Ladakh is mostly populated by Tibetans, resulting in an extremely rich Buddhist culture. There are so many gorgeous monasteries dotting this high altitude desert that you can’t help but visit them to be inspired by their architecture and history. These Ladakh monasteries are genuinely a living legacy of the Buddha and are well worth a visit.
The Hemis Monastery, which belongs to the Drukpa or Dragon order, is the greatest Buddhist monastery in this region. It is located about 50 kilometres southeast of Leh on the Leh-Manali route on the western bank of the Indus River. When the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso was welcomed by the then-King of Ladakh, Singey Namgail, and granted a holy domain, he constructed the monastery in 1630.
The monastery halls are adorned with beautiful sculptures and fresco paintings. Its 900-year-old museum houses a large collection of sacred thangkas and other artefacts. The Hemis Celebration, where you may see the stunning holy mask dance, is the most prominent festival here. It is conducted on the 9th and 10th days of the 5th Tibetan month.
Od-lde built the Spituk Monastery, also known as the Spituk Gompa, as a monastic community in the 11th century on the slope of a hill. Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, the famous Sanskrit Buddhist literature translator into Tibetan, gave the monastery its current name, which means “exemplary,” since he believed an exemplary religious community would emerge here.
The original gompa has been renovated, and a new one has been built within the monastery grounds. The Dukhang Hall, the biggest structure, features seats along the wall and a throne at the far end. The altar is adorned with miniature stupas and statues. The temple of Goddess Vajrabhairava is a bit further up the hill. The goddess’s statue is kept hidden and is only revealed once a year during the Spituk Festival.
The monastery is home to one hundred monks, and during the annual two-day Spituk Festival, held in the 11th month of the Tibetan calendar, the monks perform masked dances portraying good over evil and stories reflecting Buddha’s life.
The monastery is about seven kilometres south-west of Leh and is not a challenging climb. The views of the airport and town below, as well as the sunrises and sunsets seen from here, are breathtaking.
You can also read our blog about temples in Ladakh
This is without a doubt the most magnificent of the region’s monasteries. The Thiksey Monastery, located 17 kilometres south of Leh, is a remarkable example of Ladakhi architecture. It is a scaled-down reproduction of Tibet’s Potala Palace. It was originally erected in Stakmo by Sherab ZangpoIt, but was subsequently relocated to a hilltop by his nephew Paldan Sherab, where it presently stands. Gelukspa, or the Yellow Hat order, owns the monastery.
This 12-story monastery has ten temples, the main prayer hall containing a 40-foot figure of Buddha sitting on a lotus. Inside the monastery, there are many valuable and unique sculptures, small stupas, and swords on exhibit. In addition, there is a temple devoted to Goddess Tara here.
The Thiksey Gustor Festival is conducted here during the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar, when local monks and nuns perform holy masks or Cham dances as part of a ceremony.
The Alchi Monastery, founded in the 12th century, is Ladakh’s oldest Buddhist study centre. It is the largest and most renowned of the gompas erected by Lotsaya Rinchen Zangpo and is located 70 kilometres west of Leh on the banks of the Indus River. In the absence of a monarchy, he assigned four families to look after the monastery until it was taken over by the Lekir Monastery in the 15th century.
Unlike other monasteries, this one is situated on level land rather than a hilltop. It is divided into three sections. The main section is the Du-khang; the Sum-tsek is a three-story edifice with a four-armed statue of the Bodhisattva occupying two storeys and statues of Maitreya Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri on the ground level; and the third structure is Jampa Lhakhang, a Manjushri temple. There is also a sculpture and artwork of Rinchen Tsangpo at this shrine.
Alchi was used to film scenes in Bollywood films such as Dil Se and Tashan.
Stok Gompa and Palace
This gompa, located barely 15 kilometres south of Leh, is the home of Ladakh’s Royal Family. Lama Lhawang established it in the 14th century. The monastery’s library has 108 volumes of Buddha’s teachings. The entry veranda features exquisite mural paintings representing the four directions’ guardians.
Thangkas and banners adorn the main assembly hall. Images of Vajrapani (the thunderbolt deity), Sukyamuni (Buddha as a sage), and Avalokitesvara adorn the walls (the four-armed deity). The Dalai Lama is thought to be the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara.
The palace has a museum that houses the king’s crown, the queen’s headgear with 108 turquoise stones, royal costumes, jewellery, antique currency, the wooden palanquin in which the queen arrived when she married, and several other personal treasures of the Royal family.
A traditional mask dance is conducted near the monastery in early June. Every February, the two-day Stok Guru Tsechu Festival is celebrated here. The unique aspect of this celebration is that the prayers are given by an ordinary man rather than a priest, who is chosen by the lamas and trained for the occasion.
Shey Gompa and Palace
The Shey Gompa is located 15 kilometres from Leh on the way to the Hemis Monastery. Shey was formerly the capital of Ladakh, and the first monarch, Lhachen Spalgigon, erected this mountaintop castle. The Shey Palace was erected in 1655 by King Deldan Namgyal. Around the palace are hundreds of stupas and the Dresthang Gompa.
The palace is now a monastery, featuring the biggest Buddha statue made of gilded copper encompassing three levels of the structure. The walls are adorned with beautiful paintings and murals, and the sculptures are magnificent. The bottom chapel has a library with the most thangkas in Ladakh. Five rock-carved Buddhas line the highway beneath the castle. The Druk Padma Karpo Institute, presently known as Rancho School, is located near this monastery. This is the school shown in the Hindi film 3 Idiots.
Every year, two festivals are conducted at this monastery: Shey Srubla on the 30th day of the first month and Shey Rul-lo on the 10th day of the seventh month.
The Phyang Monastery is located on top of a hill seventeen kilometres west of Leh. It is one of two monasteries associated with the Dri-gung-pa sect of Buddhism. According to legend, Denma Kunga Drakpa laid the foundation stone for this monastery. He erected his tent on top of the hill and saw the guardian Achi riding her blue horse during meditation. He saw this as a sign and decided to build the monastery there.
The monastery features a 900-year-old museum with a large collection of Mahakala idols, guns and weaponry, antique thangkas, wall paintings, and murals. The original Mahakala temple (the Gomkhang) was erected at the same time as the monastery.
Phyang Monastery is home to a school that provides pupils with contemporary education as well as Buddhist studies. The Phyang Tseruk Festival, celebrated on the 2nd and 3rd of the Tibetan calendar’s 6th month, attracts a huge number of tourists. The stunning Cham dance is the event’s centrepiece.
When planning a vacation to Ladakh, be sure to include these monasteries on your itinerary. You can stay at our Luxury hotel in Ladakh that offers you the true essence of heritage.