Ladakh, in India’s northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir, is an arid, bare land, and for miles altogether you’ll probably see nothing but bare- and brilliantly coloured- mountains. And then, just as you go turn the bend along a mountain road, you’ll see a gompa, precariously perched on the hillside, clinging on seemingly through sheer willpower.
Gompas- Buddhist monasteries- are the equivalent of the temples and mosques you see in more southern parts of India. They tower, with whitewashed, wooden-windowed facades, over tiny villages, and are more often than not a virtual treasurehouse of interesting and ancient arts and crafts. The gompas are always rectangular- in typical Tibetan Buddhist style- with a series of inner halls and passages, dark stairways and open courtyards within.
The main hall of the gompa will generally be dominated by a large (usually gilded, sometimes with actual gold and semi-precious stones) statue of the Buddha. Around it, in niches in the walls, will be other deities, including tantrik deities and much-revered rinpoches (‘rinpoche’ means `precious’, and is used to refer to reincarnated Buddhist high lamas. All will be draped in the fine white silk scarves which are a sign of great esteem in Ladakh; and all will have oil lamps burning before them. In earlier times- and even today, in the more remote gompas- the oil will actually be yak butter- a substance which gives off a characteristic and heavy smell all its own.
You’ll see monks wandering around, praying, and (if they’re one of the many novices), perhaps even playing. There’ll be prayer flags fluttering from every pole- each bit of cloth carefully inscribed with prayers. There’ll be whirring prayer wheels, entire colonnades of them; beautifully worked traditional Buddhist thangkas(religious scroll paintings), centuries old but with each hue still fresh. There’ll be mani stones- carved with prayers, especially the Tibetan mantra `Om mani padme hum (Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus Flower’). There will, occasionally, also be some pretty gruesome relics- I remember the gompa at Deskit (in the Nubra Valley), where the central idol- a terrifying tantrik figure- in the main hall holds a mummified human forearm, the tendons still hanging from the elbow. The Deskit Gompa, incidentally, is also worth a visit for the fabulous view it offers of the area. The `Om mani padme hum’ here is inscribed in carefully-placed white stones across the dark mountainside opposite, and the walk up the mountain to the gompa itself (the road ends a little way further down, so whether you like it or not, you’re have to trek up the last few hundred metres) is past walls of deep green rock. It’s fascinating.
Ladakh literally has gompas by the dozen, and you can’t hope to visit all of them in a single trip. It would also be impossible to list them all here- but here’s a brief run-down on four of the ones closest to Ladakh’s capital, Leh. They’re all gompas that I’ve visited myself, so I can vouch for the fact that they’re worth a look-see.
Hemis Gompa: Ladakh’s largest and wealthiest gompa, the 17th century Hemis Gompa is 48 km from Leh, across the Indus River. It’s a huge, stunningly beautiful building, with long yellow stain strips fluttering from its front parapet. Hemis is a monastery of the Kagypa (`Red Hat’) sect, and is richly embellished all through- right from the main gate, beyond which is a row of prayer wheels, to the beautifully painted parapet which surmounts the gompa. The gompa’s hugely popular on itineraries, especially during the Hemis Tsechu (an annual festival, as is the norm amongst Ladakhi gompas), when masked monks perform day-long dances which culminate in the ceremonial triumph of good over evil.
Thikse Gompa: 19 km from Leh, also along the Indus River, is Thikse Gompa. Unlike Hemis, this is a monastery of the Gelugpa (`Yellow Hat’) sect, and with its 12-storey building, all painted in white, ochre and dark red, is home to a nunnery and ten temples. The view from the gompa’s lovely: it looks out over the green fields which surround Leh. Inside, the gompa’s main hall is pretty dark and gloomy, but it contains a breathtakingly opulent statue of the Buddha, all gold, turquoise and semi-precious stones.
Shey Gompa: 15 km from Leh, and slightly different from the other monasteries listed so far, in that it was not always a gompa. Shey began life as a royal residence- the Namgyals lived here till the 1500s- and was later converted to a gompa. The gompa’s main claim to fame is a huge, 3-storied copper-and-brass Buddha, draped all over with silk scarves.
Spituk Gompa: This one’s one of the lesser-known gompas around Leh, despite its name (`spituk’ means `exemplary’). The Spituk Gompa is 18 km from Leh and dates back to the 11th century; today it’s a quiet place, high up on a hill, with the wind howling around it. Besides the usual idols, Spituk also has a small collection of old and rusty weapons, thangkas and icons. A little further up the hill, above the gompa, is a temple dedicated to the tantrik deity Vajrabhairava, supposedly the very embodiment of wrath. The icon of Vajrabhairava in the temple is pretty scary, and is unveiled only once a year, at the Spituk Gompa’s annual tsechu in January.