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iXiGOers Jul 25 2013

What is the history of Buddhism in Ladakh?

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Central Ladakh is home to longstanding traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism, fascinating to visitors for its tantric elements, colourful art, mystical feel and erotic imagery. Buddhism came to Ladakh around the 1st century BCE. Initially, it was proselytising forces from Kashmir — an important Buddhist centre since Ashoka’s time — that took root in Ladakh, and gradually travelled to Tibet (not the other way round). Buddhism rose in Central Ladakh in the first millennium. Meanwhile, this area fell under the rule of Tibetan kings, saw a lot of Tibetan immigration in the 8th and 9th centuries, and from the 11th century, as Buddhism declined in India, started finding inspiration in Tibetan Buddhism. The gompas we see today were mostly built from the 16th century onwards, once Tashi Namgyal unified Ladakh. It is impossible to explain here even a fraction of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. A quick attempt:

Panch Tathagathas or Dhyani Buddhas: The central white Buddha is Shakyamuni as Vairochana or the Illuminator. In the east sits the blue Buddha Akshobhya, the Unshakeable. To the south is the yellow Ratnasambhav, jewel-born, who transforms pride into equanimity. To the west, the red Amitabh, Infinite Light, the Buddha of love and compassion. Green Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha in the north, granting fearlessness.

The Bodhisattvas: Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, a white boy wielding a flaming sword, which cuts down delusion. Avalokiteshvara is red, holding a lotus. Sometimes depicted as thousand-armed, each stretching out to help suffering beings. Vajrapani, blue or black in colour, holding a diamond thunderbolt, embodies spiritual energy.

Prajnaparamita: is a tantric deity, the goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom. She is sometimes depicted as white or golden, and has two, four or six arms. Tara, born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara as he saw the sufferings of the universe, is the Quintessence of Compassion. She is shown as Green Tara who protects devotees from danger, or White Tara associated with longevity, merit and wisdom.

Thikse Monastery, Leh

P.S. -Thanks to Jitender Gupta, our guest travel writer for the amazing inputs.

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