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Leh - Sightseeing

Monasteries - The central area of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Buddhist monasteries or gompas. Of the twelve situated on or near the Indus, the oldest monastery is that of Lamayuru, which is believed to have been a sacred site for the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon.

Hemis Monastery  
Hemis Monastery displays
this thangka after every 12 years

The monasteries of Phiyang, Hemis and Chemrey were all founded under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty. Phiyang represents an act of penance by the 16th century King Tashi Namgyal for the violence and treachery by which he reached the throne. Hemis monastery, together with that of Hanle near the Tibetan border, was established at the instance of King Singge Namgyal, while his widow founded Chemrey as a posthumous act of merit for him. Stakna, dating from a slightly earlier period, was endowed by the Namgyal kings at various times. All these belong to the Red Hat (Kargyud-Pa) sect of Tibetan monasticism.

  Thiksey Monastery
Thiksey Monastery

The reformist Gelugs-pa, or Yellow-Hat sect, is also well represented in central Ladakh by the monasteries of Thiksey, Likir, Ri-dzong and Spituk, the last of which has branch monasteries at Stok, Sabu and Sankar. Ri-dzong, situated a few kilometres up a side-valley from Uley-Tokpo, was founded only a century and a quarter ago by a devout layman-turned-lama, with the purpose of following the strict monastic rules of the Gelugs-pa sect.

Tak-thok and Matho gompas represent the smaller but much older Nying-ma-pa and Saskya-pa monastic sects respectively. Tak-thok, situated at the foot of the Chang-la pass, incorporates one of the many caves in the Himalayas where the Indian Buddhist apostle Padmasambhava is said to have rested and meditated on his journey to Tibet. Matho gompa is famous for its festival of the oracles, which is held early in the year, usually in the first half of March.

Likir Monastery  
Likir Monastery

But the jewel among Ladakh's monastic foundations is Alchi. Abandoned centuries ago as a place of active worship, it has been lovingly maintained by the monks of Likir, the nearest functioning monastery. Known as Chos-kor, or religious enclave, it comprises five temples, the richest in paintings and images being the Du-khang (assembly hall) and the three-storey Sum-tsek. Its murals, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, pre-date the Tibetan style of painting seen in all the other gompas of the region. Some of them are reminiscent of the paintings of the Ajanta Caves and are presumed to be almost the sole survivors (along with some in Phugtal gompa in Zanskar, and Tabo gompa in Spiti) of the Buddhist style prevailing in Kashmir during the first millennium AD.

  The library of Spituk Monastery
The library of Spituk Monastery

Note for visitors to Monasteries - The monasteries of Ladakh are the fountainhead of Buddhist religion and culture. They are also the repositories of the region’s centuries old artistic and cultural heritage. Visitors are advised to respect their sanctity and appreciate their heritage importance.

Shoes may have to be removed before entering some of the temples, while ladies are not allowed to enter the Gon-Khang or the room dedicated to the guardian divinities. Smoking is anathema to the monastic atmosphere, while loud action and improper dress may disturb the tranquil ambience characteristic of such places of worship.

A mandala in the making in a Monastery  
A mandala in the making in a Monastery

Most of the region’s principal monasteries are open throughout the day and a caretaker lama is there to show visitors around. Some of the less visited establishments have special opening hours as in the case of the Namgyal Tsemo, Shey Palace etc. Check the timings in the Tourist Office before proceeding to these places. Also, most monasteries charge a small entrance fee.

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