Buddhism was introduced to Ladakh via Kashmir in the early Christian era, but only reached the elite. It was not until the 10th century that Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, boomed and became widely distributed in all strata of society with the support of local rulers. Since then, Lamaism, which emphasizes the role of the spiritual master – the lama – is firmly established with many monasteries and now has a population of around 2000 members (3.5% of the Buddhist population).
The Lamaist church, an essential part of the Ladakhi society, maintains close links with the laic community, and it is the basis of recruitment and provides material support (donations).
The originality of Lamaism is mainly because of the appropriation of the magical beliefs and practices of the ancient Tibetan world.
Many elements of the ritual and symbolic Bon (the ancestral religion of Tibet) have been assimilated in Lamaism, which explains the ferocious look of the many gods, originally demons of the Bon religion, and which are specific to Tibetan pantheon.
Lamaism includes four great schools: Kagyupa, Sakyapa, Nyingmapa (Red Hats), and Gelukpa (Yellow Hats).
In Ladakh, most of the monasteries belong to Nyingmapa and Gelukpa associations (directed by the Dalai Lama). There is no competition or antagonistic spirit between these orders.
The monasteries are called ‘gompas’. Frequently built next to a village, their height position shows the distance that separate them from the villagers world with which they maintain close and daily relationships.
Every great monastery includes a Dhukhang (meeting room), a Lhakhang, ‘House of God, choir room reserved for the main divinity, and habitation cells. The Dhukhang is the biggest room, furnished with pillows and low tables where the monks sit during the prayers and ceremonies. In the small monasteries, there is only one room which serves as a meeting room and a choir room.
Most of the time, at the entry there is an iconograpic represention of the Wheel of Life and inside it, a Buddha statue surrounded by disciples and guards. Monks and believers gather together during big festivals of the Lamaic calendar.
Monasteries in the Indus Valley
Royal palace of Leh and Namgyal Tsemo: the remains of a magnificent palace still dominates the city of Leh, capital of Ladakh. Built in the 17th century, at the time when the king was reigning over all of western Tibet, the Palace is a miniature replica of the famous Potala Palace of Lhasa (Tibet).
Namgyal Tsemo monastery, built at the beginning of the 16th century, is located above Leh Palace. Unbelievable view of Leh and the Indus valley.
Stok (10 Km from Leh): this small village on the left bank of the Indus became the residence of the royal family almost two centuries ago. The palace shelters a small museum where we can admire old tangkas, ceremonial clothes and objects belonging to the royal family.
Shey (15 Km from Leh): this palace was the ancient capital of Leh until the 15th century.
Tikse (20 Km from Leh): this fantastic architectural ensemble of the Gelukpa order, was built in the 15th century. It covers from the top to the bottom of a hill halfway between Leh and Hemis. A hundred monks live there.
Matho (30 Km from Leh): built on a hill, it is the only Ladakhi monastery of the Sakyapa order. From the Gompa the view over the valley is unbelievable.
Hemis (43 Km from Leh): located in a lateral valley on the left river bank of the Indus, Hemis is now the biggest monastery in Ladakh with 500 monks. Founded in 1602 by a monk of the Kagyupa order.
Spituk (7 Km from Leh): dominating the Indus, the Gelukpa Gompa was built in the 15e century and offers a wide view over the valley.
Phyang (17 Km from Leh): founded in 1530, the Kagyupa monastery, is affiliated to Lamayuru and is home to three temples.
Alchi (88 Km from Leh): the oldest monastery in Ladakh (11th century) and it represents at the iconographic level, the most interesting parts of the region. The paintings belong to the tradition of Kashmiri artists.
Likir (58 Km from Leh): this Gelukpa monastery has been well preserved since being built in 1065. The superior is a young brother of the Dalai Lama. A hundred monks live there.
Rizong: the ‘mountain fortress’. This Gelukpa monastery perched on a fantastic site is the most recent one of Ladakh, and was built there a little more than a century ago.
Lamayuru: is one of the most ancient ladakhi monasteries (10th century). It offers extraordinary views of the Indus valley and the mountain chain that overhangs it.
Some precautions to be observed when visiting a monastery are:
– Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering an area of prayer
– Members must be covered
– Do not disturb the monks who are praying, and always ask permission before taking photographs
– Do not touch religious objects
– Do not eat, drink or smoke
– Avoid talking loudly or disturbing the peaceful atmosphere
– Most of the monastery entries are free but a small donation is always welcome…
– In the monastery your course must always be to the left, that is to say, in a clockwise direction
– Do not step over a person or a religious object
– Do not place a religious object on the ground