The Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh are nothing if not, breathtakingly spectacular. All of them, centuries old, are built into sheer cliffs or upon bare Himalayan mountain-sides. Monastic white buildings sprout from the grey rock – almost blooming – like some special, magical expression of the mountain character.
We loved going to the monasteries. They were such amazing spaces and allowed me to tap into a part of myself that I usually find so hard to reach. Everything about them invokes a sense of ancient wisdom – the smell of the incense, the old wooden structures, faded winding prayer flags, crumbling paintings, the alternating sounds of silence and Tibetan instruments in puja. Moving in each gompa, we were compelled to meditate, unable to escape the residual energy borne from centuries of contemplation on the nature of reality. There is something very special about these monasteries.
Several specific experiences spring to mind. In Sakti, we visited the Taktok monastery, literally built around a cave where the great Indian Sage and ‘Father’ of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh, Padma Sambhava meditated. Cut off from the outside sounds, the silence in the cave has an amazing resonance. You can literally hear the silence, and it clears the mind immediately.
In the same village there is the less renowned Tuphuk gompa. We had been walking around Sakti for an hour, and for some unknown reason I felt incredibly drained, more so than I should’ve from such a short walk. Passing below the gompa, we heard the sounds of the sunset puja emanating over the village. We climbed up to find not a congregation, but a sole monk – his entire brethren had gone to Kalachakra. We sat down and let the sounds of his chanting, the drums and cymbals wash over us in meditation. For who knows how long, it was just the three of us and the incredible sound of the puja. When we left, I was magically refreshed. No lethargy, no exhaustion, no illness.
Hemis is perhaps the most important monastery in Ladakh. One of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Kargyu-Drukpa, flourished here. The main gompa is so beautiful it almost brought me to tears. More so than any other place in Ladakh, you can feel the sense of history in that gompa: be it the fading beauty of the decorative cloth piece that hangs from the ceiling, or the massive, ancient wooden pillars that seem to support the very foundations of Buddhism itself. It is a stunning, sacred space.
In contrast, Turktuk has the smallest Buddhist structure in all of Ladakh. Perched on a hill, It is a small, comfortable room, mostly empty except for modest statues of the Buddha, Tara and Manjushri. The village is muslim, and no monk is present. However, someone in Turtuk dutifully maintains the gompa by cleaning it, stocking it with supplies and lighting incense and butter lamps everyday. It is beautiful in its simplicity. One morning we trundled up to the plateau where the gompa is situated – hoping to do yoga outside and take in the spectacular sunrise views of the village below. However, the weather soon turned foul and we had to rush inside the gompa to escape. We found ourselves trapped in the room, alone, in the darkness of the overcast dawn, with the sound of the wind and rain thrashing the side of the gompa. There was nothing to do but surrender to the circumstances, be in the moment and go inwards.
In total we visited eight monasteries in Ladakh: Leh, Thiksey, Hemis, Taktok, Turtuk, Tuphuk, Stakna and Diskit – all were amazing in their own way. We feel very blessed to have spent time and experienced the energy of one of the few places on Earth that still carries the true essence of Tibetan Buddhism.