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Chortens and mani walls

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Among the more visible expressions of Buddhism in Ladakh are the chess-pawn-shaped chortens at the entrance to villages and monasteries. These are the Tibetan equivalent of the Indian stupa – large hemispherical burial mounds-cum-devotional objects, prominent in Buddhist ritual since the third century BC. Made of mud and stone (now also concrete), many chortens were erected as acts of piety by Ladakhi nobles, and like their southern cousins, they are imbued with mystical powers and symbolic significance: the tall tapering spire, normally divided into thirteen sections, represents the soul’s progression towards nirvana, while the sun cradled by the crescent moon at the top stands for the unity of opposites, and the oneness of existence and the universe. Some contain sacred manuscripts that, like the chortens, wither and decay in time, illustrating the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. Those enshrined in monasteries, however, generally made of solid silver and encrusted with semiprecious stones, contain the ashes or relics of revered rinpoches (incarnate lamas). Always pass a chorten in a clockwise direction: the ritual of circumambulation mimics the passage of the planets through the heavens and is believed to ward off evil spirits. Look out for the giant, brightly painted specimen between the bus station and Leh bazaar.

A short way downhill from the big chorten, near the radio station, stands an even more monumental symbol of devotion. The 500-metre mani wall, erected by King Deldan Namgyal in 1635, is one of several at important religious sites around Ladakh. Ranging from a couple of metres to over a kilometre in length, the walls are made of hundreds of thousands of stones, each inscribed with prayers or sacred mantras – usually the invocation Om Mani Padme Hum: “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”. It goes without saying that such stones should never be removed and visitors should resist the urge to climb onto the walls to have photographs taken.

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