Visiting the Buddhist monasteries of Lamayuru and Attetse
There are two land routes to Leh, Ladakh. One road, closed by snow from December to May, leads south to Manali. The other runs west, at first following the Indus valley, from Kargil and on to Srinagar and Kashmir. In both directions there is a string of spectacular Buddhist monasteries.
Today, the 2nd of September, we drive west towards our destination of Kanji where we'll camp for the night before starting our trek. We make an early start and plan to stop at two monasteries, Lamayuru and Atteste. But first we stop for breakfast at Nimu where we have a peculiar fusion of toast and omelette. We also buy a bag of the world's best vegetable samosas.
Just by the road, Lamayuru is a spectacular sight in a dramatic setting, it's one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh and the start of our first trek here 14 years ago.
We're a little short of time to see everything so we descend to the oldest chapels at the bottom of the hillside where there is a chapel with an ornate shrine to the Buddha Vairocana. The elaborate three dimensional wall sculpture includes mythical beasts and the Buddhas Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi.
The adjacent chapel is dedicated to fierce Protectors of the Dharma.
We climb from the depths of the monastery complex to the Avalokiteshvara chapel where the 1000 armed version of Avalokiteshvara - the Bodhisattva of Compassion - could be easily be missed behind glass cases containing precious silver Buddha statues.
Not far from Lamayuru is a long winding track not shown on the map that leads into the hills to the north. Every year our guide Stanzin finds somewhere new to show us. I'd never heard of Attetse but the track leads to a small hamlet and a very old monastery of that name. On the ridge above there are ruins of what look like a much larger collection of buildings, possibly a fort.
In the old prayer hall are some of the most beautiful Buddha statues we've seen in Ladakh. An exquisite central Maitreya is flanked by White Tara and Amytayus, all sculpted with delicate features. There is also a tiny cave said to have been inhabited by Naropa on his journey from Kashmir to see Atisha at Guge in western Tibet in the eleventh century.
Although it's not on the map, the monastery has other visitors today, from Malaysia, and is well maintained. A beautiful new prayer room has been built overlooking the valley below, it's used for meditation and contains 1000 painted images of Tara.