In the corner of a small, dark room, a monk in red robes sits huddled over a book. In candlelight he shows me pages of neat text in long rows, and explains the writing is Tibetan. The book, like the hundreds of others crammed on the shelves on the wall, contains sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts. I later learn that many of the books kept here in Thiksey monastery are handwritten.
A High Altitude Monastery
Thiksey belongs to the most important Buddhist monasteries (gompas) in Ladakh, the northernmost part of India. Ladakh is one of the main centres of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet, and is sometimes called Little Tibet. The monastery stands at 3600 meters (11,800 feet) altitude on top of a rocky hill outside Ladakh’s capital Leh. Below the brightly painted main building dozens of white small houses rise from the hillside; they are homes to the nearly hundred monks who live and work in Thiksey.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You like visiting religious and spiritual sites and you are happy to travel to high altitudes to visit them.
- You are interested in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, art or architecture.
- Good for: Buddhists and students of Buddhism, anyone who loves high mountains and knows how to cope with a little mountain sickness.
To get to the gompa I first walked up a winding road to the hilltop and then climbed a long stone stairway, spinning the prayer wheels that lined the steps to release the prayers inside. Because of the altitude even short walks felt like a major challenge, but the views from the rooftops over the Indus Valley more than compensated for the effort. The Indus River flows through the valley surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountains – Ladakh stands in the middle of the Himalayas and the Karakoram range, and Leh itself is at 3500 meters. Everywhere in the valley are white stupas, structures that contain important relics such as the earthly remains of many local lamas (spiritual teachers).
The Tallest Buddha Statue in Ladakh
Buddhism first came to Ladakh in the 3rd century B.C. from India, but over the centuries monks from Ladakh went to study in neighboring Tibet. When monasteries were destroyed in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist culture was kept alive in Ladakh. The monks in Thiksey belong to the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism and their spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama.
The pride of Thiksey (sometimes spelled Thikse) is a 15-meter-tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the future. The statue with its golden face and blue eyes was installed in the 1970s, when the Dalai Lama visited Thiksey, but the gompa itself dates back to the 15th century. The walls of the monastery are decorated with colorful murals and thangkas, in which Buddhas, enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) and goddesses mix with demons and wrathful spirits. Many characters in Tibetan Buddhist art are not the kind you would want to run into on a dark night.
Ladakh’s Tibetan Buddhist Culture
Monasteries have for long held an important position in Ladakh. Families used to send their youngest son(s) to a monastery to live and to study, knowing that the local community took care of the monks and provided food. In return the monks took care of weddings, funerals and other important ceremonies and rituals. The tradition of sending a son to a monastery also helped to control population growth.
Today Leh is starting to look like many other Asian cities with its increasing traffic, Western restaurants and growing numbers of tourists. Here in Thiksey the atmosphere is different. Maybe it is the pungent Tibetan incense that burns everywhere, or the prayer wheels and the candles, but Thiksey feels like a step back to a different, and possibly better, time.
Practicalities for Visiting the Thiksey Monastery
- Thiksey is a short taxi/bus ride from Leh, Ladakh’s capital.
- You can fly to Leh from Delhi or you can take the much more interesting overland route from Manali by bus, by jeep taxi, or by motorbike, and cross some of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. The Manali-Leh road is open for traffic from May to October, depending on snowfall.
- Leh is at 3500 meters altitude and Acute Mountain Sickness is a common problem, so take it easy when climbing up the hill to the monastery
- There are many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries around Leh, and many welcome visitors. Hemis is another important gompa.
- Appropriate dress code for visiting a Buddhist monastery means covered shoulders and long trousers/skirts. Shoes are removed when entering a Buddhist temple.