The monasteries around Leh span the entire spectrum, from the conspicuous to the obscure, the grand to the humble. Most are endowed with rich collections of relics, murals, Buddha statues and scriptures and all are set in incredibly scenic surrounds – day trips from Leh are rewarding for history buffs, spirituality seekers and picnickers alike.
Located 19 km southeast of Leh, Thiksey is Ladakh’s most recognisable monastery. The massive 12-storey structure – known for its striking resemblance to Lhasa’s Potala Palace – is built in the typical Tibetan-Buddhist layered style. Each floor gains importance as you go up, with the upper tiers enshrining the monastery and topped by the residence of the head lama. The place of pride is occupied by a prayer chamber which houses a 14 m statue of the Maitreya Buddha, so large that its head projects through the ceiling to occupy the entire height of the room above. Don’t miss the little museum (hidden away beneath the monastery restaurant) which displays well-labelled Tantric artefacts, some carved from human bones.
Just 2.5 km from Thiksey Gompa, on the other side of the Indus river, lies this small but appealing gompa (circa 1618) crowning a rocky mound on the floor of the Indus Valley. Off the gompa’s small central courtyard are four rooms with vivid new Tantric murals. Behind the main prayer hall, sub-shrines retain 400-year-old sandalwood statues, original frescoes and statuettes of the Bhutanese lamas who founded the monastery.
47 km from Leh, this stately 1672 monastery on the western bank of the Indus is worth visiting for its museum – a repository of religious treasures and priceless manuscripts – alone. Some of these manuscripts, which have mysteriously disappeared, supposedly provided proof that Jesus visited Kashmir. The gompa is the spiritual centre for Ladakh’s Drukpa Buddhists who throng it during the annual Hemis Festival in July. An even bigger event is the unfurling of a three-storey-high pearl-encrusted thangka, which takes place every 12 years. The surrounding scenery is awash with mountain and valley panoramas. Hemis village below makes for a pretty excursion.
This 14th-century gompa overlooks one end of the airport and is a 15-minute drive from town centre. The gompa’s multiple mud-brick buildings lead down to a steep hillock which faces Spituk village on the Indus riverbank. Shutterbugs will love the photogenic courtyard, which leads to a room containing a yellow-hatted statue of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) – the founder of Gelukpa Buddhism. A Buddha statue on the other side of the room’s main image supposedly incorporates an odd relic: Tsongkhapa’s nose-bleed. Resist the temptation to click photographs of the airport, it’s a high-security area.
Located 52 km from Leh, and a short detour from the Srinagar highway, this gompa, along with Thiksey and Hemis, completes the trio of the must-see monasteries in Ladakh. Towering over Likir village, which lies 4 km below, and is set on a high plateau in the Indus valley, the 15th-century gompa surveys picturesque barley fields and a magnificent mountain ridge. The museum is choc-a-block with religious relics and antiques. The most outstanding feature is the giant gilded 20th-century Maitreya Buddha statue at the rear, which admittedly looks more remarkable from a distance.
The crumbling earthen walls of the palace at Basgo, 40 km from Leh on the road to Srinagar, appear almost like a natural extension of the arid hill they stand on. For sheer antiquity, the remarkable pinnacles of once-great citadel walls represent a fascinating insight into a place which was capital of lower Ladakh until 1470. The walls contain two perfectly functioning temples. The upper Chamba Gompa has spectacularly restored murals covering the walls and ceilings around a two-storey statue of the Maitreya Buddha – the oldest in Leh of its kind. Within the palace complex is the darker and even more atmospheric Sar-Zung Temple hosting another large Maitreya statue and a library of wrapped scriptures.
This monastery and its temple complex, 70 km from Leh, is located on the Leh-Srinagar highway and the gompa is accessed by a pedestrian lane lined by guesthouses, souvenir hawkers and a German bakery. The 11th-century Choskor (monastic complex) looks relatively unremarkable from outside but the interior murals are considered the crowning glory of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan art.
Inside are three temples – The Dukhang (main Temple), Sumtsek Lakhang (three-tiered temple) and the Manjushri temple – and two stupas. Visits start with Sumtsek Lakhang, all three levels of which are covered with murals. Oversized wooden statues of Maitreya, Manjushri and Avalokitesvara project their heads through into the inaccessible upper storey. The Dukhang is the largest and oldest structure and contains the four-headed Buddha Vairocana seated on an ornamented throne. The Manjushri Temple enshrines a joyfully colourful four-sided statue of Manjushri (Buddha of Wisdom).