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




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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

shakyamuni

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

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2. Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha

Maitreya

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

Avalokiteshvara

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

Manjushri

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

mahakala

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

Green Tara

 

 

white-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

gururinpoche

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

paldenlhamo

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

tsongkhapa

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

vajrapan

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


lamayuru

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


 




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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.

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Thikse

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)


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Hemis

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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)


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Alchi

Alchi

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


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Lamayuru

lamayuru

Lamayuru

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

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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?


lamayuru

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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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.

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The Buddhist Wheel of Life: Part 1

wheeloflife-ganz

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

derinnerekreis

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

hungergeister

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

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

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

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

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

krieger

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


lamayuru

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



 

 




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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.

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Naropa

 

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.

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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