Leh is Ladakh’s principal town. It used to be one of the busiest market towns on the caravan trade between India and Central Asia. These days it retains a distinctly central Asian feel.

Leh is dominated by the nine-storey Palace, a building in the grand tradition of Tibetan architecture, said to have inspired the famous Potala in Lhasa, which was built half a century later.

What to see

MONASTERIES

  1. Alchi : 70 Km from Leh, on the banks of the Indus, is the Alchi Gompa dating a thousand years back. One of its walls features thousands of miniature-sized pictures of the Buddha. Three large sized images made of clay and painted brightly are its focal attraction. No longer an active religious centre, it is looked after by monks from the Likir monastery.

  2. Namayal Tsemo: No longer inhabited, this gompa was built by King Tashi Namo. It forms a part of the Leh palace complex and is maintained by monks from the Sankar Gompa.

  3. Sankar: A relatively modem monastery, it is closely associated with the Spituk monastery and serves as the residence of the head priest,- Kushak Bakula. A number of gold icons are to be found here.

  4. Spituk: 8 km from Leh, it stands prominently on the top of a hillock commanding a panoramic view of the Indus valley for miles. Many icons of Buddha and fine thankas are to be found in this 15th century gompa. The gompa also houses a collection of ancient masks, antique arms, and an awe inspiring image of Mahakal. The image kept covered is revealed only at the annual function in January.

  5. Phyang: 17 km from Leh on the Leh-Kargil road, it looks like a huge palace from afar, built by Tashi Namgyal in the later half of the 16th century AD, it belongs to the Red Cap sect of Buddhists. Hundreds of icons of Buddha and other gods are kept on wooden shelves.

  6. Shey: Situated on a hillock 15 km upstream from Leh, it was once the residence of the royal family. According to tradition, it was the seat of power of the pre-Tibetan kings. A 7.5 metre high copper statue of Buddha, plated with gold, and the largest of its kind, is installed here.

  7. Thikse: 19 km from Leh, spectacularly sited, Thikse is one of the largest and architecturally most impressive gompas. There are several temples in this gompa containing images, stupas and wall paintings of Buddha which are exquisite.

  8. Hemis: 40 km from Leh, it is the wealthiest, best known and biggest gompa of Ladakh. Its popularity stems from the major annual festival held here in summer. The festival is in honour of Guru Padma Sarnbhav’s birth anniversary. It also has the largest thanka in Ladakh which is unfurled once in 12 years (next in 1992). Hemis was built in 1630 during the reign of Sengge Namgyal, an illustrious ruler of Ladakh. It flourished under the Namgyal dynasty for the royalty favoured the Drugkpa Sect which managed the monastery. It is divided into two, the Assembly Hall on the right and the main temple on the left. The Hall, Dukhang, is also used as a ‘green room’ by the dancers during the festival. The temple is known as Tshogkhang. The verandahs have a surfeit of frescoes, among them the Buddhist ‘Wheel of life’ (Kalachakra) and the ‘Lords of the Four Quarters,’ besides rows of prayer wheels.

  9. Chemrey: 45 km from Leh, situated in a picturesque valley leading to Changla, this gompa was constructed as a funeral act of merit on Sengge Naingyal’s death in 1645. A large collection of scriptures with title pages in sterling silver and the text in gold letters is kept here. Close by is a cave monastery reputed to have been the abode of Padma Sambhav during one of his periods of meditation.

  10. Stakna: A few kilometres upstream from Thikse, Stakna is situated on a 60 metre high isolated rock.

  11. Mashro: Situated on the opposite bank of the Indus across Thikse, Mashro was established in the first half of the 16th century AD and has a valuable collection of very old and beautiful thankas, some in the form of ‘mandalas’. its annual festival of oracles in early March is an important event in the Ladakhi religious calendar. Young monks selected as oracles undergo lone periods of meditation, fasting and ritual purification to gain spiritual strength. When possessed they perform astonishing feats with swords and knives, cavorting blindfolded along narrow parapets.

  12. Stok: The palace of the banished royal family, Stok has a museum which displays fabulous period costumes and jewellery of the royalty along with exquisite thankas
    representing the life of Sakya Muni. Interesting historical objects like, coins, seals, armour, weapons, precious jade and porcelain too can be seen here.

  13. Lamayuru: The oldest holy site in Ladakh, it was a Bon shrine prior to the advent of Buddhism. Also known as Yung Drung (Swastika) it is sited on a high promontory overlooking the village and valley. For sheer spectacle value no other gompa can match Lamayuru.

  14. Mulbekh: Precariously perched atop a 200 metre high era , it has an imposing rock carving of Chamba, the future Buddha. On the other end of the valley is a large vertical phallus shaped with a monastery at its base.

Getting There

Air: Leh is connected by domestic airlines with Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu & Chandigarh.

Road: Leh is connected by road only to Manali 473 Km (July to mid-September) and Srinagar.

General information

Excursions