Precarious and powerful, Ladakh’s gompas or Buddhist monasteries dominate their stark surroundings. ‘Gompa’ means a solitary place, and indeed, if you visit the famous monasteries of Hemis or Lamayuru, tucked magnificently among folds of mountains, you do appreciate the word. Within the gompas are dark prayer halls with centuries-old frescoes often lit by a single lovely shaft of sunshine from a skylight; ferocious-looking icons of guardian deities; the tantric depictions of sexual union; the concentrated fragrance of ghee and incense; the deep chanting of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara’s mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (hail the jewel in the lotus). The solitariness is joyously compromised during the monastery festivals, when the gompas are absolutely full of locals and visitors. Every gompa has its own festival, where masked dances alternate with ritual chanting. Ladakh’s most famous gompa festival is the Tse-chu at Hemis Gompa.

These Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are a whole world in themselves, with rooms for monks to stay, schools for young monks, library, kitchens and attached fields. The helpful resident lamas answer your questions and often give richer histories of their monasteries than the tourist guides. The main building is rectangular with a series of inner halls, passages and open courtyards within. In the larger monasteries like Thiksey and Chemrey, the spaces of worship are in the upper levels — the du-khang or assembly hall, which also holds the sacred Kangyur and Tengyur texts; the zimchung or head lama’s quarter; the gonkhang which houses the guardian deities; the lhakhangs dedicated to a particular deity; among others.

Prashant Panjiar
Lamayuru gompas
Lamayuru gompas

In some older monasteries such as Alchi, these are usually separate buildings. Besides large statues of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Taras, the shrine rooms also have drawings of the kalachakra or Buddhist wheel of life, icons representing reincarnated lamas in wall recesses, mandalas, rows of prayer wheels, thangkas and manis, or stones carved with prayers.

Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism — variously known as Tantric Buddhism, Mantrayana, Tantrayana, or Diamond Vehicle — is the prevalent form of Buddhism in Ladakh. Along with Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana, it is often considered the third ‘vehicle’ of Buddhism. Vajrayana promises full enlightenment in a much shorter time, even in the same life, and the name comes from the Sanskrit root vajra, meaning ‘thunderbolt’. Vajrayana propagates the use of Tantra techniques to attain Buddhahood, including reciting mantras, practising hand mudras, using visual aids such as cosmic mandala diagrams, and rituals rooted in Vajrayana cosmology and beliefs. Philosphically, however, Varayana Buddhism takes its cues from Mahayana.

Of the four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Ladakh’s oldest monastery Tak Thok belongs to the oldest sect, the Nyingmapa, which has its origins in the 8th century when Guru Padmasambhava first transmitted the teaching of the Buddha from India to Tibet. All the other schools followed the second transmission of Buddhism by the Bengali master Atisa in the 11th century, whose disciple Dromtonpa established the now defunct Kadampa tradition. The 11th-century Karma Kagyu sect, headed by the Karmapa, is the second oldest sect and is associated with five great adepts: the Bengalis Tilopa and Naropa, and their Tibetan lineage descendants Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. The late 11th-century Sakyapa sect has only one monastery in Ladakh — Matho Gompa near Leh. The Gelugpa sect, founded in the 14th century by Je Tsongkhapa, is the youngest and most dominant of the four. Its temporal head is the Dalai Lama and spiritual head, the Ganden Tripa. Most monasteries in Ladakh are of the Gelugpa tradition and the Drukpa Kagyu sub-lineage of the Karma Kagyu sect.

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Matho gompas
Matho gompas

HOW TO GO ABOUT IT

It is impossible to visit all Ladakh’s gompas in a single trip. Our coverage is arranged by direction, in increasing distance from Leh: first, westward along the Indus, on and off the Leh-Srinagar Highway; then, eastward along the Indus, on and off the Leh-Manali Highway. Multiple trips along either direction would be needed to do full justice. Leh travel agencies offer gompa tours with varying sights and rates. The Leh Taxi Operator’s Union (Tel: 01982-253039, 252723, Mobile: 09419178223) has a fixed rate list.

For a leisurely discovery, base yourself at one of the gompas which offer simple accommodation, or in village guest houses. Likir, Alchi, Basgo and Lamayuru are all great bases for visiting the gompas in the Sham region off the Srinagar highway, as are the camps and hotels at Uleytokpo. All the gompas in the east are easily visited from Leh, but you could also stay at Stok, Thiksey or Hemis. All these options afford quieter holidays away from the tourist bustle of Leh, and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Ladakhi way of life.

Saka Dawa (May-June) is the most auspicious month of the Tibetan calendar, the month when the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (death) all took place. It is said that all auspicious activities begin in this month. In particular, the full moon day of the month is the holiest. Monasteries across Ladakh celebrate the whole month with great fervour, it is still relatively early in the Ladakh season and hence the perfect time for a gompa tour.

TIP Dress codes in the shrines are not strict, but do take off your shoes, talk softly, don’t touch religious artefacts, disturb lamas at prayer or photograph them without their permission

Lesley A Esteves
Spituk Gompa against the backdrop of the Indus Valley and Zanskar Range
Spituk Gompa against the backdrop of the Indus Valley and Zanskar Range

GOMPAS WEST OF LEH

The following gompas lie on and off the Srinagar-Leh NH1D. A few monasteries charge a nominal entry fee of ₹25-50 and are open all day, but from 8 am-4 pm you are more likely to find a lama to show you around.

Spituk

Overlooking the airfield and the Indus, perched picturesquely on a small hill, is the Gelug monastery of Spituk (pronounced ‘Pituk’ and meaning ‘Effective as an Example’), thought to be built over an earlier 11th-century Kadampa monastery whose remains may be moren at the summit of the hill. It is the seat of the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, for whom Leh
Airport is named. The smaller Gelug gompas in the Leh region, including at Sankar and Saboo, come under Spituk Gompa. Above Spituk’s du-khang are small chapels dedicated to Je Tsongkhapa, which also house a library of his writings. The most interesting aspect of this monastery and unique in all of Ladakh is a chapel devoted to Tara, with images of her 21 manifestations. These are of superb craftsmanship.

The monastery is also known for its collection of Buddhist artefacts, with ancient masks and arms, icons and numerous thangka paintings. Near the foot of the hill, to the northwest, are rock engravings of Tsongkhapa and his disciples as well as a large near-effaced figure of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. A little beyond the monastery is the impressive Mahakaal Temple dedicated to Vajrabhairava, the most wrathful form of Manjushri. Vajrabhairava’s face is bared only once annually, during the Spituk Gustor Festival.

Vandana Mohindra
Defying gravity at Magnetic Hill
Defying gravity at Magnetic Hill

The two-day Spituk Gustor Festival in January is one of Ladakh’s most famous monastic festivals (Jan 28-29 in 2014). A hallmark of the Gustor is the chham masked dance  performed by the monks. On the last day, a storma or sacrificial figure made of dough is destroyed, signifying the triumph of good over evil.

From Spituk, also visit the small Phey Gompa nearby. Continue west on NH1D for 4 km and, after the GREF workshops, look out for the fork in the highway. Turn left here to Phey, 3 km down the road. The drive towards Phey affords a beautiful view of the curving Indus and its riverine islands, where the road almost touches the river.

Location 8 km south-west of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D and behind the airport wall, take the Link Road left to Spituk. Taxi from Leh to Spituk (30 mins) costs ₹259 for a drop, ₹338 return

TIP An easy trek leads from Spituk to Stok Palace, east of Leh

Phyang

Built in the 16th century, this Kagyu gompa dates to the time of Gyalpo Tashi Namgyal. It was plundered during the Dogra invasion of Ladakh in the late 1830s, but retained its excellent collection of Tibetan and Mongol armour, old manuscripts, and rich array of murals and thangkas, of which the most impressive is a huge thangka of Skyabje Jigten Gombo, founder of the Drigungpa monastic order, unveiled once every 3 years. The gompa’s annual two-day Phyang Tsedup Festival is a good time to visit. It falls in July (24-25 in 2014).

Location 17 km north-west of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D for about 7 km beyond Spituk Monastery, till the Indane plant. Here, a road goes right and uphill to Phyang, 6 km away. Taxi from Leh to Phyang (40 mins) costs ₹649 for a drop, return ₹843

Lesley A Esteves
Local guides in Basgo village

Patthar Sahib and Magnetic Hill

The legend of Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, revered by Buddhists and Sikhs alike, says that when the road between Leh and Srinagar was being built, the engineers were determined to blast a large rock that was in the way. The Ladakhis protested but the determined engineers pressed on, setting the date for the dynamiting. When the day arrived they found scores of Ladakhis, monks and laity alike, surrounding the rock in a protective circle. What they were saving from destruction was a palm imprint of the first Sikh guru, Nanak, who had travelled to Ladakh in the early 16th century. The Tibetans have long revered the guru as Nanak Lama, an incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. The shrine, a long low building along the highway, was built and continues to be maintained by the Army.

Continuing on NH1D towards Basgo, 4 km ahead of Patthar Sahib is a small dip in the road beside a signboard announcing ‘Magnetic Hill’. Also known as Gravity Hill, these are places where the layout of the surrounding land produces an optical illusion which makes a slight downhill slope look like an uphill slope. Thus, a car left out of gear will magically appear to be rolling uphill! From here, continue 3 km ahead to gape at the confluence where the Indus River receives its Zanskar tributary, just short of Nimmu.

Location 26 km west of Leh on NH1D via Spituk

Basgo

Leh stands at an equal distance between two former capitals of Ladakh — Shey and Basgo — both also beside the Indus. Basgo, beyond Nimmu, is the former capital on the western side, a spectacular and dramatic site above the Indus that was the seat of a branch of the Ladakhi ruling family in the 15th and 16th centuries. Following NH1D west from Nimmu, about 4 km ahead you’ll spot the long mani wall before Basgo Village, 2 km ahead. A small road to the right leads off the highway and across the Ney stream to Basgo Gompa, 1½ km above the village. But it’s much lovelier to stop at the village and walk up.

Lesley A Esteves
Ruins of the old Namgyal capital at Basgo, home to several temples
Ruins of the old Namgyal capital at Basgo, home to several temples

You’ll be accosted by village kids who’ll guide you with great pride up between the village houses to the ruins. On the way down, villagers will likely invite you into their homes for a cup of butter tea. They’ll tell you about the many Bollywood movies shot against the magnificent backdrop of Basgo, which enjoys a truly royal location overlooking a point where the Indus turns into a gorge, its ruined temples and fortifications, isolated and eerie, rising dramatically into the sky.

As in the other royal residences at Leh and Shey, the palace at Basgo too incorporates places of worship, though as at Alchi, these are no longer living centres of worship. Acknowledged as the most beautiful temple after Alchi, Gyalpo Tsewang Namgyal’s Maitreya Gompa has the only surviving original 16thcentury murals of Ladakh. The main gigantic icon is flanked by Bodhisattvas on either side. Vajrapani is painted above the entrance. Below the fierce divinities are court scenes of Tsewang Namgyal and his family dressed in Kashmiri-Mughal style.

The Ser-zangs, or Gold and Copper Temple, is named after the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, the Kangyur and Tengyur, made of these metals and dedicated as an act of merit by Sengye Namgyal. Here, too, the main image is a gigantic two-storey-high Maitreya. Behind the head is an alcove with murals of the Kagyu masters — Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa. Housed in a glass case are ancient icons, some exquisitely crafted Indian and Tibetan masterpieces. The third temple is a small one below the Ser-zangs, also dedicated to Maitreya by Skalzang Dolma, Sengye Namgyal’s wife. The frescoes behind the main image are of tantric deities locked in sexual union.

Location 43 km west of Leh on NH1D via Spituk and Nimmu Getting There Taxi from Leh to Basgo (1 hr) costs ₹1,041 for a drop, return ₹1,351

Jitender Gupta
Sham region’s Likir Gompa comes alive during the Dosmoche festival in February
Sham region’s Likir Gompa comes alive during the Dosmoche festival in February

Stay near Basgo

Travel further up the Basgo village road along the Ney stream to Thagchokling (Website: thagchokling.de), a Gelug retreat centre built by Germans in 2002, housing a 50-ft Shakyamuni statue. Some come here to retreat from the world, study Tibetan Buddhism and meditate; plain old holidayers are also welcome.

Location Thagchokling is 17 km up the Ney Valley from Basgo

Likir

Likir Gompa is in a lovely location, set away from the highway. Founded between the 12th and 13th centuries, Likir was first associated with the Kadampa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 15th century, it was taken over by the Gelugpa and today is headed by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Ngari Rinpoche. The present monastery was built after a fire destroyed the older one in the 18th century. The main du-khang houses the scriptures and has nothing out of the ordinary to view. A smaller du-khang has a small puja room upstairs. In this room are a number of beautiful images framed in elaborate wooden carvings, as well as some magnificent thangkas, both old and new. Likir’s 2-day Dosmoche Festival (Feb 27-28, 2014) is akin to the celebrations in Leh.

Location 59 km north-west of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D past Spituk, Patthar Sahib and Nimmu to Basgo. Continue for 10 km on NH1D, and look out for the fork in the road. The right fork goes to Likir Village, 1 km off the highway. Likir Gompa is 5 km further up the road from the village. Taxi from Leh to Likir (11/4 hrs) costs ₹1,430 for a drop, return ₹1,858

Stay in Likir

Hotel Lhukhil (Tel: 227137, Mob: 09419840149; Tariff: ₹3,000) has 22 comfy rooms with attached bath. Norboo Spoon Guest House (Tel: 227137, Mob: 09419840149; Tariff: ₹1,000) offers 12 rooms with a common bathroom.

Jitender Gupta
Villagers at Alchi
Villagers at Alchi

Alchi

However many monasteries you see in Ladakh, you will not see anything like Alchi. To begin with, it’s not a gompa but a choskhor, a sacred enclave and a seat of learning. No monks live at Alchi and it is lamas from nearby Likir who look after it. For another, Alchi holds a record of Buddhism from the time of the 11th and 12th centuries that is quite unique. A place of importance in these centuries, it was abandoned as a place of worship — for unknown reasons — in possibly the early 16th century, which accounts for the superb preservation of its exquisite frescoes. These rare pieces of art have not been painted over for centuries. Alchi also thus depicts Buddhist art from before the time Ladakh looked to Tibet for religious inspiration, when Kashmiri artists were painting Ladakh’s monastery walls in their style. Also, unlike other gompas, which are perched high up on the hillsides, Alchi is a tiny complex of courtyards and shrines nestling in a small valley beside the Indus.

Popular belief credits the great 11thcentury sage and scholar, Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo (the Great Translator), who is believed to have founded 108 monasteries in the Indian Himalaya, with the setting up of Alchi. Ladakh’s oldest willow tree is here — reputed to have sprung from the staff of Rinchen Zangpo. A rare portrait of him exists in the Lotsawa Lhakhang shrine here. The central image is of the Buddha flanked by Avalokiteshvara and Rinchen Zangpo.

Alchi’s du-khang and unique Sum Tsek temple can keep the art lover absorbed for hours. The Sum Tsek’s architecture is unparalleled in the entire Himalayan region. Its mud walls rise three storeys high, housing the giant figures of three four-armed Bodhisattvas. In the centre is Maitreya, four and a half metres tall, coloured terracotta red. He is flanked on the left by Avalokiteshvara, white in colour, and on the right by the yellow Bodhisattva, Manjushri. Their robes are painted with exquisite scenes of Buddhist lore in gold, green and red. The ceiling is cut to enable these Bodhisattvas to tower up. On the walls are priceless murals. The ravages of time and rain have streaked and damaged some of these murals, in some cases beyond repair. The unique painting of the Green Tara goddess, almost hidden from view in an alcove to the right of the doorway, has been saved perhaps by her very inaccessibility.

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11th-century Alchi choskhor
11th-century Alchi choskhor

One enters the Alchi du-khang through a courtyard with colonnaded verandahs into a small, dark chamber dedicated to the figures of the Five Tathagathas. More delightful than the bewildering array of divinities perhaps, are the painted scenes of secular life, adorning either side of the main entrance. To the left, at eye level, is the royal drinking scene. Notwithstanding the alcohol, their majesties sport large halos. Below, to the right, is a battle scene. On the right of the door is an unusual tree, said to be the Tree of Enlightenment. The secular scenes all exhibit a rather Central Asian air.

Besides these are three smaller structures: The Temple of Manjushri, with four clay statues of the Bodhisattva, rather garishly restored. The Lhakhang Soma, or new temple, containing murals of a later and contrasting style to the splendour of the older buildings. Lastly, there are three entrance stupas or Ka-ka-ni chortens, through which one can walk. These chortens are hollowed from the inside and decorated with murals. Two of them show Rinchen Zangpo together with Kashmiri teachers.

Entry fee Indians ₹20, foreigners ₹50 Timings 8 am-6 pm, lunch 1-2 pm

TIP Carry a flashlight, as the interiors of the Alchi complex have no electric lights for fear of damaging the paintings. Photography is not permitted inside; you may only photograph the exteriors

The Indus flowing timelessly behind the enclave provides some peaceful, secluded moments. Alchi village too is pleasant, with more poplars and apricots than people, white-washed houses and guest houses, a few souvenir stalls and restaurants. While at Alchi, also visit Saspol across the bridge. A series of caves in the hill above Saspol village were once used for meditation. They are in ruins today, but some wall paintings survive. Above the caves are the ruins of a fort of unknown origin. Be cautious if you climb up to explore it — the path is rough and strewn with loose rocks. The Saspol Gompa on the highway houses a two storey statue of Maitreya in the du-khang.

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Murals in the Sum Tsek 
Murals in the Sum Tsek

Location 68 km north-west of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D past Spituk, Nimmu and Basgo to Saspol. Watch out for the Alchi Bridge 2 km ahead of Saspol. Take the prayer-flagstrewn bridge across the Indus. Alchi Village is 4 km ahead. Taxi from Leh to Alchi (1½ hrs) costs ₹1,690 for a drop, return ₹2,197. Minibuses also run from Leh to Alchi morning and evening

Stay in Alchi

Alchi Resort (Tel: 01982-227177, Mobile: 09419218636; Website: alchiresort. tripod.com; Tariff: ₹4,780, with meals) is the village’s upmarket option, with all mod cons and a restful gazebo at its centre. Though the huts are pretty standard on the inside, they are built in the rustic Ladakhi style. Alchi View Guest House (Tel: 227030, 252400, 257758, Mobile: 09419976186, 094692 62317; Tariff: ₹2,500, with meals) is about 5 km from Alchi and is a great option for trekking, rafting, camping and sightseeing. They have eight rooms with attached bathrooms and a dining room. Zimskhang Holiday Home (Tel: 227085- 86, Mob: 09419179715; Tariff: ₹4,000, all meals) has hacienda-style rooms overlooking a courtyard with tables and chairs under trees. The deluxe rooms are much more cheery; food is good. Hotel Samdupling (Tel: 227104, Leh Tel: 01982-253294, Mobile: 09419178391, 09622964340; Tariff: ₹3,900, with meals) is a reasonably good option, right near the temple complex. They have 20 rooms, a restaurant, Internet and can arrange trekking, camping and sightseeing. Hotel Alchi Choskor (Tel: 227084, Mob: 09419826363; Tariff: ₹1,200) near the temples is a good budget option with 13 rooms. It has a restaurant and Internet too.

Most Alchi hotels have their own restaurants, cafés or meal plan. Other eateries have basic staples. We’d suggest asking your waiter for authentic Ladakhi cuisine, like we did, or you’ll get served the usual Continental-Indian menu.

Arti Agarwal
Sacred Kangyur and Tengyur scriptures kept in all gompas
Sacred Kangyur and Tengyur scriptures kept in all gompas

Lamayuru

The earliest surviving monastery of Ladakh, known as Yung-drung, or the Swastika, Lamayuru is located on a rocky promontory high above the village. The site is said to have been chosen by the Kashmiri yogi, Naropa, in the early 11th century. It’s possible that this was a site of the pre-Buddhist Bon faith. Later, the monastery was expanded and embellished by Rinchen Zangpo. Naropa, a great scholar and debater of Nalanda University, suddenly realised that all his knowledge was merely theoretical. He left the university and wandered alone in search of his guru, whom he believed to be one of the 84 Mahasiddhas, Tilopa. What he saw when he finally found him did little to inspire confidence: the mad, bedraggled yogi was frying a fish for his dinner, which would have been acceptable to the devout Buddhist pandit, had the fish not been alive. Scandalised by this behaviour the would-be disciple attempted to beat a hasty retreat, when a scornful Tilopa snapped his fingers, upon which the fish returned unharmed to the lake. Having successfully demonstrated the illusory nature of the universe, Tilopa shooed the pandit away. But Naropa’s entreaties prevailed and he lived and practiced with his master for 12 years before becoming an adept in tantra himself. He wrote the famous treatise, The Six Yogas of Naropa, and became the guru of the Tibetan yogi, Marpa, who in turn taught Tibet’s most celebrated yogi, Milarepa, who in turn taught Gampopa, the adept who established the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although the interior of the duk-hang at Lamayuru is less dramatic than many other monasteries, one feature makes the visit worthwhile. Ask the monk on duty to show you Naropa’s cave. The mouth of the cave is behind a glass wall, but it still elicits a thrill to flash a torchlight in and catch a glimpse of where the great adept meditated.

The oldest part of the complex is below the du-khang and is in disrepair. Ask a local to show you the way or you may get lost in the narrow dark alleys. On entering the temple you may be surprised to see a life-sized image of Vairochana Buddha, who was worshipped extensively in Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo’s time. The other Dhyani Buddhas occupy subordinate positions. There are murals, worn from the passage of time, of mandalas and tantric deities, and a carved doorway, somewhat like the ones at Alchi.

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Wanla’s gompa is considered to be the most powerful for blessings in the region
Wanla’s gompa is considered to be the most powerful for blessings in the region

Wandering around the multi-levelled complex, discovering new perspectives on the mountains, is a pleasure. Lamayuru along with Phyang belongs to a sub-sect of the Kagyu School, the Drikung Kagyu. The 2-day Lamayuru Kapgyat Festival is an excellent time to visit (June 24-25, 2014).

Location 121 km W of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D past Spituk, Nimmu, Saspol, Uleytokpo, Nyurla and Temisgam to Khaltse. At the Khaltse Check Post, don’t continue straight along the road to Batalik. Instead, turn left, staying on NH1D, which crosses the Indus and continues towards Lamayuru. About 5 km after Khaltse comes a fork in the road; take the left fork to stay on NH1D. Another 5 km later comes a second fork. The left goes to Wanla Gompa; continue straight to Lamayuru. Taxi from Leh to Lamayuru (3 hrs) charges ₹3,277 for a drop, return ₹4,238. JKSRTC buses from Leh to Srinagar halt at Lamayuru

Stay in Lamayuru

A very pleasant place to stay, with a breathtaking view of the monastery bang in front, Hotel Moonland (Tel: 01982- 224576, Mobile: 09419888508, 094198 19552; Tariff: ₹3,500, with two meals) has 25 rooms with attached bath, hot water and good food. Hotel Fotola (Tel: 224528, Mob: 09469048470; Tariff: ₹2,600 with two meals) is right below the monastery, on the highway. It has 10 rooms with attached bath and hot water.
Also close to the highway is Dragon Guest House (Tel: 224501, Mob: 09469294037, 09469522237; Tariff: ₹500-1,200). It has 12 rooms, some with attached bath, a pleasant garden restaurant and Internet. There’s also the Hotel Niranjana (Tel: 224555, Mob: 09410810534; Tariff: ₹2,800, with meals), run by the Lamayuru Monastery. It has 20 rooms and a meditation hall. The bathrooms are common. Hotel Lumbini (Tel: 252528; Website: hotel lumbiniladakh.com; Tariff: ₹2,000- 5,500) has 20 rooms with attached bathrooms, a restaurant, and hot water. Hotel Shangri-la is a fairly basic hotel offering stunning views of the gompa and across the valley.

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Stok Palace, still home to the Ladakh royal family
Stok Palace, still home to the Ladakh royal family

Wanla

This gompa is also associated with Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, and is a contemporary of Alchi, dating over a millennia old, and may also be the work of Kashmiri artisans from Ladakh’s pre- Tibetan era. Though not as famous on the tourist circuit as Alchi and Lamayuru, due to its location in a side valley off NH1D, and humbler architectural style, it is considered by locals to be the most powerful for blessings in the region and is a favoured pilgrimage site. The three-storeyed Sumstek here is similar to Alchi’s, supported by wooden columns, with various Buddhas set in niches along the walls. The two other buildings in the Wanla complex are residences for monks.

Location 116 km W of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D past Spituk, Patthar Sahib, Nimmu, Basgo, Saspol, Uleytokpo and Nyurla to Khaltse. At the Khaltse Check Post, don’t continue straight along the road to Batalik. Instead, turn left, staying on NH1D, which crosses the Indus and continues towards Lamayuru. About 5 km after Khaltse comes a fork in the road; take the left fork to stay on NH1D. Another 5 km later comes another fork. Take the left down to Wanla, 7 km away. Taxi from Leh to Wanla (3½ hrs) charges ₹3,255 for a drop, return ₹4,231

Mulbekh

A pit stop on the highway between Leh and Kargil, the 7th-century Mulbekh Buddha is less than a 30-min drive ahead of the Fotu La pass. For those just driving past, Mulbekh tends to stop them in their tracks with an unexpected sight — an ancient 22-ft-tall image of the Maitreya Buddha carved into a rock face. The sacred figure is said to date to the 8th or 9th century CE, and the attention to detailing the pectoral and abdominal muscles, the high-arching eyebrows and full cheeks indicate that the figure of the future Buddha was in all probability sculpted by Kashmiri artists, making it one of the earliest examples of pre- Tibetan Buddhist sculptures in Ladakh. It’s partially obscured by a shrine and trees, so stop by for tea and wander over for a closer look.

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Stok Museum
Stok Museum

Location 181 km W of Leh Getting There Follow NH1D past Spituk, Nimmu, Basgo, Saspol, Uleytokpo, Nyurla and Temisgam to Khaltse. At the Khaltse Check Post, don’t continue straight along the road to Batalik. Instead, turn left, staying on NH1D, which crosses the Indus and continues towards Lamayuru. About 5 km after Khaltse comes a fork in the road; take the left fork to stay on NH1D. Another 5 km later comes a second fork; bear right to stay on NH1D for Lamayuru. Continue on NH1D past Lamayuru to Mulbekh via the Fotu La pass, Bodh Kharbu, Khangral and Namika La pass. Taxi from Leh to Mulbekh (5 hrs) charges ₹4,806 for a drop, return ₹5,624

Stay in Mulbekh

Nun Kun Deluxe Camp (Mob: 09419979372; Tariff: ₹3,960-4,620, with meals) is a good tented option here and a good base to explore the stretch between Lamayuru and Kargil. The 20 tents have attached bathrooms. The camp also provides oxygen cylinders, if needed.

GOMPAS EAST OF LEH

The following gompas lie on and off the Leh-Manali Highway. All are easily visited out of Leh and can be covered within a couple of day trips. But most also offer simple accommodation options for a quieter holiday outside of Leh. Taxi charges for the day trips are typically ₹2,274 for Leh-Shey-Thiksey- Hemis-Stok-Leh.

Stok Palace

Now less palace than a large Himalayan haveli, the Namgyal royal family of Ladakh has been living at Stok Palace since they were ousted by Jammu’s General Zorawar Singh in the aftermath of the Dogra invasion in the 1830s. The palace today houses a museum (entry fee: ₹50; 8 am-5 pm) that evokes the Namgyals’ once glorious past. The museum is the only part of the palace that’s open to tourists. One room is devoted to the instruments of war: swords, shields, quivers, bows and arrows, and matchlock guns.

Sonia Jabbar
Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Palace
Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Palace

There’s also a collection of old coins and government seals. Some old photographs adorn the walls; a few record Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Ladakh. The museum houses some very fine old thangkas in a wonderful state of preservation. One set of 35 representing the life of the Buddha, looks brand new in spite of being dated from the mid-16th century.

Location 15 km S of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway out of Leh past Saboo till Choglamsar. One km ahead is the right turn onto the Chushot Road. Follow the road across the Indus and soon you reach a fork. Turn left towards Chushot and 500 m ahead, turn right onto the Stok Road. Stok village is 5 km up the road

Stay in Stok

Hotel Skittsal (Tel: 01982-242051, 242049; Website: skittsal.com; Tariff: ₹4,700), is an excellent hotel for those wanting a base outside but close enough to Leh. Skittsal has 20 rooms and a restaurant and arranges trekking and cultural shows on request. Stok has a fair handful of small, family-run guest houses. Goopo (Tel: 242059) has two rooms, Yontung (Tel: 242027, Mob: 09906975297; Tariff: ₹1,000, with meals) near the palace has four rooms with attached bath. Thospa (Tel: 242361, Tariff: ₹800-1,200) has three rooms.

Shey

Standing on a spur which runs out almost to the edge of the Indus stands another old capital of the Ladakhi kings, in a pretty spot with numerous chortens, and graceful willows that dip their leaves into an artificial lake. Even after Sengye Namgyal had built the Leh Palace, the Ladakhi rulers continued to think of Shey Palace as their home until the Dogra invasion. Behind the palace are extensive remains of a fortress on the hill, said to be of the earliest ruins of Ladakh, dating to even before the Tibetan invasions of the 9-10th centuries. Shey’s whitewashed gompa stands out amidst the grey fort ruins.

Lesley A Esteves
Thiksey, the largest structure in Central Ladakh, is built like Lhasa’s Potala Palace
Thiksey, the largest structure in Central Ladakh, is built like Lhasa’s Potala Palace

The palace resembles the one at Leh. Incorporated into the palace is a temple with a copper and gold Shakyamuni Buddha, said to be the second-largest Buddha in Ladakh, installed in Deldan Namgyal’s time. Though the second storey of the monastery is usually locked, a monk should be able to show you the prayer room here — its walls are adorned with beautiful murals. Far more impressive is what is housed in an older, more modest structure some 300m away: A gigantic Shakyamuni sculpture, said to have been built by Nepalese craftsmen at the instance of Gyalpo Sengye Namgyal.

On the road below the palace is an engraving on the rock face of the Five Tathagathas, standing on lotuses. And in Shey village is the Masjid-e-Shah-e- Hamdan, which was built by the famous Kashmiri Muslim preacher Mir Sayyad Ali Hamadani around seven centuries ago.

Location 14 km SE of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway out of Leh past Choglamsar to Shey

Stay at Shey

The best accommodation in Shey are Botho Guest House (Mob: 09906987741, 09419185177; Tariff: ₹900, includes two meals), with 11 rooms and Shelkhar Guest House (Tel: 01982-247061, Mob: 09419177775; Tariff: ₹750, with meals) with six rooms. Other guest houses include Besthang (Tel: 267061, 267506, Mob: 09419177775; Tariff: ₹700, with meals) with five rooms.

Thiksey

The huge mid-15th century Gelugpa monastery of Thiksey, covering a whole hillside, is an impressive sight. It is built like the Potala Palace in Tibet and is indeed the largest structure in Central Ladakh. On entering you are immediately greeted by a temple on your right, which houses a huge 2-storey representation of the Maitreya Buddha, one of the largest Maitreya statues in Ladakh. The gold painted statue, though relatively new, diffuses an aura of serenity and beauty. You then move on to the dark, atmospheric du-khang. Here, you can see some old murals on the wall, mostly of tantric deities, often in sexual poses.

Courtesy J&K Tourism
Hemis Gompa’s Tse-chu in July is the most famous of Ladakh’s monastic festivals
Hemis Gompa’s Tse-chu in July is the most famous of Ladakh’s monastic festivals

There are wooden book racks with ancient manuscripts and the mystical smell of ghee and incense is omnipresent. Thiksey’s rooftop offers a stunning panoramic view of the fertile Indus Valley, guarded by mountains and the snowy Stok Range beyond. It’s well worth the climb, especially during the two-day Thiksey Gustor Festival (November 9- 10, 2014) in winter.

Stay at Thiksey

The high-end Chamba Thiksey Camp (Gurgaon Tel: 0124-4062480-81, Mobile: 09810265781; Website: thechamba thikseycamp.com; 6D/ 5N Package tariff: ₹2,24,910-2,45,355 per person) sets up from mid-June to mid-September at Thiksey. The tariff includes stay in luxury tents complete with butler, all meals, airport transfers, excursions and taxes. Excursions include rafting on the Indus, tours of Leh and Alchi, and much more.

Skalzang Chamba Hotel and Restaurant (Tel: 01982-267385, 267004; Tariff: ₹4,000-4,500) is run by Thiksey Gompa, and is located at the base of the gompa. It has 21 good rooms. Smaller guest houses with 4-6 rooms each include Kalon (Tel: 267029), Gyappa Thaiktree (Tel: 267650, Mob: 094193 72008; ₹1,500, with meals) and Kongma Nono (Tel: 267072, Mob: 09622980500; Tariff: ₹500). Tara Homestay (Mobile: 09906985911, 09622996524; Tariff: ₹700) with 8 rooms about 3 km from the monastery, is another good option.

A left turn off the Leh-Manali highway south of Thiksey gets you to the ruins of Nyarma Gompa, about 2 km south of Thiksey. Though there are no works of art to see here, it is well worth the detour to walk amidst the haunting ruins of the chortens and monastery buildings believed to have been built by Rinchen Zangpo in the 11th century.

Location 19 km SE of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway out of Leh past Saboo, Choglamsar and Shey to Thiksey

Lesley A Esteves
Stakna, or ‘Tiger Nose’ Gompa
Stakna, or ‘Tiger Nose’ Gompa

Hemis

Continuing east on the Leh-Manali Highway, you come to Karu. Here, cross the Indus River on a prayer flag strewn bridge and, after a few loops and twists, barley fields and poplar trees, Hemis reveals itself, vast yet cosily tucked away in a cleft of the Zanskar Range.

Hemis (entry fee: Indians ₹50, foreigners ₹100) is tucked into the side of a wooded gorge, fed by a clear mountain stream. This gompa of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage is associated with Guru Padmasambhava. Locally known as Changchubling, Hemis is the wealthiest, grandest and busiest gompa of Ladakh, founded in the 1630s by Taktsang Repa under King Sengye Namgyal. Taktsang Repa also founded the gompas at Hanle and Chemrey. The verandah surrounding the main courtyard is held up with dark maroon wooden columns topped with grimacing dragons. The only sound is the wind catching the prayer flags hung from the columns. It’s hard to imagine the empty courtyard thronging with pilgrims and dancers during the annual Hemis Tse-chu, the most famous of Ladakh’s monastic festivals (July 7-8 in 2014). The two-day Tse-Chu celebrates the birth of Padmasambhava. During the festival, a four-storey- high thangka of Padmasambhava, said to be the largest in Ladakh, is hung in the courtyard and other precious thangkas are also exhibited.

As you step barefoot into the du-khang at Hemis, your eyes take a while to adjust to the gloom. Along one wall is a glass-fronted cabinet containing the Kangyur and Tengyur, wrapped in silken covers. In front of the main shrine are rows of butter lamps, fed by a seemingly endless supply of oil. The tso-khang has a large image of Shakyamuni Buddha. Both shrines are rich with wall paintings.

The monastery complex has a cafeteria, book and souvenir store.

Location 46 km SE of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway from Leh past Choglamsar, Shey and Thiksey to Karu. At Karu, the road forks; take the right to stay on the highway and catch the slip road to Hemis, 1 km ahead of the fork. Turn right onto the Hemis Road for Hemis Gompa, 9 km away. Taxi from Leh to Hemis (1 hr) costs ₹1,078 for a drop, return ₹1,565

Stay in Hemis

You can camp beside the stream running alongside the gompa. Mountain Trails Camp (Mobile: 09419177905, 097600 27905; Website: mountaintrails.in; Tariff: ₹2,000, with meals) runs tents here during the Hemis Tse-chu festival.

Arti Agarwal
Ladakh’s oldest gompa
Ladakh’s oldest gompa

Stakna and Matho

There are thought to be over 200 living oracles in Ladakh, and the most famous monastic oracles reside at the 16thcentury Matho Gompa, Ladakh’s only gompa of the Sakya order. Oracles, who act as both healers and fortune-tellers, are hot-lines to the spirit world, and make their predictions, or perform their cures, in a state of (sometimes violent) possession. Some healers even suck out disease using straws. The fame of the 3- day Matho Nagrang, or festival of the oracles, has spread far beyond Ladakh. The oracles perform acrobatics and predict the future of the locals who crowd Matho, seeking their guidance.

The photogenic, small Stakna (‘Tiger Nose’) Gompa perches on an isolated hill right by the Indus, 12 km from Matho. Stop by for an excellent all-round view of the river and valley.

Location 26 km S of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway out of Leh past Saboo and Choglamsar to Shey. Two km ahead of Shey, turn right onto the Shey-Chushot Road across the Indus. Follow the road for 3 km till you reach a T-Point; turn left here for Stakna. One km ahead is the right turn for Matho Gompa, 6 km away. Or continue straight for Stakna Gompa. Taxi from Leh to Stakna and Matho (45 mins) costs ₹842 for a drop, return ₹1,095

Chemrey

Chemrey Monastery is nestled in a picturesque valley below the Chang La Pass, en route Sakti and Pangong Tso. The monastery is known for its tall Padmasambhava statue, collection of Buddhist scriptures, and murals of Shakyamuni Buddha, Akshobhya and the Kalchakra. Also for its two-day Angchok Festival (Nov 20-21, 2014). Colourful parades, dance and music mark the occasion.

Location 45 km SE of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway from Leh past Saboo, Choglamsar, Shey and Thiksey to Karu. At Karu, the road forks. Take the left onto the Pangong Tso Road for Chemrey, 9 km away. Taxi from Leh to Chemrey (1 hr) costs ₹1,180 for a drop, return ₹1,535

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The traditional chham dance drama
The traditional chham dance drama

Tak Thok

Ladakh’s oldest monastery and its only Nyingma monastery is built around a cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated, hence the name Tak Thok, which literally means ‘rock-roof’. Dating to the 16th century, Tak Thok grew around the site above the village of Sakti. A visit can be included if you are planning a trip to Pangong Lake. The original cave is now a temple, dark, gloomy and covered with the soot of thousands of butter lamps lit by the faithful over the centuries. Pilgrims press donations into the soot.

Location 52 km SE of Leh Getting There Follow the Manali-Leh Highway from Leh past Saboo, Choglamsar, Shey and Thiksey to Karu. At Karu, the road forks. Take the left onto the Pangong Tso Road and follow it past Chemrey Gompa till a fork, where you take the left turn for the 3 km drive to Sakti village (the straight road continues to Pangong Tso). Tak Thok is 1 km above Sakti. Taxi from Leh to Tak Thok (11/4 hrs) costs ₹1,354 for a drop, return ₹1,760

Chham Dance Drama

The traditional chham dance drama is the best source of the myths surrounding the gompas. Chhams are typically performed as part of a festival of a particular gompa. Hemis Monastery, for example, celebrates the victory of its patron Guru Padmasambhava over negative forces. Padmasambhava is believed to have fought with demons for the safety of the people and this triumph is re-enacted by lamas wearing brocade gowns, headgear and masks representing the guardian divinities, or dharmapalas. The dances end with the destruction of a dough figure, symbolising cleansing of the soul after death.

Other stories around which chhams revolve are based on the Buddha’s birth, renunciation, first sermon and enlightenment, and his numerous previous lives. Most dances focus on the journey (and enlightenment) of a soul and the victory of good over ignorance, jealousy and hatred. They are ritual offerings to the deities of the gompas.

Ahtushi
Sham region gompas
Sham region gompas

Exploring Sham Region Gompas

Of the many monasteries in Ladakh’s Sham region, some like Alchi and Likir can be reached by road, but you must walk to explore the offroad, less-visited gompas at Mangyu, Temisgam and Ridzong. The best way to explore them is by light treks organised with Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Himalayan Homestays (Tel: 01982-257953, Mob: 094103 44761, 09596716268; Website: himalayanhomestays. com), which has a network of homestays in the Sham area (Tariff: ₹500 per person, with all meals). Also great bases are the camps at Uleytokpo, 74 km north-west of Leh and 10 km ahead of Saspol, on NH1D. West Ladakh Camp (Delhi Tel: 011-40580334-35, Mob: 09419178325; Website: campsofladakh. com; Tariff: ₹3,930-4,780) offers 17 deluxe tents set amidst poplar, apricot and willow trees beside the Indus River. Also in Uleytokpo are Uley Eco Resort (Tel: 01982-252453, Mobile: 09419178088, 9469189020; Website: uleyecoresorts.com; Tariff: ₹5,000-8,500) and Ule Ethnic Resort (Tel: 01982-253640, Mobile: 09419178275, 09858060667, 094198 88700; Website: uleresort.com; Tariff: ₹4,300), both run by the same family. They are set in apple and apricot groves with meals made from organic produce from the resort farms. They offer adventure activities too.

TIP Ask the homestays or camps to arrange the Likir-Temisgam or Lamayuru-Alchi treks

A 3-km track leads uphill from Uleytokpo to the Gelug Ridzong Gompa, headed by the Sras Rinpoche. The massive hillside gompa lives up to its name, meaning ‘mountain fort’. The chanting of young novitiates from the school at its base fills the air. Ridzong, dating back not more than 150 years and comparatively not very old, is a place of learning for monks and is a large complex, with six shrines crowning the maze of monk’s residences and learning halls. In the du-khang are statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya.

On the other side of the Indus from Uleytokpo, reached by a walk up a beautiful gorge is the 11th-century Mangyu Gompa, another in the Sham region to be associated with Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo. As you approach, you’ll spot the chortens surrounding the gompa sticking out above the roofs of Mangyu village. The main images here are of Vairochana seated on a lotus throne, supported by lions, and a large image of Chandazig (Avalokiteshvara) in the Chandazig Lhakhang.

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Maitreya Buddha in golden figure
Maitreya Buddha in golden figure

Maitreya Buddha

This future Buddha’s image rather than the historical Buddha’s dominates the gompas of Ladakh. Maitreya, or Chamba, is a Buddha in the making. He is a golden figure, in a posture of royal ease. He is often depicted standing, fully alert, or seated in bhadrasan, ready to descend into this world. He holds a lotus in his left hand with a stupa rising out of it. In his right he holds a kalash, symbolising the nectar he will one day pour on this earth, or a dharmachakra, symbolising the turning of the wheel of doctrine. He was prophesied by the Buddha Shakyamuni to be the next Buddha to appear in the world, and the last of the five Buddhas to appear in this kalpa or aeon. He will appear when the teachings of the Buddha completely die out, when human morality is at its nadir. He will illuminate the darkness, turning the wheel of the doctrine, and reviving the Buddha’s teachings. Then the world will enter a state of bliss, where the life span of humans will be 80,000 years. There will be no thieves, no famine or disease, no war. Crops will be plentiful, gardens will blossom with many flowers. Even Mara, the Lord of Death will bow down and sing a hymn of praise: “I worship the all-knowing Buddha.”

The giant Maitreya statues of Ladakh anticipate this golden age.

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A Thangka painting
A Thangka painting

Making a Thangka

Traditionally, a lama, a religious practitioner and a thangka artist worked together to produce a thangka painting, a visual aid used in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The practitioner, after consulting a lama on which deity to represent, invited a thangka painter and hosted him as the latter, with ‘pure intention’, embarked on the painting process.

The canvas is first stretched by sewing it into a flexible frame and treating it with gesso till it becomes a painting surface. This may take days and it is ready for sanding only when the surface is hard. The canvas is then polished with a conch shell. After purifying himself and meditating on the deity, the artist then draws the basic grid in pencil or black ink.

He then prepares the colours, which, being organic, may take up to a whole day to mix. Making the paintbrushes is the next step. For medium-soft brushes, hairs from horses’ tails were traditionally used; for soft brushes of any size, tufts of hair growing above goats’ hooves, fine hair from inside cows’ ears, otter fur, soft feathers from mountain songbirds, and fur of brown and black cats. The actual painting follows. Generally, the thangka is painted from top to bottom. The first step is the sky, followed by other blue parts, and then the rest of the painting. After the detailing, the gold is applied — usually not more than 5 g in a single thangka. This is a complex process as it involves grinding the gold with marble or glass and preparing pellets, which are then dissolved to produce the gold paint.

The ‘opening of the eyes’, an important ceremony which signifies the awakening of the image’s energy, follows. Before painting the figure’s eyes, the artist bathes and prays. Then the brocade is affixed and finally the thangka is consecrated by a Buddhist master.

Prashant Panjiar
The Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon
The Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

You don’t have to be a serious student of Buddhist art to enjoy the subtle colours of the murals, the grandeur of the statues, and the special stillness that the monasteries exude. There are common icons in most monasteries. The figure of the Buddha is ubiquitous, although his manifestations are many. Most popular is Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Here’s a guide to some of the images you will encounter during your Ladakh sojourn.

Lords of the Four Quarters The entrance to most shrines is flanked by murals of the Lords of the Four Quarters. The yellow figure of Kuvera, Lord of the North, holds a banner in his right hand, and a mongoose in his left. Vimdhaka, Lord of the South, whose helmet is an elephant’s head, is green or blue. To the east is Dhritarashtra, a white figure, strumming a lute, and to the west is the red figure of Virupaksha carrying a chorten. The Wheel of Life, the Dharma Chakra, is also here — at its epicentre are three animals: a cock symbolising anger, a serpent for desire, and a pig for ignorance — its upper edge gnawed at by a grotesque demon, Yamantaka.

Five Buddhas or Dhyani Buddhas In many wall paintings of the gompas, apart from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, you will find images of sets of five Buddhas. They signify a cosmic pattern of the universality of Buddhahood. The five Buddhas are simply, the main Buddha, Vairochana or the illuminator in the centre, surrounded by Akshobhya, the Unshakeable, radiant blue in colour; Ratnasambhav (‘jewel-born’), yellow in colour, who transforms pride into the wisdom of equanimity; Amitabh (‘infinite light’), red in colour, the Buddha of love and compassion; and Amoghasiddhi, green in colour, associated with fearlessness.

Guardian deities These fearsome dark-bodied demons chomp on human bones, are garlanded with skulls, and are often in yab-yum, a tantric coupling with their female counterparts.

Bodhisattvas All over Ladakh you will find shrines dedicated to the three Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, who deal with the three evils: Delusion, Passion and Wrath. Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, white in colour, wielding a flaming sword, which cuts down the curtains of delusion. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is usually red in colour, holding a lotus. The Dalai Lama is said to be the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Vajrapani, holder of the diamond thunderbolt, is the embodiment of spiritual energy and power. He is blue or black in colour, wearing a tiger skin and human skulls as ornament, surrounded by an aureole of flames.

The Mother Goddesses, Prajnaparamita This tantric deity is the goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom. There is a class of Mahayana texts called the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of which the Heart Sutra is of great import. The Goddess embodies the essence of the sutra.

Tara Said to have been born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara as he contemplated the sufferings of the universe, Tara is called the ‘Quintessence of Compassion.’ She is depicted as Green Tara who protects devotees from physical and spiritual danger, or White Tara associated with longevity, merit and wisdom.