Col Satish Singh Lalotra
‘In the monastery of your heart you have a temple where all Buddhas unite.—Milarepa’
The northern mountains of our sub-continent are very unique in their being. From one of newest chains of mountain ranges, Himalayas are also abode to the holiest of shrines /temples/ monasteries of four religions of the world i.e Hinduism, Buddhism, Bon and Jainism dotting the landscape. Mt Kailash is the prime example of one such holy place on this earth of ours which is venerated by the above four religions co-terminating their beliefs in entirety. The border areas of our country are dotted with innumerable such holy places to include the famous ‘Char Dham’ temples of Gangotri, Yumnotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath of Hindu religion, the Buddhist gompas of Thikse, Shey, Hemis of Ladakh , monasteries of Tabo in Himachal Pradesh to Rumtek and Tawang monasteries of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh to quote a few.
It takes an avid traveller, with an ever discerning eye to spot the uniqueness of such heritage sites tucked in the remoteness of Himalayas. The monastery or gompa of Thikse or Tikse affiliated with the ‘Gelug sect” of Tibetan Buddhism stands apart from rest of all the monasteries in this sub-continent of ours for reasons which a reader will find unfolded in this article. The autumn of 1996 saw me and my unit of 2 Vikas in the midst of R&R (Rest and refit) after our Siachen glacier tenure at Leh. The daily itinerary being to push out the troops of our unit for regular sight-seeing or visit of their Tibetan refugee camps at Choglamsar etc. One such itinerary found me and my fellow unit officers at Thiksey gompa or monastery lying about 19 kms east of Leh town in Ladakh. The chief reason for visiting this particular gompa was to have a first-hand look of its famed architecture which resembled that of the world famous abode of HH Dalai lama i.e the ‘Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Since maximum number of troops of my unit belonged to Tibet, the visit was a sort of emotional reunion with their spiritual leader though in absentia. In central Ladakh , Thiksey gompa is the largest one notably containing a separate set of building for female renunciates that has been the high point of this place.
The monastery is located at an altitude of 3600 meters (11,800 feet) above the MSL in the midst of Indus valley. It is a 12 storeyed complex and houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, Thangkas, wall paintings and swords. One of the main plus points of this monastery is the 15 meters or 49 feet high statue of ‘Maitrya’ ,the largest such statue in Ladakh covering two storeys of the building. As mentioned earlier, Thiksey monastery is the largest structure in central Ladakh having reverence for Lord Buddha. Located on a hill slope, its building is arranged in an ascending order of importance and is well spaced from the foot of the hill housing the dwelling units at the top of the hill enshrining the monasteries and ‘Potang’ (official residence) of the chief lama. Since the monastery strongly resembles the ‘Potala palace’ of HH Dalai Lama it is also known as ‘Mini Potala’. The motorable approach road from the Indus valley passes through the east side of the Thikse monastery building. Having approached this monastery in our Jonga vehicle we parked it just at the base of the monastery and started our arduous climb. We passed through the ochre robed lamas going through their daily routine with a clock work precision.
At the entrance of the path a Tibetan deity greets you which is the lowest level of this monastery. At the highest level of Thikse monastery is the quintessential stupa (chorten). The monastery precincts at the foot of the hill have a court yard from where a flight of steps leads to the main monastery. Painted in bright colours of ochre, red, and white it houses many lamas. The monastery has an attached nunnery too. Like most of the monasteries of Ladakh this so called mini Potala was also styled on the lines of a fort ,which reminds us of the turbulent times of the yore when might was the right . Once atop the highest level of complex one can have a sweeping bird’s eye view of Indus valley flood plains both east and west bound from it , from which the monastery at Matho(east) ,the royal palace at Stok(to the south), and the former royal palace at Shey (to the west) are clearly visible. One of the main points of interest in this mini Potala is the ‘Maitreya’ (future Buddha) temple erected to commemorate the visit of HH Dalai lama in 1970. The highest statue of Buddha in the whole of Ladakh region is unusually portrayed as seated in the Lotus position. This particular masterpiece was built over four years by the master shilp ‘Guru Nawang Tshering’ of central Buddhist studies (Leh) in clay, gold paint and copper.
A wall at the entrance to the assembly hall or main prayer hall depicts murals of the Tibetan calendar with ‘Bhavacakra’ (wheel of life). This wheel has images of a snake, a bird and a pig that signify ignorance, attachment and aversion. The main prayer hall has many hand written and painting books too. Behind this prayer hall is the small inner sanctum of Gautam Buddha flanked by ‘Bodhisatva’ ,Manjushiri to the right and Maitreya to the left. The assembly hall has an image of 1000 armed ‘Avalokiteswara’ with ‘Padmasambhav”. A temple is also dedicated to Goddess ‘Tara’ with her images placed in glass covered wooden shelves. The protection deity of Thiksey monastery i.e Chamspring is also visible between the main courtyard and the stair case. The top floor of the monastery has the ‘Lamokhang temple’ which is the repository of numerous volumes of scriptures and has entry only for the men folk. Since our group of visitors had all men officers including the support staff of our unit we didn’t face any hiccups in visiting this exclusive temple. The only problem which our group faced was the lack of a dedicated guide to take us on a guided tour of this complex monastery as such. But we were able to click as many photos of this unique place to piece together our story at leisure. In the absence of such a help the discovery of Tibetan culture, architecture, murals etc is left to your own doing and imagination which often falls short of your travel aspirations. But that was in 1996. Even now while piecing together this write up I had to fall back on my yesteryear photos with a little bit of uptake from the books.
The restoration of the old monasteries in Ladakh including the Thiksey monastery is being carried out by the ASI at the request of concerned monastery administration. I believe this restoration work is fraught with some controversies too. None the less restoration work of such a fantastic piece of human work should be the corner stone of an evolved society, since this world doesn’t lack renegade elements like the Taliban who in 2001 on specific orders of Mullah Omar went hammer and tongs in Bamiyan/ Afghanistan to blow out the magnificent 6 century Buddha statues to smithereens. As stated rightly by the only Buddhist lama ,Milarepa who had the singular distinction of climbing Mt Kailash —- In the monastery of your heart ,you have a temple where all Buddhas unite.
(The writer is a retired army officer)
Col Satish Singh Lalotra