14 October, 2012

Lhachen Palkhar [Leh Palace]

In the early fifteenth century, Dragpa Bumdey, King of Ladakh, built the first fortifications in Leh as well as a small royal residence along a mountain ridge high above the town. The king also founded three Buddhist temples, two within the old town walls, and the other by the palace on the peak of Tsemo, a nearby mountain. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Leh became a royal capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh, which at the time ruled over most of western Tibet.

It was at this time that King Senge Namgyal built Leh Palace, also known as Lachen Palkar Palace. According to a local belief, this palace was originally to be built by his father, but it was king Singge who chose the site on a ridge (shaped like an elephant's head). The king ordered an 'important building' to be constructed at this site which could house his family, his four ministers (kalon) and sixty elders (rGanmi). The building took 3 years to complete. The king is said to have invited leading Ladakhi families to settle within the fortified town below the palace. Remnats of the city walls from that time still exist. This fortified town was built on the slope of ahill, reflecting the need at the time to preserve arable land. All over Ladakh and many parts of Tibet the earliest human settlements were built on the edge of mountains and hills, as arable land was always scarce.

The massive nine-story stone structure lies at the base of the Tsemo ridge and towers over the old town. It was designed in the Tibetan style that was later made famous by Potala Palace in Lhasa. King Senge Namgyal also constructed massive rammed earth walls around the original residential area of the old town.

A cruel tale is attached with its completion. The king in order to have his building unrivalled in the region, got the right hand of the master mason chopped off.

The palace came under a siege by the Dogras (1836 AD) and during this seige it was partially destroyed. As a result, the family moved to Stok and never shifted back, thus making the palace building redundant thereafter.

The palace is associated with Dosmoche festival. During the festival, monks from different monasteries from surrounding areas aer invited to perform rituals to promote peace and prosperity in the region. Sacred dances are also performed by the lamas of Tagthog monastery on this occassion.

Physical / Architectural Description:
The palace of Leh is an ensemble of several structures that crown the ridge of Namgyal Tsemo. Beside the main palace, the ridge comprises several structures of importance which include the palace fort of Tashi Namgyal, several religious structures, chortens and royal stables.

The main palace building is undoubtedly the finest example of palace architecture in the entire Ladakh region. It is one of the most imposing structures ever built on Ladakhi soil. The palace has 9 levels.

The lower levels have rooms for staff and servants, storage spaces for animals fodder, wood; dried meat and vegetables. The upper levels had apartments for the royal family, two small temples, a throne room, reception halls and rooms for religious purposes. In the middle of the building, at the fourth level, is a small courtyard (Katog chenmo) which was the main congregation place for any social or cultural activity.

The main entrance (also the ceremonial entrance to the palace) is at the third level and located in the north. The entrance is through a large elaborately carved wooden porch supported by 2 circular wooden columns. The characteristic of this porch is a carved wooden snow lion. The first, second and the third levels have small rooms which are mainly for housing the staff and servants. Besides there are several small stores.

The main corridor at the third level leads to a smaller courtyard on the fourth level from where one can access a small private temple for the royal family, the Duk-kar Lhakhang. This small temple is situated in the north-west corner of the palace. One enters the temple through a small porch, to go into the Lhakhang. This chamber is square in plan and has its roof supported over four rows of wooden columns (four columns in each row). There is a small clere-storey window in the middle of the roof which ventilates the interior.

From this courtyard a small staircase provides and access to the main courtyard, the Katog Chenmo, built on the fourth level. This courtyard faces east thus commanding a majestic panoramic view of the entire Leh valley. The levels above (fifth and sixth) comprise the main audience cum assembly hall (Tak Chen) and the main living quarters of the royal family. This area now is not accessible. This level is characterised by wooden balconies that jetty out of walls.

The seventh level has rooms where official ceremonies were performed. This level includes a throne room (Junga Simjung), a temple (Sangyeling Lhakhang) and the royal chamber facing east (Shar-gi simjung). The eighth level has a few rooms only whose function could not be ascertained. The ninth level again has a small temple that comprised a small room (Tse-simjung). Here worship to Gurlha divinity was performed.

The dominance of the palace structure, however, is due to its sheer stark facade that dominates the entire Leh townscape as the most prominent landmark. Its east facade is the most dramatic one whose battered wall inclines to provide adequate structural strength and has a series of balconies and windows (small rectangular slits) to break the sheer monotony of the vast surface. The side and the rear elevations are in comparison less dramatic. Still these are punctuated with balconies and windows at upper levels.

The structural system of the building is simple and typical, heavier base and a lighter top. There have been no foundation system; the building is directly resting on the granite rock beneath. The material used is neatly dressed stone having a layer of timber beam alternating every three metres or so. This creates an efficient framework of timber beams which counters any lateral movements due to an earthquake. The upper portion has neat sun baked bricks used as the wall material to provide adequate lightness and the much needed thermal insulation inside.

Decorative features:

Not much survives in the palace. perhaps the most exquisite works of art have been preserved in the fourth level Duk-kar Lhakhang, which houses a large image of Duk-kar (a thousand armed form of Tara). Sakyamuni and Padmasambhava. Besides, there are ornamental carvings done on beams and columns in the hall of audience (Tak-chen) at the fifth level, and throne room at the seventh level.

Yuma Changchubling [Rizong] Monastery

Yuma Changchubling, better known as the Rizong Monastery was built in 1829. The monastery, founded by Lama Tsultim Nima, follows the Gelukpa order and is quiet well known for its high standards of monastic disciplines. The monastery is headed by Rizong Shas Rinpoche III who was born in Matho and spent most of his initial life in this monastery.

His Holiness Rizong Rinpoche III, one of the most highly respected lamas alive today, was born in Matho in 1928 and recognised as the reincarnation of Shas Rinpoche II at 2 years old by His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama who had predicted the circumstances of the rebirth. The Rinpoche went to Rizong Monastery at 4 years of age to study and at 17 went to Tibet to continue his studies, joining Drepung Loseling Monastery, Lhasa, in the mid-1940s. He returned to Rizong in 1959 after the Chinese occupation of Tibet then went to Dalhousie to study for his Geshes degree. He graduated, attaining the highest possible degree in 1972.

In Tibetan spiritual circles, he is regarded as a modern-day Milarepa, having lived a life of simplicity and meditation since his youth.

Two out of the three rooms in the monastery house statues of Buddha while the third one has a stupa. The painting blocks of the biography of Lama Tsultim Nima, is yet another highlight of the monastery.

The monastery is unique because it is the only one with no annual mak dance festival. The monastery believes in laying more emphasis on individual practices.
The Rizong Monastery is the only one in Ladakh which has a nunnery. The nunnery, Jelichung, is located little down the monastery.

Following sections are borrowed from "Being a Buddhist Nun: The struggle for enlightenment in the Himalayas" by Kim Gutschow

Although male monastic community at Rizong was renowned for its strict adherence to manastic discipline, it could only sustain this religious ascendancy by requiring indentured services of nuns and laypeople. Rizong monks might not eat after noon and followed strict rules of poverty, but they required nuns to labour all day on behalf of the monastery's economic enterprises.

While most Ladakhi nunneries are independent institutions not directly attached to a monastery, Julichen is subordinated to Rizong monastery. Lying in lower Ladakh, Julichen nunnery takes its name, "Great Apricots", from the rich crop of apricots that nuns process and sell on behalf of the monastery. Julichen effectively seves as the factory floor of the monastic corporation. While the nunnery sustains profane needs of subsistence, the monastery engages in sacred ritual. The nuns serve as the worker bees in the monastic hive, which is overseen by monks engaged in their ritual ministrations. Nuns work from dawn to dusk processing the monastery's vast wealth of grain, apples, apricots and wool. While the monastery soars skyward at the end of a secluded valley, far above the distractions of human livelihood, the squat and ramshackle nunnery sits amid the monastic fields and orchards.

The nuns' quarters are bursting with odd heaps of barley sacks, drying apricots, woolen homespon waiting to be dyed, abandoned looms and plowshares in various states of disrepair. Nuns spend mos of their waking hours working or cooking for the monastic estate, while living in rooms bereft of religous images.

The most common problems that nuns complained of were a lack of residential or assembly space, lack of teachers and too little ritual training. Finally, there was the problem of no permanent endowments, which forced most nuns to work as domestic or wage labourers rather than devoting themselves to spiritual study. The nuns gradually began to express a desire for more study and less domestic drudgery.

Dr Tsering Palmo was the first Ladakhi nun to be trained as a Tibetan medical doctor. Born at Matho Village, 15kms from Leh (the capital city of Ladakh) she graduated from the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute, Dharamsala, in 1993. Upon returning to Ladakh ,in 1994, as a medical practitioner, Dr. Palmo learned of the miserable conditions of the nuns and felt emphathetic towards them.

Intially Palmo encountered considerable resistance from laypeople and local monks. Some laypeople complained that nuns were no longer available for domestic chores. There was also the pragmatists who said that withdrawing nuns for rural areas already short of labour would be disastrous. Some monks thought that she was crazy to educate "illiterate" nuns who would just be corrupted by coming to Leh or over-educated for life in the rural nunneries. Lastly, the nuns themselves thought that she was mocking them when she described the advanced philosophical training they should receive. Palmo's biggest complaint was that people refused to take her seriously. She suspected that they saw her as a newly ordained imposter with little concept of monastic life in Ladakh after her extensive sojourn among the Tibetans. Many who were sympathetic to Palmo's message were fearful of openly subverting the privileges of monks. Palmo listened to their complaints and refuted them as best as she could. She carried on day after day, even when people were laughing at her. Recalling the vow of the Matho princess she had once played so many years ago, she decided she would dedicate whatever merit she had earned towards the nuns and happily die for her cause.

Overcoming the subtle opposition of Rizong monks, Palmo expanded the nunnery and quintupled its membership by 1999. With the permission of the abbot of Rizong and the assistance of local nuns, foreigners and wage laborers, she began to construct a new nunnery complex. When Palmo and her companions first arrived in Rizong, the local monks and villagers made fun fo them, joking "they have come as tourists and they will leave after a few months". After a few years, they had built 11 residential cells, 4 teaching rooms, a meditaion hall, a toilet and a conference hall. The construction was interrupted for fund-raising and the ordination of several new nuns, all of whom were secondary-school graduates.

These highly eduacated and outspoken new young recruits had little desire to perform menial tasks like the ones their elders continued to do faithfully. As a result, the community of nuns is split. The younger recruits have adopted a religious curriculum of meditation, Tibetan and Philosoply while the elders continue to slave on the monastic estates.

The Rizong monks initially blocked Palmo's plan to turn Rizong into a training institute for Ladakhi nuns, so Palmo found a building in Leh to house her new Foundation, the LNA. Palmo's Ladakh Nuns Association, established in 1996, spearheaded a number of projects that increased eduction, visibility and material status of nuns in Ladakh.

When the highest-living Tibetan Buddhist authority spoke out on behalf of women, Ladakhi people finally took note. Although the Dalai Lama's office had ignored Palmo's numerous requests for a public meeting, he accepted her invitation to give a public talk on women during his 1998 visit. His Holiness spoke to a thronged audience about how men and women have an equal capacity for enlightment. Local attitudes toward nuns shifted noticeably after the local media picked up the Dalai Lama's speech.

Palmo has begun to build her institue with foreign funding. She envisions a place where nuns can attend teachings or workshops and train to work in a number of fields - as maternal health workers, traditional doctors, painters, tailors or handicrafts experts. She wants the nunneries to become self-sufficient enterprises as well as educational institutes.

A pilot school begun at Timosgam has begun to offer the standard Buddhist curriculum to young nuns and vilalge girls. Those who graduate from CIBS can become teachers throughout Ladakh, Zangskar and Nubra. The best and brightest students from Ladakhi nunneries have been sent to Tibetan institues in India in Dharamsala, Mungood, Darjeeling and Varanasi where they are studying philosophy, Buddhist studies and Tibetan medicine.

10 October, 2012

Likir Monastery

The geo-political landscape during 15th C was generally marked by bitter struggle for control of land. Monasteries in Tibet and Ladakh region controlled and owned large tracts of land and thereby the agricultural produce. Conflicts with rival sects of monasteries for political and material control were pretty common. They had to protect the inhabitants and the wealth from rival attacks.

Monasteries that flourished during this period evolved as small fortresses perched strategically on hills, utilising the terrain and reinforcing it with thick peripheral walls to form a protected inner core.

Monasteries like Likir played a very important socio-cultural and political decision making process during the 14th C. The monstery is located on top of a hill beside the valley of River Indus and has agricultural fields at the lower level while the monastery complex occupies the high grounds.

Buddhism revolves around the teachings of Lord Buddha and the Lamas of the past also hold very important position in the mythology and general beliefs system. The centrality in source of religious beliefs is reflected in the overall arrangement of the monastery complex.

The monastery complex contains the main temple and the assembly hall at the highest plateau of the hill, followed by the monks' quarters, kitchen and dining space. The village houses are at the lower slope. The main complex has narrow entry and exit points and has shear wall surrounding its periphery results in creation of a protected fort like complex

Likir means “The Naga – Encircled”. The Gompa represents the bodies of two great serpent spirits [Naga-rajas] Nanda and Taksako. It is believed to be associated with the Ka-dam-pa order. The gompa was refounded in the 15th C as a Ge-lugs-pa institution. Lama Duwang Chosje established the monastery belonging to the Gelugpa [Yellow Hat] sect of Tibetan Buddhism in 1605 under the command of 5th king of Ladakh Lhachen Gylapo. The present buildings of the gompa had to be reconstructed during the 18th C in the wake of a fire which destroyed the earlier structure.

Likir enjoys a special status as a brother of His Highness Dalai Lama happens to be its head Lama who visits the gompa on important pujas.

The monastery also houses a protective deity, located in the interior, with a golden armor. There are two Dukhangs (Assembly halls) inside the monastery, one of them relatively new.

The main Du-kahng contains two chortens, Clay Images of three Buddhas - "Marme Zat" (past), "Sakyamuni" (present) and "Maitreya" (Future), Tsong-kha-pa with his two disciples. It is also equipped with wooden racks of volumes of scriptures.

Another newly built Du-khang contains an image of 1000 arms and 11 headed Avalokiteshwara and some new paintains on the side walls representing benevolent Bodhisattvas and 26 Arhats.

The Gon-khang houses a statue of "Tse-Ta-Pa", the wrathful protector. Additionally, the impressive murals of "Yamantaka" and "Mahakala" too adorn the Gon-khang.

Within the old Dukhang are the statues of Bodhisattva (Lord of everything you see), Amitabha (Buddha of the West), Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha), Maitreya (the Future Buddha or Buddha of Compassion) and Tsong-kha-pa (founder of the Yellow Sect-hat).

07 October, 2012

Hemis Gompa

Cradled in a beautiful valley and surrounded by streams is the 17C Hemis monastery below the famous cave of Gotsangpa and the Gotsang retreat center.

The monastery holds the distinction of being the biggest as well as the wealthiest monastery of Ladakh. Since the monastery was built hidden in a valley, it was never found by invaders. Also, the farmers of Hemis give a part of their harvest to the monastery.

The monastery is divided into two parts - assembly hall and the main temple (Tshogkhang). The historic temple Du-Khang houses the throne of the Rinpoche and the other historic temple Tshogs-Khang has a huge guilded statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha decorated with semi precious stones. The balcony is well garnished with fresco pictures.

The monastery belongs to Drukpa Lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa [conferred with Bharat Jyoti Award] is the supreme spiritual head. Gyalwa Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje, one of the most celebrated yogis in the Himalayas, came to Ladakh in the 13th C and established the Drukpa lineage.

The monastery is an architectural delight, constructed during the period of Sengge Namgyal. It treasures a beautiful copper gilt idol of Lord Buddha, sacred thankas, gold and silver stupas and several other religious objects.

Hemis has more than 200 branches (monasteries) in the Himalayas and more than 1,000 monks under its care. It is an important living monument and heritage of Himalayas and its people. The monastery contains the richest collection of ancient relics.

The huge courtyard is the venue for annual Hemis Festival dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, and marks his birth anniversary. The ‘Thangka’ or sacred tapestry depecting Guru Padmasambhava is decorated with pearls and is displayed in Hemis festival once in every 12 years. It is said to bestow good health and spiritual strength. The sacred mask dance performed at the monastery is the main highlight of the Hemis Festival.

Padmasanbhava [the lotus-born] better known as Guru Rinpoche(precious guru) or Lopon Rinpoche or simply, Padum in Tibet was born into a Brahmin family of N-W India in the kingdom of Oddiyaana [modern day swat valley in Pakistan].

Considered as an emanation of Amitava Buddha and venerated as 'Second Buddha, he is said to have practiced tantric rituals. He hid a number of religious treasures including the Bardo Thodol [Tibetan Book of the Dead] in lakes, caves, fields and forests of the Himalayan region.

"His two eyes are wide open in a piercing gaze. On his body he wears a white vajra undergarment and, on top of this, in layers, a red robe, a dark blue mantrayana tunic, a red monastic shawl decorated with a golden flower pattern, and a maroon cloak of silk brocade. He has one face and two hands. In his right hand, he holds a five-pronged vajra at his heart; and in his left, which rests in the gesture of equanimity, he holds a skull-cup in the centre of which is a vase of longevity filled with the nectar of deathless wisdom. Cradled in his left arm is a three-pointed khatvanga representing the consort Mandarava. On his head, he wears a five-petalled lotus hat. Wrathful and smiling, he blazes magnificently with the splendour of the major and minor marks. He is seated with his two feet in the royal posture."
-- Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo

The three points of the trident represent the essence, nature and compassionate energy (ngowo, rangshyin and tukjé). Below these three prongs are three severed heads, dry, fresh and rotten, symbolizing the three kayas.

06 October, 2012

Thiksey Monastery [Mini Potala]

17 km south of Leh is one of the most beautiful 12 storeys monasteries of Ladakh - the Thiksey Monastery. Initially, the gompa belonging to the Gelukpa order was constructed by Sherab Zangpo at Stakmo. Later, his nephew, Paldan Sherab, established the monastery atop a hill to the north of Indus River.

As per a popular legend, Jangsem Sherab Zangpo and his disciple Palden Sherab were performing prayer services to the local deities at Arzoo valley [3Kms from the present Tiksey monastery]. Suddenly a crow appeared from nowhere and took away the ceremonial plate with Tormas[ritual cakes made from chickpea flour] in it. On searching, they were amazed to find the plate on top of a hillock. The Tormas were undisturbed or "in perfect order". The duo took it for an auspicious omen and built the monastery right there and named it Thiksey – meaning “In perfect order”. The monastery is situated in Thiksey village and the alternate name of the incumbent of the monastery is also addressed as Thiksey Rinpoche.

Since the monastery is similar to Potala Palace [former official seat of the Dalai Lamas] in Lhasa, it is often known as 'Mini Potala'. One of the biggest monasteries in Ladakh with over 120 resident monks, it has a world-renowned 40ft tall statue of Maitreya Buddha[Future Buddha].

The statue was built at the behest of His Highness, the Holy Dalai Lama, when he visited the monastery in 1980. The statue was made under the guidance, supervision and direction of Kushok Nawang Chamba Stanzin, the present head Lama of Thiksey monastery. The staue, 15 m tall, clay statue covered in gold paint, is the largest figure of Buddha in Ladakh and took the local craftsmen about four years to complete it.

The Gompa contains 10 temples. Below the monastery are chapels and houses of monks stretching down the hillside. About 100 monks belonging to the yellow - hat sect of Buddhism.

A temple is also dedicated to goddess Tara with her 21 images placed in glass-covered wooden shelves.

The nunnery or the school for the community of nuns is located within the precincts of the monastery and is managed by the Monastery Administration. Nunneries were held in a grossly inferior status and Buddhist nuns in particular lived in appalling conditions. Awareness was raised on the status of the nuns in Ladakh in 1990s and Thiksey received a degree of international attention and support. Ladakh Nuns Association was established in 1996. This was important in raising the status of the nuns in Ladakh, to ensure a shift in their functional role of “servitude and to one of true spiritual practice”. The Chief Lama, Thiksey Rinpoche of Thiksey Monastery was also important in these positive developments in the betterment of nuns. The monastery donated the land for a new nunnery at Nyerma, near Thiksey, at the same place where the very first monastic seat was established by Rinchen Zangpo, the Tibetan translator, in the tenth century. The nunnery is now under the patronage of Thiksey Monastery.