Trekking in Ladakh, India

India

The Gompas of Ladakh

In 1655, in memory of his father, a king built the two-story Shey gompa adjacent to the palace. Hundreds of chortens of all shapes and sizes stand below the palace and gompa. These chortens demonstrate the interest taken in Shey by the Ladakhi kings and queens who succeeded Shey’s original builder.

Located on the second story of the gompa is a large Buddha statue made in 1655 by a Nepalese sculptor who was assisted by three Ladakhi craftsmen. The seated Buddha is 12 meters high and worked of copper sheets gilded with gold. This Buddha was the biggest metal statue in the region and was the largest Buddha statue of any type in Ladakh until Thiksey gompa installed a 15-meter tall Buddha made of clay in 1970. The castings of the statue were made in Leh while the statue’s copper was collected in Zanskar and hammered into plates on large rocks. More than five kilos of gold were then used to plate the copper. The statue was built in parts in the Zanstil Palace (Zans means copper and til means to hammer) in Leh and then transported to Shey where it was assembled and installed.

Sacrificial offerings such as grain or jewels, holy signs and mantras are contained inside the figure. In front of the Buddha is a large bowl of wax with a central flame that burns for one year before being replaced. This flame represents divinity and purity and is present in front of all Buddha statues in Ladakh.

Thiksey Gompa is the most picturesquely situated monastery in Ladakh, perched high on a hill above the Indus. Its buildings are arranged at various levels, leading up to the private apartments of the incarnate lamas on the summit. From here one commands a magnificent view of the valley. The gompa possesses a rich and beautiful collection of hundreds of hand-written or painted prayer books.

A new temple contains a 15-meter tall Buddha statue, constructed in 1970 to commemorate a visit to Thiksey by the Dalai Lama. The statue, made of clay and covered with gold paint, is the largest Buddha figure in Ladakh and took four years to construct. Inside, the statue is filled with the Kandshur and the Tandshur - volumes of Buddhist canonical texts. The statue was made entirely by local craftsmen and represents Maitreya, (“compassion” in Sanskrit) the Buddha of the Future. The prophecy made of the Future Buddha is that the world will be undergoing such chaos that He will teach compassion to the people.

Hemis Gompa is one of the most important monasteries in Ladakh, it is also the largest and wealthiest. The king-architect Singe Namgyal, a great patron of Buddhism, built it in 1620. He filled Hemis with golden statues, stupas set with precious stones and thangkhas brought from many places, including Tibet.

The lamas of Hemis were associated with the Ladakhi royal family and became quite prosperous, owning much land and supervising many smaller, scattered monasteries. Although only about a dozen lamas actually live here, Hemis has several hundred lamas attached to its subsidiary monasteries.

The Rimpoche or spiritual head of Hemis is a reincarnation of the monastery’s founder Stagtshang Raspa. The last Rimpoche was a reincarnation who, as a five-year old child, was being taught in Tibet when the Chinese invaded. There has been no communication with the Rimpoche since the 1960s. During the 1975 festival, Drugpa Rimpoche, a 12-year old youth, became the new Rimpoche as a new incarnation.

Hemis is the location for numerous religious festivals throughout the year, although the most important one is in summer, when a huge thangkha, one of the largest in the world, is hung in the courtyard. It takes about 50 monks to carry the thangkha to its place and unfold it. The thangkha is made of fine heavy silk and embroidered with pictures of various gods as well as of the founder of Hemis. The dances in front of this thangkha represent the forces of good, symbolized by legendary heroes and saints, overcoming demons. Eventually, the violence of the demons is overcome by the superiority of virtue resting on wisdom and the demons are driven from the courtyard. Spectators watch these dances from the upper story verandahs around the courtyard.

Hemis also has a thangkha, reputed to be the largest in the world, which is displayed once every eleven years. It was last shown in July 1992. The hands of the artist who painted this thangkha are preserved at Hemis as holy relics, though they are not shown to the public.

Travelers note: Each day we will try to have some free time so one is not always on a guided tour. While we often eat meals together, they will not be pre-arranged which will allow us the flexibility to eat at local establishments or at more preferred hours. Hotels are subject to change.

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