Often said to resemble the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tikse monastery, half-an-hour’s drive east of Leh, is the largest gompa in Ladakh, and one of the most visually striking. Its whitewashed buildings rise in ranks up the flank of a steep, rocky hill from the floor of the Indus Valley to the sacred halls and apartments at the top of the monastery, painted deep red and yellow-ochre.
Set against a clear blue sky, with its framing backdrop of bleached brown mountains, the vision is simply breathtaking. But it’s squarely upstaged by the panorama to be had from the rooftop of the gompa itself, which takes in a dramatic sweep of the valley, from the barley terraces lining the river to the pristine white summits of the Stok Kangri massif to the south. If you’re lucky, you might catch a couple of monks blowing giant copper horns from the roof terrace – a primeval noise that perfectly compliments the sublime scenery.
Inside, a huge golden statue of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, is the show stealer. Measuring 15m (49 ft) from top to toe, it was installed to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tikse in 1970. Being so close to Leh, it’s well worth getting up early to be at the monastery in time for the 7am service, when the main prayer hall fills with monks reciting Buddhist scriptures. The thump of drums and clash of cymbals punctuate the chanting, as the air fills with the scent of lotus incense and butter smoke from the flickering lamps.