Along with trekking, rafting and the high-altitude lakes, visiting the monasteries of Ladakh is a highlight of any visit. There are monasteries perched upon every second craggy hill, it seems, but some of them are more visit-worthy than others. There are two main monastery circuits that visitors to Ladakh take—to those east of the city of Leh, and to those west.
Getting to the monasteries of Ladakh
Most people hire a private taxi to see the most famous and attractive monasteries over the course of a couple of days. One day for the monasteries west of Leh, along the Leh-Kargil road, and the other for those east of Leh, on the Manali-Leh road. As an independent and adventurous traveller with a bit of time up my sleeve, I started off with the desire to visit the monasteries by bus. But, it’s quite hard to get around Ladakh by bus. Buses to certain places only go once or twice a week, or on alternate days. Therefore, it’s essential to plan where you want to go and when, especially if you’re short on time.
I visited the Alchi Monastery by bus. While it was certainly the cheap option (the bus driver forgot to charge me on my trip from Nimmu to the Alchi turnoff, and drove off as I was getting my wallet out to pay!) it was also very slow. Not because the buses themselves are slow, but because they are so infrequent. I ended up sharing a taxi on my return journey, rather than wait I-didn’t-know-how-long for the next bus.
Thereafter I decided to hire private taxis. The taxi companies have set rates for the east and west-of-Leh circuits, or you can customise by adding or subtracting visits to certain monasteries. Three to four in one day is ideal. It is expensive to do it this way, at Rs 2500-3000 ($50-60) each time. As I was travelling alone it did hurt to part with that much cash. But it was certainly the easiest option.
Leh, Tsemo Gompa
The easiest place to start is of course the monastery and red Maitreya temple, the sixteenth-century Tsemo Gompa, above the city of Leh. It’s another 20-minute walk above the palace. Just don’t think about climbing up here until you’ve fully acclimatised to Ladakh’s altitude, or you’ll be in pain. I visited about two weeks after arriving in Ladakh, and that was difficult enough.
Thikse, east of Leh, looks amazing from the outside, red and white and terraced into a large pyramidal hillside. But inside it’s even better, with many different shrines, open halls and dark rooms, all strikingly different. It’s one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries of Ladakh. And then of course there’s Maitreya, the Future Buddha.
The two-story Maitreya is breathtaking. The skin is gold, with heavy earrings and a colourful jewelled headdress and clothing. The real conch shell at the centre of the forehead, the third eye, is a gorgeous detail. Although completed only in 1980, so not old like many of Ladakh’s Buddhist artifacts, the Maitreya statue is just perfect. My guidebook says that it is ‘undoubtedly the most beautiful image in all Ladakh’, and while that’s a big call, I’m inclined to agree. I just sat and gazed at it for half an hour.
My heart sank when the bus dropped me off at the side of the Leh-Kargil Highway, next to a sign that read “Alchi: 3 kilometres”. Three kilometres uphill, along a steep dusty road in the midday sun. Very few buses (one per day, I believe) actually go to Alchi itself. So I crossed the bridge over the Indus and began to walk.
I had been walking for about 20 minutes, about a third of the way, when a monk pulled over and offered me a lift. In India (or anywhere!) I wouldn’t usually get into a car with a random man, but I figured a Buddhist monk in saffron robes was the definition of harmless. I was right.
Alchi Gompa is at the far end of the town, through all the trinket sellers and past the ‘German bakeries’ selling apricot juice and apple pie. It is described in all the guidebooks as the most important monastery in Ladakh, “in a class of its own”. This is for cultural and art historical reasons that become clear once you enter, but first impressions are a bit disappointing. After the monastery above the palace in Leh, Alchi was the first Ladakhi monastery I visited, and I was initially underwhelmed. The exterior of the monastery buildings themselves aren’t anything special, and there aren’t any of those stunning, chiselled-into-the-cliff-face views that one associates with the monasteries of Ladakh.
But the interiors are really special. This is why you should visit Alchi. The 12th century shrines predate most other monasteries of Ladakh. The very detailed murals of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas and other Buddhist-related iconography show very little Chinese or Tibetan influence, unlike almost every other Buddhist site in Ladakh. The style is entirely Indian, particularly Kashmiri, which makes it very unusual. This style disappeared after the Muslim conquests of the subcontinent in the twelfth century.
The ruined, 400 year old Shey Palace is the first that you come to when driving east of Leh. Although there’s nothing more than a few houses and shops along the road now, Shey used to be the capital of Ladakh, so this palace was once important. There’s a large, two-story Buddha inside that, while not as beautiful as the Thikse Maitreya, is still impressive. Other than this, the rest of the complex is ruined, and there’s nothing to see inside. The views from atop Shey Palace are sweeping and beautiful, though.
The Hemis Monastery, 43 kilometres east of Leh, is one of the richest and most important monasteries of Ladakh. It is also one of the few monasteries to hold its annual festival in the summer. Therefore, it’s very popular with tourists. If you’re lucky enough to be here in June/July, it’s worth making the trip out to the Hemis Monastery Festival. I went to the first day of the festival, and wrote about it here.
Hemis is about 8 kilometres uphill from the main road. It is usually visited as the last stop on the east-of-Leh monastery circuit.
I was the only visitor to Matho Monastery, which was quite a contrast to the others. The views across the mountains and flat valley were spectacular, as Matho is perched very high up. The interiors all seemed very new, so weren’t as interesting as some of the older monasteries. But it was a peaceful end to a beautiful day doing the monastery circuit east of Leh.
This post originally appeared on www.elenturner.com