Lamayuru Gompa
Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh



When I first went to Ladakh six years ago, I took an air flight from Chandigarh, and immediately suffered altitude sickness. The only town with hotels, Leh, is located 3,500m above sea level, almost the same altitude as the top of Mt Fuji. Therefore, if one flies there directly, many parts of one’s body go out of order owing to atmospheric conditions.
After the landing, I suffered from headaches, palpitations, and shortness of breath every day. In addition to that, as most gompas are located on hilltops, simply going up to them itself was very painful. Wheezing, I had to climb the hills with frequent stops and get the taxi driver, whom I hired every day, to carry my camera-bag and tripod.

As I learned a lesson from that experience, I went to Leh the second time by bus, a two-day journey from Shrinagar (1,600m above sea level) in Kashmir. Thus, I could gradually acclimate myself in order to not easily suffer the altitude sickness. Nevertheless, the condition of my body was quite different from being in the lower land.
Due to having such a tough climate, the Ladakh region has suffered comparatively few attacks by invaders, well retaining traditional Buddhist culture.

In Kashmir, though Buddhism was propagated during the age of King Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C.E. h with the construction of a lot of temples of wood or brick, none of them remain.
The Chinese monks, Faxian in the 5th century and Xuanzang in the 7th century, visited Kashmir and recorded the prosperity of Buddhism. The Ladakh region must have been also influenced by that prosperity, but there are no historical records there from before the 10th century. In spite of the strong influence from Kashmir in the sphere of art, full-blown prosperity of Buddhism in Ladakh came late, after the refuge of many high priests to this place, avoiding the civil war in the 9th century in Tibet.

Chemre___ Chemre
Chemre Gompa and its wall painting, Yab-Yum

Buddhism in Ladakh is consequently Tibetan Buddhism, also called Lamaism, which holds the form of the later phase of Tantrism in Mahayana Buddhism. Rinchen Zangpo, who established Budhism in Ladakh, is said, after having studied Buddhism in India in the 10th century, to have devoted himself to translating sacred scriptures into Tibetan and to have constructed 108 temples in Ladakh. Although Buddhism became extinct in India in the 13th century, the last phase of Buddhism has continuously survived in Ladakh, called also Western Tibet, from the 10th century to the present age.

Tibetan Buddhism consists of four major sects: Nyignma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug, the last of which was founded by Tsongkhapa in the 14th century and also called the Yellow Hat sect. After repeatedly struggling with each other, the Gelug sect as a new school eventually won and its Dalai Lama became the head of Tibetan Buddhism.

In Ladakh, the Kagyu and Gelug sects coexist peacefully and the former embraces the Gompas (monasteries) of Phiyang, Hemis, Shey, and Basgo, and the latter of Tikse, Spituk, Likir, Rizong, Sankar, and so forth. Architecturally, there are no differences among sects.
The kingdom of Ladakh began to decline at the end of the 17th century, and was annexed to the kingdom of Jammu of the Dogra tribe in 1834. It now pertains to the Jammu and Kashmir State of India.

Interior of Dukhang, Taktak Gompa


When visiting a gompa in Ladakh, one sees a community composed of males only. Following the custom of primogeniture, the second son in a Ladakh family usually takes the tonsure and goes into a gompa, which therefore looks like a village with a lot of inhabitants. As opposed to Buddhist temples in Japan, it seems to have kept the original feature of ‘Sangha’ (monastic community).

As for facilities, there are cases of both separation and of unification of religious service and meditation areas and residential areas.
Though the Alchi Gompa, treated in the former chapter, is uncommonly located in a flat area, most gompas are on hilltops away from towns and villages, just like miniature versions of Italian hillside towns.

Although gompas in ancient Ladakh were probably built as pure wooden structures, none at all remain and the gompas one can see nowadays are basically in the mixed structure of outer walls of stone and sun-dried brick and inner wooden construction. The largest reason for this is the lack of timber and the reason for not having built with only stone and brick is the ignorance of the technique of arch and dome.

The art of arch and dome was invented in the Middle East in response to the lack of timber from the inception. But the principle of arch was not known in Ladakh, as well as in Indian plain, people had to use scarce timber as beams. They could place rafters or purlins wall to wall in a small shrine, but in the case of a large hall they had to stand columns to support beams, making the total system wooden structure.
Timber is usually native poplar, but wooden boards are imported from Kashmir. Though buildings comprise two to four stories, the lack of through pillars makes the structure weak, often resulting in inclined columns.

The Dukhang of Likir Gompa

Walls are usually made of sun-dried brick. Occasionally they use a method like that of current concrete construction, making a form, into which clay mixed with gravel is poured. The form is quite crude, made with intertwined willow twigs and the wall is plastered over with mud layers.

They put wooden lintels inside the wall. After the wall dries out, they make openings under the lintels for windows and doors. Their frames are wooden and the standard ones are prefabricated and transported from the carpenters’ workshops to the construction site.

Although the window and door frames for houses are simple, those for temples are delicately carved. Even a gompa with piled stone outer walls has no arched openings; all openings are rectangular with timber or stone lintels.
Walls are finished with mud plaster. Most clay is taken from riverbeds, because it includes mica, which shines on finished walls. Clay-rich earth is preferred to reduce cracks and it is plastered by hand without a trowel. Although the reason for black paint around windows is not known, it is a common custom to Tibet, giving a unique feature to Ladakhi architecture.

Roofs are flat owing to very little rain and finished with a thick layer of earth on a wooden floor. The 100 mm of annual precipitation in Ladakh does not indicate rainfall but snow during winter. As a roof cannot endure the weight of snow, habitants must remove it every day and keep the roof clear as a space for working and sunlight.
Another reason for the flat roof is the lack of materials such as boards, slates, and tiles to cover sloping roofs. A flat roof can be hardened with earth, which also functions as thermal insulation in winter.


When coming from Shrinagar in Kashmir towards Leh in Ladakh, the first large gompa one encounters, after a one night stop at Kargil, is the Lamayuru Gompa. It is located 125 km from Leh, dazzling one’s eyes like a sloping-type village in a quite desolate landscape like a lunar world.
Although most buildings were erected in early-modern times, the gompa was first founded in the 10th century.

The Singesgang (Lion Hall) in this gompa is said to have been built by the Indian Tantric yogi (ascetic), Naropa. Though a small and simple shrine, it shows wooden structure from the 11th century and a vestige of Ionic decoration on the capitals of wooden columns.

A Capital in Singesgang, Lamayuru Gompa

One cannot get to the Rizong Gompa by car, but must walk a mountain path. Its sudden appearance on the way is quite impressive. As it is a newer monastery founded in the 19th century, it is well composed, displaying the characteristics of a slanting-type gompa.

After Alchi, there is a small temple at Saspol, then turning aside from the main road, one finds the Likir Gompa. It was originally established in the 12th century and became the base gompa of the Gelug School in Ladakh. Its large-scale appearance rising on a hill looks like a stronghold. When entering through the gateway, one finds a nice courtyard surrounded with cloisters, facing the colorfully painted Dukhang (religious service hall).

Nearer to Leh, there is the prestigious Spituk Gompa from the 11th century and the Phiyan Gompa from the 16th century some kilometers north of the main road. Both of them are famous for festivals with mask dances performed in their galleried courtyards.
The Phiyan Gompa is quite large and has an interesting unique spatial composition, in which one goes up stairs between buildings from the forecourt to the main courtyard, in front of which are more stairs leading to the Dukhang. The inside walls of halls and shrines are painted everywhere in Chinese style like other gompas.

Houses around the court at Sankar Gompa,

In a suburb of Leh, there is the Sankar Gompa. The monks’ living quarters opposing the Dukhan across the courtyard has an atmosphere of a fascinating contemporary condominium.

Going about 20km southeast from Leh, one reaches the Thikse Gompa originally founded in the 15th century. This gompa has the nearest appearance to Italian hillside towns. A large edifice including the Dukhang stands on the hilltop, from which monks’ chambers, shrines, and Chortens (stupas) are massed along the slope, completely integrated into the hill. The wooden cloisters surrounding the courtyard on the hilltop are lavishly painted with murals.

The Thikse and Shey Gompas enshrine large golden Buddha statues. The statues are so large that they protrude through the ceiling of the first floor, and theirs faces can only be seen from the second. This indicates that they did not necessarily not have a technique to cover a large space, but could not obtain a timber thick enough for that.

Ground Floor Plan, Hemis Gompa
Chokhang and Dukhang facing Courtyard, 17th century
(From "Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya" by Romi Khosla )

25km further to the south, one reach the Hemis Gompa, the head monastery of the Kagyu Sect in Ladakh. It has been the most prosperous gompa in Ladakh, under royal patronage since it was originally established in the 17th century by the high priest, Tagstang Raspa, who was invited by King Senge Namgyal, who had constructed the Leh Palace. The gompa is, proudly, the largest of its kind. Especially the two prayer halls, the Dukhang and Tsokhang, facing the courtyard, are so large that a number of columns stand close together inside.

Hemis Gompa___ Hemis
Interior of Tsokhang and Ceiling of Dukhang, Hemis Gompak

It is standard at main halls in Ladakh gompas that the central part stretches up through the roof, and the hall gets light from that part. Here in the Hemis Gompa, the upper part is so large and high that four columns stand as high as two stories, over which, furthermore, stands a lighting tower. As ceiling boards are not furnished here, one can clearly see the wooden structure of the ceiling and roof.

When going north from Hemis, one reaches two gompas, Chemre and Taktak. The former is also located on a hilltop and its group composition of shrines and monks’ chambers on a slope is magnificent.


© Takeo Kamiya
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