4. Around Monasteries In Leh
Trip Start Jun 12, 2009
11Trip End Jun 28, 2009
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Ladakh is a land of ancient Buddhist monasteries (gompa) and chortens (stupa). Even many Mani-walls (Ringmo) are centuries old. They have a conspicuous presence in the landscape of Leh district which is predominantly Buddhist populace. It is believed that Buddhism came in Ladakh during the reign of emperor Ashoka and took roots all over Ladakh but gradually acquired Muslim populace with the advent of Moguls through gradual process of conversion. Today the region is distinctly divided into Muslim populated Kargil district and Buddhists populated Leh district. Leh, Zanskar and Nubra valleys and Chanthang plateau has predominantly Buddhist population in Leh district. Both faiths live together in peace and communal harmony.
A monastery, locally called gompa, is a Buddhists temple of worship which resonates with the singing of glory of Buddha, the Enlightened. They are treasure trove of Buddhist art and culture and run a Lamasari school of Buddhist culture and tradition. These are the inheritance of Ladakh's past and the Buddhists are possessive to preserve them. They stand majestically atop a hillock in remote isolation always in communion with the heaven above, precariously embracing the crag and almost always seek outstanding panoramic view against the beautiful backdrop of snow-clad peaks. It forms important landmarks visible from afar. Generally it is multistoried structure with spacious courtyard for the assembly of monks. Within the monasteries there are several temples containing the images dedicated to various Buddhist deities and Buddhist scriptures. The monastery is headed by a head lama called Kushoks. He is the head priest of the gompa.
As we drive on Leh-Manali highway in the morning of 16th June when mountain tops are basking in the rosy pink sunrays, we pass through many chortens on way by the road side, near a monastery, village or town. They are dome shaped structures with spire on top and washed with white colour. Chortens or stupas are important religious monuments and are worshiped. It contains ashes or remains of a departed lama, religious or revered person, besides religious books,scriptures and engravings of mani-mantras. Chortens are also constructed in memory of important event or to guard against natural calamities or evil spirit. Budhists believe that stupa wards them against evil spirits and going round them absolves them of their sins.
Passing through beautiful willow avenue near Shey and Thikse villages on the banks of Indus River, we enjoy a pleasant drive on the wide Indus valley with colourful bare hills on either side. We reach charming Karoo town, about 35 km from Leh. Karoo, situated at a height of 11000 ft, is amidst picturesque settings on the bank of Indus River. From here we cross over to the left bank of the Indus on our way to Hemis monastery and drive through 10 km. of a narrow dusty dirt-road zigzagging the rolling slopes. The drive though, is not pleasant, but beautiful panoramic view of the wide green indus valley down below unfolds itself to cheer us. We pass through huge mani-walls and series of chortens as we near four-hundred year old Hemis Gompa majestically standing amidst greenery on the edge of a brook nestled in the lap of serrated hillock with multihued bands.
Hemis gompa is richest, largest and most important monastery of Ladakh. It is a beautiful monastery, has a huge assembly hall with images of Maitreya, Sakyamuni amidst other divinity.There is musuem of Buddhist art and scriptures in the gompa premises. It is spread over a large area on a green hill, gleaming with colourful flags. An annual festival to mark the birthday of the guru Padmasambhava is held here in the month of June.
There is a small beautiful green spot with flowing water-channel and an eatery shop, at the bottom of the monastery where we relax for awhile after a visit to the monastery.
The Mani-walls, prayer-wheels and colourful flags atop a gompa or mountain top are common feature in Buddhist dominated areas. Mani-walls are long walls piled with mani-mantra-engraved stones. They generally precede a Chorten. Huge prayer-wheels with mani-mantra ingraved on them, sometimes decorated with brass or silver work can be seen in monasteries and near prominent roads. One can notice Buddhist men and women holding a small prayer-wheel, turning it anticlockwise and murmurring mani-mantra in soft dron all the while.
Another sight frequently met are colourful flags of blue, red, white, green and yellow colours corresponding to five elements sky, fire, water, air and earth, fluttering in the air atop gompas and mountain tops. Prayer-wheels and flags have religious significance in Buddhism. It is believed that they charge the atmosphere with holy aura and creat halo of spiritual vibrations.
On our way back we stop at Thikse and Shey monasteries. They are atop hillocks at Thikse and Shey villages respectively.
Thikse gompa is 20 km. from Leh on the right bank of Indus. It is a 15th century a beautiful 12 storied monastery perched on steep hill-top overlooking expansive green Indus valley, There is a motor road leading to the entrance of the gompa. From the top of the gompa entire scenario of panoramic sweep-view of the green valley, sparkling Indus River, Matho gompa, multihued stark hills capped by majestic snow peaks, looks delightfully charming. An enormous two storeyed Maitreya or the future Buddha in sitting position is a great attraction of this gompa. There is a separate temple dedicated to goddess Tara. The assembly hall has the seat of Dalai Lama in the centre.
Shey monastery is located on a steep hill, virtually hanging from the cliff, overlooking the green valley stretch over Thikse, Matho, Stok and a part of Leh plateau. It was built in seventeenth century in memory of Singge Namgyal the king of the Ladakhi Empire. It is now in dilapidated condition though still filled with numerous images and artifacts. Adjacent to the Monastery are the ruins of Shey Palace which was favorite abode of the royalty even after the construction of Leh palace.
On 17th June, we are on our way to Lamayuru, Alchi and Likir monasteries.
Driving through vast table land on Leh-Srinagar highway following River Indus we stop at Magnetic hill. Here a vehicle can move against the force of gravity. The car driver showed us the phenomena by leaving the car on neutral without a driver on an inclined plane. The hill is said to have magnetic property. It can pull a car up hill. It is claimed that the pull is so strong that the aircraft has to fly at greater speed while in the radius of its pull so as to avoide a jerk. There are such hills in Canada and USA also.
A drive through the vast cold plateau is most fascinating experience. Ladakh Mountains are amazing creation of nature. These awesome vast barren landscapes in deep silence, sparsely dotted with oasis of small villages with greenery around it, inhabited mainly by Buddhists, bear the signature of the creator everywhere. Nature is incessantly at work creating artistic designs on these bare hills which shine with myriad hue of colours with changing lights which captivates the on looker with magnificent enchantment.
Thirty six kilometers from Leh, we are at the confluence of Zansker and Indus rivers, where muddy waters of Zansker meet the blue waters of Indus presenting a spectacular sight especially in the evening. It is near a small beautiful village Nimo - an oasis amidst maze of stark hills all around surrounded by green field and green popular and willow trees. Basgo-Palace and Basgo-monastery are close by this village.
A drive of twenty six kilometers from Nimo reaches us Saspool and another thirty five kilometer drive we are at Khaltse. The road is almost level and follows Indus River. These are oases of green villages surrounded by bare hills on the bank of Indus. At Khaltse we are held up for over an hour as a truck while negotiating a sharp bend across a stream got struck up in the muddy soil blocking the traffic. We have yet to cover twenty kilometers to reach Lamayuru.
From Nimo onwards to Basgo and Khaltse the moisture regime improves considerably. The soil is fertile for the luxuriant vegetation to grow on the depressions and wheat, mustard, and all type of seasonal vegetables on terraced fields. Wild Rose locally called saimetole grows in abundance everywhere. The flower has a pleasant and inviting fragrance. The aroma of the flower reaches you before you look aroud to see it. The fields are lemon-yellow with maturing mustered crop.
We continue our journey once the road is open. We cross Indus River and enter a narrow valley and climb a steep ascent through serpentine road with many bends. On reaching high up on level grounds we find that road is breached. We waited here for some time but we were told it will take several hours before the road is open for traffic. We were very close to Lamayuru the oldest monastery of Ladakh yet could not make it. We however, could see moon-land - a patch of lunar-landscape about 500 crow-meters away.
Disappointed we return. Near Saspool we cross Indus and drive five kilometers to reach Alchi monastery. Alchi is 11th century monastery on the left bank of Indus amidst green patch of trees and vegetation. There are number of small temples within the precinct of the gompa. The monastery is known for ancient murals and paintings of 11th and 12th century on the walls. Some paintings are reminiscent of paintings of Ajanta caves. There are three large chortens covered with murals, and frescos on the interior walls.
We return to the main highway then turn north from Saspool, drive for about five kilometers on a dusty-road to reach Likir village. The Likir monastery is in sight nestled on a steep green hill overlooking the village. It is spread over a large area amidst greenery in the surround and lush green fields down in the valley and snows in far off mountains. It has number of temples in its premises. The interior of temples are decorated with mural of Buddhist deities. There is a school for resident lama, a library of Buddhist literature, and a museum of ancient weaponry, historic document, century old tankas, coins, Ladakhi costumes and utensils which we missed to see because we reached late and museum has closed. The main attraction of the gompa is a huge 75ft high statue of Maitreya in sitting position built in 1997.
After an eventful day we return to Leh. On our way back we again stop for awhile to witness the evening spectacle of the confluence of Zansker and Indus rivers, a spectacular sight, a meeting of muddy and blue waters, blue trying to retain its colour for some distance but eventually overruled by the muddy waters.
Towards late in the evening we stop at the Pathar Sahib Gurudwara very near Leh where we were offered refreshment. This is historic gurudawara. The first Sikh Master Guru Nanak Dev visited 500 years ago in this unsurmountable region and this gurudwara maintained by army enshrines his memory.
There are many monasteries in the region. We could visit only few of them and charmed by their serenity. These temples of magnificent ambience beckon and attract people and inspire them. Ladakhi's are extremely God fearing people. They feel protected and passionately protect and preserve these temples of Buddhism.