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Leh: Shey, Thiksey, Hemis

Red hat, yellow hat, red hat, yellow hat, red hat yellow hat.....

sunny 30 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We took the laptop to breakfast with us this morning, including the LAN cable, hoping to be able to update the blog, but they are still waiting for an engineer to repair their internet connection. So much for that plan. Breakfast was good though, channa puri, so good in fact that I had three helpings!


On the way to our first monastery, we spotted a large fair in Choglamsar – today is His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday, and the Tibetans are celebrating big time! Choglamsar was a piece of land given by the Indian government to Tibetan refugees, who by their own hard work and toil have turned it into an economically independent settlement from a barren landscape full of stones, rocks and sand. In 2007 revered Tibetan leader Dalai Lama had visited this settlement and had given his blessings to the refugees. In August 2010, an unprecedented cloudburst washed away large parts of the settlement and hundreds of people lost their lives.


Shey is the ancient capital of Ladakh and home of the old summer Palace of the kings of Ladakh. Here you can also find the Shey Monastery or Gompa, built in 1655 by the king of Ladakh.


From the car park there was a switchback track leading up to the bottom of the building, with a further 134 steps to take you to the top. The hike was so worth it though, the sight of the white stupa, topped in real gold, against the backdrop of the beautiful blue sky!


Obviously we wanted to see the famous Buddha here, but it seemed that the door was locked. We waited several minutes, and one of the local ladies (who spoke excellent English) said she thought the caretaker had probably gone to the Dalai Lama Festival and wouldn't be back, so we started to make our way back down again. Two-thirds of the way down we met the man with the key, so up we climbed back up a further 83 steps. The Buddha was worth it though.


Shey Monastery
The star attraction here is 12 meter Shakyamuni Buddha statue crafted in gold-plated copper. The seated Buddha is said to be the second largest in the region and attracts devotees from across the world. The icon covers three floors of the monastery, with images of Buddha and his disciples depicted on almost every wall around the statue. Cast in parts in Leh, with copper plates hammered on rock, then transported in pieces to the palace, some 15 kms away, for installation. It is estimated that 5 kg of gold was used for gilding the copper plates. The most important moment in the construction of any Buddha figure is when the eyes are created, as this is considered the moment when the statue can actually "see". For this reason, the artist will paint the Buddha's pupils over his shoulder, with his back to the idol, for no-one would dare to look the Buddha in the eye.


The large bowl of wax with a burning wick in front of the Buddha burns for one year before being replaced. This flame represents divinity and purity and is present in front of all Buddha statues in the Ladakh region.

Just a few minutes later by road, we reached Thiksey Monastery. We stopped for photos at the bottom of the hill, and I was getting quite distressed at the thought of climbing to the top of this monastery – I hadn't recovered from the previous 217 steps yet!


So I was very relieved when I discovered we would be driving almost to the top. I say almost, as there was still a very steep switchback track and 146 steps to negotiate to reach the monastery. This place seemed much more commercialised than Shey, and they had a nice café where we stopped for a diet coke break, and some spotlessly clean toilets.


Said to be one of the largest and most impressive Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) in Ladakh, this monastery of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, is another building noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. I have to say this one bears much more of a resemblance to the former official seat of the Dalai Lama than the one in Leh. (Incidentally, I cried when I first saw the Potala Palace from our bedroom window in Lhasa!) This is the most important monastery in Ladakh and governs ten more monasteries under it.


Inside the main hall, the monks were performing a prayer ceremony with drums, cymbals, clarinets and chanting. It was very emotional and we felt so privileged to be part of something so special.


One of the main points of interest in the 12-storey complex is the newer Maitreya (future Buddha – at 15m it is the tallest in Ladakh), built to commemorate Dalai Lama's visit in 1970. The 15th century complex comprises ten temples, an assembly hall, a nunnery as well as residence for over a hundred monks. The walls of the monastery are decorated with colourful murals depicting Buddhas, enlightened beings and goddesses mixed with demons and wrathful spirits. Many characters in Tibetan Buddhist art are not the kind you would want to run into on a dark night.


Legend tells how a monk offering prayer services with a ritual cake some 3 km away, saw the cake being carried off by a crow. When he searched and found the cake in perfect order atop this hillock, he believed it to be an auspicious sign to build a monastery at this place. The name “Thiksey” means “perfect order”, referring to the undamaged cake.

The monastery also houses a school that provides free education (classes include knowledge of Buddhism as well as computer education) to children from poor families as well as providing food and medical assistance to the children.


Reaching Hemis involved a drive along the verdant valley sticking to either side of the river, with lots of military presence. We then set off on a series of hairpin bends into a side valley where there seemed to be nothing except mountains. Suddenly, hidden away in a secret corner of the valley, was the monastery. It was this hidden position at the bottom of a gorge that saved it from being found by invaders.


This monastery is occupied by a different sect, the Drukpa Lineage (Red Hat Sect), and is revered as the largest (and wealthiest) monastic institution in Ladakh (some say all of India) with more than 200 branches and over 1,000 monks in the Himalayan region. It is considered to be an important living monument and heritage of Himalayas and its people. It is also said to be one of the highest monasteries in the world.


I had expected great things from this monastery, reading about it before we arrived, but I found it a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed to be just a couple of main square buildings, and nowhere near as impressive as Shey or Thiksey.


We did visit the museum (no photos allowed) and I am afraid I cannot get excited about paintings and carvings of Buddha after the first 15. There was so much of a muchness in there - however, a couple of items caught my interest: some very scary masks, enormous trumpets calling monks to prayer and a "pup born to female vulture (Really? I would have thought it more likely the vulture had taken the pup from its mother....) which was considered auspicious / good luck.


The prayer hall (again no photos allowed inside) was closed from 13:001 - 14:00, it seemed we timed that rather badly, although we did manage to get a quick glimpse before they all went to lunch.


Refurbishments were taking place at the monastery, and it was fascinating to see them drawing out the outlines for the murals on the walls, all in free-hand of course.


We stopped for lunch in the small restaurant at the bottom of the monastery, with tables spread out under umbrellas amongst the trees. The food was quite pleasant, but the same could not be said about their toilets. A rough stone building, the toilet cubicle was accessed half way up a series of steps and hidden behind a Tibetan style curtain. One earth floored room with a square hole and not a lot else apart from dirt! This was not the time to have the runs!



Back to Leh and the hotel where we took a much needed nap. The 350 steps we did today may not sound like much ( it's about the equivalent of a 17-18 storey building), but when the air is so thin and the temperatures are 30+C, it's another story. Or should that be storey. On the way we passed the Stakna Monastery, perched on a hilltop between the road and the river.


Shanti Stupa
On the way up to the stupa we saw parts of Leh we had not discovered yet – it is much bigger than we first thought!
Constructed by a Japanese Buddhist organisation, the stupa was built to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote world peace. It is also known as the Japanese Peace Pagoda. Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi donated the funds for the Shanti Stupa road, the Defence Ministry provided construction materials and the State Government provided timber for the Stupa. Members of all the Ladakhi Buddhist community worked voluntarily for three days, while Buddhist people in Japan and common people from India contributed financial support. It is considered a symbol of Peace, Unity and Buddhist Teaching as well as the ties between the people of Japan and Ladakh. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, inaugurated the Shanti Stupa in 1991 - the Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the Dalai Lama himself.


The view from the stupa was lovely, all over Leh and beyond as the sun was setting. A loud speaker was playing “om mani padme hom” over and over and over again as you circumambulated the stupa clockwise.


The stupa does get flood lit at night, but we really couldn't be bothered to wait until it got dark, as we still hadn't been able to get in touch with my dad and I wanted to publish a couple of blog entries at least; so we headed back to Leh and our hotel.


While I wrote my blog, David walked up into town to check if we'd heard from my dad via email. We hadn't, so we decided to ring him. We checked with the hotel but international phone calls were not possible from there. After a shower – which has to be carefully organised as there is only hot water between 18:00 and 20:00 - we double checked emails at an internet café in town before deciding to ring my dad from a pay phone. He was fine and we were both pleased to have connected!

As Dreamland Restaurant advertised free wifi, it seemed a good choice for dinner and publishing my blog at the same time. Unfortunately they had no signal tonight. This seems to be the story of this trip! They did have very good food though (we preferred it to the previous night) and offered us beer disguised in a jug and served in tea cups. It was nice to be able to sit on the rooftop terrace and see the floodlit Shanti Stupa in the distance.


Yesterday we bought a cheap Nokia mobile phone and a chap we made friends with in one of the shops was going to get a SIM card for us to save us all the hassle of registering as foreigners (we know all about that from buying a dongle in Mumbai two years ago, so were very grateful for his suggestion.) We called in his shop after dinner and he fitted the SIM for us, but as there is no credit on it yet, we can't actually use it!

Our last stop of the evening was an internet café to plug in my laptop (as that's where I have written the blog) and I finally managed to get the first couple of days in India published. I know several people are waiting anxiously for my updates.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:30 Archived in India

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WOW!!! Red and Yellow - tHAT's a lot of monasteries and stupas you have visited!!!

by Aadil Desai

Great pictures.

by hrra

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