About twenty minutes south east of Leh stands Shey, the erstwhile capital of Ladakh which was abandoned only after the Dogra invasion. Strategically located it still has remains of some ancient fortifications falling victim to the vagaries of the weather. You will notice a number of Chortens around the village unlike other Gompas and also an engraving on a rock that show five Buddhas on lotuses in meditation on animal vehicles. The main temple itself bears a gigantic image of Sakhyamuni with numerous butter lamps burning before it while intricate paintings adorn the walls though these are now filmed over with a greyish layer of soot emitted from the lamps over the years. The other temple too has a huge statue of Sakhyamuni said to have been built by Nepalese craftsmen specially brought here. The walls have fine paintings which are brighter here having been done more recently representing the sixteen disciples of Buddha.
Further east of Shey a short drive away is the imposing Thikse monastery built in the mid-fifteenth century, rising up in tiers on a craggy hillside resembling a sized down version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Before entering the complex there is a new temple housing a large statue of the Maitreya Buddha sitting in a lotus position with beautiful bright murals behind depicting his life. Climbing up a steep stairway, the original main temple is gloomy with ancient wall paintings portraying the darker deities while further on another chamber has a large image of the Sakhyamuni. There is also a large library with ancient scriptures. Once on the terrace you are afforded with fantastic views of the fertile green fields stretching to a horizon of towering snow clad mountains.
This is the largest and richest monastery in Ladakh known for its gigantic Thanka painting that is unveiled only once every 12 years - the last one was in 2004 - and its dramatic masked dances during its annual two day festival. This is the time when you get to see the resident Lamas dressed up in ornate gowns slowly dance around the flagpole in the centre of the temple's courtyard to the sounds of enormous trumpets, horns, cymbals and drums. This festival dedicated to Padmasambhava is clearly focused on the victory of good spirits over evil. Nestling in a craggy mountainside after a grove of green willow and polar, the monastery is said to have been built in 1630. The main temple has a ferocious looking partly veiled deity and quite a few murals now in disrepair. On the left of this main temple stands an exquisite silver Chorten adorned with turquoise and other semi-precious stones while other Chortens around the temples are also elaborately designed.
Above Thikse Gompa in a spectacular setting stands the Stakna monastery rising above the flat plains of the Indus. Said to be older that Hemis, it appears like a solitary edifice rising up from a vast plain and can be easily distinguished from a distance. Outside the main temple, in the courtyard is a finely designed silver Chorten decorated with bright turquoise while inside are beautiful murals and paintings that seem to have been done when the monastery was built. A torch is essential to catch glimpses of these finer artworks.
Stok Once the royal seat of the Namgyal dynasty which ruled Ladakh, it is still home to the descendants of the royal family. A fascinating museum houses the royal heirlooms, ancient relics and religious artefacts of a splendorous era gone by. Finely painted thankas depict the life of the Sakhyamuni dating back to the mid 16th century and seem to have been painted just recently. There are two tiny temples with gold and bronze images of the Buddha. There are also interesting displays of armoury and weaponry besides seals and coins of the royal family. One particular item of interest is a sword with a violently twisted blade. Other household items used by the royal family include finely crafted silver and copper vessels and delicate porcelain and jade cups and bowls. Also on display are some the Queen's jewellery and ornaments made up of turquoise, other semi-precious stones and fine pearls.
This ancient edifice is both a palace and a monastery. Containing three temples within the complex, Basgo was once the capital of Ladakh before the Balti conquest around the 15th century. Inside the temple are some of the most beautiful murals painted in the 16th century.
Dedicated to Maitreya, the temples are ornately decorated with figures of Tibetan Buddhism including deities, and other divinities. Numerous scriptures are stored in wall racks and there is an exquisitely carved door leading to a chamber where a huge image of Maitreya stands.
The paintings are quite imaginative some portraying a seas with people bathing, and Buddhas amidst cityscapes with buildings and palaces. Second in fine artwork only to the Alchi Gompa Basgo is well worth a visit.
Further west of Basgo, stands the famous Alchi Gompa known for some of the finest art and religious paintings and statues in the Western Himalayas. Set amidst a green oasis surrounded by a stark barren landscape, with its five temples, Alchi seems to have been a revered centre of Buddhism. Inscriptions within the temple date its construction to the 11th century. It was also a place from where the second spread of Buddhism in Tibet germinated. The monks who serve here belong to the Ge-lugs pa sect many of them from the nearby Likir monastery. The painting style here is entirely different than those found in other Gompas of the region and they all appear to be in an excellent state of preservation, rich in colour and detail. Here you'll find a fine painting of Rinchen zangpo the great translator, images of Sakhyamuni, Avalokiteswara and other superb art forms. A torch is an essential item as all of the temples and chambers in Alchi do not have any light save for that filtering in from windows or doors. Replete with sculptures, images, statutes and paintings Alchi is an art lovers treasure trove. The design of the main temple or du-khang is unique being unlike any other Gompa structure in the Himalayas. Housing superb wood carvings, and the images of three Bodhisattvas attired in unusual costumes painted with different buddhist images, the monastery of Alchi has astounded many by its incredible state of preservation over the years especially with its location in such a remote site.
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