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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Ladakh Diaries Part 4: Buddhist Monasteries and Palaces in Leh - Stok, Hemis, Thiksey and Shey

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Ladakh. The religion is said to have entered the region even before Ashoka, and has changed with the times. Today, the people follow a form of Tibetan Buddhism, a later Mahayana form with elements of Vajrayana. (On an aside, practicing Buddhists in Ladakh do not like their religion being called Vajrayana. The word implies Tantric associations, and they insist that the Tantric elements in the religion were evened out by Guru Padmasambhava). Buddhist monasteries – ancient and modern – are scattered all over the region, and these are some of the most impressive and most visited tourist sites in Ladakh.

At the time I planned my visit, I knew little of Buddhism in this region. The aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism is very different from the Buddhism of central/ western India that I was familiar with. It was therefore, difficult to decide which monasteries I wanted to visit. I eventually decided to stick to the popular ones, the ones I was told not to miss. Thus, at Leh, we chose to  visit the monasteries of Hemis and Thiksey, and the palaces at Stok and Shey.

Stok Palace

We began our tour at Stok, the current residence of the royal family of Ladakh. It is maintained by the royal family. Part of it is their residence, part of it is a museum, open to visitors, and part of it is a heritage hotel, to give guests a royal experience. It is a well-maintained palace, with a small café and souvenir shop. As for the architecture, it is typical Ladakhi structure, a mix of mud-bricks, stone and wood. The museum section has a variety of artefacts, from paintings and Thangkas to utensils and weapons, all part of the royal collection.

Scattered over the mountain and along the road leading towards the palace are rows and rows of stupas, most painted white, some painted with bright colours. While we saw such stupas near every monastery and palace, these were the first we noticed on our trip, and these were also some with the most beautiful patterns.

The Hemis monastery is about 55 km from Leh, on the other bank of the Indus river, nestled in the mountains, above the village it gets the name from. This is one of the wealthiest and most famous monasteries in Ladakh, belonging to the Drugpa sect, sometimes called the Red Hats. It was built in the 17th century by King Senge Namgyal. From what we heard (and later read), Senge Namgyal’s mother was Muslim, the daughter of the chief of Baltistan. However, Senge Namgyal was a devout Buddhist and built a number of monasteries during his reign. It is said that he gave the land around Hemis village for the monastery, and the tradition continues to this day, all the land around belonging to the monastery, all revenues from the land accruing towards its upkeep.

Can you spot the monastery?

This was the first monastery we visited on our trip, and I hardly knew what to look at! The central assembly hall had a beautiful, gilded Buddha on the altar, and the walls were covered with paintings. At the entrance, on the outside, were paintings of kshetrapalas – guardians of the four directions and the wheel of life. Inside were paintings of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and protector deities. What I found interesting was the shrine for the protector deity of the monastery – here Mahakaal – is kept closed. Here, while the shrine was open, the image of the deity was covered with a cloth. The cloth is only lifted during specific prayer sessions when he is propitiated in the proper manner.

There was a separate shrine for Guru Padmasambhava, who is the one who brought this form of Buddhism to the region from Tibet. The 12-foot-tall statue is a recent one, but it is made in the style of the older images and is just as impressive. He holds a vajra, trident and skeleton, representing the present, past and the future. The walls are covered with paintings of the Gurus of this tradition, Dhyani Buddhas and Mahakaal.

The most recognizable part of the Hemis monastery is the courtyard where the annual festival is held every year in the month of June/July. The festival is in honour of Guru Padmasambhava, who is considered an incarnation of the Buddha, and the monks celebrate his life by performing the sacred dance devoted to the eight aspects of the Guru.

The other highlights of Hemis monastery were the museum and the souvenir shop. The museum has an admirable collection of bronzes, paintings, masks and other artefacts. The souvenir shop was so impressive that I went berserk buying postcards and books!

The Thiksey monastery is located atop a hillock, about 19 km from Leh. The monastery is constructed in an ascending order of importance, from the foot of the hill housing the viharas to the top of the hill enshrining the monasteries and the residence of the chief lama right at the top. This monastery belongs to the Gelugpa or yellow hat sect of Buddhism.

It is said that the monastery has its origins in the 15th century, and was built over an existing structure, one associated with another, older monastery nearby. The name Thiksey, is said to be a corruption of the word “theek se”, meaning “proper”, and refers to an event deciding the site where the monastery stands today. Originally, the monastery was supposed to be built on the other side of the Indus,  but as they were performing a ritual, a pair of crows carried away the plate carrying the offering, and placed it at this location. This was taken as a divine indication and the new monastery was built here.

The highlight of this monastery is the 40 ft high statue of Maitreya Buddha. Made of terracotta brick and clay, and painted with gold, this statue took 3 years to build, and was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1980. His half-closed eyes and serene smile inspire a sense of peace and well-being. He wears a coronet encrusted with jewels and the five Dhyani Buddhas. All around him are paintings – the Dhyani Buddhas, great scholars and teachers of the tradition, and stories of the future Buddha.

The Maitreya Buddha at Thiksey

The entire monastery is like a maze, with each turn leading one into a shrine or a vihara. Only some parts of it are accessible to visitors, but those are overwhelming enough. A shrine to Tara is filled with statues of different forms of the goddess, there are also stupa temples, with stupas of the past teachers of the order.

The main assembly hall has the guardian deities (lokapalas) and the wheel of life painted at the entrance, and a series of Buddha statues in a glass case inside. There are also statues of fierce deities placed within glass cases. A small doorway leads to an antechamber, with a gilded image of the Sakyamuni Buddha, flanked by Manjushri and Maitreya.

However, I was most intrigued, and fascinated by the shrine to the protector deity. This is a somewhat eerie shrine, on the upper level, with a towering image of Yamantaka, with 9 heads, 34 hands and 16 legs. His biggest face was kept covered, as was that of Mahakala by his side. The walls of this shrine were covered with paintings of a different kind – dancing skeletons, as well as fierce-looking animals and birds.

This shrine, as I already mentioned, was an eerie one, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the stunning work. The paintings, despite being unsettling, were striking. I was told later that these were some of the original paintings from the 15th century. What struck me about the deities, especially the one which I think was probably Mahakala, was that he was depicted with an erect male organ. This was the only part of the figure left uncovered, which made me wonder if it was intentional, and if he was worshipped for his virility. It reminded me of the images of Shiva shown with his organ similarly erect, as urdhvaretas.

Shey Palace

Shey was the old capital of Ladakh, back in the 10th/ 11th century CE. It came into prominence again in the 15th century. There are remains of fortifications at the top of the hill, but what remains almost intact from the 17th century is the central structure. Its not a monastery, but a place of worship, which would have been part of the palace. Enshrined within is a colossal Buddha, so huge that only the pedestal is visible from the lower floor, and we barely catch a glimpse of his face between the rafters. He is 8m or 26 ft high, and was commissioned by King Deldan Namgyal (1642-94) in memory of his father, the great Senge Namgyal. His face is visible on the higher level, which has a shrine with images of other teachers of the tradition as well as deities.

One of the most striking things about Shey are the paintings which cover almost every inch of every wall – both on the lower and upper floors. They are said to be the originals, at least 400 years old! Unfortunately, most of them are dark from the soot of the lamps which are continually lit here, and are barely visible. There is more light on the upper level, so the paintings can be seen slightly better, though they aren’t in the best of condition. The ground floor is so dark, that we didn’t even realise that the walls were painted until our guide used his phone torch to show them to us.  While the paintings on the upper floor depict deities, the ones on the ground floor are simply Dhyani Buddhas – rows and rows and rows of Buddha, all over the wall.

This, to me, was the most fascinating thing about Shey, making me glad we visited, despite our tiredness. It reminded me of my visit to Kanheri with Dr. Suraj Pandit, when he showed us the 11-headed Avalokiteshwara surrounded by Dhyani Buddhas in Cave 41. He mentioned then that this was the only such depiction in central/western India, while the concept travelled out to other regions. At Shey, I could see this exact representation – a 11-headed, thousand armed Avalokiteshwara in a shrine at the centre, surrounded by Dhyani Buddhas painted all around him – the same concept, multiplied a thousand times, so to speak.

Making connections like this went a long way in making our Ladakh trip so special….

Earlier posts in series -

 Coming up -

  • Ladakh Diaries Part 5: The Nubra Valley


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