The Gompa Trail – Monasteries in Leh Ladakh
Leh is the base for Gompa hopping and there are as many as nine Monasteries in Leh within striking range!
Belonging to all the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and if various antiquity and size, you can take your pick. Patronized by royalty, the gompas belonging to the Kagyupa, or Red Hat sect, are Hemis, Chemrey, Stakna and Phyang.
The gompas of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat sect, are at Thiksey, Likir and Spituk – the last having branches at Sankar, Stok and Sabu.
The sole gompas of the Nyingmapa and Sakyapa sects are at Takthok and Matho respectively.
Along the road from Manali, furthermost from Leh (45km), lies the spectacular and famous Hemis Gompa. Stakna, Matho, Stok, Stagmo. Thiksey and Shey are on your route back to Leh. Spituk is across town, adjacent to the airport. A visit to all these is possible but you may end up being Gompa-ed out!
For those of ardent faith or avid interest, we would recommend visiting these sites over two easy days of driving: Hemis, followed by Stakna, Matho and Stok on the first day and Stagmo, Thiksey, Shey and Spituk on the second with an interval between excursions.
Hemis is the largest, and currently the wealthiest, of all the Ladakh gompas. It was built in 1630 by King Senge Namgyal and is also known as Chang Chub Sam Ling – the solitary place of the compassionate one. This Drukpa monastery belongs to the Kagyug Drukpa Red Hat sect and the fifth Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche, who is also believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteswara, had an active role to play in its conceptualization and construction. He prophesized that in the near future foreigners would invade Tibet, bringing ruin to the people and their religion. A safe haven for Buddhism had to be created and the chosen place was Ladakh. The first Taktsang Repa Rinpoche was deputed for this purpose and with the king’s patronage this new center of Buddhism, the most important outside Tibet, came into being. Today Hemis is the base of the Drukpa Kagyung Lineage now headed by the 12th Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche, who is also the head of the monastery.
Hemis is hidden in a gorge and the walk to the gate takes you past numerous chortens and mani walls. The large courtyard is the venue for the famous three-day Hemis festival held on the 9th, 10th and 11th day of the 5th month of Tibetan lunar Calendar (end June/early July). This is one of the most important events in the region and commemorates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava – it is believed that faithful and sincere devotees will be blessed by a vision of the founder of the Tibetan Buddhism. Lamas and laypersons don centuries-old masks and fine costumes and portray gods or demons in the sacred ritual dance depicting the triumph of good over evil. The monastery is also home to the largest tangkha in the world, equivalent of two storeys in length.
This monastery also belongs to the Drukpa order, but is slightly older than Hemis. Its location is quite spectacular – perched on a hilltop above the Indus River and with a magnificent rooftop view of the Zanskar range. There are several old, and new, prayer rooms and you must not miss the one with the beautiful silver chorten. This monastery is also known as “Tiger’s Nose” because of the shape of the hill it rests on.
This is the only gompa that belongs to the rare Sakyapa order, one of the last Red Hat sects of Tibet. It is located at the very base of the Ladakh range of mountains. Set on a small hill surrounded by a beautiful grove of trees, with a gentle stream meandering through the valley, Matho’s breathtaking setting makes it a great spot for picnic. In fact in October, it is even more spectacular with trees turning shades of the autumn colors. Built in the sixteenth century, the gompa was destroyed by the invading Dogra armies and subsequently rebuilt. It is famous for its annual festival when two monks are chosen as oracles, called Rongtsan, and go into mystic trances. In this state wounds inflicted on them do not bleed and even if they do, heal almost immediately. They also answer questions by the laity and make predictions for the future. People from all over the Ladakh flock here for the two-day festival. Unfortunately for us, the festival is held during the coldest time of the year – end February to mid March – and hence few tourists are able to witness this incredible exposition.
Stok Palace and Gompa
The palace was built in 1814 as a royal residence. Following the defeat and destruction inflicted by Zorawar Singh’s army, the royal family was exiled here and continues to occupy it to date. Although the palace’s exterior is not very impressive, it holds a small but interesting three-room museum that is open for public. There are well preserved, and elegantly displayed, royal artifacts including some beautiful jewellery, tangkhas and costumes. The ‘parak’, used as decorative jewellery adorning the Queen’s head, is an exquisite piece covered with turquoise and lapis lazuli.
The Stok Gompa lies just ahead of the palace and is under the management of the monastery at Spituk. Parts of it date back to around AD 1500 and the small chapel behind the main Dukhang is especially interesting. The view from the terrace on top is well worth the climb, with the 20,100ft/6121m high Stok Kangri massif looming above the gompa and the palace.
Stagmo lies 8km off the main road, amidst rolling fields and at the head of the Thikse valley. Founded by Sherab Zangpo of Stod, this is the predecessor of the magnificent Thikse Gompa which was built by his nephew. Currently not in active use, it is a pleasant place to visit for a quite and peaceful picnic since there is very little chance of encountering the usual tourist traffic here.
This gompa is 20km out of Leh and just off the main highway. Built in the fifteenth century, this gompa belongs to the Gelugpa sect and is one of the most imposing and impressive in Ladakh. Strategically located on a hill face, it overlooks a lush wide valley dotted with small villages. Its deep red, white and ochre building are on twelve ascending levels and it is a site not to be missed. It is an active monastery with ten temples within and you can time your visit to experience a prayer ceremony – early mornings or noon. The 15m tall image of the Maitreya Buddha is possibly the most photographed one of all of Ladakh. It was built in 1970 to commemorate a visit by the Dalai Lama and took four years to complete. The annual Gu-Stor festival celebrating the birth day of Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect, is held in November.
Shey Palace and Gompa
Located on the road, 15km from Leh, King Deldan Namgyal built this palace complex as a summer residence for the royalty in 1645. This is the oldest palace in the region and hundreds of chortens, of all sizes stand below it. At the base of the hill, on the roadside, are some interesting eighth century rock carvings of which one of the five Dhyani or meditative Buddhas is particularly noteworthy. The gompa was built in 1655 and above it there is an even older, ruined fortress. The 12m high Buddha statue in the gompa is made of copper gilded with gold and was the largest of its kind in Ladakh till the clay statue at Thikse was built. It continues, however, to be the largest metal statue in the region with the copper having been sourced from Zanskar. The wall paintings in this gompa are exquisitely done with fine detailing and a rich blend of natural colors. Although not of the same period and not quite as fine, they do bring to mind the beautiful art to be found in Alchi.
Located just 8km out of town, on a hill overlooking the airstrip, this is not a very impressive gompa in terms of either location or exteriors. However, it is of major religious significance as it is the control center for the Gelugpa gompas at Stok, Sankar and Sabu – the head Lama here is the Gelugpa head for all of Ladakh. Founded in the eleventh century it converted to the Gelugpa order in the fifteenth century and has a fine temple dedicated to the goddess Tara. The oldest section involves a steep climb to the top of the hill where the Mahakal Temple, built 900 years ago, is located. Often confused with the Hindu deity Kali, Mahakal is depicted as a fearsome image whose face is uncovered only during the annual festival held in January. Amongst other images here are two equally fearsome images – of a six-armed Mahakal and a goddess on a horse and can be seen with the aid of good torch.
photo credit: ashwin kumar Thiksey Monastery via photopin (license)
photo credit: patrikmloeff Ladakh 2005 via photopin (license)
photo credit: patrikmloeff Ladakh 2005 via photopin (license)