In the far northern reaches of India is a high-altitude desertic region known as Ladakh. The area was part of the former Tibetan Kingdom until the 13th century, but even after Tibet ceased direct influence, it remained largely under the control of Buddhist kings until the 19th century. During that time, many fortified palaces and monasteries were built on the hilltops between the arid valleys; many of them still stand today against the beautiful snow-capped mountains.
The fast-flowing rivers and high peaks of Ladakh have attracted rafters, climbers, and trekkers from around the world in recent years. But if you’re more into architecture, religion, and history than sweating it out on a hike, the region is a great spot to check out. Here are seven Buddhist monasteries you should not miss when in Ladakh.
Thiksey is a complex that consists of 10 temples or prayer rooms, a nunnery, and an assembly hall, all of which cascade down a small hill 12 miles east of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Thiksey is known to have a distinct resemblance to Lhasa’s Potala, the former seat of the Dalai Lamas, and its fort-like architecture and strategic location perched on a hillock meant it could be easily protected from the invading Mughals who often attempted to deface Buddhist temples in the 17th century.
The buildings are arranged down the slope of the hill deliberately in order of importance, with the main temples situated at the very top. The most striking of these temples houses a large statue of Maitreya Buddha, or the future buddha, which is two-stories high and the largest such figure in Ladakh. It was erected to commemorate the visit of the Dalai Lama to Thiksey in 1970 and took four years to complete. To reach it, visitors can climb through the narrow passageways between the whitewashed buildings and will likely pass young monks going about their duties on the way.
Just slightly towards the rear of the complex, the monastery operates a restaurant open all day for visitors. It is perhaps the monastery’s most unexpected attraction and has some of the best North Indian food you can eat at very reasonable prices.
The most popular time to visit Thiksey is early in the day, to witness the morning prayers. However, if you want to have the place to yourself, go in the evening before it closes at 7:00 PM. The annual Gustor festival is also a popular time to be in Thiksey. Held in October or November, depending on the Tibetan calendar, the festival is a great place to witness the famous masked dances performed by the lamas.
From November to May the monastery remains permanently closed to visitors due to the harsh winter conditions in the area.
Where: Thiksey is 12 miles from Leh and can be visited by either public bus or private taxi hire.
The imposing monastery at Lamayuru, known locally as tharpa ling or the “place of freedom,” is the oldest in the region. The central gompa, or temple, dates back to the 10th century while the remainder of the complex was later built around it, most of which was completed in the 16th century under King Namgyal. Although it saw heavy destruction in the 19th-century Dogra invasion of Ladakh by Muslim invaders from south Kashmir, it has since been fully restored.
If you are coming from the direction of Srinagar or Kargil, it is perhaps the first monastery you will come across as you enter Ladakh and is a beautiful introduction to the region. The ancient complex is seemingly built into the unusual rock formations of the surrounding mountains and almost blends into its environment.
The main temple at the top of the mound is painted in the typical white color with red details around the flat roof and windows. The white walls represent the buildings’ importance for religious administrative purposes, whereas the red-colored walls are reserved for the main temples. The sprawl of the complex houses around 150 monks, although it was once home to up to 500 in earlier days.
The monastery complex is encircled by a small village of the same name, which offers plenty of accommodation if you wish to stay and revel in the spirituality of the place or attend the annual festival known as Yuru Kabgyat. The festival, generally held in June or July each year, attracts Buddhist devotees from near and far, as well as many tourists who wish to witness the masked dances.
Where: Lamayuru is between Kargil and Leh, around 79 miles from Leh. It can be visited by either public bus or private taxi from either place.
Concealed among the folds of the mountains off the main highway, Alchi’s slightly hidden location meant that it was able to escape much of the damage that was inflicted on other Buddhist monasteries in the region during the Mughal and Dogra invasions. As a result, its nearly 900-year-old murals and wall paintings are still intact and well preserved.
The complex is spread out between multiple temples, shrines, an assembly hall, and the monastic school. Its most distinctive feature is that it is uniquely decorated with intricate wood carvings around the temple entrances, colourful murals of thousands of buddhas, and depictions of historical events on the interior walls.
As you walk between the main temples and shrines, you will pass many white chortens or stupas around the complex. (Note that you should customarily pass them in a clockwise direction.) These Buddhist structures, some of which date back to the 13th century, house important relics. They are considered decorated gateways to the buildings.
The village surrounding the monastery is dedicated to serving its many visitors. To reach the monastery you’ll have to wade through all the souvenir stalls, as well as some cafes and guesthouses, which you can use if you plan to linger for a while.
Where: Off the main highway between Kargil and Leh, 43 miles away from Leh. It makes for a nice stop on the long journey between the two towns or visited directly from Leh on a day trip by taxi.
Taking the adventurous trip north of Leh to Nubra Valley is one of Ladakh’s most popular excursions. The high-altitude valley is most famous for its unbelievable landscapes of high peaks and sand dunes, where double humped camels roam. However, a visit to the valley’s oldest and largest monastery at Diskit, the most populous town north of Leh, is similarly worth your time.
The monastery complex dates back to the 14th century and requires a steep climb to explore its whitewashed buildings, which are layered down the side of the hill. It was constructed in a similar style to Thiksey in a strategic location with buildings ascending in order of importance. At the top you’ll find the main prayer hall, which houses a huge ceremonial drum made from animal skin. The complex is home to around 100 monks, whose kindness may land you a cup of butter tea or a bowl of thukpa soup.
A 100-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha has been recently constructed near the monastery, and the view from the statue platform is sublime. It faces the Shyok River, and from up there you can see the entire Nubra Valley stretching from Pakistan to Tibet. It is intended to symbolize peace and protection in a part of the world that still sees tension. The best time to visit the complex is at sunset when the golden hues project a perfect light through the valley.
Most people stay in Diskit village for the night after making the arduous trip over Khardung La road pass, once considered the highest motorable road in the world. Among the numerous accommodation options there, some even offer nice views of the monastery.
Where: Diskit is 72 miles north of Leh and requires passing over Khardung La road pass at 17,580 feet. It is most commonly done in jeep tours or on hired motorbikes; however, there is also the occasional local bus that makes the trip. The road is only open in summer months.
Only a short distance from Leh, Spituk is one of the most accessible monasteries but somehow also one of the least visited. Its location offers one of the best views of the region’s capital town and the valley below, which you can enjoy without the crowds.
Although it may appear small, the complex is home to around 100 monks. After passing the small stupas lined at the entrance, the three-story, white buildings of the monastery are clustered together on the side of the hill. Here you will find a small museum that has a rich collection of old ceremonial masks, traditional religious paintings, and weapons used to protect Ladakh from invaders.
Just a short climb to the top of the hill sits the Mahakal Temple, painted in the traditional red color. This is where the statue of Goddess Kali is housed; however, you’ll have to attend the annual Gustor festival in January to catch a glimpse of it since it is kept under a veil for most of the year.
The best time to visit the monastery is at either sunset or sunrise, as on a clear day you will get to see the white peaks of the Stok mountain range around Leh turn a brilliant orange with the rising or setting of the sun. It’s also possible to witness the morning prayers at the same time, with fewer crowds than Thiksey.
Where: Spituk is around five miles from Leh and can be walked in around two hours; however, there are also local taxis available to make the round trip.
Built on the west bank of the Indus River, Hemis Monastery is the largest Tibetan monastery in the region. It was established in the 17th century. The presence of various ancient meditation caves nearby, though, indicates that the monastery may have been used as a temple as far back as the 11th century.
The complex’s construction is a remarkable feat as it was assembled between a gorge in the Hemis National Park at an elevation of 12,000 feet. The monastery is built around a main courtyard where the annual festival dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, or the Second Buddha, is held every year in June or July. The festival showcases traditional musical performances, prayers, and masked dances. It’s a popular celebration to visit for both Buddhist pilgrims and tourists alike, and it’s worth organizing logistics in advance if you plan to visit during this time.
The buildings are intricately decorated with traditional Tibetan wood carving and paintings around the windows and doors. One of the buildings houses a small museum with a collection of religious paintings, bronze statues, and old weapons.
As in many of the monasteries in the region, you’ll find offerings made by pilgrims — such as money, food, and bowls of water — scattered inside the main prayer hall and particularly at the feet of the statues of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that making an offering to Buddha is an act of procuring good karma. It is also possible to make donations to the monastery to help in its preservation.
Where: Hemis is 28 miles from Leh. It is usually visited as either a day trip or in conjunction with a visit to the Hemis National Park, which is a sanctuary known for its high density of snow leopards.
Found inside the old Royal Palace at Shey, this monastery was built in the 17th century by the then King of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal, in memory of his father. The palace was used as a summer retreat for the royal family in Ladakh before they fled following the Dogra invasion in the 19th century. You will pass stupas of varying sizes, some in rows and some scattered along the road, as well as across the hilltop, marking the spiritual importance of the area.
Characteristic of many of the monasteries in Ladakh, a short climb is required to reach the main complex where you’ll find the old palace building, as well as the main monastic temple. It is far smaller than nearby Thiksey and the palace is mostly in ruins. However, the main temple inside the monastery houses a large copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, which is the second largest of its kind in Ladakh. The copper used to make the statue was mined in nearby Zanskar and later plated with 11 pounds of gold. The walls surrounding the figure are adorned with detailed paintings displaying the 16 arhats, the Buddhist saints who have achieved Nirvana or enlightenment.
The attraction of Shey does not only lay only in the monastery but also in the beautiful view of the surrounding valley from the main temple and palace. From there, you can see as far as the villages of Thiksey, Stakna, Stok, and Leh, as well as their prominent monasteries jutting out from their hillocks.
Two festivals are celebrated each year at Shey. One celebrates the start of the sowing season in July or August, during which local farmers hope for a successful year. The other celebrates the harvest, when farmers offer their first crops to the monastery in a sign of gratitude.
Where: Shey is only 10 miles from Leh and is usually visited in conjunction with a visit to Thiksey and Hemis, which are further along the same road.