• Michele Immelman

Spectacular Buddhist Monasteries of Ladakh

Lamayuru Monastery

According to popular tradition this monastery was originally the foremost Bon monastery in Ladakh; its name means sauwastika and is a popular symbol for "eternity". It is affiliated with the Drikung Kagyu school of Buddhism.

The Drikung history states that the Indian scholar Naropa (956-1041 CE) allegedly caused a lake which filled the valley to dry up and founded Lamayuru Monastery. The oldest surviving building at Lamayuru is a temple called Seng-ge-sgang, at the southern end of the Lamayuru rock.

The gompa consisted originally of five buildings, and some remains of the four corner buildings can still be seen.

Lamayuru is one of the largest and oldest gompas in Ladakh, with a population of around 150 permanent monks resident. It has, in the past, housed up to 400 monks, many of which are now based in gompas in surrounding villages.

Lamayuru is host to two annual masked dance festivals in the second and fifth months of the Tibetan lunar calendar, when all the monks from these surrounding gompas gather together to pray.

Alchi Gompa Wall Paintings

This extraordinary art has graced the walls of this small monastery in Alchi, a hamlet high in the Indian Himalayas along the border with Tibet, for about 900 years.

They are among the best-preserved examples anywhere of Buddhist art from this period, and for three decades—since the Indian government first allowed foreign visitors to the region—scholars have been trying to unlock their secrets. Who created them, why are they different to conventional Tibetan Buddhist paintings?

The paintings are in danger. Rain and snowmelt have seeped into temple buildings, causing mud streaks to obliterate portions of the murals. Cracks in clay-brick and mud-plaster walls have widened.

The low humidity in this high-altitude desert is one reason Alchi’s murals have survived for almost a millennium. With the onset of warmer weather in the past three decades, their deterioration has accelerated. And the possibility that an earthquake could topple the already fragile structures, located in one of the world’s most seismically active regions, remains ever-present.

The Alchi murals, their vibrant colors and beautifully rendered forms rivaling medieval European frescoes, have drawn a growing number of tourists from around the world.

Hemis Monastery

The wealthiest monastery of Ladakh and India, Hemis Monastery belongs to the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. This 1672 monastery, the spiritual centre of Ladakh’s Drukpa Buddhists, is hidden in a high sharp valley behind curtains of craggy red rocks. The Monastery looks like a lost Inca City from a distance.

Located 45 km from Leh, this monastery is the main seat of the Kagyu school of Buddhism. The gompa hosts the annual Hemis Festival which attracts tourists and media from across the world. The two-day festival is held in June/July to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava—the founder of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) in Tibet.

The start of the festival is signalled by blowing off two 3-metre long brass trumpets and showcasing of Guru Padmasambhava’s portrait which is brought out by the chief lama in the monastery’s rectangular courtyard. What follows is the colourful masked dance (known as cham dance) by resident lamas in the courtyard.

Thiksey Monastery

Stok Monastery

Stok Monastery or Stok Gompa is a Buddhist monastery in Stok, Leh district, Ladakh, northern India, 15 kilometres south of Leh. It was founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus in the 14th Century and has a notable library including all 108 volumes of the Kangyur. A ritual dance-mask festival is held annually.

The monastery has an assembly hall, a courtyard, a verandah, temples, chortens and a library. Stok monastery has many reasons to attract visitors including non-Buddhists. The ancient paintings on the wall that include images of Vajrapani, Avalokitesvara, Skayamuni (historical Buddha), Tara (the Saviouress), Nangyalma and Amchi (The Medicine Buddha) are intriguing.

The latest temple constructed in the monastery is dedicated to Avalokitesvara which is another major attraction for visitors. The image of the Avalokitesvara has 1,000 hands and 11 heads. The small chapel within the monastery is the oldest in the whole Ladakh region.

Stok Guru Tsechu festival is a great crowd puller. Everyone is allowed to be part of the celebration. Dance, music and festive foods make the celebration a memorable event.

Shey Monastery

Shey Monastery is located in the upper Indus Valley, just 15 kilometreseast of the modern capital of Ladakh, Leh.

Shey is located on the road from Leh to Thiksey Monastery. A large number of monasteries, stupas and rock carvings can be seen on this road. It can be approached by trekking 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from Thiksey and the path is known as: "for having Ladakh’s biggest chorten fields with hundreds of whitewashed shrines of varying sizes scattered across the desert landscape."

The nearest airport is at Leh. Special permission is essential to visit the monastery, as only one lama resides here and the inner sanctum is usually closed. On a lane, opposite to the Shey palace there is a hotel for visitors, which is surrounded by flowered gardens.

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