Ladakh -The Monastery Land
My second post on Ladakh is on its monasteries. Ladakh has truly beautiful and magnificent monasteries. I saw only a few - six to be precise - in my nine-day stay over there. Someone I know had made plans to see 50 monasteries. She probably saw less than her target but many more than I did. I take pride of the fact that I saw more than most companions of my all-women travel group. Our itinerary was so packed that many did not have the energy or interest in going to monasteries. Probably because the monastery visit programmes were packed in between other events in the schedule.
Most of the population of Ladakh is Buddhist. There is also a sizeable population of Muslims. Ladakhi form of Buddhism has a lot common with Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps the style and set up of monasteries are also the same.
On the first afternoon, I did not follow the advise of lying on bed in rest on the first day for acclimatisation. Super excited that finally I was in Ladakh, I went out with my camera. I was feeling fine, not too different from my earlier visits to the mountains. After checking in and spending two-three hours in the hotel, I walked on the sloping roads slowly, took photos of the streets and passers by, bought pieces of Tibetan jewellery and, absorbed everything with wide-eyed amazement. Soon I came upon a monastery in Leh Bazaar and went inside. A part of the time I sat inside its temple meditating. I also hung around for a while on the compound. It gave me peace - reaffirmed my love for the mountains. I was glad I was in Ladakh.
Alchi and Likir monasteries were the group’s first travels outside Leh after landing in Ladakh. Likir (65 km from Leh) was a modest, much smaller monastery than a few others we saw later. Alchi was close to Likir and had four temples. One of them was more than a 1000 years old. The temple had some 1000s of original paintings of Buddha on its inner four walls, yet unspoilt and untouched. Photography was not allowed inside this temple. The other three temples were similar though the paintings on the walls were not in as good condition as in the first one. Attempts were made to restore paintings in some portions in the other temples. But the result was not impressive. One could distinguish the original paintings from the restored ones. It's a common practice to paint miniature Buddhas in the inner walls of the temples in Tibetan monasteries. The temples in Alchi were looked after by Likir Monastery.
Some of the monasteries had impressive open air statues of Buddha in of their courtyards. An outstanding statue was that of Maitreyee or future Buddha in Diskit Monastery of Nubra valley. The statue is 32 meters tall. Another gigantic statue was in Likir monastery.
In terms of architecture, Thiksey monastery stood out. Said to be modelled after Potala palace of Tibet, Thiksey is on the road from Leh to Pangong Tso, about 20 km from Leh. A few from our group visited Thiksey early morning en route Pangong Tso. We attended the morning prayer of the monastery. It was a kind of a magical affair. I refrain from commenting on the prayer since I do not know much about Buddhist prayers. To put it simply, the ambience of the monastery, a systematic manner of following rituals and practices, being offered butter tea, senior monks reciting chants followed by others, playfulness of boy monks amidst all this and a kind of purity around me enthralled me. After the prayer, we looked around the monastery. A 360-degree view of rough, rugged Himalayan desert mountain ranges from the rooftop made us happy that we made the effort of waking up early to come to Thiksey.
On our way back from Pangong Tso the next day we got delayed by a few hours because of a heavy snowfall. My companions and I, who went to Thiksey, decided we should still make a trip to Hemis, 40 km before Leh. Again we were the only one. Hemis, apparantly the richest monastery in Ladakh, belonged to Dugpa Kargyutpa sect. There were more than 1000 monasteries under the monastery. A festival was held in Hemis every year in memory of Lord Padmasambhava. Every 12 years, a special festival was held to commemorate his mission in life of spiritual upliftment of all living beings. Inside one of the temples was a beautiful Buddha statue. It was remarkable as it was a gigantic statue, but indoors, with intriguing murals on the walls of the temple. Hemis had an underground museum of Buddhist historical objects and paintings. After the the trip we were tired but happy. It was an experience worth the visit.
Diskit Monastery in Nubra Valley - the last one we saw - required a bit of climbing from where cars stop. Like the times before, it was only a few of us who made the effort to make the climb. There were stairs going up from the parking space. The monastery was interesting because of a spectacular view of Nubra Valley from the monastery and - to my surprise - idols of Mahakali in one of its temples. Later, I learnt tantrism had an influence on Ladakhi Buddhism.
I do not know whether I will visit Ladakh again (though I plan to) but if I do I would like to see some more monasteries. There is a lot to learn from these about culture, religion and history. And the feeling of serenity is unparalleled.
Text and photos: Sanchita Chatterjee 2014