Ladakh region is quite different from the rest of India in every perspective. The people, their lifestyle, outfits, and even cultures are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia, than of India. The most famous holy places in Ladakh are the Buddhist monasteries. A number of Buddhist Gompas and monasteries establish the reigning religion of Ladakh as Buddhism. Zanskar is considered a famous cultural destination of Ladakh. One can find a number of ancient rock engravings, even in areas like Dras and the lower Suru Valley, which are inhabited by Muslim population. These carvings and other art forms date back to the 8th century and provide an evidence of the North Indian Buddhism influence since ancient times.
Buddhist study centres have been set up at several places. These centres also run 'Summer meditation sessions'. There are sevreral religious foundations that have evolved around remote meditation caves, which were used by the Buddhist saints for prolonged meditation in pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. Ladakh was the channel through which Buddhism reached Tibet from India. Some of the popular pilgrimage places in and around the Ladakh region are:
A great seat of learning for the Buddhists, the Rizong Monastery lies 73 km from the Leh town. It has a resident population of more thn 40 monks. This centre of worship for the monks was founded by the great Lama, Tsultim Nima in 1831 with a motive to educate monks who choose the path to God as their goal in life. The Rizong Monastery has preserved the ancient shrines, scriptures, texts and biographies of great Lamas.
Tasks like spinning wool, milking, extracting oil for the temple lamps etc. are assigned to the nuns of the monastery. All the members of the community are provided with clothes and food by the Governing body of the monastery. The atmosphere is peaceful and ideal for meditation.
Likir Monastery or "water spirits" gompa, one of the oldest in Ladakh region, dates back to the year 1065, belongs to the Tsongkhapa Order. During the reign of Lhachen Gyalpo, the fifth king of Ladakh, Lama Duwang Chosje was offered land for building this monastery 52 km from Leh. The monastery became renowned as Likir (meaning- 'the Naga encircled') because it was encircled by the bodies of the two great serpent spirits, the naga- rajas (Nanda & Taksako). The monastery was burnt down in 15th century. The present gompa is an 18th century construction that has a rich collection of paintings, robes and artifacts.
The monastery is protected by a deity which stands inside the main hall wearing a golden armour. There are statues of the Bodhisattva (Lord of All He Surveys), Amitabha (Buddha of the West), Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Maitreya (the Future Buddha or Buddha of Compassion) and Tsong-kha-pa (Founder of the yellow-hat sect). Besides, there is a grand image of Avalokitesvara, with 1000 arms and 11 heads. All the basic Pratimoksa disciplines and Buddhist teachings of ancestral saints are preserved. People celebrate the annual festival of Dosmochey with sacred dances and performances from 27th to 29th day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar.
With unmatched spectacular architecture, Lamayuru is among the oldest known Gompas, dating back to the 10th century. This Tibetan Buddhist Gompa (monastery) lies in Kargil District, Western Ladakh, about 125 km west of Leh. With around 150 permament resident monks, Lamayuru hosts two annual masked dance festivals (in the second and fifth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar). People gather around the monastery together to pray and perform traditional dances.
Founded by Mahasiddhacharya Naropa, the monastery initially consisted of five buildings, out of which only the central one exists today. This sacred site for the pre-Buddhist religion (known as the BON) has a renowned collection of carpets, thankas, wall paintings and frescoes. As the legend goes, Lamayuru Valley used to be a lake, at the time of Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha) and nagas (holy serpents) resided in the lake. It was blessed by a Lama after which the water of the lake receded up to the mountains leaving place for the monastery to be built. Lamayuru is popular for its fascinating caves carved out of the mountainside, which still exist.
Situated on a hillock 15 km south of Leh, Shey is a unique monastery with a 7.5 mtr high Buddha statue made of copper and plated with gold. Built by King Deldan Namgyal, son of King Singhye Namgyal, in 1655, the gompa is popular for its typical Tibetan architecture. The surrounding walls and interiors have extraordinary engravings. The statue of Buddha is the main attraction for devotees in the monastery. More than 5 kg of gold has been used to gild the statue. There is a lamp in front of the statue that burns round the year.
The upper story of the Shey Gompa is adorned with a number of beautiful wall paintings. Almost every wall is painted with some image or the other, including 16 Arhats (who achieved Nirvana) and Buddha's chief disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana. People gather near the monastery to celebrate an annual festival on the 30th of the first month of Tibetan calendar.
Situated about 25 kms from the Leh town, between beautiful and isolated valleys and mountain tops, the popular Stakana monastery resembles the nose of a tiger. The word “Stakana” literally means 'Tiger's nose'. Inhabiting about 30 monks, Stakana monastery belongs to the Drugpa order. The monastery was founded bythe great scholar-saint Chosje Jamyang Palkar around 1580. King Jamyang Namgyal, the then ruler of Ladakh, was very impressed with the architecture of the Gompa.
The monastery preserves the ancient teachings and texts of the Drugpa order. The beauty of Stakana monastery lies in the central image of the gompa, Arya Avalokitesvara , the seven feet high chorten made of silver, and the statues of Sakyamuni (Past Buddha), the Present Buddha and Maitreya (Future Buddha). The marvellous Tibetan art is clearly shown in the paintings of Tsephakmad (a Buddhist deity), Sakyamni (the Historical Buddha), Amchi (the Medical Buddha), Bodhisattva, Padma Sambhava and Tshong-san-gompo.
Cave monastery is a small but beautiful pilgrimage of Buddhists. The place is known for its elegant frescoes. The monastery appears as if suspended in the middle of a mountain. This unique architectural art draws thousands of people even from far off places.
20 km from Leh, the imposing Thiksey gompa of Ladakh belongs to the Gelukpa order. The monastery was founded by Paldan Sherab, nephew of Sherb Zangpo. Built like the Potala Palace of Tibet, this 12 storeyed monastery complex is one of the finest examples of typical Ladakhi architecture. One can see the antique paintings, masks, statues, stupas, thankas, swords and a large pillar engraved with the Buddha's teachings in the complex.
The devotees attend morning prayers daily at 6 am. The echoing sounds of bells, mantras and prayer lends an ethereal quality in the quiet valley. A major attraction of the monastery is the Thiksey gustor festival, which is held from 17th to 19th of the 12th Tibetan month.
This three storeyed huge monastery, built in 11th century, belongs to the Gelukpa order and houses around 135 monks. The monastery lies at a distance of approximately 8 km from Leh, near the river Indus.The gompa is popular for its wonderful collection of masks, antique arms, icons and thankas. The place was initially under the Kadampa school property. Gradually, it started functioning under Dharmaraja Takspa Bum - Lde Lama Lhawang Lotus, who introduced the Gelukpa order to the place.
On the same hill on which the monastery is located, lies the Mahakal Temple, dedicated to Lord Vajrabhairava. Three other major monasteries of Ladakh, namely Stok, Sankar and Saboo are supposed to be branches of Spituk. It witnesses a heavy crowd during the festival of "Spituk Gustor" that takes place on the 18th and 19th of the 11th month of the Tibetan Calendar.
Stongdey monastery offers a wonderful view of the snow clad peaks from an altitude of about 3500 metres. Founded in 1052 by Lama Lhodak Marpa Choski Lodos, Stongdey is counted as one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. Situated near Padum in Kargil District, it is second largest gompa/monastery of Zanskar, inhabited by Gelukpa monks. One can easily observe the Tibetan Yogi Marpa's influence at Stongdey. This is a perfect place to spend quality time in meditation and watching the exotic scenery of the valley.
The complex has several temples and serves as the residence of approximately 60 monks. Another major attraction of the monastery lies in the spell binding wall paintings and interiors. While attending the annual Gustor festival, on the 28th and 29th day of the eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar, one can see the monks performing the sacred dance in the monastery.