Continued from here:
After the majestic setting of Lamayuru and Basgo, Spituk seemed to come easy. Very close to Leh, this gompa is home to the patron saint of all those intrepid travelers who fly into Leh, over the magnificent Himalayas, landing on the gut-wrenchingly narrow strip that serves as the runway. And so Spituk sits, placidly overlooking the quiet of the Indus valley spread out beneath and the bustle of the airport. Apart from the traditional frescos and thangka paintings, this 15th century gompa also houses the temple of the Tibetan war goddess Palden Lhamo, who is now venerated by visiting Hindus (despite strict warning boards all over the temple complex) as the goddess Kali.
Further along the road, Phyong was quiet at that time of the morning, a solitary sweeper woman at work. She stopped her work to rest and smile at us, pointing to my dangling earrings in a universal sign of appreciation. I smiled back and stepped into the main shrine, to find four monks at work on a mandala. Their heads bent over the low stool, they seemed absorbed in their work, till one of them looked up and smiled as our shadows fell on the colourful mandala in progress.
According to Buddhist iconography, a mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe and making one is part of the training for monks. Made from coloured sand, a mandala requires intense concentration, a trait that is believed to help a monk during meditation. A mandala, I remembered reading, is swept away after prayers are offered to signify the impermanence of life; a pity, it seemed to me, looking at the intricate patterns and vivid colours.
Hemis, in contrast to the other far-flung gompas was overrun by tourists when we arrived. Its proximity to Leh (about 50 kilometers away) makes Hemis, Ladakh’s largest monastery a popular destination.
Built as early as in the 11th century, it was reestablished in the late 17th century during the rule of Singge Namgyal who patronized the Drukpa (Red Hat) sect. After a quick tour of the gompa, we headed to the underground museum with its impressive collection of thangka paintings, statues and artefacts. From a distance, the sounds of young monks talking loudly, interspersed with laughter floated in, suddenly bringing alive the museum to us. Hemis is also the site of the annual summer festival held to mark the occasion of Guru PadmaSambhava’s birth anniversary.
And then finally the 15th century Thiksey, picturesque and imposing amidst the green-brown barley fields. Our first time at Thiksey, we stopped at the bottom of the hill for photographs of the complex, reminiscent it is said, of the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Up at the gompa, we ran into a group of young men training to be tourist guides.
Their leader assigned them to us by turn for practice; we had responded in the negative when he asked us if we understood the significance of the different elements in the monastery complex. The trainee guides stuttered their way through the task, the sniggers of others indicating that they were making up stuff as they went along.
A few days later, we went back early in the morning to witness the puja. A group of senior monks in maroon and gold robes were already immersed in their chants when we went in. A little while later, the young monks in training filed in, silent and serious, to take their places.
Soon, I caught a few of them fidgeting, restless as only the very young can be. And when it was time for the tea cups of the older monks to be filled, there was a mock fight to carry the kettles. Little monks started scurrying about with large tea kettles and containers with yak butter, like large red bees in a hive. The older monks dipped their forefingers into the butter container, helping themselves generously to the salty butter. They stirred it into their tea, licking the remnants off their fingers without any reticence as they carried on with their prayers.
Form me, the highlight of Thiksey was the impressive statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha with his elaborate crown and the enigmatic, calm smile on his face. I would have gladly returned again and again to Thiksey; I had decided – it was indeed my favourite.