Ladakh, the Land of High Passes (la dwags), is one of the highest inhabited regions in the world. Located in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, this high-altitude cold desert is flanked by two formidable mountain ranges – the Karakoram to the northwest and the Great Himalayan range to the southwest. Between these two mountain ranges, there are smaller massifs such as the Ladakh and Zanskar mountain ranges, the altitude varies between 9,000 feet and 25,170 feet resulting in extreme temperatures – in winter, temperatures can drop down to a staggering minus 40 degrees Celsius while in summer they tend to soar up to 35 degrees.
The region is denied access to the monsoon-laden winds that sweep across much of North India by the Great Himalayas, so the main source of water remains the glaciers and heavy winter snowfall that feed the network of springs and streams. Many of these streams eventually join the major rivers that traverse the region. Foremost among them is the River Indus, which begins its journey near Mount Kailash in Tibet and enters Ladakh at Demchok, about 250km southeast of Leh. The Indus continues flowing through the central Ladakh heartland, before entering Pakistan. It was along this mighty river and its tributaries – the Zanskar, Shayok and Nubra rivers – that human settlements first arose in this austere environment.
Leh is the main headquarter of Leh district. It is said that the first settlement was started around Chubi during the reign of King Tashi Namgyal who built the castle and Gonkhang on top of the Tsemo hill. During the reign of King Singe Namgyal, the nine storied palace was built above the present old town. Leh means a garden with springs and plantation. In ancient times, Leh used to be an important trade centre on a feeder branch of the fabled Silk Route. Traders from Kashmir, Punjab and Central Asia halted here with their caravans en route to the mercantile cities of Chinese Central Asia such as Yarkand, Kashgar and Khotan. Today, Leh is an important tourist destination in India and has an airport located at the outskirts of the city.
Namgyal Tsemo Monastery (Fortress of Tashi Namgyal)
Namgyal Tsemo lies on top of a hill in Leh city. Namgyal Tsemo was built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century. The structure appears more like a fort than a palace building. A cantilevered wooden framed passage, provided at the uppermost level for paridakshana, lends a special character to the entire built up and the wooden framed passage is covered with prayer flags. The fortress is recognised as a monument of national importance.
Lhechen Palkar (Leh Palace)
Leh palace was built during the reign of King Senge Namgyal (1570 – 1764 A. D.) which took three years to complete which and it was once the world’s highest building and bears more than a passing similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet). The palace served as the royal residence and seat of power. The main craftsman involved in the building of the palace was the Balti carpenter, Chandan Ali Senge, who came from Khapulu in Baltistan. He also created the palace at Chigtan, according to legend after completing the palace the king ordered his right arm to be amputated so that he may never build a palace as magnificent as this. The site selected for the building was a ridge, below the old fort of Tashi Namgyal, shaped in the form of an elephant’s head.
Shey is located around 16km south of Leh. The historical name of the village was Shel meaning glass as the fort was reflected in the water of the pond below. The first settlement of Shey was at the time of the descendents of the epic king Gesar. Shey was seat of power of the first king of Ladakh Lhachen Spalgigon. The ruin fort can be seen above the present Shey palace. Shey palace was built by King Deldan Namgyal in the beginning of 17th century. The main image in the monastery is three – storey statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, made of copper guilt, which was made by Deldan Namgyal as a funerary memorial to his father King Singe Namgyal.
Stok village is located at a distance of 14km from Leh, on the opposite side of the Indus River. The original name of the village was Tog meaning pinnacle. However, today it is known as Stok. The village has a gonpa and a palace where the descendants of former royal family live. The mountain above the village (Stok Kangri) has become popular among tourists for trekking and mountaineering. The Stok palace was built on a hill at the end of the village in about the year 1825 by King Tsespal Tondup Namgyal. Not long after it was built, Ladakh was lost to the Dogras. From then on the successive kings of Ladakh resided in this palace.
Thiksey village is situated along the right bank of the river Indus at a distance of about 20km southeast of Leh. It lies along the Leh – Manali highway. Thiksey monastery founded in the 15th century is situated on the top of the hill and is part of the Gelukpa order. It is noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The disciple of Jangon Tsongkhapa, Sherab Zangpo of Stod, first built the temple of Stagmo Lakchung at the top of the Thiksey valley. Then Paldan Sherab, nephew of Sherb Zangpo, founded Thiksey monastery. There are sacred shrines and are many precious objects to be seen. The successive reincarnation of the Skyabje Khanpo Ringpoche acts as in-charge of the monastery. Thiksey gustor (festival) held from 17th to 19thof the 12thmonth of the Tibetan calendar. There is a chance to see prayers in the early morning.
Stakna monastery is situated at a distance of 25km from Leh. It was built in about 1580 by great saint scholar of Bhutan Chosje Jamyang Palkar during the reign of Dharmaraja Jamyang Namgyal. The name of the village and monastery derives from the hill on which the monastery is situated. Stakna literally means ‘tiger’s nose’ as the hill is formed in the shape of a tiger and the monastery is located on the ‘nose’. There is no tradition of sacred dance in the monastery but there is a festival associated with the hurling of a votive offering.
Situated at a distance of about 46km from Leh, Takthok monastery lies in Sakti village. Before the monastery was founded, there was a meditation cave of a mahasiddha, Kunga Phuntsog. During the reign of dharmaraja Tsewang Namgyal, the vidhyadhara Tsewang Norbu came to Ladakh from Kham and introduced the order of the San-nag Nima. The roof and walls of the monastery are all made of rock and therefore it was given the name of Takthok Padmalinggon. The festival of Takthok held on the 28th and 29th days of the 9th month of the Tibetan calendar.
Hemis monastery is the largest and most famous of all monasteries in Ladakh. Situated at a distance of about 45km south of Leh, the Hemis monastery was founded in 17th century by Stagsang Rascheng who was invited to Ladakh by King Singge Namgyal. The king offered him religious estates throughout his dominions in Ladakh and attended on him as his principal guru. The name Hemis is derived from the shape of the valley which is formed in the shape of the Tibetan alphabet “He”. Gyalwa Gotsangpa had previously meditated here and his cave still exists in the upper part of the valley. The festival of Hemis Tsechu assembles annually from 9th to 11th day of the 5th Tibetan month. The Gompa has well preserved Thankas and copper gilt statue of the Lord Buddha, various stupas made of gold and silver and many auspicious objects.
Matho village is situated at a distance of about 23km south of Leh on the right bank of Indus River. The 15th century Matho monastery was founded by Lama Dungpa Dorje Palzang in 1410 A.D. during the reign of King Dagspa Bumlde. The festival called “Matho Nagrang” takes place every year on the 14th and 15th days of the 1st month of the Tibetan calendar. During this time two oracles make an appearance and make prophecies.
Spituk monastery is on a hill top near Indus, around 7km from Leh. This monastery was founded in the 11th century by ‘Od-De’, the elder brother of Lha Lama Changchub Od, when he came to Ladakh. When Rinchen Zangpo, the Translator came to that place he said that an exemplary religious community would arise there and so the monastery was called Spituk (‘Exemplary’). That time it belonged to the Kadampa School. Then during the lifetime of Dharmaraja Gragspa Bum Lde, the monastery was restored by Lama Lhawang Lods and the stainless order of Tsongkhapa was introduced and it has remained intact as such up till present. The Spituk festival is held every year from 17th to 19th of every 11th month of the Tibetan calendar.
Phyang is located 17km west of Leh on a blue hill. Phyang monastery was founded in the 15th century by Chosje Danma Kunja Dragpa during the reign of King Jamjang Namgyal and is one of the largest Drigung gonpa in the region. Phyang monastery is also called Tashi Chosang, the festival of Gang-Sgnon Tsedub is held every year from 17th to 19th of the 1st month of the Tibetan calendar.
The village of Likir lies at a distance of about 52km west of Leh. During the life time of Lhachen Gyalpo, the 5th king of Ladakh, a religious estate and the land on which to build the monastery was offered to Lama Duwnag Chosje, a great meditation practitioner. The Lama blessed the site and in 1065, the monastery was built and community introduced. The site of the monastery was encircled by the bodies of the two great serpent spirits, the naga-rajas Nanda and Taksako and so its name became widely renowned as Likir (The Naga-Encircled) Galdan Targyasling. The monastery flourished during the time of Khasadubje known as Lhawang Lodos Sangphu. The monastery was brought into the order of the great Lama Tsongkhapa and up till present times the rituals and observances of the three basic Pratimoksa disciplines, which form the basis of the Buddhist teachings, are preserved. There are many blessed shrines in this monastery and there resides a protective deity wearing golden armour and of stern command. The successive reincarnations of Ngari Rinpoche act as the incumbents of the monastery.
The village of Basgo is situated about 42km from Leh, along the Leh-Srinagar highway. The name derives from the word ‘Ba – go’ meaning bull’s head. There is a rock in the shape of a bull’s head near the entrance to the village from which the village gets its name. The village of Basgo served as the capital of lower Ladakh in the 15th century and the citadel known as Basgo Rabstan Lhartse Khar can still be seen today. The principal image there is that of a sacred copper-gilt image of the Buddha Maitreya, two storeys in height. It was built by the dharmaraja Singe Namgyal as a funerary to his father, King Jamyang Namgyal. There is also an image of the Buddha Maitreya made of clay, three storeys in height which can be seen at the top of the castle. There are many beautiful paintings to be seen in great variety on the walls of that temple.
Alchi Choskor is the only monastery in the Ladakh region on flat ground. Situated at a distance of about 69km west of Leh, this monastery is the largest and most famous of all of the temples built by the great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. The Translator’s own staff which he himself planted there is now a huge willow tree. It is reckoned to be the oldest willow in Ladakh. The temple was founded in 11th century which accounts for the Indian and particularly Kashmiri influences.
The monastery of Rizong known as Vuma changchubling was built by Lama Tsultim Nima. The monastery upholds the teaching of the great Tsonkhapa. Since the monastic community places particular importance to the observance of the Vinaya precepts, the traditions of the coercive rites which include sacred dances and hurling votive offerings are not especially observed. The incumbents of the monastery are the successive reincarnations of Lama Tsultim Nima and of his son, Sras Rinpoche. The monastery is sited in a most solitary position.
The village of Tingmogang lies at a distance of about 92 kms west of Leh city. This castle was built when Gragspa Bum, younger brother of Gragspa Bum-lde, was ruling over Sham in accordance with religious tenets. The self-originated image of Avalokitesvara from Kamrup was brought and installed inside the castle of Tingmogang. The image is considered to be a most excellent object of pilgrimage which leads to the accumulation of great merit and to which prostrations and obligations have been offered by the successive dharmarajas of Ladakh and by the whole population of Ladakh. People come for pilgrimage especially on the 15th day of the Vaishakha month, which celebrates the three most important events in the life of the lord Buddha and which also happens to be the occasion on which this exalted image was brought to the castle of Tingmogang. The custom continues today unimpaired.
The monastery of Samstanling is situated in the village of Sumur in Nubra valley. This monastery was found by Lama Tsultim Nima. Since all the monks place particular emphasis on the observance of the Vinaya precepts, they do not practice to any great extent the coercive rituals such as those of sacred dance and the hurling of votive offerings. The successive reincarnations of Lama Tsultim Nima and of Sras Rinpoche act as the incumbents of the monastery.
Diskit monastery is situated the valley of Nubra. It was founded in about the year 1420 by Shesrab Zangpo of Stod during the lifetime of dharmaraja Graspa. It is reckoned as one of the brances of Thikse Monastery. The successive reincarnations of Skyabsje Khanpo Rinpoche act as the incumbents. There is a custom of holding sacred dances during the festival of Gustor which takes place every year on the 28th and 29th days of the 12th Tibetan calendar month.
Karcha is the largest of all monasteries in the valley of Zanskar. Its full name Karcha Chamspa Ling, was first established by Phagspa Shesrab the Translator, from Zanskar. The present monastery was built by Teacher Dorje Shesrab and it also flourished during same time. The order of Tsongkapa was introduced by Shesrab Zangpo of Stod. The bone relics of Dorje Rinchen are also to be seen. Every year on the 28th and 29th days of the 6th Tibetan calendar month, the tradition of sacred dances is observed in association with the Gustor festival. In that place there are also two temples built by Rinchen Zangpo the Translator, known as the Thugsjechhenpo Lhakhang Karpo. Close by the village of Kharcha there are the monasteries of Khagsar, of Purang in the village of Langmi, of Phagspa in the village of Nangbaphal and a nunnery called Dorjezong at the top of the valley. Karcha (Pari-of-Whites) is also called Karsha and takes its name from two villages there “Phyikar (Outer White) and Nangkar (Inner White).
Zongkul monastery (Ravine Fortress) is a sacred place of meditation, founded by the great mahasiddha Naropa, who, when he was residing in his meditation cave (where his staff is still preserved) which is situated on the high and splendid rockface above the present monastery, he struck his ritual dagger into the rock as a sign that he would found the monastery. It came out of the rock overhang below, where the lower ‘fortress’ is situated beneath the cave and it can be seen to this day. The mahasiddha went there and founded the monastery. Both the lower and upper ‘fortresses’ are regarded to be most blessed places as he resided for long periods in meditation there. Thereafter, it became the sacred place of meditation for all the mahasiddhas of Zanskar, including Dubchen Kunga Gyatso, Dubchen Nawang Tsering, Dzadpa Dorje, Karmapa, Kunga Choslag and Lama Norbu. Inside the monastery, there are to be seen many kinds of sacred shrines including the holy objects made by all those mahasiddhas mentioned above, such as an ivory image of Samvara, a crystal stupa and the texts containing the spiritual songs and biographies composed by the successive mahasiddhas. Inside the meditation cave there is Panchen Naropa’s foot-print embedded in the rock and his sacred spring.