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. Go on the Buddhist circuit in Ladakh to feel all this for yourself.
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The ‘pop’ part of the circuit are the festivals – annual events at most monasteries. The biggest and most popular is the one at the Hemis Monastery; it helps that it falls in the peak tourist season of June – July. Crowds can be madding here, and it is advisable one reaches very early to secure a spot. No such problem at other venues though.
These festivals are essentially different kinds of masked dances, each with a theme or a prayer. The dances have evolved into vibrant events, with costumes made of brocade and silk, in bright golds, reds, blues and greens. Masks of a clay-cotton mix are painted in natural colours and polished in gold and silver. Trumpets, cymbals, drums, bells and flageolets provide the accompanying music. Dancers flourish sacred items like daggers, spears, bells, vajras, skulls and damrus. Decades or sometimes even centuries old, these are brought out for special events only.
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The origins of these dances go back to the 9th century when the rise of Buddhism at the expense of the Bon religion provoked Langdarma, Tibet’s Bon king, into persecuting Buddhists. Monks were disrobed and monasteries dismantled. In frustration, the powerful monk Palji Dorge came dancing to Lhasa, dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat, high boots and brocade costume, and pierced the king’s heart with an arrow. This was the prototypical cham, now popular as the Buddhist masked dance, though some trace it back to the Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) era. The Hemis Festival opens with an act by 13 dancers dressed like Palji Dorge. Supposedly endowed with spiritual powers, they symbolically ward off any evil spirits that might hinder the festival.
While at the events, shop for curios and handicrafts. Relish local delicacies at stalls set up to raise funds for the monasteries. At some surprise stalls, you can even play games of skill and chance, with money at stake!
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.
Hemis: 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 : 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. But not before nearly a quarter of the 108 volumes of Kangyur texts were lost and 2000 pages were missing from the rest. These texts hold historical significance apart from religious; their prefaces record the works and wishes of the rulers of that time. That’s where you learn how gold, silver, copper, turquoise and other gems were crushed and turned into ink to write the scriptures. And how 3.5 kg of gold was melted to paint the Maitreya’s image. Basgo, capital of lower and then unified Ladakh until the 16th century, was devastated in three long battles with Tibetan and Mongol invaders – but 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.
Alchi : 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. The three-tiered Sumstek temple has a finely carved doorway in Kashmiri style. Its central space has a large chorten, surrounded by alcoves housing images of Avalokitesvara, Maitreya and Manjushri. Noteworthy murals are those of Prajnaparamita (‘Goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom’) and the royal family. The dukhang (assembly hall) has a central image of Vairocana, flanked by the other four Dhyani Buddhas, cosmic representations of Buddhahood radiating from an absolute centre out into the cardinal directions. The walls bear some of the finest paintings depicting the families of the five Buddhas.
Thiksey: Don’t miss the morning prayers at Thiksey. With scores of monks chanting in tandem for two hours, it really is something else. When I visited, the senior lamas were all concentration but the 30-odd young ones, all under 10, were another breed. They tried to look studious but ended up fidgeting, exchanging meaningful grins, poking their neighbours or looking plain bored. Some broke the monotony by serving butter tea to all. Thiksey is home to over 100 lamas aged 5 to 80. 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. The library is up a few flights of stairs, next to the lhakhang (main shrine) where women are not allowed and a museum where photography is prohibited.
Likir : 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 klukhil) 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 andrichest gompas. A major attraction is the recently installed 23 metre high statue of Maitreya, seated on a pedestal in the open. The dukhang contains a set of Kangyur and Tanjur texts while a smaller one houses an 11 headed statue of Avalokitesvara. The gompa has a fine collection of thangkas in its museum. The largest, depicting Je Tsongkhapa, is put on display only during the gompa’s annual festival.
Lamayuru: As you descend the winding road from Fotu la, the highest motorable point between Srinagar and Leh at 13,479 feet, you come upon this beautifully located monastery. Lamayuru gompa stands splendid amid green fields, mudhouses and lofty peaks. Legend has it that Buddha’s disciple Madhyantika offered torma (‘sacred food and water’) to appease the spirits haunting the site. Some grain spilled to the ground, sprouting into barley plants shaped like a yun-drung (‘swastika’). Yun-Drung is hence Lamayuru’s proper name. It currently has over 200 resident lamas.
Chemde : 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 used by their armies, 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.
Phiyang : 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 with a hamlet below and chortens on hills all around. Picture postcard material.
Matho : Serene monasteries. Savage histories. It’s possible. When the armies of Balti king Ali Sher Khan vanquished Ladakhi king Jamiang Namgyal towards the late 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 a 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. The village around it is a green oasis with a 55 km long stream running through, revered by the locals. They use its water only for drinking, never for bathing or washing. Attend the annual Nagrang Festival in below freezing February or March if you want to see the famed Oracles of Matho. They are two lamas from Matho, possessed by the spirits of the brothers Rongtsan Kar and Mar, but only during the festival. Known for their protective powers, these brothers came from Tibet with Matho’s founder, Dorje Palzang. In a trance, they perform stunning acts. They run along walls and rooftops without falling off. They cut their mouths and hands with sharp knives, bleeding profusely and yet their wounds heal in a day. They walk about in masks without eyeholes, seeing through the angry eyes of deities painted on their torsos.
Naropa Palace : 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. However, unlike the monks, they are not easy to chat up being either too shy or giggly. Try anyway, no one will be offended.
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.
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