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10 Spectacular Buddhist Monasteries in Himalayan Cold Deserts

Discover this unique region’s beautiful monasteries and otherworldly landscapes.

The Buddhist monasteries that are found in the cold deserts of the Himalayan region are awash in centuries of fascinating history, traditions, and legends. While exploring these incredible places, you’ll discover everything from ancient documents and colorful festivals to 75-foot statues and tales of levitating monks.

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Kee Monastery

Kee Monastery in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh stands solitary on a picturesque hilltop at an altitude of 13,668 feet with the blazing fall colors in the foreground. The 11th-century monastery houses ancient scrolls and books on Tibetan Buddhism and has an impressive collection of weapons that were used to prevent possible attacks on the monastery.

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Lamayuru Monastery

Nestled into the folds of a lunar landscape that looks straight out of a sci-fi film, Lamayuru Monastery predates Buddhism in Ladakh. The 10th-century monastery is steeped in legends. Naropa, a Buddhist saint is said to have meditated here in Lamayuru for years at the bottom of a deep lake. He finally convinced the guardian spirits to drain away the water and help him lay the foundation of a seat of Tantric Buddhism. Interestingly, the deposits around Lamayuru confirm the presence of a drained lake, probably done in by a glacier.

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Hemis Monastery

Hemis Monastery, about 30 miles from Leh, was re-established by a Ladakhi king in 1672. Known worldwide for the colorful Hemis festival that is held in late June or early July every year, this monastery has a mystical vibe with its ancient chambers engulfed in tobacco-colored semi-darkness, with the monks attired in crimson robes silently going about their daily chores.

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Korzok Monastery

The monasteries in the cold Himalayan desert come alive during their annual festivals when the resident monks perform ritualistic masked dances to the tune of Buddhist chants and the sound of cymbals, drums, and longhorns. The courtyard of the Korzok Monastery, on the north-western bank of Tso Moriri Lake, has witnessed these monastic cham dances for over three centuries.

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Dhankar Monastery

Perched atop a craggy clifftop in Spiti Valley, the monastic complex of Dhankar is easily one of the world’s most spectacular settings for a monastery.  The location was strategic as Dhankar, which literally means “fort on a cliff,” was the capital of the kingdom of Spiti.

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Rangdum Monastery

Rangdum is another of Ladakh’s citadel monasteries, situated at an altitude of over 13,500 feet in the barren Suru valley on the road from Leh to Zanskar. The 18th-century gompa (Buddhist monastery) belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, where the monks identify themselves with the yellow hats they wear.

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Stakna Monastery

Situated atop a hillock on the left bank of the mighty Indus River, Stakna Monastery receives few tourists because of its off-the-beaten-path location. The spectacularly beautiful gompa belongs to the Bhutanese Drukpa sect. The name, which literally means “tiger’s nose” derived from the shape of the hill, on which it was built in the 16th century.

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Likir Monastery

The whitewashed, honeycomb structure of Likir Monastery with its red roofs is a scintillating view on the Srinagar-Leh highway. The 11th-century monastery, which was rebuilt in the 18th century after a fire destroyed the main building, has a new highlight—a 75-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha on its top. One of the oldest monasteries of Ladakh, Likir is also home to numerous legends, including a belief that two mythical serpents are guardian deities of this gompa.

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Matho Monastery

An early morning excursion to Matho Monastery, only 16 miles from Leh can be an unforgettable experience with the dappled canvas of the cold desert mountains creating an amazing backdrop to the 15th-century monastery. The small museum houses a brilliant collection of artifacts and 600-year old thangkas (religious paintings rendered on fabric that typically portray Buddhist motifs).

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Thiksey Monastery

A visit to the main prayer hall of the Thiksey Monastery of Ladakh is a plunge into a Technicolor past. Time seems to stand still amid the gilded statues of Buddhist deities and richly-colored silk hangings floating in the dimly lit interiors, which are thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter and the sound of Buddhist incantations.