Monastery hopping can be wretchedly tiring. After the first three, the head begins to buzz, eyes glaze over and all of them begin to look similar. Yet, you know you want to see a few more. After all, Ladakh is known to have the largest number of Buddhist monasteries (gompas) outside Tibet.
So, I devise a small game to keep myself entertained. If I had to choose a monastery to live in, which one would I pick? Would it be my personal favourite, Thiksey, cascading down the hillside like a waterfall in hard stone? Or the large and venerable Hemis, with its beautiful museum, cold floors and a friendly watchman? Or may be the Lamayuru, perhaps, which sits unruffled amid breathtaking scenery referred to by guidebooks as moonscape? Why not Alchi then, set in the Indus valley and home to stunning frescos a thousand years old? Or even the unlikely contender Spituk, keeping a benevolent eye over
Leh’s tiny airport?
The land of gompas Ladakh, which follows the Tibetan Mahayana school of Buddhism, is considered the last stronghold of Himalayan Buddhism in India. Spiritual life here revolves around the monasteries, which are places of worship and meditation (for practicing monks and the public), and religious instruction. Earlier, travellers often stayed at these monasteries but now, only seekers of spirituality come to live here. Most gompas are majestically perched on top of hills or on steep cliffs, making them difficult to access and in the past, attack.
The inner walls of gompas are usually covered with beautiful murals and paintings depicting the Buddha, Bodhisattvas (incarnations and manifestations of the Buddha) and other elements from Buddhist iconography. At every gompa we visit, we meet helpful monks willing to open locked doors to show us around; some are shy, some cheerful but all are friendly.
Ladakh itself has been like that — somewhat bashful, startled to find itself the focus of attention of so many tourists but waving a friendly and cheerful ‘Juley!’ to everyone. Even as mobile phones and weekend tour groups are threatening to take away a familiar way of life, Ladakh is fighting bravely to hold on to its cultural heritage.
Of miniatures and moonscapes
Alchi, our first stop, is a sleepy hamlet of just over a thousand people and now a hot favourite of the backpacker crowd. Unlike others, Alchi is not set on a hill but sits in a valley, quiet and self-effacing. The drab exteriors of this temple complex do not reveal the treasures hidden inside in any way.
Apart from an array of clay statues of the Buddha, the highlight of the Alchi gompa is the 1,000- year-old wall paintings. They are of a distinct Indian (Kashmiri) style, different from other monasteries in Ladakh and without much typical Tibetan iconography. It is believed that the Alchi complex was once abandoned and remained unknown until it was unearthed a few decades ago. Maybe its anonymity has helped preserve the art inside. The caretakers of the monastery ensure that visitors do no desecrate the wall paintings in any way. I shine my torchlight (highly recommended, given the unlit interiors) over hundreds of miniature paintings across the walls, hoping that my eyes to get accustomed to the darkness faster.
From Alchi, we make our way to Lamayuru in the Western Kargil district. Lamayuru is a must-see in Ladakh. In a piece for the New York Times, famed travel writer Pico Iyer says a gasp escaped his (jaded) lips when he first set eyes on Lamayuru. And so we drive up, up, up the winding mountain road. Each time I want to stop for photographs, our driver urges us on, “Further ahead is more beautiful, it is called moonscape.” Moonscape — the word rolls off his tongue easily, having, I guessed, rolled off a thousand tourists’ tongues earlier. Lamayuru is believed to be Ladakh’s first monastery and still one of the largest, housing over 150 permanent monks.
War goddesses and ephemeral mandalas
After the majestic setting of Lamayuru, Spituk seems to come easy. Very close to Leh, this gompa is home to the patron saint of all those intrepid travellers who fly in over the magnificent Himalayas, landing on the gut-wrenchingly narrow strip that serves as the runway. So Spituk sits placidly overlooking the quiet of the Indus valley spread out beneath and the bustle of the airport. Apart from the traditional frescos and thangka paintings, this 15th century gompa also houses the temple of the Tibetan war goddess, Palden Lhamo, who is now venerated by visiting Hindus (despite strict warning boards all over the temple complex) as goddess Kali.
Further along the road, Phyong is quiet at that time of the morning, only four maroon robed monks at work on a mandala. Their heads are bent over the low stool and they seem absorbed in their work, till one of them looks up and smiles as our shadow falls on the colourful mandala in progress. According to Buddhist iconography, a mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe and making one is part of the training for monks. Made from coloured sand, a mandala requires intense concentration, a trait that is believed to help a monk during meditation. A mandala, I remember reading, is swept away after prayers are offered to signify the impermanence of life; a pity, it seems to me, looking at the intricate patterns and vivid colours.
The monklings and the Maitreya
Hemis, in contrast to the other far-flung gompas, is overrun by tourists when we arrive. Its proximity to Leh — just over 50 km away — makes Hemis, Ladakh’s largest monastery, a popular destination. Built in the 11th century, it was re-established in the late 17th century during the rule of Singge Namgyal who patronised the Drukpa (Red Hat) sect. After a quick tour of Hemis, we head to the underground museum with its impressive collection of thangka paintings, statues and artifacts. From a distance, the sounds of the loud chatter of young monks, interspersed with laughter floats in, suddenly bringing alive the setting to us. Hemis is also the site of the annual summer festival held to mark the occasion of Guru PadmaSambhava’s birth anniversary.
Finally, we arrive at the 15th century Thiksey monastery. It is picturesque and imposing amidst the green-brown barley fields, reminiscent, it is said, of the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. We are there early enough to witness the morning prayers. A group of senior monks in maroon and gold robes are already immersed in their chants when we enter the main hall. A little while later, the young monks in training file in, silent and serious, to take their places.
Soon, I catch a few of them fidgeting, restless as only the very young can be. And when it is time for the teacups of the older monks to be filled, there is a mock fight to carry the kettles. Little monks started scurrying about with large kettles and containers with yak butter, like large red bees in a hive. The older monks dip their forefingers into the butter container, helping themselves generously to the salty butter. They stir it into their tea, licking the sticky remnants off their fingers without any reticence as they carry on with their prayers. The monkling (what else can I call him?) serves us with a shy toothy smile before scampering away purposefully.
Thiksey becomes a personal favourite for a simple reason. An impressive statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, with his elaborate crown and the enigmatic, calm smile on his face, refuses to leave my senses.
Make it happen
Best from: Delhi — either take the flight straight into Leh or the tougher but more beautiful option, the drive from Manali to Leh.
Best time to visit: Early June to end September.
Time frame: You need a minimum of a week (steer clear of the special weekend packages) to take in even a bit of Ladakh — devote the first day entirely to getting acclimatized to the altitude.
Must-dos: The high altitude lakes of Pangong and Tso-Moriri, Nubra valley and, in Leh, the market and the palace. If you do not have much time, stick to Thiksey and Hemis, the monasteries closest to Leh.