Shey, 15-km southeast of
and once the capital of Ladakh
is now all but deserted, the royal family having been forced to abandon it
by the Dogras midway through the last century. Only a semi derelict
palace, a small Gompa and a profusion of Chortens remain, clustered around
a bleached spur of rock that juts into the fertile floor of the Indus
The ruins overlook the main highway, and can be reached on the frequent minibuses between Leh bus stand and Tikse. Alternatively, one can walk to Shey from Tikse monastery along a windy path that passes through one of Ladakh's biggest Chorten fields with hundreds of white washed shrines of varying sizes scattered across the surreal desert landscape. One can get extremely dehydrated along the 4-km trek so bring plenty of water and a hat.
The Summer Palace
The palace, a smaller and more dilapidated version of the one in Leh , sits astride the ridge below an ancient fort. Crowned by a golden Chorten spire, its pride and joy is the colossal metal Shakyamuni Buddha housed in its ruined split-level temple. Installed in 1633 at the behest of Sengge Namgyal's son Deldan, the twelve-metre icon allegedly contains a hoard of precious stones, 'Manadalas' and powerful charms.
Entering from a painted antechamber lined with shelves of ancient manuscripts, and exquisite murals, which have been undergoing extensive restoration, one passes through heavy wooden doors to come face to face with the Buddha's huge feet, soles pointing upwards. The customary circumambulation leads around the base of the statue through a haze of incense smoke to total darkness behind.
Upstairs, from a balcony surrounding the statue's torso, one can see the massive Buddha, painted gold with tightly curled blue hair, in better light, and inspect the magnificent paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Mahasiddhas and fierce protector deities coating the temple walls. Preserved for centuries by thick soot from votary butter lamps, these are among the finest in the valley, painted in stunning detail and tinted with gold applied with smooth hair fine brush strokes.
In July the Metukba festival takes place in the Shey Gompa with one day of prayers for the well being of all life in the entire world. The upper chapel of the Shey Gompa is used for everyday functions; it surrounds the Buddha figure's head as a sort of balcony. The lower, somewhat larger, chapel houses a large collection of Thankas and a library. All the old Thankas bear the stamp of the 'Gompa Association, Ladakh '.
The best time to visit the Shey Gompa is between 7.00 and 9.00 am or 5.00 and 6.00pm since the monks perform their prayer devotions at these times. The Gompa is usually closed to the public at other times. Near Shey there is a field with an impressive collection of hundreds of small Stupas and Mani Walls.
The Temple Of Shakyamini
Fine minutes walk across the fields from the palace, in the centre of a Chorten strewn plain, stands a temple, enshrining another massive Shakyamuni statue (Daily 7.00 am - 9.00 am & 5.00 pm - 6.00 pm). Best viewed from the mezzanine verandah on the first floor, it is slightly older than its cousin up the hill. The descendants of the Nepali metalworkers who made it, brought here by Sengge Namgyal, still live and work in the isolated village of chilling famous for its traditional silver ware. Downstairs, the Gompa's Du-khang contains dusty old Thangkas and manuscripts.
Shey's Ancient Monument
Easily missed as one whizz past on the road is Shey's most ancient monument. The rock carving of the five 'Tathagata' or "Thus gone" Buddhas, distinguished by their respective vehicles and hand positions, appears on a smooth slab of stone on the edge of the highway; it was probably carved soon after the 8th century, before the "Second Spreading". The large central figure with hands held in the gesture of preaching (turning the wheel of Dharma), is the Buddha Resplendent, Vairocana, whose image is central in many of the Alchi murals.
As in Mulbekh, Tikse, Matho, Stok and other Ladakh villages, Shey has an oracle. During the Shey Shublas, the August harvest festival, the Shey oracle rides on a horse and stops at various places around Shey to prophesise the future. The oracle, a Shey layman, starts at the Tuba Gompa where he engages in a two or three day prayer, while in a trance, in order to be possessed and become an oracle.
The Shey oracle is held in the highest regard and viewed as a God who has achieved the highest level of existence. Other oracles, especially those in Tikse and Stok, are not so well regarded, but are at the same time feared and revered because of their spiritual state. It is said that if one asks a question of an oracle, but disbelieves the answer and goes to another oracle, no answer will be given.
Road: Regular minibuses ply from Leh and Tikse.
Rooms are available at the Shil Khar by the bottom of the path leading up to the palace. The rooms are clean and fresh, and provide great views across the river and plains to distant Tikse.