The history of Ladakh has been related more closely with the Tibetan plateau rather than with the Indian peninsula.
With the establishment of the Gandharan civilisation in today's Northwest Pakistan, Buddhist culture slowly started spreading all along the Silk route. The entire valley of Ladakh is dotted with monasteries, belonging to the various schools of Buddhism. Many of these are located in scenic locales, perched on a hillock, overlooking pretty small settlements. Some of them are located in isolated areas, away from the hustle-bustle of the modern life. This lends an air of peace and tranquillity to them.
These monasteries also have a rich collection of Buddhist thankas, murals, sculptures, and scriptures. They are also a storehouse of intangible heritage- the mask dances and the other rituals. Go discover them before it gets too late.
Great Indian master Atisha from famed Vikramshila University was invited by Jangchub Ö, in 1040 CE, to show how all the paths of Sutra and Tantra could be practised together. The revival of pure Buddhist practice at this time was largely due to Atisha.
Atisha presentation of the doctrine later became known as the Kadam-pa tradition in Tibet. The Spituk monastery located around 7kms from Leh was founded by monarch Ol-de, around this time and was run as per the Kadam-pa tradition.
In the 10th century, the Tibetan King Yeshe Od of Guge, in order to spread Buddhism in the Trans Himalayan region, took the initiative by sending 21 scholars to the region. However, due to harsh climatic and topographic conditions, only two survived, one of them being the scholar and translator Rinchen Zangpo.
Rinchen went on to establish 108 monasteries across Western Tibet, Spiti, and Ladakh. The most famous amongst these, the Alchi monastery complex was built, between 958 and 1055. The artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhism and the Hindu kings of that time in Kashmir are reflected in the wall paintings in the monastery.
The temples at the complex also have elaborate wood carvings. The monastery complex has three major shrines: the Dukhang (assembly hall), the Sumtsek and the temple of Manjushri. Chortens are also an important part of the complex. Also, the Alchi complex has two other important temples, the Translator's temple called the 'Lotsabha Lakhang', and a new temple called the 'Lakhang Soma'.
Yungdrung Tharpaling known today as Lamayuru is one of the oldest monasteries of Ladakh. Legend has it that at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni the area was under a big lake, which was home to many Nagas. Rising prominently from the eastern part of the lake was a little dry hill which was locally called Skambur.
It is said that the Arahat Madhyantika, when he visited the lake at Lamayuru and made water offerings to the Nagas, made a crack into the ground of the lake with his walking staff to leak out the water.
Thereafter, Mahasiddha Naropa visited the place and spent a long time in a cave there and turned the place into a sacred land. The cave still exists, well preserved and forms part of the main Dukhang. The oldest surviving building at Lamayuru is a temple called Sengge, which is attributed to the famous builder-monk Rinchen Zangpo.
Continual raids on Ladakh by the plundering Muslim states of Central Asia lead to the weakening and partial conversion of the Ladakhi population to Islam.
Ladakh was divided, with Lower Ladakh ruled by King Takpabum from Basgo and Temisgam, and Upper Ladakh by King Takbumde from Leh. Bhagan, a later Basgo king reunited Ladakh by overthrowing the king of Leh. He took on the surname Namgyal (meaning victorious) and founded a new dynasty which still survives today.
King Tashi Namgyal (1520–1540) managed to repel most Central Asian raiders and built Namgyal Tsemo Fort on the top of the Namgyal Peak in Leh. He built the Tsemo Goenkhang (protector temple) here after his victory over an invading army from Yarkand in 1532. Earlier, Tragspa Bumde (1400-1440) had built the Tsemo Maitreya temple here.
Stag Tsang Raschen known as the Tiger Lama was the chief lama associated with Sengge Namgyal and undertook much of the monastic expansion under the king. The fort and monastery at Basgo were built during this time. The statue of Maitreya in the Serzang temple at Basgo monastery is dedicated to the wife of Sengge Namgyal who was a princess from Baltistan.
Naropa, the pupil of the yogi Tilopa, and teacher of the translator Marpa is believed to have established the Hemis monastery in the 12th century. It later went to oblivion before being re-established in 1630 by Lama Tagstang Raspa and built by Palden Sara under the patronage of Sengge Namgyal on a site previously sanctified by the construction of a cave hermitage dating from the 12th century.
Stakna monastery formed part of one of the many religious estates offered to the great scholar saint of Bhutan called Chosje Jamyang Palkar in about 1580 AD by the Jamyang Namgyal who had invited him to Ladakh. The monastery was built on a hill shaped like a tiger's nose and so its name was given as Stakna (Tiger's nose). The most important image in the monastery is that of the sacred Arya Avalokitesvara from Kamrup (Assam).
Chemrey Monastery was established in 1664 by the Lama Tagsang Raschen and dedicated to King Sengge Namgyal.
The Shey palace, mostly in ruins now, was built first in 1655, by the king of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal (1642-1694 CE). It was used as a summer retreat by the kings of Ladakh. The Shey Monastery was also built in 1655 on the instructions of Deldan Namgyal, in the memory of his late father, Sengge Namgyal, within the palace complex. The monastery is noted for its giant copper with a gilded gold statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha. The palace is now being restored by Archaeological Survey of India.
When the Dogras of Jammu invaded Ladakh in 1842, the Namgyals abandoned the palace and fled to Stok which they made it their permanent residence. While the descendants of the royal family still live in this palace, part of the palace has been converted into a museum. Nearby is the Stok Monastery founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus in the 14th century.
The Gelug-pa school, sometimes called 'yellow hat' sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was founded by Gyalwa Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), one of Tibet's greatest scholars. He reformed the earlier ideas of Atisha. This form of Buddhism reverted to a more purist format, bringing a higher degree of morality and discipline to the monk body. It sought to remove some of the Tantric elements and to cleanse the religion. A statue of Tsongkhapa can be seen at Thegchen chamber of the Rizong monastery. The Rizong monastery was established in 1831 by Lama Tsultim Nima. The monastery is also called 'the paradise for meditation' and is noted for its extremely strict rules and standards. A nunnery is attached to the monastery, located about 2km from the monastery, at Chulichan.
In the early 14th century, Tsongkhapa, the founder of the reformed Gelugpa School (the Yellow Hat sect), sent six of his disciples to remote regions of Tibet to spread the teachings of the new school.
Tsongkhapa gave one of his disciples, Sherab Sangpo, a small statue of Amitayus (Chepakmet) that contained bone powder and a drop of Tsongkhapa's own blood. Tsongkhapa directed him to meet the King of Ladakh with a message seeking his help in the propagation of Buddhist religion. The King greatly liked the gift of the statue and directed his minister to help Sherab Sangpo to establish a monastery of the Gelugpa order in Ladakh.
As a result, in 1433, Sangpo founded a small village monastery called Lhakhang Serpo (meaning Yellow temple) in the village of Stagmo. Later the nephew of Sherab Sangpo, Spon Paldan Sherab, founded the Thiksey monastery on a hilltop to the north of Indus river in 1430 AD.
The monastery is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier Kadampa establishment. Thiksey Monastery is also known as 'Mini Potala'. It is a 12-story complex and houses the Maitreya (future Buddha) statue which was installed to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama to this monastery in 1970. At 49 ft it is the largest such statue in Ladakh.
Diskit monastery in the Nubra valley was founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, in the 14th century. It is administered by Thiksey monastery. Diskit Monastery is connected to Mongol mythology in that the monastery is believed to be the place where an evil anti-Buddhist Mongol demon once lived and was killed near the monastery grounds but is said to have been resurrected several times.
Today, the wrinkled head and hand of the demon are believed to lie inside the Gonkhang temple here. The impressive 106-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha on top of a hill below the monastery faces down the Shyok River towards Pakistan in the hope of everlasting peace. It was consecrated by H.H. the Dalai Lama on 25 July 2010.
The Hundar Chamba Monastery in the Nubra valley is located close to the Hundar village where the famous double-humped Bactrian camels can be seen.
Situated a little ahead in the Samyur village is the Samstanling Monastery. It was founded by Lama Tsultim Nyima in 1841 and is now governed by the Rizong monastery.
This article was originally written by Vikas Singh. Vikas is a travel freak and loves exploring new places. At the last count, he had been to 312 cities in 26 countries. He is a regular contributor to various magazines and journals.
NOTE: The images used in the story were originally taken by the writer itself.
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