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Diskit Gompa

The gompa's steps climb past the monk's quarters to the first of a group of temples. Local legend has it that a Mongol demon, a sworn enemy of Buddhism, was slain nearby, but his lifeless body kept returning to the gompa. What are reputed to be his wrinkled head and hand, grey and ageless, are now clasped by a pot-bellied protector deity in the spooky Gon-khang, a dark and claustrophobic temple, packed with fierce gods and goddesses.

The tiny Lachung temple, higher up, is the oldest here. Soot-soiled murals face a huge Tsong-kha-pa statue, topped with a Gelug-pa yellow hat. In the heart of the gompa, the Du-khang's remarkable mural, filling a raised cupola above the hall depicts Tibet's Tashihunpo Gompa, where the Panchen Lama is receiving a long stram of visitors approaching on camels, horses and carts. Finally, the Kangyu Lang and Tsangyu Lang temples act as storerooms for hundreds of Mongolian and Tibetan texts, pressed between wooden slats and wrapped in red and yellow silk. Buses return to Leh from Diskit. There's a bus to Sumur and Panamic.

Hemis Gompa

The locals dressed in their finest traditional garb celebrate the festival with great pomp and festivity. Large crowds flock to have a glimpse of the colorful two-day festival. The vibrant mask and chaam dances, which are performed with great enthusiasm, are special features of delight for the spectators. Accompanied by cymbal crashes, drum rolls and periodic groans from the temple trumpets, the lamas dressed in opulently brocaded silk costumes and ghoulish masks, mime episodes from Buddhist mythology. The show culminates on the second day with a frenzied dismemberment of a dummy, symbolizing the destruction of human ego, and thus the triumph of Buddhism over ignorance and evil. The dramas are also a form of popular entertainment eagerly anticipated by the Ladakhi villagers

Sankar Gompa

In central Ladakh. The monastery, a small under-gompa of Spitok, is staffed by twenty monks, and is the official residence of the Kushok Bakul, Laddakh's head of the Gelug-pa ("yellow hat") sect. Appropriate for such a high-ranking rinpoche, his glass-fronted penthouse enjoys pride of place on top of the main building, crowned with golden spire and a dharma chakra flanked by two deer (symbolizing the Buddha's first sermon in Sarnath). A flight of steps leads from the courtyard to the Du-khang (main prayer hall).

Beyond the Lords of the Four Quarters and Wheel of Life mandala that adorn the verandah, you enter a high-ceilinged hall whose walls write with lustrous multicolored murals. Those on either side of the doorway are most amazing: many armed pot-bellied bovine monsters drink blood from skull cups, while the copulating yab-yum couples to the right are garlanded with severed heads and engulfed in swirling red and yellow flames.

Above the Du-khang stands the gompa's principal; deity, Tara, in her triumphant, 1000-armed form as Dukkar, or "Lady of the White Parasol", presiding over a light ,airy shrine room whose walls are adorned with a Tibetan calendar and tableaux depicting "dos and don'ts" for monks. Another flights of steps leads to the gompa library and, eventually, a roof terrace with fine views towards the north side of Namgyal Tsemo hill and the valley to the south.

Stok Palace

Visible in the distance, at the top of a huge moraine of pebbles swept down from the mountains, the elegant four-storey Stok Palace stands above barley terraces studded with threshing circles and whitewashed farmhouses. Built early in the nineteenth century by the last ruler of independent Ladakh, it has been the official residence of the Ladakhi royal family since they were ousted from Leh and Shey two hundred years ago.

A former member of parliament, still lives here during the summer. One of the room is converted into Museum. The fascinating collection comprises some of the family's most precious heirlooms, including antique ritual objects, ceremonial tea paraphernalia, and exquisite sixteenth-century thangkas illuminated with paint made from crushed rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The pieces de resistance, however, are the Gyalmo's peraks.

Still worn on important occasions, the ancient headdresses, thought to have originated in Tibet, are encrusted with slabs of flawless turquoise, polished coral, lapis lazuli and nuggets of pure gold. Also of interest are a couple of swords whose blades were allegedly tied in knots as a demonstration of strength by king Tashi Namgyal, and several sacred dzi stones -"pearls of pure happiness", said to have fallen from heaven, and worn to ward off evil spirits.

Tikse Gompa

Every hour bus leaves from the town bus stand of Leh. Tikse's reincarnation as a major tourist attraction has brought it mixed blessings: the income generated has enabled the monks to invest in major refurbishments, among them the spanking new Maitreya temple immediately above the main courtyard. Inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, the spacious shrine is built around a gigantic gold-faced Buddha-to-come, seated not on a throne as is normally the case, but in the lotus position. The bright murals on the wall behind, painted by monks from Lingshet gompa in Zanskar, depicts scenes from Maitreya's life.

The key-keeper will show you around the tiny chapels behind the head lama's throne, pointing out the ancient cloth-bound manuscripts stacked in wooden racks against the side walls. Before you leave the Du-khang, check out the enormous thangkas stored on the shelf opposite the main doorway. They are unrolled once each year during the annual chaam dance festival, Tikse Gustor. For most foreign visitors, the highlight of a trip to Tikse is the view from its lofty roof terrace. A patchwork of barley fields stretches across the floor of the valley, fringed by rippling snow-flecked desert mountains and a string of Tolkien-esque monasteries, palaces, and Ladakhi villages. Tibetan trumpets - played on the rooftop at puja time.

Spitok Gompa

The spacious roof tops of the monastery command fabulous views. Paldan Lumo chapel perched on a high ridge above is more fascinating than the complex, which is a typical mixture of dusty, dimly lit prayer halls and vivid modern shrines. Another interesting shrine is the one dedicated to Vajra Bhairavi, a tantric guardian deity of the Gelug-pa order. This chamber is distinctly spooky and houses a row of veiled ferocious faces, which are unveiled, only once a year. After waving incense smoke before them and muttering some mantras (prayers), the key-keeper lama will pass around handfuls of sweets newly infused with protective power. The highlights of this place are the paintings on the rear wall of the chapel, which date back 600 years and are Spitok's oldest building.

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