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.
I started my India travel blog, Travel Tales from India in 2005. In 2016 I realized Travel Tales from India and Abroad better reflected my writings. I love to walk and ride in metros around the world. I have not been everywhere, I am not even close, but it is on my list. I also quit my job as a professor in 2015, it was a happening year! I did a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur ages ago!
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