Jullay, introducing the crew...

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April 8th 2011
Published: April 21st 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

It is early Friday morning and we are awake. The first realization is that it is warm under the thick blankets, the second that it must be pretty cold in the room. Sure enough, the temperature hovers around 12 degrees centigrade, and the cold tiled bathroom which has not been affected by the heater... well I don't really want to think about that. I know that somehow I must move from under the warm blanket area to the cold bathroom area, and I have a feeling there will be no reward in form of hot water.

It seems we've all been affected by the change in air pressure. Kay feels a bit like vomiting, I myself feel funny in my stomach, like swollen. All our gels and liquids show signs of their own as well. The shampoo leaps out of Kay's bottle, my shower gel has become compact and rigid and a roll-on bottle of deodorant pops the little ball out and sends it rolling across the floor.

I try the faucet. Cold, icy water. I turn the handle in the opposite direction. No change. Icy, cold water. Wonderful. A call to the reception and the manager insists we
Mr. Rehn, intrepid adventurerMr. Rehn, intrepid adventurerMr. Rehn, intrepid adventurer

Ever since the seed of beautiful Ladakhi monasteries was planted in my head I knew it was only a question of time before we would end up here in this cold and rugged place.
should have hot water, most likely it is frozen in the pipes, we are recommended to keep it running for 20 minutes. Instead of this abuse on water supply we ask for a bucket of hot water. A staffer comes up to the room with a huge bucket of bliss, and pouring the water over your frozen limbs sees the liquid instantly turning into vapor and disappear into the air in long curly vapour trails, like you were the beast from the swamp in a trashy monster movie.

After enduring the ordeal of a semi-cold shower we end up in the restaurant for breakfast. Today we are being served toast with melted butter and a glowing red jam of mixed fruit together with black tea and milk. Sometime after nine our guide Sonam comes in and greets us and we get ready for the first excursion day. Today's program is relatively simple yet packed, we have a total of six places to cover, all of them monasteries or similar and situated in or in the immediate vicinity of the city of Leh itself.

Sankar Goempa

When I planned this trip, the outlandish images of monasteries clouded my
Kay, ramen noodle-loverKay, ramen noodle-loverKay, ramen noodle-lover

Poor Kay, she'd really have liked a relaxed and warm holiday, preferably with a lot of cute Japanese shops nearby. On the other hand, she is the one to suggest the trip to me in the first place...
judgment to the extent that I went out of my way to dig them out of their burrows on the Ladakhi map. Suitable then, that our very first stop be the Sankar goempa, located in the northern part of Leh itself, among houses, farms and tourist facilities, all in the traditional white wood and clay style. You'll notice quickly that the transliteration conventions differ all over Ladakh, in this case the sign for the monastery reads "Samkar Gonpa". Unlike most monasteries we encountered, this was a small cluster of adjacent buildings within a residential area, the goempas otherwise tend to be found in spectacular and auspicious places where heaven and earth meet, high on hillsides and cliffs.

The monastery follows the Gelugpa line of tantric buddhism, more commonly known as the 'yellow hats'. I don't intend to indulge in trying to sort out the various Himalayan styles of tantric buddhism, there are plenty of better sources, but since this monastery sits with the yellow hats you should expect to find depictions of the 14th century Gelugpa school founder, the Je Tsongkhapa, inside. The monastery is aligned with the larger Spituk goempa on the southern end of Leh, which also
Sonam, our guideSonam, our guideSonam, our guide

Son of a well-travelled guide Sonam learned the profession from the inside. Possesses a strong faith and is always ready to take the lead no matter which direction we'd point to.
belongs to the Gelugpa school.

Pretty much every temple you will visit is behind lock and key. Painted on the surrounding walls you will find the four heavenly kings, descended from the holy Mt. Kailash to oversee and guard the temple from intruders. It is said that people who steal from or otherwise harm the temple risks severe punishment from its spiritual guard. Perhaps the unlucky soul will experience an accident, or it might affect someone in his family or household.

As we made our way into the dukhang, the main assembly hall of the temple, our guide Sonam explained to us how to properly pay respect to the buddhas or bodhisatvas depicted inside. He taught us a simple method of prostrating which we came to use frequently every time we entered a room where there was an altar present. You hold your hands together palm to palm with the added twist that you open them slightly and place the thumbs inside thus forming a little pyramidal shape, similar in style to a stupa (the type of sacred towers you will see spread out all across Himalaya). Hands in this posture are then raised once above your head,
Sonam, our driverSonam, our driverSonam, our driver

Our veteran driver hailing from a small Ladakhi village near the Pakistani border. His experience on these demanding roads was at times augmented by extra power from the heavens.
once in front of your face and lastly in front of your chest, each symbolizing the soul and mind and heart (or something to that effect, I forgot...) and then you bend your legs to stand on your knees, bend forward resting your torso on your arms and hands then either keeping your hands in place and bending down to touch the ground with your forehead or going all the way by laying down straight, your arms stretched out in front of you and touching the ground with your forehead. This procedure is performed three times. Sonam kept chanting the omnipresent mantra 'om mani padme hum' to himself while doing this. He also jokingly pointed out that it is great exercise for us as our bodies worked overtime to adapt to the altitude.

Be careful of the floor surface if you decide to slide forward for the full prostration, keep your palms safe from rough edges and yes, you will get dusty or dirty.

Inside the temple we found among other things an eleven headed statue of the Lord of Compassion, Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara as he is most commonly known in this region, one of the three great
Konchok and SonamKonchok and SonamKonchok and Sonam

Konchok, the representative from the local travel agency kept checking in from time to time, here chilling with some afternoon milk tea and discussing the next day's plan with Sonam.
divinities around the lord Buddha, the others being the Lord of Wisdom (Jampelyang a.k.a. Manjushri) and the third the Lord of Strength and Power (Channa Dorji or Vajrapani), and deeper inside, in the inner sanctum a huge and different form of the Avalokiteshvara in female form, sporting a thousand heads, arms and feet, each arm holding a weapon, each foot treading on a small being in human form, representing human ignorance. This manifestation of the Avalokiteshvara is the protector of the goempa, it is common to find protectors in their fearful or powerful forms deeper inside the temples. Often they will also be local demigods, once evil men subdued by powerful buddhist gurus and now in the service of Lord Buddha, protecting the temples from its enemies. Protectors also often appear as masked deities, that is, a garment has been hung in front of the protector's face, and only removed during special celebrations. I was surprised we were allowed to visit these chambers, in Bhutan the inner sanctums were always closed to tourists, and the warrior kings guarding them an elusive force.

Code of conduct

In general, temples inside the gompas will be open to the public during
Breakfast time...Breakfast time...Breakfast time...

Black tea with milk, toast with melted butter and mixed fruit jam.
certain hours. A caretaker monk is always on duty to open the doors for visitors to come inside. Follow the notices usually posted near the doorway. Most temples in Ladakh allow photography, a few do not, but none allow the use of flash; be sure to deactivate it on your camera before taking any pictures. It is often dark inside the sanctum, in general photographing statues is easy but frescos and wall paintings are often hidden in shadows, consider bringing a tripod if you think you'll need it but remember this is a place of worship, not a studio workshop.

There are also a few other rules to remember; always take off your shoes before entering a temple, do not pose together with depictions of the bodhisattvas and gods and always walk in a clockwise fashion inside. That is, after entering the building take a left and follow the outer walls around the temple. This rule of clockwise applies to many holy things in tantric buddhism. When circling holy buildings, stupas or prayer flags, take to the left. Sometimes you will even see cars going off the road and into the terrain to make sure they pass a roadside
Sankar goempa, LehSankar goempa, LehSankar goempa, Leh

(Photo: Kay)
stupa on the correct side. The same thing applies for when spinning prayer wheels, always spin them clockwise.


Author's Note: I am going to experiment with a new technique for this particular blog; since the days were quite long and active, and therefore full of impressions, I've decided to at times divide days into multiple entries to keep a better balance between text and photos. This will also allow for a more detailed subdivision into geographical locations, we'll see how it turns out as it goes along.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Yülkhorsung guarding Sankar goempaYülkhorsung guarding Sankar goempa
Yülkhorsung guarding Sankar goempa

King of the east, playing the pipa, guards the entrance to the main assembly hall.
Phakyepo guarding Sankar goempaPhakyepo guarding Sankar goempa
Phakyepo guarding Sankar goempa

King of the south, brandishing his sword, guards the entrance to the main assembly hall.
Doorway to the dukhangDoorway to the dukhang
Doorway to the dukhang

Double door ornaments, Sankar goempa. (Photo: Kay)
Inside the dukhang, Sankar goempaInside the dukhang, Sankar goempa
Inside the dukhang, Sankar goempa

the main assembly hall of the temple. (Photo: Kay)
Chenmizang guarding Sankar goempaChenmizang guarding Sankar goempa
Chenmizang guarding Sankar goempa

King of the west, a snake round his hand and a pagoda on his shoulder, guards the entrance to the main assembly hall. (Photo: Kay)
Namthöse guarding Sankar goempaNamthöse guarding Sankar goempa
Namthöse guarding Sankar goempa

King of the north, a mongoose in his hand, guards the entrance to the main assembly hall. (Photo: Kay)
Thankas in the dukhang, Sankar goempaThankas in the dukhang, Sankar goempa
Thankas in the dukhang, Sankar goempa

Tibetan-style Thanka paintings hanging from the ceiling. (Photo: Kay)
Je Tsongkhapa, Sankar goempaJe Tsongkhapa, Sankar goempa
Je Tsongkhapa, Sankar goempa

Je Tsongkhapa is the 14th century founder of the Gelugpa school of tantric buddhism, usually recognizable by their yellow hats.
Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara (detail)Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara (detail)
Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara (detail)

Yes I know, the top eleventh head got cropped out due to me bringing a fixed lens and there was no more room inside to back up...
Thousand-headed Avalokiteshvara, Sankar goempaThousand-headed Avalokiteshvara, Sankar goempa
Thousand-headed Avalokiteshvara, Sankar goempa

The protector of the temple, Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara in this one-thousand headed, armed and footed form.

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