and scholars ensured that the land never lacked in its cultural and religious
dimensions. The Vajrayana sect of Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant form
of the religion, with a mixture of the animistic Bon faith and ancient
Hindu tantric practices. Both Central and Eastern Ladakh are predominantly
Buddhist while Western Ladakh is mainly Shia Muslim. Ruling Muslim priests
are known as Aghas who combine the secular and religious functions in their
hereditary duties. The mosques and Imambaras here are attractive examples
of Iranian and Saracenic architecture, but due to the strong Islamic injunction
against any form of gaeity and celebration in all aspects of life, western
Ladakh is sombre and subdued, though not lacking in any of the deeper human
The most attractive feature of the landscape of Ladakh
are the Buddhist highest point of the mountain spurs or majestically sprawling
over cliffsides, located in the vicinity of villages, these aesthetically
pleasing, architecturally interesting gompas provide the focus for the faith of
the highly religious Buddhist people. Gompas are places of worship, isolated
meditation and religious instruction for the young. Many gompas celebrate their
annualfestivals in winter which are marked by gay mask dances.
Gompas have a wealth of artefacts. Lamayuru, the oldest
religious centre of Ladakh, beats all others in sheer grandeur. In its
uniqueness of wood carving, statues and frescoes, Alchi offers the highest
rewards. The wealth of its possessions and its annual summer festival make Hemis
the most popular while Thikse rates high in terms of architectural impact and
the beauty of its Buddha statue. The grace and beauty of the festival
performances at Likir and Phyang with their proximity to Leh are great
attractions in their favour while the accessibility of the Shey, Spituk and the
Sankar gompas make them suitable for visitors with time at a premium.
The approach to the gompas is lined with mane walls and
chortens. Mane walls are made of votive stones on which prayers and holy figures
are inscribed, while chortens are semi religious shrines or reliquaries,
containing relics of holy people in scriptures.
The outer walls and entrances of gompas are lined with
cylinders of wood or metal mounted vertically on spindles and placed in alcoves,
which are rotated for prayers. These cylinders contain hundreds of slips of
paper containing invocations and each revolution adds that many prayers to the
devout's religious merit. Small individual wheels as well as larger ones perform
a similar function.
Beautiful paintings of the Buddha, Boddhisatvas,
Dishapals, Dharmchakras and Mandals adorn the walls and the inner chambers of
the gompas. Scroll paintings on silk or brocade (called thankas) also decorate
the interiors. There is a bright display of' colour in the prayer flags and
buntings draped in the interior of the gompas. Hand printed, loose leaf
scriptures are reverently wrapped in rich silk and brocade, some with golden
All gompas have large courtyards where public
performances of dance dramas and mask dances during religious festivities take
place. Monks wear brightly coloured costumes and precious masks. Religious
objects, of Bon, Buddhism and Tantra are used during these dances to enact tales
from the scriptures.
Dances are heralded by long booming trumpets and the
crescendo beats of drums. Young acolytes bearing the front ends of trumpets are
followed by monks and performers. Comic interludes intersperse the solemn
performances. The dances are mostly slow twirls and intricate footwork with all
occasional fast tempo and fierce lunges to liven the atmosphere. The victory of
good over evil forms the basic theme of these dances. Some festivals involve
trancelike stages when monks inflict self injury and act as oracles, making
forecasts and answering individual queries. During the festivals at Lamayuru and
Mashro, the ritual of slaving a human form made of tsampa, signifies the
destruction of baser characteristics like lust, greed and anger.
The Kushak, or the high priest, sits in the courtyard,
with reamed monks reciting the scriptures whilst other monks play drums, cymbals
anti trumpets as accompaniment to the dances. Novices and initiates periodically
serve hot buttered tea and tsampa.
Many major festivals occur in mid winter providing a
welcome break from the enforced inactivity of the harsh climate. Thousands
throng the gompas in their colourful best to participate in the festivities. At
such times impromptu markets spring up all around.
The Avalokitesvara with a thousand hands,
Spiritual life in
Ladakh centres around monasteries, which served traders and travellers
of yore as a place to stay. Each monastery is a conspicuous high building.
The path leading to it is usually lined with prayer cylinders called chhoskor
which are made of metal and filled with prayer scrolls and charms. Before
entering the monastery a devotee sets the cylinder in motion with a gentle
stroke, in the belief that he is sending to heaven prayers equal to the
number in the cylinder, multiplied by the number of rotations.
These two monasteries are to be found near Saspol
on the Srinagar-Leh road. They house a number of gigantic clay statues
of the Buddha in various forms. The primary attraction of these monasteries
is, however, their 1000-year old wall paintings.70 km from Leh, on the
banks of the Indus, is the Alchi Gompa dating a thousand years back. One
of its walls features thousands of miniature-sized pictures of the Buddha.
Three large sized images made of clay and painted brightly are its focal
attraction. No longer an active religious centre, it is looked after by
monks from the Likir monastery.
Founded in the 11th century AD and rededicated
to a different monastic order in the 15th century AD, its earlier gompa
was destroyed in a fire. The present gompa dates back to the 18th century.
Skilled craftsmen producing excellent thankas, earthen pots and carved
folding wooden stools, live here in the village. Majestically situated,
Likir commands a spectacular view. A magnificent giant juniper tree, one
of the few survivors of its species, stand in the courtyard.
Namgyal Tsemo Gompa
No longer inhabited, this gompa was built by King
Tashi Namgyal. It forms a part of the Leh palace complex and is maintained
by monks from the Sankar Gompa.
Just 3 km from Leh, this monastery has a formidable
collection of miniature statues of pure gold and a number of exciting paintings.
It receives electricity and may, therefore, be visited in the evening as
well. A relatively modern monastery, it is closely associated with the
Spitak monastery and serves as the residence of the head priest - Kushak Bakula.
8 km from Leh, it stands prominently on the top
of a hillock commanding a panoramic view of the Indus valley for miles.
Many icons of Buddha and fine thankas are to be found in this 15th century gompa. The gompa also houses a collection of ancient masks, antique arms,
and an awe inspiring image of Mahakal. The face of the Kali image is kept
covered and is revealed only at the annual function in January.
17 km from Leh on the Leh-Kargil road, it looks
like a huge palace from afar, built by Tashi Namgyal in the later half
of the 16th century AD, it belongs to the Red Cap sect of Buddhists. Hundreds
of icons of Buddha and other gods are kept on wooden shelves.
Shey Palace and Gompa
Also on the way to Hemis gompa and 15 km from
Leh, is the summer palace of the erstwhile Raja of Leh. Set upon a hill,
and housing the largest golden topped victory stupa, the monastery has
a two-storeyed statue of the sitting Buddha in copper and gold which leaves
one breathless. Since the monastery is exclusive, it is preferable to make
arrangements with the lama before visiting it.
En route to Hemis gompa, the Thiksey monastery
provides a panoramic view of the green Indus Valley from its vantage point
atop a hill. It has chambers full of statues, stupas and thankas. There
are 100 resident lanes
and, allegedly, a nunnery. The Thiksey festival
is now held in early autumn every year. 19 km from Leh spectacularly
sited, Thikse is one of the largest and architecturally most impressive
gompas There are several temples in this gompa containing images, stupas
and wall paintings of Buddha which are exquisite.
Ladakh's biggest monastery, Hemis gompa is 49
km from Leh on the Leh-Manali road. Its popularity stems from the major
annual festival held here in summer. The festival is in honour of Guru
Padma Sambhav's birth anniversary. It also has the largest thanka in Ladakh
which is unfurled once in 12 years .
Hemis was built in 1630 during the reign of Sengge
Namgyal, an illustrious ruler of Ladakh. It flourished under the Namgyal
dynasty for the royalty favoured the Drugkpa Sect which managed the monastery.
It is divided into two, the Assembly Hall on the right and the main temple
on the left. The Hall, Dukhang, is also used as a 'green room' by the dancers
during the festival. The temple is known as Tshogkhang. The verandahs have
a surfeit of frescoes, among them the Buddhist 'Wheel of life' (Kalachakra)
and the 'Lords of the Four Quarters,' besides rows of prayer wheels.
45 km from Leh, situated in a picturesque valley
leading to Changla, this gompa was constructed as a funeral act of merit
on Sengge Namgyal's death in 1645. A large collection of scriptures with
title pages in sterling silver and the text in gold letters is kept here.
Close by is a cave monastery reputed to have been the abode of Padma Sambhav
during one of his periods of meditation.
A few kilometres upstream from Thikse, Stakna
is situated on a 60 metre high isolated rock.
Situated on the opposite bank of the Indus across
Thikse, Mashro was established in the first half of the 16th century AD
and has a valuable collection of very old and beautiful thankas, some in
the form of 'mandalas'. Its annual festival of oracles in early March is
an important event in the Ladakhi religious calendar. Young monks selected
as oracles undergo long periods of meditation, fasting and ritual purification
to gain spiritual strength. When possessed they perform astonishing feats
with swords and knives, cavorting blindfolded along narrow parapets.
The palace of the banished royal family, Stok
has a museum which displays fabulous period costumes and jewellery of the
royalty along with exquisite thankas representing the life of Sakya Muni.
Interesting historical objects like coins, seals, armour, weapons, precious
jade and porcelain too can be seen here.
40 km downstream from Leh, it was the seat of
power of a branch of the Namgyal family. It was here in 1680 AD that invading
Mongol and Tibetan armies were held in check over a three year long seige.
Original 16th century murals and other arts at Basgo are well worth a visit.
On crossing Foto-La, the highest point on the
Srinagar-Leh road, if you take a winding road that descends into the Indus
Valley, a sudden bend reveals a strange village with a monastery overlooking
it. Lamayuru has fascinating caves carved out of the mountainside. Its
festival is held during summer. The oldest holy site Ladakh, it was a Bon
shrine prior to the advent of Buddhism. Also known as Yung Drung (Swastika)
it is sited on a high promonotory overlooking the village and valley. For
sheer spectacle value no other gompa can match Lamayuru.
The village of Mulbekh, on the way to
has a unique sight a huge image of the Buddha carved out of rock bang on
the road. The monastery here is perched on a high rock over the village
and the valley, and has some prized relics.
The cave monastery of Shergole