Apparently, it’s the second largest statue in Ladakh. A number of butter-lit lamps are placed inside the shrine which burn continuously for a year non-stop before they being replaced to continue the flame without interruption. It signifies divinity and purity of the shrine. There’s a widely held belief that women without children offer special prayers to seek blessings to beget children.
3. Stok – This 14th century monastery was founded by Lama Nawang Lotus, during the reign of king Takpa Bumlde. It belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism and currently has around 20 lamas living there as permanent residents. When you enter the courtyard you will come across intricate mural paintings of the ‘Guardians of The Four Directions’. The entrance wall of the monastery depicts various divinities: on the left side, the central image is that of Vajrapani (Vajra-In-Hand), while the image depicted on the left is of Avalokitesvara with his four-armed manifestation. It’s widely believed that Avalokitesvara is believed to be reincarnated in the Dalai Lama. Around 2 km from the gompa lies the Stok Palace which was built in 1820 and is still the summer home of Ladakhi royalty from the Namgyal dynasty.
4. Alchi- The monastery’s foundation dates back some 1000 years back when a translator by the name of Guru Rinchen Zangpo built the structure between 958-1055 AD. The gompa is located in Alchi village, 70 km from Leh and is differentiated from other villages in Ladakh for its lush green landscape. The temple complex has some marvelous wall paintings, with one of its walls featuring thousands of miniature paintings of Lord Buddha. Since it’s no longer an active religious center, monks from Likir look after the complex. The religious activities from the temple complex have been shifted to Likir (30 km away) by the Yellow Hat Sect (Gelugpa). There are small tea shops, restaurants and souvenir shops for tourists to enjoy the surrounding area.
5. Likir – Established in 1065 by Lama Duwang Chosje, the monastery was under the command of the fifth King of Ladakh Lachen Gyalpo. Likir is a classic example of Fort Monastery, where small fortresses were perched on strategic height, making use of the terrain and reinforcing it with thick walls to form a solid inner core. The main attraction of the monastery is the 23 m high statue of Maitreya buddha.
6. Hemis – Located 45 km away from Leh city in Hemis, the monastery belongs to Drukpa lineage. It is reportedly the largest and the most well-known spiritual centre in Ladakh. Built under the reign of King Sengge Namgyal, Hemis plays host to an annual dance festival dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava (Rinpoche). It is widely believed that Lord Padmasambhava’s mission was to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings. And the fact that he was born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as rightly predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni. Therefor Hemis observes a year of extravaganza in his memory. This sacred ritual, where a number of musicians play traditional music large pan drums, four pair of cymbals, huge wind instruments and trumpets, is believed to give spiritual strength and good health.
7. Lamayuru – It’s one of the oldest gompas in central Ladakh. Founded by Mahasiddhacharya Naropa in the 11th century, the name Lamayuru essentially means ‘Sauwastika’ and stands for ‘eternity’. There are several legends associated with Lamayuru: one says Lamayuru was originally a lake that receded back up to the mountains after blessings from a lama to free up space for a monastery. Lamayuru has a total population of around 150 monks as permanent residents and is host to two annual masked dance festivals that take place in the second and fifth months of Tibetan lunar calendar. This is the time when monks from surrounding areas gather together to pray.
8. Diskit – This 14th century monastery is not only the oldest, but the largest gompa in Nubra Valley, Ladakh. To reach Diskit, one has to cross the mighty Khardung La pass (18000 ft approx) from Leh, one of the highest motorable pass in the world. The monastery belongs to the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was handed over to the Rinpoche of Thikse monastery during the 18th century. The foremost attraction is the larger-than-life statue of Maitreya Buddha perched on top of the monastery. Inside the temple precincts, one can see many images of fierce Guardian deities as well as a huge drum. Interestingly, the monastery , which houses around 100 monks, runs a school inside its premises. It teaches Tibetan children who are educated in scientific knowledge like computer skills and English language among others.