Table of Contents
  Index
  Ladakh
- Economy
- Recreation
- Wildlife
- Vegetation
- Religion
- Festivals
- Dress and Ornaments
- The Road Journey
- Treks
- A Picture Gallery
  Kargil
- A Picture Gallery
  Drass
  Suru Valley
  Zanskar
  Kashmir: Poetry of Nature
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Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri

Panun Kashmir

Milchar

Symbol of Unity

 
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Religion

Travelling monks and scholars ensured that the land never lacked in its cultural and religious dimensions. The Vajrayana sect of Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant form of the religion, with a mixture of the animistic Bon faith and ancient Hindu tantric practices. Both Central and Eastern Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist while Western Ladakh is mainly Shia Muslim. Ruling Muslim priests are known as Aghas who combine the secular and religious functions in their hereditary duties. The mosques and Imambaras here are attractive examples of Iranian and Saracenic architecture, but due to the strong Islamic injunction against any form of gaeity and celebration in all aspects of life, western Ladakh is sombre and subdued, though not lacking in any of the deeper human qualities.

GOMPAS

The most attractive feature of the landscape of Ladakh are the Buddhist highest point of the mountain spurs or majestically sprawling over cliffsides, located in the vicinity of villages, these aesthetically pleasing, architecturally interesting gompas provide the focus for the faith of the highly religious Buddhist people. Gompas are places of worship, isolated meditation and religious instruction for the young. Many gompas celebrate their annualfestivals in winter which are marked by gay mask dances.

Gompas have a wealth of artefacts. Lamayuru, the oldest religious centre of Ladakh, beats all others in sheer grandeur. In its uniqueness of wood carving, statues and frescoes, Alchi offers the highest rewards. The wealth of its possessions and its annual summer festival make Hemis the most popular while Thikse rates high in terms of architectural impact and the beauty of its Buddha statue. The grace and beauty of the festival performances at Likir and Phyang with their proximity to Leh are great attractions in their favour while the accessibility of the Shey, Spituk and the Sankar gompas make them suitable for visitors with time at a premium.

The approach to the gompas is lined with mane walls and chortens. Mane walls are made of votive stones on which prayers and holy figures are inscribed, while chortens are semi religious shrines or reliquaries, containing relics of holy people in scriptures.

The outer walls and entrances of gompas are lined with cylinders of wood or metal mounted vertically on spindles and placed in alcoves, which are rotated for prayers. These cylinders contain hundreds of slips of paper containing invocations and each revolution adds that many prayers to the devout's religious merit. Small individual wheels as well as larger ones perform a similar function.

Beautiful paintings of the Buddha, Boddhisatvas, Dishapals, Dharmchakras and Mandals adorn the walls and the inner chambers of the gompas. Scroll paintings on silk or brocade (called thankas) also decorate the interiors. There is a bright display of' colour in the prayer flags and buntings draped in the interior of the gompas. Hand printed, loose leaf scriptures are reverently wrapped in rich silk and brocade, some with golden calligraphy.

All gompas have large courtyards where public performances of dance dramas and mask dances during religious festivities take place. Monks wear brightly coloured costumes and precious masks. Religious objects, of Bon, Buddhism and Tantra are used during these dances to enact tales from the scriptures.

Dances are heralded by long booming trumpets and the crescendo beats of drums. Young acolytes bearing the front ends of trumpets are followed by monks and performers. Comic interludes intersperse the solemn performances. The dances are mostly slow twirls and intricate footwork with all occasional fast tempo and fierce lunges to liven the atmosphere. The victory of good over evil forms the basic theme of these dances. Some festivals involve trancelike stages when monks inflict self injury and act as oracles, making forecasts and answering individual queries. During the festivals at Lamayuru and Mashro, the ritual of slaving a human form made of tsampa, signifies the destruction of baser characteristics like lust, greed and anger.

The Kushak, or the high priest, sits in the courtyard, with reamed monks reciting the scriptures whilst other monks play drums, cymbals anti trumpets as accompaniment to the dances. Novices and initiates periodically serve hot buttered tea and tsampa.

Many major festivals occur in mid winter providing a welcome break from the enforced inactivity of the harsh climate. Thousands throng the gompas in their colourful best to participate in the festivities. At such times impromptu markets spring up all around.


The Avalokitesvara with a thousand hands, Lamayuru monastery

MONASTERIES

Spiritual life in Ladakh centres around monasteries, which served traders and travellers of yore as a place to stay. Each monastery is a conspicuous high building. The path leading to it is usually lined with prayer cylinders called chhoskor which are made of metal and filled with prayer scrolls and charms. Before entering the monastery a devotee sets the cylinder in motion with a gentle stroke, in the belief that he is sending to heaven prayers equal to the number in the cylinder, multiplied by the number of rotations.

Alchi Gompas

These two monasteries are to be found near Saspol on the Srinagar-Leh road. They house a number of gigantic clay statues of the Buddha in various forms. The primary attraction of these monasteries is, however, their 1000-year old wall paintings.70 km from Leh, on the banks of the Indus, is the Alchi Gompa dating a thousand years back. One of its walls features thousands of miniature-sized pictures of the Buddha. Three large sized images made of clay and painted brightly are its focal attraction. No longer an active religious centre, it is looked after by monks from the Likir monastery.

Likir Gompas

Founded in the 11th century AD and rededicated to a different monastic order in the 15th century AD, its earlier gompa was destroyed in a fire. The present gompa dates back to the 18th century. Skilled craftsmen producing excellent thankas, earthen pots and carved folding wooden stools, live here in the village. Majestically situated, Likir commands a spectacular view. A magnificent giant juniper tree, one of the few survivors of its species, stand in the courtyard.

Namgyal Tsemo Gompa

No longer inhabited, this gompa was built by King Tashi Namgyal. It forms a part of the Leh palace complex and is maintained by monks from the Sankar Gompa.

Sankar Gompa

Just 3 km from Leh, this monastery has a formidable collection of miniature statues of pure gold and a number of exciting paintings. It receives electricity and may, therefore, be visited in the evening as well. A relatively modern monastery, it is closely associated with the Spitak monastery and serves as the residence of the head priest - Kushak Bakula.

Spitak Gompa

8 km from Leh, it stands prominently on the top of a hillock commanding a panoramic view of the Indus valley for miles. Many icons of Buddha and fine thankas are to be found in this 15th century gompa. The gompa also houses a collection of ancient masks, antique arms, and an awe inspiring image of Mahakal. The face of the Kali image is kept covered and is revealed only at the annual function in January.

Phyang Gompa

17 km from Leh on the Leh-Kargil road, it looks like a huge palace from afar, built by Tashi Namgyal in the later half of the 16th century AD, it belongs to the Red Cap sect of Buddhists. Hundreds of icons of Buddha and other gods are kept on wooden shelves.

Shey Palace and Gompa

Also on the way to Hemis gompa and 15 km from Leh, is the summer palace of the erstwhile Raja of Leh. Set upon a hill, and housing the largest golden topped victory stupa, the monastery has a two-storeyed statue of the sitting Buddha in copper and gold which leaves one breathless. Since the monastery is exclusive, it is preferable to make arrangements with the lama before visiting it.

Thiksey Gompa

En route to Hemis gompa, the Thiksey monastery provides a panoramic view of the green Indus Valley from its vantage point atop a hill. It has chambers full of statues, stupas and thankas. There are 100 resident lanes

and, allegedly, a nunnery. The Thiksey festival is now held in early autumn every year. 19 km from Leh spectacularly sited, Thikse is one of the largest and architecturally most impressive gompas There are several temples in this gompa containing images, stupas and wall paintings of Buddha which are exquisite.

Hemis Gompa

Ladakh's biggest monastery, Hemis gompa is 49 km from Leh on the Leh-Manali road. Its popularity stems from the major annual festival held here in summer. The festival is in honour of Guru Padma Sambhav's birth anniversary. It also has the largest thanka in Ladakh which is unfurled once in 12 years .

Hemis was built in 1630 during the reign of Sengge Namgyal, an illustrious ruler of Ladakh. It flourished under the Namgyal dynasty for the royalty favoured the Drugkpa Sect which managed the monastery. It is divided into two, the Assembly Hall on the right and the main temple on the left. The Hall, Dukhang, is also used as a 'green room' by the dancers during the festival. The temple is known as Tshogkhang. The verandahs have a surfeit of frescoes, among them the Buddhist 'Wheel of life' (Kalachakra) and the 'Lords of the Four Quarters,' besides rows of prayer wheels.

Chemrey Gompa

45 km from Leh, situated in a picturesque valley leading to Changla, this gompa was constructed as a funeral act of merit on Sengge Namgyal's death in 1645. A large collection of scriptures with title pages in sterling silver and the text in gold letters is kept here. Close by is a cave monastery reputed to have been the abode of Padma Sambhav during one of his periods of meditation.

Stakna Gompa

A few kilometres upstream from Thikse, Stakna is situated on a 60 metre high isolated rock.

Mashro Gompa

Situated on the opposite bank of the Indus across Thikse, Mashro was established in the first half of the 16th century AD and has a valuable collection of very old and beautiful thankas, some in the form of 'mandalas'. Its annual festival of oracles in early March is an important event in the Ladakhi religious calendar. Young monks selected as oracles undergo long periods of meditation, fasting and ritual purification to gain spiritual strength. When possessed they perform astonishing feats with swords and knives, cavorting blindfolded along narrow parapets.

Stok Gompa

The palace of the banished royal family, Stok has a museum which displays fabulous period costumes and jewellery of the royalty along with exquisite thankas representing the life of Sakya Muni. Interesting historical objects like coins, seals, armour, weapons, precious jade and porcelain too can be seen here.

Basgo Gompa

40 km downstream from Leh, it was the seat of power of a branch of the Namgyal family. It was here in 1680 AD that invading Mongol and Tibetan armies were held in check over a three year long seige. Original 16th century murals and other arts at Basgo are well worth a visit.

Lamayuru Gompa

On crossing Foto-La, the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road, if you take a winding road that descends into the Indus Valley, a sudden bend reveals a strange village with a monastery overlooking it. Lamayuru has fascinating caves carved out of the mountainside. Its festival is held during summer. The oldest holy site Ladakh, it was a Bon shrine prior to the advent of Buddhism. Also known as Yung Drung (Swastika) it is sited on a high promonotory overlooking the village and valley. For sheer spectacle value no other gompa can match Lamayuru.

Mulbekh Gompa

The village of Mulbekh, on the way to Namika-La, has a unique sight a huge image of the Buddha carved out of rock bang on the road. The monastery here is perched on a high rock over the village and the valley, and has some prized relics.


The cave monastery of Shergole
Kashmir: Poetry of Nature Ladakh

 

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