You have to hand it over to the Buddhists. For centuries they have gone about practicing and preserving their religion, not diluting its essence over generations, and continuing to command the respect and veneration of the followers of this faith. Their art and architecture has been admirable throughout - and they managed to perch their installations on sites you can barely trudge up to. Modern day builders cannot emulate these.
When in Ladakh, you are never too far from a monastery. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot say, “You have seen one, you have seen them all.” Each is unique. The ones you must go to - in a rough decreasing order of preference.
The most revered of them all, it sits high like a vulture’s nest. The location was identified in the 13th century by Buddhist sage Gyalwa Gotsangpa (his name means 'vulture' Got 'nest' Tsang) with the present structure been founded in the 1630s by Kushok Shambhu Nath under King Sengye Namgyal's patronage. The building may not be eye-catching but the location is. Over 500 lamas (monks) reside here.
Basgo Monastery and Palace
If you had visited Basgo gompa and palace some years ago, you could've helped yourself to pages of ancient Buddhist texts engraved in gold, silver and copper. They were just lying around in a state of neglect at one of Ladakh's most gorgeous and historically significant structures till the village youth decided to catalogue these texts in 1997. Basgo, capital of lower and then unified Ladakh until the 16th century, was devastated in three long battles with Tibetan and Mongol invaders, though the fortress was never breached. In 2000, the World Monuments Fund rated Basgo among the world's 100 most endangered sites. Now, funds and expertise are available for restoration. Here's hoping Basgo regains its lost glory.
Shortlisted for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alchi gompa is one of the rare ones not located atop a hill. It sits pretty in a bustling bazaar, amid curio shops, hotels and the ubiquitous German bakery. Alchi is also one of Ladakh's oldest surviving monasteries though the date of its establishment, between 1020 - 1035 A.D. is disputed. The gompa complex is dotted with temples and chortens, and some of Ladakh’s most beautiful murals and carvings.
Don't miss the morning prayers at Thiksey. With scores of monks chanting in tandem for two hours, it really is something else. Thiksey is home to over 100 lamas aged 5 to 80. It was built in the 16th century, the impressive looking Thiksey evolved around a central courtyard, with multi-level buildings on three sides. The main dukhang (assembly hall) has racks upon racks of religious texts. The gonkhang (temple of the guardian deities) has images of fierce deities. A three-storey statue of Maitreya dominates the chamkhang, daunting yet welcoming at the same time.
Likir Monastery: 23 metre high statue of Maitreya
Likir gompa stands atop a hill that's shaped like a coiled snake. Or so it seems to believers. The word Likir itself is derived from lukhgil (or klu-khil) meaning 'coiled snake'. Buddhists believe the Snake King Jokpo slept here once and that the site is encircled by the spirits of two great snakes, Nanda and Taksako. With over 100 monks in residence, Likir is among Ladakh's most active, influential and richest gompas. A major attraction is the recently installed 23 metre high statue of Maitreya, seated on a pedestal in the open.
Many monasteries in Ladakh were plundered by invaders over the centuries. The one at Chemde, or Chemrey stayed safe. How? Seems the Mongols laid siege on Chemde in the late 17th century. Being outnumbered didn't stop the head lama from outsmarting the outsiders. From afar, he shot the Mongol king's tea cup with a rifle. Stunned, the king thought Goddess Kali ruled over the gompa and he made peace with the monks. A temple devoted to Kali stands at the base of the hill on which Chemde nestles. While at the gompa, don't miss its museum. On display are dresses worn by Mongol and Ladakhi rulers, weapons their armies used, cooking utensils, holy symbols, seals, money, storage bags and texts belonging to royalty and monks. It is one of the rare monastery museums where you can take photographs.
At the spot from where Phiyang gompa is first visible, its builder King Tashi Namgyal placed a flagpole. Whoever reached this spot could seek pardon for any crimes. Doesn't look tough today but we're talking of a time before roads, before motorised transport. Also called Tashi Chhusung, it's a picturesque gompa, far from the bustle, deep within poplar groves. A hamlet below and chortens on hills all around. Picture postcard material.
Serene monasteries. Savage histories. It’s possible. When the armies of Balti king Ali Sher Khan vanquished Ladakhi king Jamiang Namgyal in end-16th century, several monasteries were desecrated. Matho was one of them. Its scriptures and art treasures were pillaged. The head lama, Tungpa Kunga Gyaltsan, was killed. Matho's residents put up stiff resistance though, and were rewarded with land grants later when their king was released. The monastery was restored by Chhos-kyi Lotos, who took charge as its head. The only Sakya sect gompa in Ladakh, Matho was founded in 1410 by Dorje Palzang, a Tibetan pilgrim.
If you have found the monasteries male dominated so far, this is what the order of things have been all this while. At the Naropa Palace in Shey though, you will find nuns who run the show. About 50 nuns live in and manage the palace built just before the Ornaments of Naropa ceremony in 2004. This event, held every 12 years, was till then celebrated at Hemis but the need for a larger venue prompted the shift. Lord Naropa, great scholar and chancellor of Nalanda University, gave six ornaments to his disciple Marpa Choekyi Dorje, who bequeathed them to his disciple Ngok Toen Choeku Dorje (1036-1102 AD) and prophesied that they would stay in the Ngok lineage for seven generations. Indeed, the seventh Ngok transferred them, with Ngok teachings, to the second Gyalwang Drukpa. Since then, the Drukpa spiritual heads have guarded them, and they make rare public appearances wearing them. Join the nuns in their prayers at 6 am and 6 pm daily.
Maitreya Statue, Mulbeck
You will be surprised with the sudden appearance of an oversized statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, 45 kms before Kargil when driving from Leh. Carved into a rock face, this is perhaps the earliest evidence of Ladakh's tryst with Buddhism. Did Ashoka play Cupid in Ladakh's romance with Buddhism around 200 BC? Opinions abound. Some do believe that the first Buddhist temple came up in Suru valley near Kargil during Ashoka's rule. Remains of chortens in Suru, Sumda and lower Ladakh are also said to date back to his era. Officially, the religion came in when Kushan king Kanishka annexed Ladakh and Baltistan in the 2nd century AD. The Maitreya statue, called Chamba by locals, may have come up in this period. Or some centuries later. A board at the site (itself dating back to 1974) erroneously mentions the date as 1st century BC. No one is too sure. The past of this future Buddha is not very clear.
Ajay Jain is a travel writer and photographer, and has authored many travel books. He shares his stories on http://kunzum.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com