Ladakh’s most photographed and architecturally impressive gompa is at TIKSE, 19km southeast of Leh. Founded in the fifteenth century, its whitewashed chortens and cubic monks’ quarters rise in ranks up the sides of a craggy bluff, crowned by an imposing ochre- and red-painted temple complex whose gleaming golden finials are visible for kilometres in every direction. Tikse’s reincarnation as a major tourist attraction has brought it mixed blessings: its constant stream of summer visitors spoils the peace and quiet necessary for meditation, but the income generated has enabled the monks to invest in major refurbishments, among them the Maitreya temple immediately above the main courtyard. Inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, the shrine is built around a gigantic 14m gold-faced Buddha-to-come, seated not on a throne as is normally the case, but in the lotus position. The bright murals on the wall behind, painted by monks from Lingshet gompa in Zanskar, depict scenes from Maitreya’s life. For most foreign visitors, however, the highlight of a trip to Tikse is the view from its lofty roof terrace. A patchwork of barley fields stretches across the floor of the valley, fringed by rippling snow-flecked desert mountains and a string of monasteries, palaces, and Ladakhi villages. To enjoy this impressive panorama accompanied by primeval groans from the gompa’s gargantuan Tibetan trumpets – played on the rooftop at the 7am puja – you’ll have to stay overnight or arrange an early jeep from Leh.
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