Ladakh is in a rich possession of Buddhist heritage which includes Buddhist monasteries which are based on Mahayana Buddhism. Some monastries are thousands of years old and declared as national heritage. Apart from being spiritual centers, the old monasteries such as Alchi monastery tells the socio-political history of Ladakh. For example, the fresco art in Alchi has very start influence from Islamic art. One has to visit these cultural heritage sites to truely appreciate how the monasteries in Ladakh serve as centers for spirituality, art, and political influence.
A typical character of the monasteries is that each monastery has a courtyard where main rituals in gathering are performed or yearly festivals are celebrated. The walls of stones which are inscribed with prayers and religious figures are called Mani walls. On the outer walls one can notice the lines of ‘prayer wheels’. Prayer wheels are wood and metal cylinders with prayers written on the long pieces of paper inside. Every rotation of teach cylinder is equated to prayers written on the paper and are sent to Buddha. This is the reason that the pilgrimage keep on rotating the cylinders. There are also many Stupas, known as Chortens. Stupas are shrines containing relics of some religious significance. Small prayer wheels can also be bought as souvenirs in the shops. All religious instrument are sacred and are to be taken care with respect. Mostly inside the monasteries.
The Lamayuru monastery is situated about 10 kms from Leh, on a big rock overlooking the Indus River. This monastery was founded in the 10th century. According to the legends, Lamayuru was a 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. It is believed that one of the great Tibetan teachers, Norapa, meditated here for several years. Like all other Ladakh monasteries, it is also a complex of buildings with shrines dedicated to different gods and incarnations of Lord Buddha.
Alchi Choskor monastery is located approximately 69 kms towards the Western side of the main city of Leh. It is popular in the form of largest of all the gompas built that were built by Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo. He had ordered four families to take care of Choskor, as there was no monastic communities present during the 15th century. It was taken over by the Lekir Monastery and is under them today also. The monastery complex comprises Assembly Hall (Dukhang), Sumtsek Lhakhang, 3-storied temple, the Lhakhang Soma (New Temple), the Munjushri Temple (Jamyang Lhakhang), Translator Temple (Lotsava Lhakhang) and Kangur Lhakhang.
Hemis Monastery, 40 kms towards the south-east of the main city of Leh is the largest as well as the most well-known monastery (Gompa) in Ladakh. This monastery was built by under the reigns of the King Singge Namgyal, in 1672 AD. This monastery plays host to an annual festival that is held in the month of which is also a major tourist attraction. This colorful day-long festival is called Hemis Tsechu which is also a state holiday. During the course of the festival, the local resident Lamas perform a holy masked dance to glorify the victory of good over bad. Today it is taken care off by the Drukpa sect of Buddhism. The monastery has beautiful paintings and a statue of Lord Buddha, which are the highlights too.
Situated around 9 kilometers from Leh, the Karma Dupgyud Choeling Monastery is one of the major Dharma centers in the Ladakh region. Founded by Lama Chime Dorje Rinpoche in 1973, this monastery is run by the Karmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhists. At present, there are 17 Karmapas in this region. This monastery has played an important role in the proliferation of the traditional Buddhist culture and values. It includes an original mud-brick complex housing the Dukhang (Assembly Hall) and living and working quarters including classrooms, office, kitchen and library. Since it was founded by a Tibetan national, it depends on the munificence of private organizations and individuals for monetary funds.
Nestled at an altitude of 11,998 feet above the sea level, Rangdum Gompa is situated halfway between Kargil and Padum. It was founded by Losang Geleg Yeshe Drogpa in the 18th century. It rises above a centrally ascending mountain, established around the diverged route of a mountain stream. It appears like an ancient fortification, which stands as a guardian of a mystical mountain valley. It is located alongside Julidok village and around 25 kilometers from the Pensi La pass which leads to Zanskar. This monastery is home to around 30 monks and monasteries.
Phugtal Monastery or Phugtal Gompa that is also known as Phuktal monastery, is located in the southeastern of Zanskar, in the Ladakhi region. It was founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo during the early 12th century. This building is a distinctive construction has it is built onto a Cliffside in the form of a honeycomb. Situated on the mouth of a cave, over the cliff top, it is close to a major tributary of the river Lungnak (Lingti-Tsarap). This monastery which has a library as well as prayer rooms, houses around 70 monks. This one of the most isolated monasteries of the region is made up of wood and mud.
Located on the periphery of a desert in the Shok Valley, Diksit Village is an administrative center of the Nubra Valley, comprising of various government offices in it. The village is located at a height of 10,310 feet above sea level and witness tourists both in winters as well as summers. The village is particularly famous Diskit monastery, although it has a bus/taxi stand, a market, a tourist reception center and the Leh’s only petrol pump (1 kilometers toward North). The Diskit monastery is around 350 years old and houses a Maitreya Buddha statue, drums, paintings and Tibetan colored-patterned silk. The monastery is home to around 100 monks. There is an Internet Café which charges Rs. 100 per hour.
Located around 26 kilometers away from Leh, on the picturesque Indus Valley, Matho Monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery built under the Saskya Monastic Establishment. It was constructed around 500 years ago. It was established by Lama Dugpa Dorje in 1410, who belongs to Sakya order. It houses a marvelous collection of ancient Thangas and known for its Matho Nagrang Festival. It is an annual festival which takes place in the first half of March. It is a nice place where you can understand Buddhist teachings and philosophies. The nearby attraction of this place is Stakna Gompa.
Spituk Monastery, built during the 11th century, also Pethup Gompa, was founded by Od-de, the elder brother of Lha Lama Changchub. Today, it is home to 100 monks as well as a giant statue of goddess Kali, which is shown to the public during the yearly Spituk festival. Although founded in the form of a Red Hat institution, it was taken over by the Yellow Hat sect during the 15th century.
Every year, this three-chapel monastery, located 8 kms away from the main city of Leh, plays host to the Gustor Festival, held at Spituk during the eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar.
Likir Gompa, around 62 kms to the West of the main city of Leh. The 5th king of Ladakh, Lhachen Gyalpo ordered the establishment of this monastery and thus it was established in 1065 by Lama Duwang Chosje. The monastery is of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In the times of today, Buddhist teachings and the three basic Pratimoksa disciplines are preached on the site.
The monastery also plays host to the annual festival that is in the 12th months of the Tibetan Calendar, from the 27th to the 29th . During the festival, religious dance performances are given by the local artists.
Thikse Gompa, of the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect of Tibetan Buddism, is around 19 kms to the East of the main city of Leh. The architecture of the largest monastery in central region of Ladakh, is similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. This 12-storey building complex consists of a number of things related to Buddhist art such as Thangka paintings, statues, stupas, swords, and so on. The building also has a nunnery. A major tourist attraction is the Maitreya temple installed in 1970. The statue of future Lord Buddha (MaiTreya Buddhist) in this temple of 49 feet high, which is also the largest in the region.
The building complex of Shey Monastery located on the hilltop of Shey (the summer capital of the Leh city) is 15kms towards the South of the main city of Ladakh. It was built in 1655 after the order the king of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal (Lhachen Palgyigon). The building which is mostly in ruins today was built by the king in the memory of his deceased father Singay Namgyal,.
The major attraction in the monastery is a huge gold-plated copper statue of seated Shakyamuni Buddha, which is also the second largest statue in Ladakh. In front of the statue, is a large wax bowl with a flame, which continuously lighted for a year, after which it is replaced.
Placed around 40 km westwards of Leh town, Phyang Gompa belongs to the red hat sect of Buddhism. White and ochre colored monastery lies on a hill top and seems to be overlooking the surrounding village. The site where today the Gompa finds its footing was a small part of various monastic properties that were received as a gift by Chosje Damma Kunga, given by Dharmaraja Jamyang Namgial. Phyang Hills was the place of Tasi Chozong Gompa, which was founded way back in the year 1515. This monastery was offered to a monastic community that paved way for the foundation of Digung teachings in Ladakh that were started by Skyoba Jigsten Gonbo. On the other hand, it is believed that it was established by King Tashi Namgyal, during the third quarter of the 16th century.
Once its construction was completed, it became popular center of Digung teachings under Skyoba Jigsten Gonbo and is only one of the two Ladakh monasteries belonging to this school. Today, Phyang Gompa is headed by Apchi Choski Dolma. The monastery complex consists of a number of religious sites along with a number of wall paintings, depiction of the royal times, hanging on the walls. The prime attraction here is a 900-year old museum, which is home to an exquisite collection of things like thangkas, various idols, Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese weapons and firearms and more.
The Gompa becomes the venue of Gang-Sngon Tsedup Festival, each year, starting from the 17th day up to the 19th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. it is also the scene of sacred dance festival, each year on the second and third day of the sixth month of Tibetan calendar.