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Report 1932: Ladakh Takes Your Breath Away

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2011

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Page 4 of 25: Gompas, Prayer Flags, Chortens and Palaces

photo by Michael

Prayers at Thicksey Gompa


There are Gompas (monasteries) in all the main settlements. These are built on the highest part of the village, often on a high cliff. A road usually goes to the bottom of the Gompa but there are always stairs to climb which can be quite steep. Many are several stories high and dwarf the settlement below. There is a courtyard where the yearly festival takes place, several Lhakhangs (temples), residence of the Head Monk and sleeping quarters for the other monks. Some have guest house and restaurant attached.

Insie the Lhakhang, opposite the doorway is the chair for the head monk and often a chair for the Dalai Lama, with their pictures placed on the seat. Benches for the monks are arranged at right angles. Every available space on the walls inside the temples is covered with paintings and there are many statues, some several metres high. There are also brightly coloured wall hangings. Above the doorway of the main temple is a rolled up Tanka (or Thangka) which is a painting with embroidery of a Buddhist deity or else a mandala (sacred symbols). This is unrolled and hung up for a few days each year during the festival.

The most important Lhakhang is called the Dukhang (Main Assembly Room).

Shoes must always be removed before entering the buildings. It is advisable to take a spare pair of socks as floors can be dusty.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are seen everywhere in Ladakh; on bridges, at the passes, on buildings, on flag poles. Most are small squares of brightly coloured material attached to a long string and are inscribed with prayers and mantras. As the wind passes over the surface of the flags, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras. The prayers are scattered in the wind to spread good will and compassion. There are five colours which are arranged in a specific order from left to right: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolises sky/space, white symbolises air/wind, red symbolises fire, green symbolises water, and yellow symbolises earth.


There are white Chortens (or Stupas) around the Gompas and in villages. Some are old and gradually collapsing into white rubble. Others like the Shanti Stupa in Leh are new. They are an integral part of the Buddhist faith, helping to spread Buddhism and act as a protector to bring peace and happiness. Holy relics are placed in the centre. Always go clockwise round them.

The chorten is made up of five distinct parts. The pointed top represents the crown of Buddha, with the body, hands and legs making up the three ‘layers’ beneath. The square base represents the throne. It is also symbolic of the five elements of nature, fire, earth, water, air and ether (when a person dies their body is converted into ether).

In places there are small buildings housing three chortens painted in different colours which keep the locality safe. They represent Avolikiteswar (yellow) for compassion, Manjusri (white) for wisdom and Vajrapani (blue) who is the rightful Buddha and fights against ignorance.

At the start of every settlement and often associated with chortens are Mani Walls. These are beautifully made platforms of stones. Some are quite old. They are faced with stones and carved stones with the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ or images of Buddha are placed on top of the wall. Again go round clockwise.

Large prayer wheels are found in every village and all Gompas. They are brightly coloured metal drums inscribed with mantras and contain tightly wrapped rolls of mantras inside. The wheels are turned clockwise to scatter the mantras to the winds. There may be a bell which is rung by a rod on the prayer wheel to count the number of turns. Gompas often have long rows of small prayer wheels.

Ladakh still has a King and Queen. Their roles are ceremonial rather than governmental, although the queen has been elected as a member of the government. They now live in Stok Palace. The remains of earlier palaces can be seen at Leh and Shey. These are massive mud brick structures which rise steeply up the sides of the valley. The walls are massive and slope slightly inwards to increase stability. Inside is a rabbit warren of rooms and buildings with family temples. The lower levels were used for stables and storage with servants quarters above and the royal family living on the upper floors. Leh and Shey are being restored by the the Archaeological Survey of India.

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