Visiting a monastery festival in Ladakh is one of the highlights of their trip for most of the visitors and yes, it is something spectacular and touching to see the colorfully dressed monks dance their stories. Here are the celebrations for 2020.

Ladakh: Monastery festivals and other celebrations 2020



  • Spituk Gustor in Spituk: 22.-23. January 2020
  • Leh & Likir Dosmochey in Leh and Likir: 21.-22. February 2020
  • Yargon Tungshak in Nubra: 27.-28. February 2020
  • Stok Guru Tsechu in Stok: 3.-4. March 2020
  • Matho Nagrang in Matho: 8.-9. March 2020
  • Saka Dawa all over Ladakh: 5. June 2020
  • Yuru Kabgyat in Lamayuru: 18.-19. June 2020
  • Silk Route Festival in Nubra: 23.-24. June 2020
  • Ladakh Polo Festival in Chushot: 11.-17. July 2020
  • Hemis Tsechu in Hemis: 30. June-01. July 2020
  • Shachukul Gustor in Shachukul: 7.-8. July 2020
  • Stongde Gustor in Zanskar: 8.-9. July 2020
  • Karsha Gustor in Zanskar: 18.-19. July 2020
  • Diggar Heritage Tourism Festival in Nubra: 27.-28. July 2020
  • Phyang Tsedup in Phyang: 18.-19. July 2020
  • Korzok Gustor at Tsomoriri: 23.-24. July 2020
  • Thakthok Tsechu in Sakti: 29.-30. July 2020
  • Sani Nasjal in Zanskar: 2.-3. August 2020
  • Deskit Gustor in Nubra: 14.-15. October 2020
  • Thikse Gustor in Thikse: 3.-4. November 2020
  • Chemde Wangchok in Chemde: 13.-14. November 2020
  • Galdan Namchot all over Ladakh: 10. December 2020
  • Ladakhi Losar (New Year) all over Ladakh: 15. December 2020

Ulli’s bucket list of the 10 things you have to do / see in Bhutan

By Ulrike Čokl

Ulli has lived in Bhutan on and off for many years. She has
conducted ethnographic research on traditional hospitality practices,
travelling & gift-exchange in rural communities. Thus she is very
familiar with village livelihoods all over the little kingdom. She loves
developing unique itineraries that offer a glimpse into the rich
cultural traditions and practices of Bhutanese society.

It is truly difficult for me to think of only 10 must-see places and attractions in Bhutan where I have spent so much time over the past 18 years. However, I will try and choose from my long list of things, places and activities that I love, keeping in mind that it is for people who have not been to the Himalayan Kingdom before.


1 Taktsang Gonpa

Tigernest monastery

There is no way around it, Tigernest monastery is undoubtedly one of the best known attractions in the Himalayan kingdom and for many first time visitors impossible to skip. I was lucky enough to hike up to Taktsang several times before it became a highly frequented tourist spot during high season. Nevertheless, the first close up glimpse of Taktsang monastery, perched on a steep cliff, never ceases to enchant me. One recommendation though: Try to hike up as early as possible, maybe start around 6 o’clock in the morning or even earlier! That way you will more likely be able to enjoy the place for what it was intended to be: a remote recluse for peaceful and quiet contemplation and meditation.


2 Dzongs – Fortresses with ancient history

Punakha Dzong

I love Bhutanese Dzongs, they are great architectural masterpieces, embellishing the landscape. They were built in ancient times without the use of metal nails mainly from wood, stone and mud. Dzongs tower over every one of the 20 districts, some very historic, some rather recent. Landing in Paro and spotting Rinpung Dzong from the plane always makes me feel sentimental. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, one of my favorites, unfortunately burned down a few years ago. It was a very authentic example of these fortresses and is now under restoration. Visiting Punakha Dzong is also impressive and offers wonderful opportunities for walks in the surrounding areas, such as to the longest suspension bridge and even further to an idyllic homestay amidst the fields and near the river. Jakar Dzong in Bumthang, as well as Lhuentse Dzong and Trashigang Dzong in the East are equally stunning and worth visiting.


3 Hike to a mountain pass

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

If you don’t have time to go on a serious trek, there are still plenty of opportunities to hike up to mountain passes from where you can spot the Himalayan snow giants. Most Bhutanese believe that the peaks are the dwelling places of birth and protector deities, the kyelha. Hiking to such passes can take from a few hours to a full day. The passes are often marked by a chorten (Buddhist shrine) decorated with prayer flags, and a latshe (stone pile) where you can offer a twig, flower or leaf to the local deity. When Bhutanese travelers reach a mountain pass, they will shout “lha gyelo” (“the victorious gods” or “may good win over evil”), and offer a cup of ara (local moonshine) to the local deity before drinking some themselves. Along the way you might come across cow herders, mostly the grandparents of village householders whose job it is to look after the cattle. If you are lucky you will be invited for butter tea and snacks in one of their makeshift huts!


4 Spending time in a local home

A Bhutanese saying goes: “The guest of one night is like a god.” I am convinced that you have not truly experienced Bhutan without having spent some time in a non-commercialized farmhouse. Enjoying local hospitality in a Bhutanese home is simply fantastic! Furthermore, food in homestays is much better than in the hotels and guesthouses.  You can observe the nangi aum (woman of the house) going about her chores and even join in yourself and learn how to prepare local dishes. Or you can meditate in the choesham (altar room) and have a look around the house and surroundings. Make sure to find a real farmstay and not one that has been meddled with and commercialized for tourists. There are plenty of genuine village homes who occasionally host foreign guests from far away, keeping in line with ancient Bhutanese hospitality traditions.


5 A village festival

Masked dances are grand, especially in the Dzongs where they are performed annually at auspicious dates to celebrate the victory of good over evil. They re-enact the story of how the Buddhist dharma was introduced by famous lamas and saints in previous times, leading to the subduing of demons and evil beings. I personally prefer small village festivals where you can get an idea of how such events involve the entire community and shape the relationships of humans in daily life. I know this can be tricky as the village folks often keep festival dates tentative till last minute. However, if you manage to participate in one of the smaller local festivals, you will get insights into how such community festivals reinforce community cohesion and cooperation, a sense of belonging and communal identity. Such important local socio-cultural aspects are vulnerable to a fast changing society where rural-urban migration is a huge issue.

An insider’s tip: Travel to East Bhutan in the winter months (December, January and February) and you will most likely stumble into festivals every now and then. You might also be the first foreigner to ever have witnessed one!


6 Trekking in Bhutan

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

It goes without saying that trekking in Bhutan is a stunning experience. The trekking routes are unique and you will not meet many fellow travellers. On ancient footpaths, you will hike through rhododendron and conifer forests, juniper shrubs and bamboo bushes, passing by chortens, mani walls and beautiful gonpas. On some treks you will encounter yak herders whose yaks graze on pastures covered with medicinal plants. Meet with villagers of distant valleys such as the Layaps during Lingshi-Laya-Gasa or Jomolhari treks, and share a cup of tea or ara with them. The flora and fauna are amazing and you will most certainly also come across wild deer and blue sheep. On a final note, in Bhutan, your luggage will be carried by mules, not humans, and overnights will be in tents.


7 A Crafts workshop

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

If you have time and visit the right places, take part in a crafts workshop such as bamboo or textile weaving in Central and East Bhutan, and thangka painting in the West, to mention just a few. It is a wonderful way of getting closer to local Bhutanese and you will learn more about the role of handicrafts within communities in the past and present. You will develop an appreciation for the hard work that goes into such crafts. The harvest and collection of the wild or cultivated raw materials and the further processing of the latter are tedious and labor intensive. Imagine for example the raw material for nettle weaving, a thread made of stinging nettle, difficult to harvest and peel. Similarly it takes a while to collect and process bamboo into the raw material needed to weave the beautiful bangchung (woven bowls), famous in Bhutan and available in every souvenir shop in Thimphu.

By participating in such local workshops you benefit the artisans directly. No better way to support them and at the same time immerse in local culture!


8 Zhemgang

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

I simply love Zhemgang. It is remote, hardly visited and sub-tropical in the lower parts with opportunities to visit the jungle of the Royal Manas National Park. There is an abundance of birds, which even I can take good pictures of by simply using my cell phone camera – the great hornbill just being one of many! The locals are lovely, reserved but very hospitable, and jolly when the ice has broken. Many houses are still in traditional style, made of bamboo and sitting on stilts. If you are adventurous at heart and not picky when it comes to accommodation, Zhemgang is the perfect place to explore! Visit some of the farmer cooperatives, venture into the jungle for bird watching or enjoy the rafting opportunities. Try the delicious local food, some ingredients come directly from the forest, and visit the bamboo basket weaving community in Bjoka.


9 East Bhutan

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

The East is great for those who want to enjoy less touristy places and experience more immersion in local culture and tradition. The valleys are steep and cliffy in some places and the slopes are terraced for rice cultivation. The climate is mild due to the lower altitude. Banana trees and plenty of fruits grow all over the place and throughout the year. In winter the orange tangerines dotting the trees look beautiful among the brownish dry landscape. The East has many local crafts to show, mostly located in remote areas such as Trashiyangtse, Trashigang and Lhuentse. You can use Lingkhar lodge as your “base camp” and periodically venture out to the surrounding villages. Or stay at some of the lovely homes in the region and enjoy local hospitality. In spring and autumn, visit the Brokpa communities in Merak and Sakteng, and in winter observe the Black Necked Cranes in Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary.  There are many places in Bhutan that are still rather unexplored. If you have the mind of a pioneer, you might even enjoy being our “guniea pig”, a pioneer exploring new routes, places and homes!


10 Food – picnics and cooking classes

I really like chili and cheese (=ema datshi) but there is so much more to Bhutanese food. Forget about ema datshi; if you travel to remote places at the right time of the year you will get to taste greeneries from the forest and fields, mushrooms and tasty herbs, homemade bread made from buckwheat, wheat rolls stuffed with a mix of garlic leaves, cheese and chili; home grown vegetables and potatoes and very traditional dishes such as “rice-pizza” (only prepared on special occasions), red rice and fried wild fern, the list goes on. Bhutanese cuisine also includes plenty of meat items such as sikam (dried pork), dried yak-meat and beef; beef bone soup and porridge as well as fried chicken, vegetarian sausages and homemade buckwheat noodles. Not to forget the popular momos with a variety of stuffings! Bumthang is a particular culinary hot spot but there are also places in Zhemgang and East Bhutan and wherever you move a bit off the beaten track or where plenty of produce is supplied from the forests.


Some final words for Bhutan travelers

My bucket list of highlights in Bhutan can never be complete.  Some aspects are worth mentioning in addition: Gesar Travel can arrange specialized tours where you can choose a particular focus during your travels. This can be anything from remote village visits and farmstays to textiles, pilgrimages, bird watching or traditional medicine, Sowa Rigpa. Let us know what interests you most and lectures and guided tours with experts can be arranged. Admittedly, additional activities may incur extra fees, but you will support local specialists and communities directly and non-bureaucratically.


Travelling off the beaten track

In Bhutan there is still a lot to be discovered. Hence it is always good to keep an open mind and remain flexible during your journey. It can be tedious to travel along unpaved roads to reach often times very remote villages. But at the end you encounter interesting activities such as cotton cultivation and cotton weaving in Chimoong, Pemagatshel. Sometimes ad-hoc changes might be necessary due to unforeseeable circumstances but you can consider that to be part of your authentic Bhutanese experience!


My insider’s tip:

Last but not least, I will share an insider’s tip with you:  the Monpa communities in Trongsa, along the Nabji-Korphu trek, have incredibly rich local knowledge on medicinal plants and edibles from the forest! From leafs to roots, the selection is vast and very tasty. While normally guests stay in designated camp grounds, we put you up in the homes of the Monpa communities! They are considered the aboriginal people of Bhutan with their own language and customs. Together with a Monpa guide, you will gain insights into the rich ethnobotanical knowledge of these interesting people and at the same time support them in their endeavor to preserve their local knowledge and culture.

Monastery festivals and buddhist celebrations in Ladakh

The dates 2019

Colorful robes, scary masks, unusual musical sounds for western ears, never seen dance steps, these are monastery festivals in Ladakh, where monks in incredible dance performances try to impart stories and philosophies of Tibetan Buddhism. If you feel like it, plan your trip so that you can include one (or two) in the program. Incidentally, we’re happy to help you, so that the rest of the program fits perfectly as well 😉


Need an example? This is a short video of Matho-Nagrang


3-4. January Spituk Gustor in Spituk

2.-3. February Dosmoche in Leh und Likir

14.-15. February Stok Guru Tsechu in Stok

18.-19. February Matho Ngagrang in Matho

17. June Saka Dawa in whole of Ladakh

29.-30. June Yuru Kabgyad in Lamayuru

11.-12. July Hemis Tsechu in Hemis

19.-20. July Shachukul Gustor in Shachukul

20.-21. July Stongde Gustor in Stongde/Zanskar

30.-31. July Karsha Gustor in Karsha/Zanskar

30.-31. July Phyang Tserup in Phyang

3.-4. August Korzok Gustor in Korzok

10.-11. August Thakthok Tsechu in Sakti

14.-15. August Sani Naro Nasjal in Sani/Zanskar

26.-27. October Diskit Gustor in Diskit/Nubra

15.-16. November Thiksey Gustor in Thiksey

24.-25. November Chemde Angchok in Chemde

21. December Galdan Namchot in whole of Ladakh

27. December Losar (New Year) in whole of Ladakh

Bhutan has a lot of monastery and not-religious festivals to offer. It is difficult to choose among them all. Our advice: If you have the time/possibility, visit festivals in the off-season. They are very special because they have less foreign visitors. Also travelling in off-season is more cheap than in high season. If you want to travel in high season be prepared to book early as flights and hotelrooms are quickly sold out during that time. Anyhow: The monastery festivals are a special highlight and if you go to Bhutan you should see at least one. 

Bhutan Monastery Festival

Overview: Festivals in Bhutan 2018


22.-24. February 2018
Punkha Drubchen in Punakha

25.-27. February 2018
Punakha Tshechu in Punakha

2.-17. March 2018
Chhorten Kora
in Trashiyangtshe

24.-26. March 2018
in Trashigang

27.-31. March 2018
Paro Tshechu 
in Paro

27.-29. April 2018
Ura Yakchoe
in Ura (Bumthang)

21.-23. June 2018
Nimalung Tshechu
in Chumey (Bumthang)

23. June 2018
Kurjey Tshechu 
in Choekhor (Bumthang)

15.-18. September 2018
Thimphu Drubchen
in Thimphu

17.-19. September 2018
Wangdue Tshechu in Wangdue Phodrang

19.-21. September 2018
Tamshing Phala Chhoepa in Choekhor (Bumthang)

19.-21. September 2018
Thimphu Tshechu in Thimphu

23.-25. September 2018
Thangbi Mani in Choekhor (Bumthang)

17.-19. October 2018
Chhukha Tshechu in Chhukha

24.-27. October 2018
Jambay Lhakhang Drup in Choekhor (Bumthang)

25.-27. October 2018
Prakhar Duchhoed in Chummey (Bumthang)

11. November 2018
Black Necked Crane Festival in Phobjikha

16.-18. November 2018
Monggar Tshechu in Monggar

16-18. November 2018
Pemagatshel Tshechu in Pemagatshel

6.-9. November 2018
Shingkhar Rabney in Bumthang

7.-9. November 2018
Chhukha Tshechu in Chhukha

17.-19. November 2018
Trashigang Tshechu in Trashigang

23.-25. November 2018
Nalakhar Tshechu in Choekhor (Bumthang)

13. December 2018
Druk Wangyel Tshechu at Dochu La, Thimphu

15.-17. December 2018
Trongsa Tshechu in Trongsa

15.-17. December 2018
Lhuentse Tshechu
in Lhuentse


Attention: Please reconfirm all dates – these dates are still tentative!

Monastery festival dates for 2018 in Ladakh

These are the dates for monastery and other festivals/important happenings in Ladakh in the year 2018.
Subject to Change.

January 2018

Spituk Gustor

14,-15. January 2018 in Spituk

February 2018


13.-14. February 2018 in Leh and Likir

Yargon Tungshak

19.-20. February 2018 in Yarma (Nubra)

Stok Guru Tsechu

24.-25. February 2018 in Stok

March 2018

Matho Nagrang

1.-2. March 2018 in Matho

May 2018

Saka Dawa*

29. May 2018 all over Ladakh

June 2018

Yuru Kabgyad

11-12. June 2018 in Lamayuru

Hemis Tseschu

23.-24. June 2018 in Hemis

Shachukul Gustor

30. June- 01. July 2018 in Shachukul

July 2018

Stonge Gustor

1.-2. July 2018 in Stongde (Zanskar)

Karsha Gustor

11-12. July 2018 in Karsha (Zanskar)

Phyang Tserup

11.-12. July 2018 in  Phyang

Korzok Gustor

15.-16. July 2018 in Korzok (Tsomoriri)

Thakthok Tseschu

22.-23. July 2018 in Sakti

Sani Naro Nasjal

26.-27. July 2018 in Sani (Zanskar)

October 2018

Diskit Gustor

7.-8. October 2018 in Diskit (Nubra)

Thiksey Gustor

27.-28 October 2018 in Thiksey

November 2018

Chemde Angchok

5.-6. November 2018 in Chemde

December 2018

Galdan Namchot**

2. December all over Ladakh


8. December all over Ladakh

* Saka Dawa is the most important Tibetan Buddhist festival day – celebrating Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana!

** Galdan Namchot is celebrated to commemorate Tsongkhapa, a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose activities led to the formation of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Galdan Namchot also marks the beginning of the new year celebrations in Ladakh.

*** Losar is the New Year. Note that in Ladakh there is a different date for Losar than in Tibet and other tibetan societies.



When entering a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for the first time, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the incredible variety of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities – some angry, some peaceful, and all almost always very colorful. But who is who and how can we distinguish the individual personalities from each other? There are usually some very clear attributes, symbols and colors that help identify the Buddha or deity in front of us. We’ll tell you here how to recognize the 10 most significant figures of Tibetan Buddhism.


(c) Roland Amon

The painting of Buddhist figures is subject to strict formal rules. Artistic freedom is in this case virtually inexistent. © Roland Amon


10 Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities

We have made a selection of Tibetan Buddhism figures which can be found in almost all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples, no matter if in Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan or Nepal. Some play a greater role in a specific school of Tibetan Buddhism, while others share a similar importance in all schools. They all have in common, though, that they are relatively easy to identify.


1. Buddha Shakyamuni – the historical Buddha


Who is this? Buddha Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha, who lived around 600 BC and is considered the founder of the Buddhist religion.

How can I tell? Buddha Shakyamuni’s representations are usually scarcely decorated and show him scantily dressed. The hair is typically blue and the head is surrounded by an enlightenment aura. He is depicted in meditation posture (Dhyanasana) and holding a begging bowl in his left hand. The right hand touches the ground (a mudra called Bhumisparsa or “calling the earth to witness” = Buddha has called the earth as a witness of his inexorable path to enlightenment). His two favorite students flank him on his right and left side



2. Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha


Who is this? Buddha Maitreya is the future Buddha. In Buddhism there are 5 “earthly” Buddhas, each associated with one of the 5 ages (Kala) of the world. Buddha Shakyamuni is the earthly Buddha of the fourth and present age. Buddha Maitreya is the final earthly Buddha, expected to appear during the 5th Kala. In his function as great teacher of mankind, he will supposedly lead humanity back to Buddhism.

How can I tell? Maitreya is easy recognizable by his posture from – he sits in “European posture”, with both feet on the ground. From this position one can quickly stand up and rise – a symbol of what is to come. In some occasions he is also represented standing up, waiting his time. Additionally, he usually wears a crown and is entwined with flowers. The associated mudra (hand gesture) is the Dharmacakra – the gesture which stands for the turning of the wheel of knowledge (in Buddhism, the wheel is also a symbol for teaching).



 3. Avalokiteshvara – Bodhisattva of compassion


Who is this? Avalokiteshavara (Tibetan: Chenrezig) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who out of compassion don’t go into Nirvana, but instead stay back and help others to find salvation. The Dalai Lama is regarded as a manifestation of Avalokithesvara.

How can I tell? There are 108 (this is a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism) different manifestations of Avalokiteshvara. However, the most common mode of representation is the shown above, with 11 heads and 1000 arms. On the palms of each of the 1000 hands you can see the eye of compassion. Its main distinguishing feature is Amitabha Buddha, pictured in his crown or as the last face at the top of the highest of his 11 heads.



4. Manjushri – Boddhisattva of wisdom


Who is this? Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and literature. As expected then, he holds great significance for scholars and students, who call and pray to him requesting gifts of knowledge and memory.

How to recognize him? The Bodhisattva is very easy to recognize thanks to his sword. The sword is a symbol of wisdom: with it, the ties of ignorance are cut. Another important symbol is the book by his side, resting on a lotus flower.



5. Mahakala – the guardian


Who is this? Mahakala is among the Dharmapalas or “Defenders of the doctrine”. These are actually ghosts, demons and deities belonging to the old Tibetan tradition that have been converted or adapted from Padmasambhava (see below) to Buddhism. You can recognize them by their wrathful representations. Mahakala tantamounts to the Hindu deity Shiva.

How can you tell? Well, this is not always easy, since there are 75 different manifestations of Mahakala. He is, however, usually standing up. In the front left hand he holds a skull cup and in the right one the Vajra cleaver, with which he cuts through all the negative, materialistic attitudes. In the two back hands he carries a tricorn and a goad. He wears a tiger skin and a belt made of heads, and stands on two outstretched smaller versions of himself. Mahakala has three eyes and carries a 5-skull crown that represents the transformation of the mental poisons of hatred, greed, pride, envy and ignorance. These gruesome attributes symbolize his tireless determination to redeem himself.



6. Tara – female deity


Green Tara




White Tara

Who is this? Tara (Tibetan: Dolma) is a female Bodhisattva. There are five variations of her: green, white, blue, red and yellow. She is considered a great protector that guards people against the eight major dangers in life: pride, delusion, anger, jealousy, wrong views, greed, desire and doubt.

How do you recognize her? The Taras differ primarily by their different foot placement. For example, while the white Tara sits in meditation posture, the green Tara’s right foot rests on a small lotus flower. Also, in the white Tara, we can see the open eye of compassion on her forehead, her palms and her soles. Another symbols that we can find are the full-blown white lotus (representing the day) or the blue closed lotus (representing the night). The hands, both with their palms outwards, point in opposite directions: the right one down (a giving, conceding gesture), and the left one up (a gesture that grants protection).


 7. Padamsambhava – Guru Rinpoche


Who is this? Padmasambhava (the lotus born), also called Guru Rinpoche, is the historically tangible founder of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered the founder of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma school, but is nevertheless of great importance for all the other schools too.

How do you recognize him? There are eight different forms, the most common of them being fairly easy to recognize: he is depicted sitting with a special hat with upturned ear flaps and a spring at the top. As hardly anyone else in Tibetan iconography, Guru Rinpoche is pictured with a beard. In his left hand he holds a blood-filled skull-cup and in the right the Vajra (Sanskrit: thunderbolt and/or diamond). With his left elbow he holds a magic wand, which tip is usually a flaming trident.


8. Palden Lhamo – female guardian


Who is this? Palden Lhamo is an old Tibetan female guardian deity. She is the only female deity of the 8 Dharmapalas. She is worshiped in particular by the yellow hat monks of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is considered the patron saint of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama. She is the wrathful manifestation of Tara.

How can you tell? Palden Lhamo is pictured riding on a mule through a sea of blood. She is black and blue, with sagging breasts, flaming eyebrows and a mustache (not very feminine J). In her hand she carries a cup made of her child’s skull, who was the product of an incestuous act. She is also surrounded by the loops of a string made with 15 severed heads. In her navel we can see a bright sun disc.


9. Tsongkhapa – founder of religion


Who is this? Tsongkhapa is also a documented historical figure. He is the founder of the last of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelug.

How can you tell? Tsongkhapa is very easy to recognize – he wears the yellow hat reserved for the Gelugpa, his hands make the gesture of Dharmacakra-Mudra (The Turning Wheel of Doctrine), and on his right and left sides we can find, respectively, the sword (a symbol of wisdom) and the book, supported by two lotus flowers.


10. Vajrapani – Bodhisattva of power


Who is this? Vajrapani is the Bodhisattva of power, one of the three main protective deities surrounding the Buddha, and is often represented in conjunction with the other two: Avalokiteshvara (compassion) and Manjushri (wisdom).

How can you tell? Vajrapani is usually depicted as a wrathful Dharmapala. He wears a crown and a tiger skin, and has a lasso in his left hand with which he captures and ties the adversaries of Buddhism. In his right hand he carries the Vajra (Tibetan: Dorje). His figure is surrounded by flames.



These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December



Every Buddhist village in Ladakh has a cloister or a temple. There are so many that you don’t know where to start, or when to stop. In this post we tell you what monasteries you shouldn’t miss no matter what. 

The Monasteries of Ladakh

There are many impressive monasteries in Ladakh – most of them outshine everything else in the village and are usually also great vantage points from where to enjoy beautiful sights. They are often architectural masterpieces, with both their facades and inner areas impressively decorated with wall paintings and wood carvings. It is very hard to say which monastery deserves more attention, as every site has their own special qualities and passionate fan club ;-). For this reason, this can never be a completely objective list.



Thikse (c) Roland Amon

Thikse. Photo: Roland Amon

This 15th Century monastery belongs to the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism and is just 18 km from Leh. It is one of the most visited monasteries of Ladakh and one of the most photographed religious sites in the country.
We have selected it because of its particularly impressive location and the architectural similarity to Potala in Lhasa.
Every morning, an open Puja draws a multitude of pious people in.

The Monastery Festival usually takes place in November, and the presence of foreign visitors is scarce. (Link: Monastery festivals 2016 and 2017)




Hemis Monastery during Hemis-Festival

Hemis is located about 40 km southwest of Leh in a side valley. Its secluded location is also the reason why this Drukpa monastery was spared most of the looting during the last centuries.
Hemis is in our list, among other things, due to its ancient and valuable treasures, which are permanently taken care of and exhibited inside.
The Hemis Monastery Festival is held annually in June or July and attracts many tourists.  (Check also: Hemis Festival: What is it about? and the Hemis-Festival Program for 2016)




Entrance to the Manjushri-Temple in the Alchi-Complex

Alchi is 70 km away from Leh. The first sections of the complex were built in the 11th century, and the complex belongs, along with the Mangyu and Sumda Chun monasteries, to the “Alchi group”, characterized by a very special constructionol style and ornamental elements. In contrast with the other Ladakhi monasteries, inspired mainly by the Tibetan style and technique, the influence of Kashmir is very clear in Alchi.

The elaborate wood carvings, enormous statues of Buddha, and detailed painted murals are especially impressive.

However, any form of photography or video recording is strictly prohibited in the temple premises. This ads to the Museum-like character of Alchi, which stopped being a “living monastery” a long time ago





We have included this monastery, located at about 100 km west of Leh, due to the awe-inspiring scenery that surrounds it: the very uncommon lunar landscape of Lamayuru. This Drikung-school temple is perched high above its village. The oldest part of the monastery dates from the 11th century (Singe Lhakhang). However, there are some historians (e.g. Francke) who think that Lamayuru was a Bon monastery before the arrival of Buddhism.
The Lamayuru Monastery Festival usually takes place in June.

These four monsteries give a pretty good overview of the monasteries of Ladakh, and three of them also represent the main Buddhist schools of the region: Gelugpa, Drukpa and Drikung. But of course, there is still much more to discover.

Anybody who wants to see, for example, one of the few Sakya monasteries, should visit the one in Matho, while those interested in one of the oldest schools of Tibetan Buddhism – the Nyingmapa school – can’t help but go to the monastery Thaktok in Sakti. There is also a cave there, where the Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated


Tsemo – above Leh-Palace – perched high above the capital of Ladakh

Two temples in Leh are particularly worthy of attention: the temple complex of Tsemo, above the royal palace, and the hidden convent of Samkhar, in the northern area (which can be visited only in the afternoon). Near Leh are also the highly recommended Phyang, Spithuk, Chemde and Stagna. Then, in the upper Indus: Likir, Basgo, Ridzong.

In Nubra one should always make time for a visit to the monasteries in Samstanling and Diskit.

Zanskar has much to offer as well: the rock monastery of Phuktal is particularly outstanding for its architecture, which resembles an eagle’s nest. For other unusual or interesting monasteries in the area, check out our blog post:  The 10 most beautiful places in Zanskar.

In Changthang, the monasteries of Shachukul and Nyoma are especially worth mentioning.

As you can see, whoever declares themselves a monastery aficionado can easily spend several weeks in Ladakh.

Before we finish, we’d like to give you a small tip. Anyone interested in Buddhism and its monasteries, should also find the time to visit one of the nunneries of Ladakh. For example, the one at Nyerma, next to Thikse, or Chulichan, before Ridzong. They are very simple and can’t compete with the historical, artistic and architectural highlights of the more known cloisters, but nevertheless it is our opinion that they deserve the attention, because it is also interesting to see the contrast with the male-dominated monasteries. And of course, whoever feels so inclined can perhaps even leave a small donation. 😉

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Interested in Ladakh’s monastery culture?


Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October



If you prefer to trael individually and have your very own ideas, get in touch with us. We’d love to organise your tailor-made trip:

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Like every year also 2017 will have it’s cultural highlights which are really worth to be seen. To be able to plan already now your trip 2017 to Ladakh we put the most important dates together. 


Ladakh: Monastery festivals & and other important dates for 2017


Name of festival
Spituk Gustor Spituk 25.+26. January
Dosmochey Leh & Likir 24.+25. February
Yargon Tungshak Nubra (Yarma) 2.+3. March
Stok Guru Tsechu Stok 6.+7. March
Matho Nagrang Matho 11.+12. March
Saka Dawa All of Ladakh 9. June
Yuru Kabgyat Lamayuru 21.+22. June
Hemis Tsechu Hemis 3.+4.July
Dalai Lama’s Birthday
Jivatsal, Shey 6. July
Sachukul Gustor Sachukul 11.+12. July
Stongde Gustor Stongde, Zanskar 12.+13. July
Ladakh Polo Festival Chushot 11.-17. July
Karsha Gustor Karsha, Zanskar 21.+22. July
Phyang Tsesdup Phyang 21.+22. July
Korzok Gustor Tsomoriri 26.+27. July
Dakthok Tseschu Thakthok 2.+3. August
Sani Nasjal Sani, Zanskar 6.+7. August
Diskit Gustor Diskit, Nubra 17.+18. October
Thikse Gustor Thikse  6.+7. November
Chemde Wangchok / Padum Chemde 16.+17. November
Galden Namchot All of Ladakh 12. December
Ladakhi Losar (New year)
All of Ladakh 19. December



To get a little taste of what it is like have a look at this short video from the monastery festival in Matho 2016.



Do you need help with the Design of your tour?
We’d love to help you planning your trip to Ladakh – either in a pre-designed group tour or in your tailor made individual travel. We will choose the right festival for your and your tour.
Note: If you are truly interested in the cultue of Ladakh, we strongly suggest you to come in winter and be part of a monastery festival during this season as they are really special.


Whoever has visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, no matter if in Ladakh, Tibet or Bhutan, has also probably noticed, usually at the entrance of the temple, a drawing of the Buddhist Wheel of Life. This symbolic representation, or Bhavacakra, serves as a wonderful summary of what Buddhism is, and also reminds us that every action has consequences. It is no coincidence, then, that this concept, and its colorful representation, are explained very early in the life of every child.


The Buddhist Wheel of Life: Part 1


The wheel of life is held or supported by a wrathful deity that usually represents Yama, the god of death, but can also occasionally be interpreted as Mara, the god of seduction, or Srinpo, a mythical giant.



The inner circle


At the center of the wheel of life there is a smaller circle. The wheel turns eternally, powered by the three animals in it: a rooster, a snake and a pig. They bite each other’s tail and symbolize the three poisons of life: the rooster stands for greed, the snake for hatred, and the pig represents ignorance or delusion. These three poisons are the ones that keep us trapped inside the wheel of life. The goal, then, is to free ourselves from this infinite cycle of rebirths.

The inner circle is surrounded by another one divided in two halves: shadow and light. In the dark half, the doomed, tied to one another, are dragged and tortured by monstrous demons. The brighter area is filled with people who have to eke out a better (or at least less horrible) existence.



The six realms of the Wheel of Life

Around the inner circle we find the six realms in which we can be reborn. We start with the less than ideal areas:


1. The world of hungry ghosts


Due to their narrow necks and throats, the hungry ghosts are unable to eat, and must therefore suffer maddening hunger and unquenchable thirst throughout their whole existence. It is mainly their greed that brought them to this realm. In this realm of unfulfilled (or unfulfillable) desire, the Buddha is represented with a jar full of nectar, symbolizing the virtue of generosity. To put it in simpler terms: this is how your karma looks when you are selfish and greedy. To avoid such a fate, be generous and make sacrifices.


2. The hell


Whoever ends up here will suffer unimaginable pain, impossible heat and immeasurable cold. The depictions of Buddhist hell vary and recall in many ways those of the Christian one. The condemned, burning slowly over eternal fires, see their members and genitals chopped off before being cooked and eaten by insatiable demons. Once again there is a Buddha, in this case washing and cleaning with water the path that leads out of Hell. The simple explanation: anger and hatred are the way in; patience, the way out.


3. The realm of the animals


This is the destination of those who had led lives particularly distinguished by ignorance and weakness. Existence as an animal is definitely not easy: they are hunted and eaten by humans or other animals without a moment of rest. Also here there is a Buddha, who with his sword – a symbol for the destruction of ignorance – shows the way out of the realm.


4. The world of the humans


In the realm of humans, and due to their selfishness and passions, people suffer the misfortunes of illness, old age and death. In general, however, this area of life is the best of all six, since man has here access to the Buddhist teachings, and therefore has also the opportunity to escape from the wheel of life (that is, of reaching Nirvana). The historical Buddha, present here, symbolizes this possibility.


5. The world of the gods


The world of the gods stands for pleasure and the illusion of eternal happiness. Sounds very tempting, right? But this realm is dangerous in its own way: one is never too far from the edge, and as pride and vanity grow inside us, so does the risk of falling back down into the lower reaches of the wheel of life. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara warns us against this, by proclaiming the virtue of meditation.


6. The realm of the demi gods


The last of the six areas of life is a world inhabited by demigods in constant struggle, fighting a neverending battle with the gods. They quarrel over the ownership of the Tree of Desire, whose roots lie on the domain of the titans, but whose leafy top, heavy with ripe fruits, rests on the side of the gods. Filled with envy, they fight for the possession of the tree. So it’s jealousy that keeps them trapped in Samsara, the cycle of births. The Buddha in this realm reminds them of this.

Although redemption or illumination are most likely in the world of men, none of the six areas is hopeless. This is illustrated by the Buddhas in each realm, who draw attention to a world full with self-made dilemmas.


The 12 links of the wheel of life’s outer rim will be explained in a future post.


These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December





What is a Mudra?

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures that play a major role in Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, mudras are also present in the Indian dancing tradition, and are an important part of yoga, where they are not only symbolic, but should also have an effect on the body and mind.

Sooner or later, anyone interested in Buddhist iconography will have to deal with mudras, since they are also a big help when identifying different Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities (see also our blogpost: The 10 most important Buddhas & Deities).

We want to introduce you here to the 10 most important mudras of Tibetan Buddhism.


Bhumisparsa Mudra – “Gesture of the Earth Witness“


The Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness plays an important role in the history of the historical Buddha. While Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree, he was disturbed by Mara, the god of sensual desire, who tempted him by taking the form of a naked girl. But Siddhartha wouldn’t deviate from his path to enlightenment, and so he touched the earth with the fingertips of his right hand and said, “the earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced”

Depiction: The right hand touches the earth with the tips of its fingers (the palm inwards), while the legs remain in meditation posture.

This mudra represents the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.




Varada Mudra – “Gesture of Generosity“

The Varada Mudra is the gesture for generosity, charity and compassion; it represents the granting of wishes, blessings or even pardon. It symbolizes the “gift of truth” (= the Buddhist teachings) of Buddha. The five fingers stand for the 5 perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

Depiction: Unlike the Bhumisparsa Mudra, in the Varada tha palm is directed outwards and hangs down. It usually also touches the right leg. The Varada Mudra is rarely seen without another mudra used by the right hand, typically the Abhayamudra (see below).

The Varada Mudra is commonly found in representations of the green and white Tara.




Dhyana Mudra – “Gesture of Meditation“

dhyana mudra

The Dhyana Mudra symbolizes the state of deep contemplation during meditation. Buddha meditated in this way under the Bodhi tree.

Depiction: While the legs are crossed (meditation posture / Lotus position), both hands rest loosely on the lap, with the thumbs touching each other. However, there are also some representations in which the Dhyana Mudra is seen performed with one single hand (usually the left one): this is the half Dhyana Mudra – the historical Buddha in conjunction with Bhumisparsa Mudra.

This Mudra is most commonly associated to the historical Buddha, but usually in combination with the Bhumisparsa. When both hands are used, the Dhyana Mudra can represent for example the Buddha Amithaba.



Abhaya Mudra – “Gesture of Fearlessness“

The Abhayamudra can be translated as the gesture of courage. It symbolizes protection, peace and the elimination of fear.

Depiction: The right hand is raised with the palm outward towards the viewer at chest level. One finds this gesture often in conjunction with the Varada Mudra (see above).

It is found in images of standing Buddhas and Tara. The fifth Dhyani Buddha Amogasiddhi is also represented with the Abhayamudra.

abhaya mudra



Dharmacakra Mudra – “Gesture of Teaching“


The Buddhist teachings (Dharma) are often symbolized as a wheel (cakra). The Dharmacakra Mudra therefore represents the agency of the Buddhist teachings and is translated as the “Preacher” or “Teacher” gesture. The gesture reminds of one of the most important moments in the life of the Buddha, when he was in the park at Sarnath giving his five students the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path (the main pillars of Buddhism).

Depiction: In this gesture both hands are held against the chest, the left facing inward, covering the right facing outward. The index finger and the thumb of each hand touch, forming a circle that represents the wheel of dharma.

This gesture plays an important role in the representation of the Buddha Maitreya (Buddha of the future), and also Tsongkhapa (founder of the Gelugpa school), because both are said to have put the wheel of Dharma in movement again, after it had come to a stop.




Vitarka Mudra – “Gesture of Argument“

The Vitarka Mudra is the gesture of discussion and argument. It is characteristic of those regarded as teachers and instructors.

Depiction: The right arm is bent, the hand raised with the palm outwards. Thumb and forefinger touch and thus form the “Wheel of Dharma”.

One finds this gesture often in depictions of the Buddha, but also in pictures and sculptures of the Tara.


Tarjani Mudra – “Gesture of Warning“


Not only parents use the Tarjani Mudra 😉 – in Buddhism it is also an expression of warning or admonition.

Depiction: The right hand is held vertically in front of the chest and only the index finger is stretched upward while the other fingers and thumb roll into a fist.

One finds this gesture especially in wrathful deities. Note: In some sources, the Tarjani Mudra is interchanged with the Karana Mudra (see below).



Namaskara Mudra – “Gesture of Praying and Salutation”

Although this Mudra doesn’t play such an important role in Tibetan Buddhism, we wanted to mention it anyway because it is very common in India’s everyday life. The Namaskara Mudra is a gesture for greeting (Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”), but also for prayer and admiration.

Depiction: In this gesture, the hands are kept close to the chest in devotional attitude. The palms and fingers lie flat against each other and point upwards.

This Mudra is not found in Buddha representations. It is used only by monks, nuns or disciples, symbolizing the fact that they worship someone (e.g. Buddha).





Karana Mudra – “Gesture to ward off the evil“


The Karana Mudra is a symbolical protection to keep demons and other negative influences at bay.

Depiction: In this Mudra, the hand is outstretched vertically or horizontally and with the palm facing forward. The two middle fingers are held down under the thumb. The index and the little fingers extend upwards.




Uttarabodhi Mudra – “Gesture of Perfection“

The Uttarabodhi Mudra represents supreme enlightenment and should bring positive energy and vibrations. By performing this Mudra, we connect with the universal divine energy.

Depiction: Both hands are folded across the chest. The two index fingers touch each other and point upwards. The thumbs are interwoven. The remaining fingers encircle each opposite hand.



These tours with focus on buddhism might be interesting for you


Basics of Ladakh
Cultural trips with dayhikes
Our starter’s travel for those who do not know Ladakh and would like to visit the classic highlights and some insider spots within a relatively short time. Impressive dayhikes put the little extra to this marvelous tour.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Mystic Ladakh
A travel to the spiritual roots
During this tour you are not only visiting monasteries but also special spiritual places and people like oracles, shamans and healers, who have a deep connection to their religion and important functions.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: June-October

Culture & Hiking in Sikkim
Cultural tour with dayhikes
This travel is ideal to get to know the former kingdom of Sikkim and the colonial town Darjeeling. Beautiful accomodations combines with impressive cultural sites and memorable day hikes.
On date request also possible for single persons
Best time: March-May & October-December


Hemis Festival is held every year, but every 12 years it is very special. 2016 will be one of those years. In the 5th lunar month of the monkey year several hundred thousand people from tibetan-buddhist areas and the whole world will gather to celebrate the life of Naropa.


Hemis Festival: Every 12 years 1 month celebration

Hemis Festival 2016 will be one of the most important festivals of the decade in india. 1 month long several rare events will be held. Tibetan buddhists believe if you watch these events you will liberated through sight.

At the same time the famous silk thangka of Padmasambhava will be displayed that reaches from the roof of the monastery nearly down to the earth. This thangka is only displayed in public during Hemis Festival.




Who is Naropa?

The real high light of Hemis Festival 2016 is the display of the famed, holy 6 bones ornament from Naropa. It will be shown by Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of Drukpa School. The six bone ornament is said to be one of the holiest treasures of the himalayas.

Naropa lived during the 11th century and is one of the most remarkable buddhist holy men that lived at that time in india. He is one of the 84 Mahasiddhas. A Siddha (Sanskrit for: great ruler of perfect skills) is a person who gained Siddhi – a level of spiritual practice that enables a person for supernatural powers and abilites. In tibetan buddhism a Siddha is someone who reached a higher level of realization til awakening.


The Drukpa are commonly called “red-hat-sect” in the west


Drukpa: What is it?

Hemis Festival 2016 will be the biggest gathering of Drukpa teachers. Drukpa is a lineage or school of tibetan buddhism, most commonly called “red-hat-sect”. They belong to the Kagyu- (Kargyud-)lineage of tibetan buddhism and to the schools of “new translations”. And to make things a bit more complicate: the Drukpa lineage has again several sub-school. The Drukpa lineage is prominent in Kham (eastern Tibet), Ladakh and Bhutan. Especially in Bhutan it has a great significance, as it is the dominant school and state religion.


Are you going to join?

If you want to attend this special occasion in 2016, you can contact us. One of our fix tours visits Hemis Festival on the most important day (on the other days you will see other highlights of Ladakh): Basics of Ladakh with Hemisfestival

If you prefer to visit Hemis Festival with your friends/family and/or if you want to spend more time at Hemis Festival, we will be happily building your own individual tour: Contact

Hemis Festival for buddhists
If you are a buddhist and would like to join Hemis Festival with your buddhist group, we would like to help you with booking of accommodations, flights and the arrangement of transports.  We could also reserve special seats for you at Hemis festival, so you are able to witness as much as possible.


Pictures from the festival 2015


Short video from last year’s festival


Once a year, every monastery in Ladakh is celebrating with a festival. Most of the monastery festivals take place in the winter months – those are the ones we recommend visiting the most – but of course there is one or the other festival happening in summer.


Dates for Monastery festivals 2016

Spituk Gustor in Spituk: 7. + 8. January 2016

Dosmochey Leh & Likir Monastery: 6. + 7. February 2016

Yargon Tungshak Nubra (Yarma): 12. + 13. February 2016

Stok Guru Tsechu in Monastery Stok: 16. + 17. February 2016

Matho Nagrang in Monastery Matho: 21. + 22. February 2016   – Our tour Ladakh & Goa will visit this festival

Saka Dawa all over Ladakh: 20. May 2016

Yuru Kabgyat in Monastery Lamayuru: 1. + 2. July 2016

Hemis Tsechu in Monastery Hemis:  14. + 15. July 2016  – Our journey Basics of Ladakh will visit this festial!

Stongday Gustor in Zanskar:  22. + 23. July 2016

Karsha Gustor in Zanskar:  31. July + 01. August 2016

Phyang Tsesdup in Monastery Phyang: 31. July + 01. August 2016

Sachukul Gustor in Monastery Sachukul: 21. + 22. July 2016

Korzok Gustor at Tsomoriri:   5. + 6. August 2016

Dakthok Tseschu in Monastery Thakthok:  13. + 14. August 2016

Sani Nasjal in Zanskar:  17. + 18. August 2016 – Our journey Trekking & Culture in Zanskar will visit Sani-Festival

Deskit Gustor in Nubra: 28. + 29. October 2016

Thiksey Gustor in Monastery Thiksey: 17. + 18. November 2016

Chemday Wangchok in Monastery Chemday & Padum Chemray Monastery (Zanskar):  27. + 28. November 2016

Galden Namchot all over Ladakh:  23. December 2016

Ladakhi Losar (Ladakhi New Year):   30. December 2016