I try to finish all my posts from a particular trip before I head on to another one. But try as I might, one or two posts manage to slip through, like the Monasteries of Ladakh! Every village in Ladakh and Spiti have their own monastery and more than religion it is their location that attracts me.
I visited Ladakh in January 2016 and boy it was cold. While we were roaming around, the temperature usually was in the minus. I visited Spituk, Lamayuru, Alchi, Thiksey and Chemdey Monasteries. I take you through them in that order!
The Spituk Monastery is about 8 Kilometers away from Leh. It is said to be built in 11 century CE. I explored a bit of the monastery but I was lucky to see the winter festival called Spituk Gustor. If you ever head to Ladakh in Januray do make sure that you do not miss out on the festival.
The distance between Leh and Lamayuru is about 125 kilometers, it took us about 4 hours to reach there because we would stop at so many places on the way to click pictures! The day was overcast though. On the way we approached a geographical formation called the ‘moonscapes.’ It is a must stop.
Lamayuru Monastery is also from the 11th century, it was founded by Mahasiddhacharya Naropa. In January we were the only visitors to the monastery!
Alchi Monastery is unlike anything I have seen before. The only comparison that comes to mind is Tabo in Spiti. Both have wall to wall paintings within the monasteries. Both are a complex of temples rather than one large building. Alchi is said to be build either in 10th or 11th century.
We visited Lamayuru and Alchi on the same day. We had lunch at Alchi before visiting the monastery. It was a very cold day. The caretaker opened the monastery only for us, imagine that! Photography is prohibited inside the Alchi Monastery (Tabo too) because it damages the old paintings.
Before you think I clicked the picture inside, this is an outdoor gate at the Alchi Monastery. It is painted in the same style as the walls inside the monastery. This is one place where you are allowed to click a picture of the paintings.
Thiksey is about 11.00 km away from Leh. The monastery was built in 1430. It is a grand place.
We attended the morning prayers at the Thiksey Monastery. In the monasteries anyone is welcome for the prayers. It is also not considered rude if you get up before the entire ceremony is over!
The Maitreya Buddha Statue is one of the most recognized pictures from the monasteries of Ladakh. It is grand, almost two stories tall and utterly mesmerizing.
The Chemdey (also written as Chemrey Monastery) was the last monastery I visited. It is not far from Thiksey and I visited both on the same morning.
I loved the monasteries in Ladakh for their stunning locations too. They are often perched up on the highest slopes and the view around them is mesmerizing.
There is something so awe inspiring about the monasteries of Ladakh. I wonder how were they built in that ancient a time. How did they manage to survive for so long? But what I like most is their location, always majestic, always dramatic, always stunning!
PS. My trip to Ladakh was sponsored by The Grand Dragon Ladakh
One of the highlights of my winter trip to Ladakh was the opportunity to attend the Gustor Festival at the Spituk Monastery in Ladakh. This year it was held on 7th and 8th January. As it falls in winter it is attended by the locals in large numbers, tourists were in minority!
It is said that Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh in 200 BC during the reign of King Ashoka. The census of 2011 puts 66% of the population in Leh as Buddhist. Monasteries are important religious and cultural centers.
The winters are harsh in Ladakh. In January the maximum temperature would often be in single digit and minimum in double digit minus! A festival in such a weather is just what is need to cheer up.
Gustor is a religious festival where lamas perform cham or mask dances. Cham is a choreographed dance performed only by lamas. The dances symbolize the destruction of evil spirits. The festival ends by burning an effigy which is a symbol of destruction of evil. Some of the dances are performed in pairs where the deity appears with a consort. Some dances are performed in a group.
The masks can represent fiery, benign and pleasant spirits. Animal masks are also used. The masks are made of clay and paper. They are painted with natural colors and polished with gold and silver. The dress is usually silk and brocade. It is said that the masked dances have existed since 8th century AD in Ladakh. The dances are performed by monks to the tunes of long horns, cymbals, conch shells, bells and many other instruments.
Our soft spoken guide Tashi told us to go early to the Spituk Monastery as it would get crowded during the day. And he was absolutely right. At the monastery there is a statue of Goddess Kali which is open to public only on the Gustor Festival days. When I went in it was not crowded. But while we were walking out in the afternoon for lunch, the queue was spilling down to the middle stairs.
The good folks had cordoned off a small seating area all for us marked as media. We had the balcony seats. The Grand Dragon Hotel (my sponsor for the trip) had sent in kahwa too. We were all set to enjoy the festival.
As the day progressed the place got more and more crowded. I had a gala time watching the cham dances and crowd watching.
At Gustor Spituk the tourists were in minority. This couple from Japan was sitting next to me on the Delhi-Leh flight. I had the window seat. I offered to click pictures for them too. They were very happy with the results. However, they spoke very little English so we couldn’t talk. I was happy to spot them at the festival too and on our return flight as well!
It was a feast to watch the dances and be amidst the incredible energy that the crowd and the music was generating. It was a jolly crowd.
Around 1.00 pm it was time for lunch. Our lunch was at the hotel! It was time to get out of the courtyard. Our original plan was to come back in the second half again.
By now even the windows were taken. It was a task to get out! We really has to squeeze our way through the crowd. It was an extremely well behaved crowd, there was simply no space to march out! I was so happy after I managed to get out in the open. I also have a very practical point to make. Regulate your water intake or taking a loo break is also going to be tough. Looking at the crowd we didn’t go back in the second half!
Gustor Festival at Spituk is the first monastery festival I have watched. I wish I get to see many more!
PS. I was invited to Ladakh in winter by the Grand Dragon, Ladakh.
When you get to visit Ladakh within the first ten days of a new year you know it started on the right note. Ladakh is really special for me. It was the first place I wrote about on this blog! My life looked up after I visited Ladakh in 2005, I am hoping for something similar after this visit a decade later! To begin with here is Ladakh in winter in pictures!
The Hosts- Grand Dragon Ladakh
My hosts for this trip were The Grand Dragon Ladakh. With the temperatures in minus for most of our stay, I appreciated my centrally heated room a lot! This post is an overview of my trip. You will get to read in detail about the various aspects of visiting Ladakh in winter later! I am so grateful to the Grand Dragon and their PR partners for providing me a fabulous start to 2016!
My room faced the Sotk Range of mountains. This was the view I woke up to daily. As Leh is at the height of 11,500 feet we took the first day easy and just lounged about in the hotel!
Day 1- Gustor Festival at Spituk Monastery, Shanti Stupa, Leh
One of the highlights of our trip was attending the first day of the Gustor festival at the Spituk Monastery. In a crowd of thousands there must have been about 40 odd tourists, out of which our group contributed 14 members! The mask dance festival was attended primarily by the locals!
Shanti Stupa, Leh
Our second stop for the day was at the Shanti Stupa in the evening. With the temperatures firmly in minus, it was cold! I was happy to head back to the heated car and the heated hotel!
Day 2- Chilling, Alchi and Lamayuru
We had a long day on Day 2 and I was looking forward to it! Our first stop was supposed to be Chilling, the starting point of the Chadder Trek. But as the Border Roads Organization (BRO) was blasting about 10 km before Chilling we had to give up our quest but not before we saw the beautiful Zanskar River trying hard to freeze.
We stopped at Lamayuru Village first. It has a fabulous monastery where we were the only visitors! It is beautiful as any village in Ladakh!
Alchi is one of the oldest monastery in Ladakh. It has four complexes with stunning paintings on its walls. To preserve it, no photography is allowed inside it.
Beautiful Vistas on Day 2
Day two was equally memorable for the beautiful landscapes we saw all along our drive. We gave the drivers a very tough time, asking them to stop almost at every bend! This was somewhere near Lamayuru!
Our young driver Tashi was extremely patient with us. On this day I was sharing the car with fellow bloggers Swati and Sam and we had a wonderful time!
Day 3- Thiksey and Chemdey Monasteries
We attended the morning prayers at the Thiksey Monastery to start the Day 3. While this was not the first occasion when I attended the prayers at a monastery it was certainly a first in the winter! It was followed by the breakfast at a local village nearby.
Chemdey Monastery, Ladakh
We shared the Chemdey Monastery with a few locals. There were no tourists other than us! It was certainly cold but it was a pleasure to have almost the whole Ladakh to us!
Our last official stop was at the home of a local oracle. But we made many unofficial stops while coming back to the hotel!
This in nutshell was my first trip of 2016. I am blessed that I got to see winter in Ladakh with my base at the luxurious Grand Dragon Hotel. I will write separate, detailed posts on each of the aspects of this cherished trip. But to begin with, I could not resist showcasing the pictures from the entire trip!
Even before landing I was excited about the trek to the Tiger’s Nest in Paro, Bhutan. As I was visiting in monsoon I asked my friends on Facebook beforehand if I should be carrying trekking shoes or normal sneakers would do? An overwhelming majority who had done the trek told me to carry my trekking shoes and I was glad that I did. The route is quite clearly marked but it rained while we were getting down, which made the trail slippery in turn. I was glad I listened to others and carried my trekking shoes.
The Tiger’s Nest is also known as the Taktsang Monastery. It is at an elevation of 3210 meters (10,240 feet) which is about 900 meters above the Paro Valley. I consider 900 meters a lot to be climbed in one day. We could see the monastery faintly from our hotel Naksel Resorts itself. Aditya who is the business development manager of Makemytrip (my sponsors for this trip) for Bhutan had done it already. He was not sure how many of us would be able to do it. When we started we were 6 people plus our guide Raju Rai ji.
The trail is well marked, there is no chance of getting lost on it. And coming from me, who can get lost even in a telephone booth if it had two exits, it means a lot. It is well maintained and litter free as well.
We started slowly from the base. After a while I found my rhythm, and started going up. Soon one of us wanted to go back and Raju ji went back with them as well. He said he would catch up with me later. I meet three of my mates on this trip a little ahead. I had a sip of water and told them that I would go ahead. We decided to meet at the cafeteria. Aditya told me that the cafeteria was at least 40 minutes away.
According to the legend it is said that Guru Rinpoche flew to this treacherous location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong, hence the name Tiger’s Nest as well.
From below, the location of the Tiger’s Nest looked so fantastic! To imagine that people were reaching here in 8th century was mind boggling. The mind would also boggle a bit at the thought that I had to climb all this to reach the place. In my mind, there was no doubt that I would reach there eventually. It took me less than 40 minutes to reach the cafeteria. I sat down and asked for a cup of tea which never arrived. I am told that the hike is 3.5 kilometers one way.
The cafeteria is the only source of nourishment on the way, though there is water available in many other places. After waiting for half an hour I was getting really impatient. Then a man with his cell phone came and said I should talk to my guide. I was happy to hear Raju ji telling me to proceed as others had gone ahead! I was quite happy to start again.
On the way I was asked by a few guides if I was trekking alone? I told them I was with a group and walking alone only for a while. Later on the trail they also told me that the Tiger’s Nest Monastery closes from 1.00 pm to 2.00 pm so that the lamas could have lunch. I realized that I would miss the 1.00 pm cutoff time. They told me to go slowly and click a lot of pictures!
I readily followed the advice. At this point while I was getting my photo clicked, Raju ji also came and we then walked together. I met an Indian family as well around this place who were heading back. I guess they were quite tired and irritated. But to their credit they had young girls with them, one of them fast asleep and the other I was told trekked all the way to the Tiger’s Nest.
Slowly I too reached the premises which was closed now. I was happy to sit and wait for the gates to open. They kept my bag and camera safely. We are not allowed to carry even the cell phone inside. It is difficult to imagine that the Taktsang Monastery was burned down due to fire in 1998 and rebuilt in 2005.It looked as ancient as ever.
Within no time ( at least it felt like that to my tired limbs) the gates were open again. Post 2.00 pm the place is much less crowded. Raju ji taught me how to bow in Buddhist style. After a brief stay inside the monastery we headed back.
It was threatening to rain now. We still decided to stop at the place where prayer lamps were lit and have tea. When it was our turn to pay, the monk told us that it was free of cost. He then told Raju ji something in the local language. Raju ji told me that the monk had been to Punjab (India) where he had free food in a Gurudwara, so the tea was free as well.
There are a lot of stairs as we start going back. I was dreading that I would get way too tired climbing them. But it started to rain and I had to put my camera in and get the raincoat out! In all this confusing and the pouring rain, I didn’t even realize how I managed to climb up all those stairs. Once I was through with the stairs, it was majorly downhill from there.
The trouble with me is that I find it equally tedious to go downhill. We stopped at the cafeteria to have a late lunch. Then we started climbing down slowly marveling all the way that how much did we really climb! In the picture above you can see Raju ji in his traditional dress called Gho. I was wearing a tiger t-shirt but this one didn’t know how to fly!
If you are into hiking, the climb to the Tiger’s Nest is quite manageable. However, I remember an elderly gentleman whom I met while climbing up to the Tiger’s Nest. He was still going up when even I was headed back. He must have been caught in that rain going to the monastery. At one point, much lower in the trail, I told him, “you would remember this fondly 5-6 days later, take my words for it.” He had capable guides and a companion with him. I hope he made it and is now remembering his hike with a lot of happiness. He told me to eat less rice if I was not losing weight in spite of hiking.
When we reached Naksel Resorts late in the evening they offered the three of us an one hour’s massage in their spa. Needless to say it was the best massage I ever had till date.