Monasteries

MONASTERIES OF LADAKH

Leh: The oldest surviving royal property in Leh are castle and the Gon-khang, Temple of guardian Divinities, high up on the Namgyal Peak. These were built by Tashi Namgyal in the early part of the 16th century. According to Ladakh Chronicle: “He founded the Namgyal Tsemo (peak castle) at Leh and the township of Chubi. When Mongol army appeared, he killed many Mongols, and having founded the mGon-khang on the Namgyal Peak, he brought many Mongol corpses beneath the feet of the Guardian Divinity”. It is interesting to record that of all the former royal property only the Namgyal Peak is looked after by monks of the Gelug-pa Order. A monk appointed to the task comes up daily from Sankar monastery in order to light a butter lamp and intone some prayers in the dark interior.

Apart from the impression of lordly importance that its façade gives still to the town of Leh, this nine-storey fort like palace has now little of interest to show. It is now under renovation by Archaeological Survey of India. A monk from Hemis monastery lives there alone as keeper. Only a temple survived inside the palace which showed signs of regular maintenance. It contains a central stucco image of Ushnishasitatapatra (Du-kar), the Lady of the White Parasol’.

Shey: Shey village occupies a central position towards the middle of one of the widest stretches of these upper reaches of the Indus, which here flows south-east to north-west. The interest which successive kings and queens took in Shey is indicated by the hundreds of stupas and the various temples, which were built all around.

Adjoining the palace is the Temple containing the two-storey high image of a seated Shakyamuni, built in the memory of King Singee Namgyal by his son lDeldan Namgyal in 1633 A.D. It is the only kind of statue made of Gold, Gilt and copper in entire Ladakh. The walls of the upper temple is painted with life events of Buddha on the back side wall, the left side wall depicts Padmasambhava and a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, and the right wall is painted with Vajradhara, Stag-tshang raspa (founder of Hemis), Naropa, Tilopa, Marpa and Milarepa. The door sidewall is painted with the Kagyu lineage and fearful deities. The lower part of this enormous image is approached through a lower temple with a separate entrance. Here the walls are painted with murals of Buddha-fugures, making various hand-gestures.

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THIKSEY: Thiksey Gompa of Ladakh is situated at a distance of approximately 18 km from the town of Leh. One of the most beautiful monasteries of Ladakh, it belongs to the Gelukpa Order of Buddhism. Sherab Zangpo of Stod got the Thikse Monastery built for the first time, at Stakmo. However, later Spon Paldan Sherab, the nephew of Sherab Zangpo, reconstructed the monastery in the year 1430 AD. This is the most impressively positioned of monasteries in Ladakh with its building arranged at various levels, leading up to the private apartments of the incarnate Lama on the summit. The main Assembly Hall or Dukhang is right at the top. It contains racks of books on both sides set against poorly painted walls. In a chapel behind there is large image of Shakyamuni flanked by Shariputta and Mongliputta (the two chief disciples of Shakyamuni).

Nearby dukhang satiated the Gon-khang (protector deity room) contains Vajra-Bhairava, Mahakala, Dhramaraja, the Goddess and Khyitra. But the most impressive paintings can be seen in White Assembly Hall (Du-khang Karpo) which contains along one side images, Shakyamuni, Maiterya and so on, set against the a wall which is elegantly painted. Thiksey Gompa serves as the residence of approximately eighty monks. It has been served, for quite a long time, by the successive reincarnations of the Skyabsje Khanpo Rinpoche. The monastery also plays the host to Gustor ritual, organized from the 17th to 19th day of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. Sacred dances also form a part of this ritual, which takes place on an annual basis.

The Maitreya chapel on the right side of courtyard housing one of the largest Buddhist statues, the 15 metre tall Chamba or Maitreya (Future Buddha). The walls have some fine paintings of coming Buddha’s future life events and the famous Gelug-pa lineage including the Dalai Lama.

Like other monastery Thiksey also seems to come to life on the occasion of some festival, especially the yearly offering of the sacrificial cake (Thiksey Gustor), which takes place on the 17th and 18th of the 12th month of Tibetan calendar.

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HEMIS: Hemis lies in southeast of Ladakh at the distance of about 45 Kms. This is the largest monastic foundation of Drukpa Kagyu Order of Tibetan Buddhism. Most of the other Drukpa monasteries are the branch monasteries of Hemis. It was built during early 17th century with the blessing of Lama Stagtsang Raspa (Shambunatha), by famous Namgyal dynasty king Singee Namgyal.

The monastery follows the teaching of Mahayoga Tantra School or esoteric School of Vajrayana. The monastery has many shrines with beautiful paintings and sculptures of Buddhist pantheon. The famous three-storied Thanka of Guru Padamasambva is the special feature of Hemis monastery. Which hung every twelve years on the front façade of the courtyard. The thanka was made by famous Buddhist artist Zopa Paley. The festival takes an auspicious turn every 12 years in the Tibetan year of the Monkey.

The 12th Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche is the abbot of Ladakh who is now famous worldwide for his teaching.

Two large temples, approached by flights of stone steps, can be seen once you enter the newly renovated courtyard. The temple on the left, as one faces them, is known as the Tsogs-khang (another term for Assembly Hall) and the larger one on the right as the Du-khang. It is in the latter that ceremonies are held. The wall has some old paintings but most of the parts are newly repainted. The paintings of Shkyamuni and other Buddha figures, and of tantric divinities, Hevajra, Samvara and Tshe-bdag can be notice.

The tsog-khang adjoining is very much more impressive. This contains in the central position a fine image of Shakyamuni and behind this is a large stupa said to have been founded by Lama Shambunatha, probably third in the series from the founder Stag-tshang raspa. Towards the back there are other stupas, adorned with gold with silver and gilt, and on the left next to an Druk-pa Lama is a pleasing human size image of Tara. On the back side of Tsog-khang one find the temple known as the ‘Old Temple’ (Lha-khang rnyingpa). This has every appearance of disuse and neglect, but it contains some of the finest murals. On the top of Tsog-khang there are quite a number of smaller temples. On the right side of these temple lies newly contrasted Guru Lhakhang contains a huge statue of Padmasambhava adoren with the tantric dress. The walls are painted by his eight different representation and Kagyu lineage. The side walls near the statue depicts the 35 Buddhas of confession and Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara.

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Stakna: Stakna is a small monastery, comprising the private apartment, all newly decorated in good Tibetan style, a Du-khang and the roms of monks and attendants. The Du-khang contains a silver gilt stupa, some seven feet high, set up by the present Head Lama Stakna Rinpoche. Other items of interest were the images of three Drug-pa lamas, Padma Karpo, Ngag-dbang rNam-rgyal, the stone man of Bhutan in 17th century, and of Ngag-dbang rGyal-mtshan.

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Chemday: The other monastery closely associated with Hemis is Chemday,which occupies an imposing position just to the south of Sakti village. The Du-khang contains images of stag-tshang Raspa, founder of the Hemis monastery and Chemday, and the last but one head-lama in this series of reincarnations. Behind the images are murals of Shakyamuni flanked by his two chief disciples amd bu mandalas of Kalachakra of Akshobhya. The other walls are covered with other manifestations of Shakyamuni Buddha. A second temple, known as the Lama Temple (Blama-lhakhang) contains a collection of images of various Kagyu lamas and of Buddhas and divinities, as well as a copy of the Tibetan Canon. On the right of this temple lies Gon-khang visitors are not allowed inside. It contains the statue of Mahakla and other tutelary deities. On the far end is Dolma Lhakhang or Tara Temple contains the 21 representation of Goddess Tara.

On the top floor one can see the newly built Guru Lha-khang housing some very interesting tantric paintings of protector deities. The central image is of Guru Padamasambhava flanked by his different representation. In the left shelf contains the original hat of Padmasambahava in a bigger hat.

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Tak-Thok (Drag-thog): Tak-thok Monastery is situated in Sakti Village, at a distance of approximately 46 km from the town of Leh. The site where the monastery is now situated, once served as the meditation cave of Mahasidhas “Kunga Phuntsog”. The name Takthok literally means ‘rock-roof’. The monastery was so named, as both its roof as well as walls are made up of rock. Tak Thok belongs to the Nying-ma-pa sect of Buddhism, also known as the Old Order, and serves as the residence of approximately 55 lamas. The name Tak-thok mean ‘Top of the Rocks’ and the heart foundation is a cave about six metres square, which is supposed to have been visited by Padmasambhava himself. In this cave very little remains of the earlier painting which was originally there, and the walls are blackened with smoke. In the center there are there are images of Padmasambhava and of Avalokitesvara. Above is another smaller cave-temple, containaing a small images and books. The main temple, which is also serves as Du-khang contains on the right hand side the images of Padmasambhava and his two fierce manifestations, the Tiger-God and the Lion-Headed Goddess. The walls have been newly painted with images of fierce divinities. Finally, there is a smaller Kanjur Lha-khang, containing a copy of the Tibetan Canon and images of Shakyamuni and his two chief disciples. Every year a festival is held at the Tak-thok Gonpa on the 9th and 10th day of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar. Celebrations of the festival include sacred dances and the ceremony of hurling a votive offering.

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Matho: Matho lies 26 Kms south-east of Leh on the opposite bank of the Indus river. The monastery was founded by Lama Dugpa Dorjay in 16th century. Matho is the only Sakya-pa establishment in Ladakh.

Matho monastery is renowned mainly for its yearly festival, which takes place on the 14th and 15th of the first Tibetan month thus in late March or early April. It is known as Nag-hrang after the name of the local god (sa-bdag). It is said that on festival days two gods (sRongtsan) enters the body of two lamas who do the most extraordinary things. An inadequate account of two monks in a kind of trance sticking swords through themselves and being perfectly fit after the event, regularly ended with passing advice.

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Spituk: Spituk monastery was built in 15th century during the reign of Grags ‘bum-lde, these new Gelug-pa monastery was built like fortress on the summit of crags. Spituk lies some 5 kms south of Leh. Nesting at the foot of the crags are the flat-topped houses which go to form the village of Spituk. Spituk or dpe-thub mean ‘effective as an Example’ and this is thus a suitable name for the first Gelug-pa monastery in Ladakh. Inside the monastery, which includes several courtyards and temples of various sizes, has been built at different levels, following the shape of the rock. The main temple or Du-khang is laid out in regular Tibetan style with two rows of low seats running the length of the hall from the entrance to a high throne at the far end. To the left of the throne is a large image of Vajra-Bhairava, the fierce tutelary divinity of the Gelug-pas. To the right is an eleven-headed Avalokitesvara. Doors at the either side of the central throne lead into a low dark chapel behind. Here in the central position are images of tsong-kha-pa and his two chief deciples, and a fine image of Shakyamuni. The walls have no painting of any interest. The main entrance-wall displays the usual fierce protecting divinities.

At a high level the are several smaller temples like Dolma Lhakhang (Tara Room), Chow-khang , the residential room of Kushok Bakula (the abbot of the monastery). One of these rooms contains the three great tantric divinities, Vajra-bhairava and Guhyasamaja, arranged at the end of the small hall to the left. Another small temple contains an image of Tsong-kha-pa and volumes of his complete written works.

Gon-khang or protector deity room is stands just above the other monastic buildings near the crest of the rocks. It contains the enormous image of Vajra-Bhairava who presides here in the Gon-khang of the monastery. Together with him are images of other fierce guardian, the ‘six-armed one’ (a form of Mahakala), the ‘White Guardian’ (Gon-kar), the Brother and Sister (lCam-sring), Khyri-tra on his dog and the Goddess (lha-mo) on her horse. The last one is derived from the Hindu goddess Durga/Kali, but she enters the Buddhist pantheon in a very subsidiary capacity.

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Phiyang: This monastery is located 6 kms away from the Srinagar-Leh highway and 17 km from Leh. It was built during the reign of King Jamyang Namgyal in late 15th century by lama Kunga Dragspa. Phiyang belongs to Dri-pung kagyu Order of Tibetan Buddhism. The man Assembly Hall which is now under conservation contains as main image Vairocana accompanied by Shakyamuni and various Kagyu lamas, and the walls are painted pleasingly with murals of Vajradhara and Five Dhyani Buddhas. The New Assembly Hall or Du-khang Soma housing some very impressive images. Among the larger ones in stucco we noticed Kun-ga Dragspa, founder of the Phiyang, and Dam-chos Gyurmed, the 31st and last incarnation, apart from the present one. His relics are also enshrined here in a stupa on the right. Most interesting of all perhaps is a small group of Kashmiri Buddhist bronzes, which by the very nature of the case cannot be later than the 14th century or so.

The Gon-khang or Protector deity room has some very beautiful paintings of Vajradhara and the main Kagyu hierarchy, Tillopa, Naropa, Marpa and Mila Raspa on the back side wall. The other walls are painted with the depiction of different representations of Mahakala.

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Basgo: Basgo is certainly the most impressive of Ladakhi citadels despite its ruined state. Amidst the ruines of the fort there are two large temples and adjoining one of there is a small shrine. They all contains images of Maitreya in due proportion to their size. The most beautiful one is the higer one, which is known as the Chamba Lha-khang (Maitreya Temple) and which was built by Tsewang Namgyal, son of Tashi Namgyal, about the middle of 16th century. This is probably the only temple in Ladakh to have survived with some of its murals intact from the 16th century. The main image is of Maitreya on account of its slenderness and delicacy is one of the most attractive image in Ladakh. On either side of him stands an attendant Bodhisattva image. The space behind Maitreya is hung thick with banners.

The Serzang (‘Gold & Copper) temple, which adjoinings what were once the royal quarters, is by no means so impressive. This temple is named after the manuscript copy of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, written in gold, silver and copper letters. The main image is another large Maitreya, whose head reaches up into a kind of windowed enclosure, which can be approached from the roof. The walls inside the temple are painted with Buddha-figures, similar to those in the upper Maitreya Temple.

Opening off a courtyard near the Serzang Temple is a small shrine containing yet another image of Maitreya, although a far smaller one. An inscription informs us that this was dedicated by skalzang dolma on the 25th day of the 2nd month of the Water Horse year (1642 A.D.). this is the Balti princess Kalzang, married to Singe Namgyal. It will be recalled that he himself was the son of the daughter of Ali Mir, who had overrunned ladkah during his father Jamyang Namgyal’s reign in the last part of the 16th century.

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LIKIR: Likir monastery is headed by the younger brother of Dalai Lama. According to tradition the foundation of Likir monastery goes back 11th century when it was a Bon center. But the real foundation seem to be not earlier than 15th century.

The main Assembly Hall contains two impressive Chortens on the left, and to the center and right at the far end of the hall images of Shakyamuni, Buddha Dipankara, Maitreya and Tsong-kha-pa with his two disciples. A smaller and and even newer Du-khang contains a main image of Eleven Headed Avalokitesvara, and the walls here are painted with the Thirty-Five Confessional Buddhas on the left, and the Sixteen Arahats on the right.

The Gon-khang on top has a place specially prepared for the sand mandala. The monks annually prepare sand mandalas often in summer. The walls of Du-khang are painted newly with modern chemical colour which depicts some very interesting Buddhist iconography especially the tutelary deities.

On the top on roof they have newly setup a museum which contains some very old thankas brought from Tibet and the armory, coins, seals etc.

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ALCHI: Alchi is a name of small village, about 70 kms west of Leh, situated on the bank of great river Indus in Ladkah. The extend and richness of the Alchi Chos-kor (religious enclave) seems to suggest that in its day it must have been a religious center of great importance. This monastery is an eternal witness the revival of Buddhism in Tibet, under the patronage of the king of Guge (Western Tibet). Local tradition asserts that the monastery of Alchi was built by Lotsava (translator) Rinchen bzangpo who is known as a great temple builder, translator and torchbearer of Buddhism in the history of Western Tibet.

Alchi monastery is a complex of mainly six temples namely, Sum-tsek (Three tiered temple), Du-khang (Assembly Hall), Lhakhang Soma, Lotsava Lhakhang, Manjusri Lhakhang and Kangyur Lhakhang. The last temple Kangyur Lhakhang is a later addition. The first two are the oldest temples. It is said that, having founded Nyarma (in Thiksey) in 1011 A.D. Rinchen bzangpo founded Alchi monastery just about ten years later.

Du-khang or ‘Assembly Hall’ is the primary building of any monastic complex and thus usually the first to be built. It consists of a hall, more or less square with a kind of sanctuary let into the far wall. The Du-khang containing mural together with its courtyard. The central image inside the Du-khang is Buddha Vairocana flanked by four main Tathagata Buddhas (Celestial Buddhas). The six mandalas of Vairocana in his form of Kunrig occupy the main three walls. Sun-tsek is the second temple to be built. It is the most interesting temple in Alchi from the architectural point of view. Its architectural design resembles strikingly to native Kashmiri house architecture. In the center of the temple is a stupa which covers most of the floor space in a small interior of some 7 square meters. On the three sides there are raised alcoves each about 2 and a half meters wide, and in each of these stands a large Bodhisattva image. If we go clockwise, the first on the left is Avalokitesvara on the left, then Maitreya opposite the entrance, and finally Manjusri in the alcove on the right. On the left wall surfaces, there are 814 depiction of the Buddha Amitabha; on the rear wall are 712 figures of the Buddha Akshobhya; on the right wall, the Buddha Manjusri appears 728 times and on the entrance wall again Akshobhya, not less than 1063 times. The first floor and the upper most storeys are also enriched with beautiful Kashmiri type paintings. Ceiling of the Sum-tsek are decorated with the Central Asian textile pattern.

Lhakhang Soma which suggests a later date for its building and decoration is now a day’s closed to visitors. The main image on the wall opposite the door represents a seated Buddha making the preaching gesture with his hands. The walls are occupied mainly with three mandalas of Buddha Amitayus and the two mandalas of Vairocana. Lotsava Lhakhang as its name suggest, seems to be erected on adoration of the great translator and temple builder Rinchen bzangpo. The paintings on the walls of this temple appears to have been painted by the local painters with some elementary knowledge of Buddhist iconography. The manjusri Lhakhang is next to the Lotsava Lhakhang, which is distinguished only by its three dimensional fourfold image of Manjusri each aspect facing one of the quarters and painted in the appropriate directional blue, yellow, red and dark green colours.

Near the Sum-tsek there are few Stupas (called Kagan Corten) two of them are beautifully painted from inside. The paintings in these stupas strikingly resemble the paintings on the walls of Sum-tsek and Du-khang.

Rid-zong : Rid-zong is the most recent of the Gelug-pa foundation in Ladakh. A layman Tshul-khrims-Nyi-ma, who later turned lama together with his son, founded it. The monastery has been built picturesquely at the head of a gorge reached by a side-valley running north from the Indus near a village Uletokpo. Rid-zong is best known as best disciplined monastery of the whole of Ladakh.

The Assembly Hall houses the well-known images of Shakyamuni, Maitreya and Amitayus, Tsong-kha-pa and his two disciples, and Avalokitesvara. The volumes of the Tibetan canon cover with their cases most of the wall-space. The temple on the left contains huge images of Shakyamini and Maitreya, and Changchup Chorten in the middle. The side walls are painted nicely with the life events of Buddha starting from his Birth to Mahaparinirvana. The Head lama’s room or zim-shung housed a good collection of thankas or scroll paintings. Another room contains a large stupa in the middle enshrined the relics of the founder Tshul-khrims-Nyi-ma.

Ting-mo-gang : Like Shey and Basgo, Ting-mo-gang was also an early citadel of primary importance. An inscription in the Maitreya Temple there connects the site with king Grags-pa-’bum, whom we know to have ruling Basgo in the early 15th century. The castle ruins at Ting-mo-gang are particularly impressive, since the whole site is encircled by fortifications stretching up to the higher levels on the northern side. The castle ruins and the temples stands out on high crags, about 100 metres higher than the level of the houses clustering below. There are two temples near the summit, separated from one another only by a wooden partition, one of them dedicated to Avalokitesvara and the other to Padmasabhava.

Just below these temples some 20 metres to the north is a two-storey Maitreya Temple. The central statue of Maitreya which is seven to eight metres high, reaches up into the upper storey. It is one of most impressive representation of Maitreya in Ladakh.

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Lamayuru : Lamayuru is around 125 kms west of Leh, on Leh-Srinagar highway. Lamayuru monastery belongs to Dripung Kagyu (Red Hat) like Phiyang. The oldest structure in Lamayuru is the Singey Lhakhang built by the founder of Alchi Lotsava Rinchen bzangpo in 11th century. It is said that Saint Naropa has meditated in the cave, in 11th century, which is now preserve in the Main Assembly Hall. On can see it through a small window on the left side. Lamayuru is famous for its yogic mediation. It has about 150 monks including the small monks, who are studying in monastery school. The paintings in Chenri-zig Lhakhang or Avalokitesvara temple is some very interesting in its colour composition and the iconography.