Ladakh Monasteries and the Paucity of Monks

Old Monks at Thikse Monastery. Most monks don't last that long in a monastery these days. After 18 years most monks choose to leave the monasteries and lead a quite domestic life with their families. With awareness about family planning , very few families have more than two children and don't want to send any of them to the monasteries now. If this continues the monasteries in Ladakh and elsewhere are bound to become museum pieces one day. (sanjay austa austa)

Old Monks at Thikse Monastery. Ladakh

(Published first in the  Bangkok Post, April 2015)

Life stands still in Ladakh’s Buddhist monasteries. Prayers, monastic chores, fasting, more prayers and more fasting is pretty much how monks have lived their austere lives here for centuries. Trappings of technology like cellphones and maggie have trickled in but with no significant impact on their spartan lives.

Living relics of an unique Tibetan Buddhist culture that harks back to the 11th century, these monasteries are repositories of Buddhist traditions and teachings as well as many important Buddhist artifacts like sacred thangkas that adorn the prayer halls. Neo-nirvana seekers, lay trekkers, anthropologists and curious hangers-on battle Himalaya’s thin air and inhospitable terrain to make it here for the famous morning prayer, where sonorous Buddhist chants reverberate in the ancient prayer halls.

But that is now about to change. While India may be bursting at the seams with an exploding 1.2 billion strong population, these monasteries dotting Ladakh’s cold deserts are facing an acute shortage of monks. The dearth is so dire that one day the monasteries, numbering over 38, may become museum pieces with empty courtyards and silent prayer halls.

 (sanjay austa austa)

A young monk at Hemis monastery. Ladakh

In this predominately Buddhist region of Jammu and Kashmir, each Buddhist family is traditionally   enjoined by their faith to give one of their sons to the monastery. This was however followed to the letter till about a generation ago when families had five children or more and the youngest (or the runt of the litter) could be easily sacrificed for the high spiritual cause. With education and family planning, the villagers now choose to have only one or two children with no one to spare.

To make matters worse, young lamas are choosing to drop out when they come of age, leaving the monasteries and the habit to marry, have children, till their ancestral land and lead a normal domestic life.

“If this goes on there will be no more monks in Ladakh. These monasteries will fall to ruin. The idea of family planning is not good for us. We need more children”, says Jhamba, a senior monk at the Thiksey monastery. This is the message he regularly takes to the villages attached with his monastery.

A small floor is shared by three - four monks. Each monk has his own room and the older monks usually have a younger monk like this one in the photo to look after. (sanjay austa austa)

Living quarters of monks. Thiksey monastery. Ladakh.

Jhamba joins a long line of Indian religious leaders and celibates who while having no children of their own, exhort couples of their order to have more children. It was not too long ago that Sakshi Maharaj of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) goaded Hindus to have at least four kids. Sadhvi Prachi also from the BJP seconded him. Going further the religious leader Shankaracharya of Badrikashram, said Hindus should have at least 10 children.

The Hindu religious leaders of course make their comments in the wake of a supposed demographic shift in Indian population, which according to unverified studies is having an explosion of Muslim numbers. According to these fears, fanned anxiously by the Hindu right, India will become a Muslim majority state by 2035.

Ladakh’s Buddhist monks though have no such political ends to meet. They just want their monastic traditions to remain alive.

At Thikse monastery and others its the duty of the smaller monks to serve tea and food to the praying monks. (sanjay austa austa)

At Thikse monastery and others its the duty of the smaller monks to serve tea and food to the praying monks.

The monasteries were built by various Buddhist dynasties that ruled Ladakh for centuries. They are usually built high on a hill. The white-walled buildings cluster a hilltop from all sides lending it an anthill appearance from far. Monasteries are places of seclusion but are intrinsically connected to nearby villages.

The Ladakhi villagers may not don monk’s maroon robes but are equally religious. Tibetan prayer flags crisscross the villages, fluttering from every housetop and street. Telling the beads of the rosary or turning the prayer wheel are the favorite pastime here.

When the ceremonial bugle is blow from the monastery rooftop every morning, it is as much for the monks as for the villagers. All rites of passage including birth, death and marriage are presided over by monks. Some of the villages are many mountains away but villagers trek up to the monasteries to fetch a monk or two for the rituals.

 (sanjay austa austa)

A monk in his room. Thiksey monastery. Ladakh

Life of a monk is arduous and not something every boy growing up in Ladakh exposed to modern comforts, aspires for. The monks young and old have to wake up with morning bugle. After ablutions they head straight to the prayer halls. Monks no bigger than six years with sleep barely off their eyes, join the rows in the halls for an hour long chanting.

These young initiates chant loudly more to keep themselves from dozing off while the older monks keep a close watch. Serving butter tea to everyone including the assembled visitors is a good distraction and they do the job enthusiastically, scurrying across the prayer halls. The same ritual is followed every morning without any change.

The young monks spend the day in the monastery school where study of scriptures predominates. Games are tolerated but not encouraged. Food is usually the staple- a mixture of barley and flour kneaded to a dough which is gulped down with butter tea.

The Ladakh monasteries abound with old monks with no young ones to replace them on their passing.

 (sanjay austa austa)

There are more old monks in Ladakh’s monasteries. Ladakh.



Spare the rod and spoil the Monk? The little monk could hardly memorize the chants and would get in trouble with the monk on duty. The monk here is feigning to strike him but I cannot say for sure what happens when no one is there to watch. (sanjay austa austa)

Spare the rod and spoil the Monk?


 (sanjay austa austa)

Young monk at Hemis, Ladakh


2 Responses to “Ladakh Monasteries and the Paucity of Monks”

  1. Shaleen Mathur says:

    Nice observation Sanjay. I had visited Ladakh in 2013 and while talking to one of the Monks in a Monastery I could sense that he was not entirely happy with living like a Monk. He was talking about how his parents left him at the Monastery as per tradition and hinted that he does not prefer this lifestyle.

    I feel that along with education/family-planning, the growth of tourism, higher incomes and exposure to cultures and people from outside Ladakh, have changed the preferences and practices.

  2. farah says:

    nice information…..nice picture.

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