Mariam Noronha continues her alternative Indian travel series with a review of the best monasteries in Ladakh…
Ladakh, an Indian destination known for its undulating landscape, fresh mountain air and the Buddhist way of life is the place you should visit when you want to get away from it all. The monasteries of Ladkah should be on your itinerary because not only are they custodians of wisdom, culture, artifacts and the Buddhist way of life but also melting pots of art, spirituality and education.
As places which once housed one fourth of Ladakh’s population these monasteries hold the key to a bespoke and spiritual way of life as the world stands on the threshold of change and dynamism. Here is a look at Ladakh’s best monasteries…
45 kms South of Leh on the banks of the Indus River stands Ladakh’s biggest monastery, Hemis. Decorated with colorful prayer flags on all four sides, atop a green hill surrounded by jagged mountain peaks it is indeed hard to miss in the stark landscape.
Known for its library which is a veritable treasure trove of rare Tibetan books and its collection of thangkas, the collection at Hemis monastery is both impressive and invaluable from a historical and traditional perspective. The nearby Hemis National Park with its most famous inhabitant, the snow leopard and some rare animal species like Bharal, Shabu and Ibex is worth a visit too.
The 600 year old Thiksey Monastery, 17 kms from Leh is known for making Mandalas, an activity the Lamas carry out thrice every year. Take a tour to see what the monastery houses… images of Sakyamuni (the past Buddha), the Bodhisattava, Avalokitashwara (the eleven headed form of Buddha), murals, religious figurines, ancient Buddhist texts and 10 temples.
The biggest attraction is the 15 metre tall clay and gold painted image of Maitreya (the Buddha of future), the largest image of Buddha in Ladakh. Step outside to take in the commanding view of the Sindh valley from the monastery.
Located atop a high rock 15 kms south of Leh, the Shey monastery was a Royal residence until the 16th Century. The 12 metre high image of Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of future) crafted from copper and brass and studded with precious gem stones is what Shey is best known for.
A look around the place gives visitors the opportunity to see the palace museum which houses weapons, armoury, royal costumes and jewellery, jade, porcelain and rare thangkas. The victory stupa stands out in the ruins of the palace and fort, giving the place a timeless feeling.
The Spituk Monastery, just 8 kms from Leh, dating back to the 15th Century is home to several icons of the Buddha, 5 thangkas and an intriguing collection of ancient weapons and antique masks. The monastery gives visitors a spectacular view of the Indus River.
A good time to be here and soak in the spirit of Ladkah is on the occasion of Gustor, the festival of Spituk which is celebrated on the 17th and 19th day of the 11th of the Bodhi month. The spectacular masks and dances apart it is also the only time in the year that the enormous statue of the Goddess is unveiled.
20 kms from Leh, the Phyang monastery is a 16th Century structure that belongs to the Red Cap sect. A special attraction at Phyang is a 900 year old museum that houses a collection of articles from Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian culture.
Phyang’s other claim to fame is that it was the first to introduce the Degungpa teachings of ‘Skyob Jigsten Gonbo’ in Ladakh. The place comes alive with music and color during Tseruk, the festival of Phyang which falls on the 2nd and 3rd day of the 6th month of Tibetan Calendar. On your way to Phyang or back do stop at the Phyang Lake to enjoy in the delightful view.
If you have time then the cave monastery of Shergole is a good place to wrap up your tour of Ladakh’s best monasteries. It is filled with elegant frescoes jutting out of a granite cliff in the middle of the mountain – like it’s suspended in mid air.
Image reproduced from yaatrika.com, encyclopedia.mitrasites.com, johansentravels.com and skyscrapercity.com
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