There was an adrenaline rush after the previous day’s adventure and we were still on a high eager to scour the day’s itinerary. Today’s circuit did not cover much distance, and Hemis Gompa was the farthest point of it. We were brimming with confidence after the successful completion of our first long-distance high-altitude day trip on the bike. With great expectations and excitement, we began our third day of touring in Ladakh.
We were pretty well acquainted with the main city roads of Leh by then. We could easily navigate in and out of our hotel to the main roads or the national highways. (Read my post on Leh.) The previous day we were on the Leh-Kargil-Srinagar highway and today we were supposed to take the Leh-Manali highway. (Read my previous post on the Lamayuru circuit.) (Also read my first post of the Ladakh series to know more about the essentials of the tour.)
Unlike the previous day, we decided to visit the farthest point on our circuit first and then visit the other places on our way back. So Hemis monastery (12000 ft) was our first destination. Again we were accompanied and comforted by the luscious river Indus to our right. The day before it flowed with us on our left. The road and the terrain this day were different from that of the previous. There was a long and narrow stretch within the locality with apricot and poplar trees lining the road beautifully.
What a lovely contrast it gave to the brown landscape. We rode past the Sindhu Ghat, the Shey Palace and the Thiksey Monastery to finally take the turn off the Leh-Manali highway towards Hemis. Once bitten twice shy – even after Google Maps was guiding us the route we asked the locals for the direction just to be sure as we could not solely rely on the Maps here as we learnt previously. We came across a beautiful gateway which seemed to be a new addition marking the way to the monastery.
Then there was again a presumably a recently built circular gompa around three kilometres ahead of the main monastery. The Hemis gompa is one of the most significant monasteries in Ladakh. The monastery which was said to exist before the 11th century was re-established by the King of Ladakh, Sengge Namgyal in 1672. Hemis monastery belongs to the Drukpa lineage often called the ‘Red Hat sect’, a branch of the Kyagu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Drukpa lineage was founded in Tiben and later became popular in Ladakh and Bhutan (read my post on Bhutan.)
An annual Hemis festival is held every year in the month of July honouring Guru Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche. (Read my story on Ugyen Guru Lakhang dedicated to Guru Rinpoche in Paro, Bhutan.) Guru Padmasambhava who is believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha Sakyamuni was born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the monkey year as foretold by the Buddha. Every year Hemis festival is organised with great fanfare to honour Guru Padmasambhava. The auspicious day comes once in the cycle of 12 years which is then celebrated with a major extravaganza. Mask dance and Cham performances are the primary attraction of the festival.
The beautiful road to the monastery was lined up with wild rose-like plants, they were thorny and full of flowers making the place look more cheerful. We were also lucky to see a few local birds but being on the bike with the camera in the bag I could not capture them in frames but rather seized them in my memory. We saw a few Robin Accentor, Chukar partridge, Eurasian Magpie and Common Redstarts. We were highly thrilled to see the birds even when we were not on a bird-watching trip. It reminded me how at every turn we found a different species of bird in Bhutan. (Check out my blog post on bird-watching in Bhutan.)
After touring the farthest destination of today’s journey, we were back on the same route towards Leh. Again with the Indus by our side, we were gliding through the road watching the Stakna monastery beautifully located on a hillock on the other side of the river. It is the only Bhutanese Drukpa Kyagu monastery in Ladakh built by a Bhutanese saint, Chosje Modzin in the 16th century. While the other monasteries of the Drukpa lineage in Ladakh fall under the Gyalwang Drukpa‘s school with its headquarters at Hemis. In the 17th century, there was a difference in opinion regarding the true reincarnation of the 4th Gyalwang Drukpa which resulted in the split of the Drukpa Kyagu.
We were again in the green zone of our route, we stopped at a beautiful restaurant named ‘Nam Druk’. This place has an amazing green backyard bright and glowing in the brilliant sunlight. It was lunchtime and the place was full, the few staff there were not sufficient enough to cater to the guests resulting in a long very long waiting time. We used this time to get some wonderful clicks in the backyard. After finishing the photo session and also the lunch we were back on road to our next destination, the Thiksey Monastery.
Thiksey Monastery (11800 ft) belongs to the Gelug sect also called the ‘yellow hat sect’ of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a twelve-storied structure built on a hill. This huge magnificent building can be seen from a distance as it adds to the charm of the surrounding vistas. Once you reach the top of the monastery you can have an excellent panoramic view of the surrounding landscapes. Words are just not enough to describe the beauty of the place. It may be tiring to climb the steep steps but all the efforts are more than rewarding.
An eminent Buddhist monk of the 15th century and the founder of the Gelug school Je Tsongkhapa, sent his disciple Jangsem Sherap Zangpo to spread Buddhism. Sherap Zangpo with the help of the King of Ladakh introduced the Gelug school of Buddhism in Ladakh. It gradually spread across the region and many monasteries were constructed thus Thiksey Monastery was also built in mid of 15th century. The architecture of the monastery has a great likeness to the Potala Palace of Lasha, Tibet. Presently the building is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The monastery is built on the slope of a hill with structures rising in ascending order of importance. The head lama resides on the top most floor while the other dwelling units of subordinates under him sequentially descend down. The monastery complex has many temples adorned with Thangkas, paintings and other items associated with Buddhism. The most prominent of all the temples and also the main attraction of the complex is the gorgeous 49 ft Maitreya Buddha statue. It was built to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama. This two-storied statue is the largest statue in any monastery in Ladakh built with clay, copper and gold paint.
Our next destination was the Shey Palace. The Shey Complex (Palace and the Gompa) is located on a hillock beside the road by the lake. Shey was the summer capital of the royal family of Ladakh. While the original palace is in ruins what remains today is the palace and the monastery constructed by Deldan Namgyal in 1655 in the memory of his father Sengge Namgyal. The monastery here is adorned by the huge 39 ft gilded gold statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. Though the palace is in the ruins it has a golden Chorten spire. There are many other Chortens to the east of the palace. The lake beside the road is considered to be a sacred lake and the abode of the Nagas and its fishes so no nuisance is allowed in and around the lake area.
Then we moved on to our next destination the Stok Palace. Following Google Maps we took a turn from the Highway towards Stok village. The vast valley with empty roads was again another pleasant change in our day’s topography. While we rode towards the palace we came across an embellished statue of Buddha in a green compound. Later we explored that it was a hotel with pretty green growths. We reached Stok Palace and the museum. We could see the statue of 71 ft seated Buddha at a distance. The statue adjoining the 14th-century monastery was constructed between 2012-2014 and was consecrated by the Dalai Lama.
Photography within the palace is prohibited. There are certain areas that are marked private within the palace. The new palace is the current residence of the royal family of Ladakh. A staff of the palace and the museum guided us through the museum also keeping an eye so that we do not click any pictures. The museum displays photographs, various items used by the ancient royals, thangkas, other sacred religious items, pieces of jewellery and dresses worn by the king and queen.
We ended our day’s trip visiting the Sindhu Ghat on our way back to Leh. A beautiful ghat is made by the river Indus that accompanied us for two consecutive days of our bike trip. Here we touched the sacred water of the river that gave the name to our country and finally ended our memorable bike trip in Ladakh. Though our Ladakh trip is still not over. Now we would travel even further but on a rented vehicle. Stay with me to explore the other fascinating parts of Ladakh in my upcoming blog posts.