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Must see Monasteries of Leh and Ladakh:
Alchi Gompa Monastry, Ladakh
Founded in the 11th century by the great translator Ringchen Zangpo, this monastery has a strong influence of Indian architectural style as he built it on his return from India, after having received tutelage in Buddhism. It is known as Chos-kor or religious enclave and comprises of five temples, the richest in terms of paintings and images being the Dukhang (assembly hall) and the three-storey Sum-tsek. Its murals belong to the 11th and 12th centuries, and pre-date the Tibetan styles of painting found in other gompas. It is one of the oldest in Ladakh and has been maintained by the monks of Likir after having been abandoned for centuries as a place of worship. Located about 70 kms off the Srinagar-Leh highway, it is the only one in Ladakh to be built on ground level unlike all the rest that are constructed on cliff-tops or hill-tops.
Along with Phugtal Gompa in Zanskar and Tabo Gompa in Spiti, it is a remnant of Indian Buddhism in Ladakh.
Photography is not permitted within the complex.
Namgyal Tsema Gompa, Ladakh
Built in 1430 on a cliff behind the Leh Palace, this gompa was founded by King Tashi Namgyal. It has a three-storey high gold idol of Buddha along with ancient manuscripts and frescoes. There is a fort above the gompa that is in ruins, but a view of Leh from there is breathtaking. It is usually open in the morning for morning prayers.
Sankar Gompa, Ladakh
This gompa belonging to the reformist Gelukpa sect, is a pleasant 2 km walk north of Leh. It is a subordinate monastery of Spituk and is the residence of the Kushak Bakula, the erstwhile abbot of the Spituk Monastery. The Kushak Bakula’s residence is to the north of the complex.The gompa has paintings and murals of the guardian god of the Four Quarters of Heaven, the wheel of Life, the Old Man of Longevity, Sakyamuni Buddha with his 16 sages and the 35 benevolent Buddhas. There are images of the Budhist deity of compassion, Avalokiteshvara and Yamantaka (god of death), the most impressive being one with a thousand heads, arms and legs.
Shanti Stupa, Ladakh (so so- very very new)
Located about 3 kms west of the bazaar, this white monument of peace was built by a Japanese Buddhist order to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism and to spread the message of peace. Inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985, this stupa overlooks Changspa village and is particularly impressive by night illumination.
Likir Monastery, Ladakh
Situated on a low hill about 52 kms from Leh, this exceptional yet less visited monastery was founded in the 14th century. It is also known as Klu-kkhyil (water spirits) Gompa and is said to be the first in Ladakh to have been built by Tibetan monks. The original structure is believed to have been destroyed by a fire and the present structure re-built in the 18th century, and re-dedicated to the Gelukpa sect. There is an external 25m high statue of the Maitreyi Buddha, very unusual for Ladakhi gompas. The wall paintings depict the 16 arhats and the 35 compassionate Buddhas. There is also a small museum containing numerous Tibetan artifacts that are a few hundred years old.
Sitting impressively on a hilltop right of the Indus, about 8 kms from Leh, Spituk Gompa was built in the 15th century. It is one of the most influential monasteries of the Gelukpa order and has Sankar Gompa as its subsidiary. It was built over the ruins of an 11th century gompa and provides a magnificent view of the Indus and Zanskar valley. The two prayer rooms that are unveiled only once a year during Gu-stor festival, have some beautiful statues of Buddha.
Cave Monastery / Shergol monastery, Ladakh
This monastery is situated on the Wakha river valley between Kargil and Mulbekh, about 240 kms from Srinagar and is a tough ascent halfway up a mountain slope. It belongs to the Gelukpa order and houses only two monks. The village below it comprises about 35 households and a trip to this gompa which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, can feel ethereal as no other gompa can provide such exclusivity, peace and quiet.
Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh
Located about 17 kms south of Leh, this monastery of characteristic beauty is probably the most photographed, and also the best place around Leh to see a puja. It is a magnificent complex with its red and yellow main building rising grandly above the numerous monk cells. The Chamba lhakhang (‘house of God’ for the Buddha to come) was built in 1980 in hnour of the Dalai Lama and houses an impressive two-storey Maitreya Buddha. This gompa that houses about 500 monks belongs to the Gelukpa sect, and exhibits excellent works of art. The roof of this monastery provides a panoramic view with the Zanskar range in the backdrop.
Stok Palace, Ladakh
Built in 1814, the Stok Palace, which used to be the home of the Kings of Ladakh is situated opposite Leh on the other side of the river Indus. It is the only inhabited palace, the other two – Leh and Shey Palace are in ruins. There are more than 80 rooms of which only 5 are open to the public. The palace museum has a unique display of tangkhas, old weapons, kings’ armour, queens’ ornaments and perak (turquoise-studded head gear), traditional clothing and silver jewellery.
Shey Monastery, Ladakh
Situated 15 kms south of Leh towards Thiksey, the ruins of this former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh is perched high up on a rocky cliff. The 12 m Sakyamuni Buddha statue made of gold-plated copper by King Singge Namgyal’s son Deldan Namgyal, is the largest in the area. There is a small library in the lower chapel and a collection of tangkhas. To the left of the gompa is a huge chorten (stupa) with golden spires, and to its right are the ruins of a fort. Scattered across the nearby fields and along the hill range, are a large number of disintegrating chortens, perhaps the largest collection seen in Ladakh.
Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh
This is the oldest of the major gompas situated on or near the Indus and is believed to have been the sacred site for the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon. Built in the 10th century, the monastery is spectacularly located on an eroded mass of rock below towering mountains, on the Srinagar-Kargil road, 15 kms east of Fatu La Pass, and 127 west of Leh. It is inhabited by about 200 permanent resident monks and has even housed up to 400 monks. Originally founded as a Kadam-pa establishment, it was subsequently offered to the Dri-gung-pa monastic order by Jamyang Namgyal, the Ladakhi king in the mid-16th century. It is now the principal monastery of the Dri-gung-pa order. This original gompa destroyed and restored several times, however, several collections of tangkhas, carpets, statues and frescoes have escaped plunder and remain in the gompa for viewing. Lamayuru is host to two annual mask dance festivals, in the 2nd and 5th months of the Tibetn lunar calendar.
Phugtal Gompa, Ladakh
As its name suggests (Phug means cave), the honey-comb-like Phugtal Monastery, home to more than 70 monks, stands at the opening of a large cave on a cliff above the Tsarap River. It has three large and one small prayer room whose frescoes are similar to the 11th century ones of Alchi Monastery. The chorten here is believed to house the relics of its founder, Tsherap Zangpo. It takes a tough, arduous trek of two or three days to reach this isolated monastery, which appears to be miraculously glued on to the side of a vertical rock-face.
Leh Palace, Ladakh
Built in the 17th century by King Sengge Namgyal, it was abandoned in the mid-19th century when the Kashmiri forces laid siege. The royal then family moved south to the current home in Stok Palace on the southern banks of the Indus. Though it is nine stories high, there is little left to see. It accommodated the royal family in the upper floors, and stables and store-rooms on the lower floors. It now houses the office of the Archeological Conservation of the Indian government, and remains a testimony to the architectural splendour that was inspired by the Potala in Lhasa.
Zongkhul Monastery, Ladakh Situated in the Zanskar valley, 20 kms south of Rangdum, this an exceptional cave monastery. It is spectacularly nestled on a rock-face overlooking the Zongkhul falls. The Indian yogi Naropa, is said to have used the caves of this monastery for meditation, and his footprints are said to be embedded in a rock. Since then, this monastery has been a sacred place for meditation, with plenty of enlightened ones like Dubchen Kunga Gyatso, Dubchen Nawang Tsering, Dzadpa Dorje and Kunga Choslag having taken meditative solace here.