Shey Monastery & Palace: The summer capital of the Ladakh

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Jammu & Kashmir | 10

Speeding away on the Leh-Manali road, my curiosity score kept going up. Whitewashed chortens dotted the green fields and lone wooden structures on the mountains made it obvious that this area used to be quite populated. A lone signboard is what doused some of my curiosity. However, it was my visit to Shey Monastery and Palace that finally soothed my frazzled nerves.

Shey Monastery and Palace on the Leh-Manali Road
Shey Monastery and Palace on the Leh-Manali Road

The sight of red attired Buddhist Monks climbing up the steps along a mountain beckoned me to stop and explore Shey Monastery. The paucity of time on my first trip made me regretfully miss it. Luck favored me the 2nd time around and I finally managed my tour of Shey Monastery & Palace.

History of Shey Palace

The present structure of the Shey Monastery Ladakh was built a little later than the original 10th century Shey Palace which is now in ruins. The new palace was built below the original one around 1655. The then Ladakh King – Deldan Namgyal constructed it in memory of his late father Sengge Namgyal.

Stok Palace - the new home after Shey Palace was abandoned
Stok Palace – the new home after Shey Palace was abandoned

While the Leh Palace remained the seat of power for the Namgyal dynasty, the Shey Palace became the summer capital of Ladakh. An attack from the Dogra Kings of Jammu ousted the Namgyals out of both these palaces and they found shelter across the Indus river at the Stok Palace. This is when the Shey Palace fell into ruins.

While the palace lost its charm, the Shey monastery was kept alive by the monks. Though the Namgyals never got back to living here, they still continued to use the Shey Monastery as the place to bless their heir.

Climbing up the Shey Monastery

Climbing up Shey Monastery Ladakh
Climbing up Shey Monastery Ladakh

Shey Gompa or Shey Monastery is an easy climb up a cliff amidst the green valley of Ladakh. I bounded up the zig zag staircase to the first landing with its white pagoda and the entrance to the three-storied Shey Monastery. Stunning landscape views competed with my burning quest to see what was enclosed within the modest gate. The desire to calm my nerves won over the calm views and so, I proceeded through the portal.

Beautiful views from the first level of Shey Gompa
Beautiful views from the first level of Shey Gompa
The main entrance of Shey Gompa
The main entrance of Shey Gompa

The rest of the journey takes you around the main building. What you encounter are surreal landscapes, prayer wheels, locked doors in and around the main building and oil lamps at various corners. Keep an eye out for a huge white stupa with a golden top. This is supposed to be the largest victory chorten of Ladakh.

The largest chorten of victory at the Shey Palace
The largest chorten of victory at the Shey Palace
Prayer Stones along the walls of Shey Palace and Monastery
Prayer Stones along the walls of Shey Palace and Monastery
Ruins of the old Shey Palace
Ruins of the old Shey Palace

At some point, if you glance up the cliff, you will see ruins of the old Shey palace, including what is left of its old walls and bastions. It is interesting to see how the wooden monastery with its layers of mud, stone and sand forms the various levels of the palace. Since I had already seen the Leh Palace, I could see the similarity in its construction.

And then, finally, you land at the door that takes you to the main highlight of the Shey Monastery Ladakh.

Leh Palace is modeled after the Potala Palace of Tibet. Right in the middle of Leh town, this is a delight to visit. Take a virtual tour of the Leh Palace through this link.

2nd largest Buddha Statue at Shey Monastery Ladakh

The chill of the Ladakh weather vanishes as you enter the room. It isn’t the warmth of the wood nor the heat of the eternal lamps that you will find burning here. The comforting glow comes from the compassionate gaze of the Shakyamuni Buddha who welcomes you.

Shakyamuni Buddha of Shey Monastery, Ladakh
Shakyamuni Buddha of Shey Monastery, Ladakh

You will only see the kind face of the Buddha. It is only when you go closer that you see the rest of him seated below. The Shey Monastery Buddha is 39 feet (12 m) tall and occupies three floors. If you see from the top, you will see the rest of his body, including the feet whose soles that face upwards.

The Buddha at Shey Monastery is said to the 2nd largest Buddha in Ladakh (The first being the one at Diskit Monastery in Nubra Valley). It is made of gilded copper that was got from the Zanskar valley. The craftsmen build it in Leh by beating sheets of these copper. The entire process is called Zanstin – Zans meaning Copper and Tin meaning beating. Once the structure was ready, 5kgs of gold was used to cover the statue. It was transported in pieces to the Shey Monastery. Following a ceremony where offerings were added to the statue, it was forged into a whole Buddha.

Feet of Buddha on the ground floor of Shey Gompa
Feet of Buddha on the ground floor of Shey Gompa

It is possible to get permission to visit the three floors of this Buddha of Shey Monastery. In fact, some of the locked doors that I saw on my way up Shey Gompa led to these floors. Since I had not known about it, I could only get information on what each of these floors offers.

The Third floor that I was standing on had numerous statues of Buddhist monks who are collectively called Arhat Saints. These saints are the ones who have achieved nirvana in their time. The 2nd floor is filled with painting of Buddha in various poses. Finally, the ground floor is a library of old manuscripts.

Butter Lamps Room at Shey Gompa

The lamp that you would have seen on the third floor of the Buddha has been kept alive for decades now. The eternal flame is fed by the monks. And sometimes, the lamp gets replaced by another burning lamp from the unique room across this shrine.

Butterlamp Room at Shey Monastery Ladakh
Butterlamp Room at Shey Monastery Ladakh

Lamps of every shape and size occupy this room. The lamps stored light up Shey Gompa at night. Notice the little lamp cupboards at various corners of the monastery – some with gigantic lamps. These are used almost every day by the residing monks.

Oil lamps along the walls of Shey Monastery Ladakh
Oil lamps along the walls of Shey Monastery Ladakh

Views around Shey Monastery & Palace

500 m from this peaceful monastery is another shrine and the residence of the Lama of Shey monastery. I am told you need special permission to visit that and it is well worth it, for the surrounding views that include one of Leh Town. This is not to say that the ones from Shey Monastery are any less impressive.

Green pastures in front of Shey Monastery and Palace
Green pastures in front of Shey Monastery and Palace
Snowy Peaks as seen from Shey Palace and Monastery
Snowy Peaks as seen from Shey Palace and Monastery
Contrast of greens and browns as seen from Shey Gompa
Contrast of greens and browns as seen from Shey Gompa

That is what I did for the rest of the time at Shey Monastery. The green pastures at one end contrasted with the barren brown hills on the other. and the snowy peaks at a distance enclosed the entire panorama. Little white chortens added that little sign of life that was in Shey.

So, the next time you are en route to Pangong or Manali from Leh, keep an eye out for this erstwhile capital of Ladakh and if possible, visit Shey Palace.

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How to get to Shey Monastery & Palace?

Field of Chortens in Ladakh near Shey
Field of Chortens in Ladakh near Shey

You can reach Leh by air or road. Use this travel guide to Ladakh to plan your trip here. Once in Leh, to get to Shey Monastery, you need to head out on the Leh-Manali Highway. Shey Monastery is on the main road, a little before Thiksey Monastery. Watch out for the field of white chortens on the way.

What is the best time to visit Shey Palace & Monastery?

Visit Shey Palace and Monastery on the Leh-Manali highway in Ladakh
Visit Shey Palace and Monastery on the Leh-Manali highway in Ladakh

Ladakh is cold throughout the year. The best time to visit it is between June to September when it is reasonably less chilly.

Shey Monastery and Palace is open from 6 am to 8 pm everyday. There are two major festivals that are celebrated at the Shey Monastery Ladakh that draw a lot of crowd. The first is the sowing festival called Shey Doo Lhoo that takes place in July or August. The 2nd is the harvest festival called Shey Rupla that takes place later during the year.

One can witness various rituals and masked dances during the festivals. The Tiger Dance (Rhupla) is specific to the harvest festival when the farms offer the first grain of their harvest. During both the festivals, an oracle visits on a horseback and goes into a trance. During this time, he gives out a lot of prophecies.

Where to stay ?

Leh town is full of hotels and home-stays that can be booked online using the booking resources below. It is best to stay around the Leh market area as you can find a variety of restaurants and options for cabs here.

Travel Tips

  • Please refer to this ultimate guide on Ladakh for all your general travel tips. Make sure you read about AMS specifically as it is quite common in Ladakh.
  • Be respectful of the rites and customs at the Shey Monastery.
  • Combine your visit here with Thikse Monastery which is just 4 km ahead.
  • There are restrooms at the monastery that you can use.
  • The closest restaurants are the road-side cafes and dhabas on the highway. Try out some hot maggi, tea and steaming momos at these joints. They are quite something.

Booking Resources

  • If you are looking for hotels in Leh, you will find numerous options on Booking.com . You can use this link to book the same.
  • Klook.com has a few Leh-Ladakh tours including the Leh Palace – available on their website. They can be booked online.
  • If you use Amazon for any of your household or travel purchases, do consider booking through the link given.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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10 Responses

  1. Lourdes

    I never heard of Shey Monastery Ladakh but looks like a cool place to visit. It was so interesting to learn that there has been a monastery here for over 10 centuries. I would love to be able to tour it and see all those colorful sights in person. I bet they look even better.

  2. Anindya Sundar Basu

    I have never been to Leh and I always keep planning and dreaming and wishing to be here. Glad to see and read and this post. After reading this, I know it will be a dream come true for me when I visit this place.

  3. Agnes

    It is a great post! Ladakh is still my big dream. I was in the North of India in Dharmasala. But I haven’t been to Shey Monastery Palace in Ladakh yet. I love Buddhist temples, their stories, and their culture. I did not know that there is the second largest statue of a Buddha. I like the peace of those temples. I hope that someday I will visit this place.

  4. Melissa

    Such a beautiful place for the palace and the surrounding area. The history is fascinating, I would love to see the ruins of the old palace. I love the map room and the oil lamps around the palace. I haven’t been able to visit a monastery yet. There is one close by to me and I regret not visiting it when I had the chance.

  5. Debra Schroeder

    The monastery construction is amazing, love that it fits nicely with the mountains and area and doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. But those views are the best part, stunning! Kinda cool how the Buddha statue takes up three floors.

  6. Jas

    Wow, the views from the first level of Shey Gompa are already pretty stunning. And I can’t believe how long that lamp’s been kept going! Seems like it’s a must-see!

  7. Raksha

    I love all the monasteries I visited in Ladakh. They are absolutely amazing and love the whole spiritual experience in some of them. I have been to the Shey monastery and I loved it so much. This is definitely a detailed guide for the monastery.

  8. Yukti Agrawal

    You spotted beautiful monastery on Leh-Manali road while visiting Ladakh. Good to know climbing up Shey Monastery palace is easy and not a difficult task. Oh I was not knowing that this monastery palaces houses second largest statue of Buddha. It must be very soothing inside to have the warmth of wood and burning lamps. Loved the view of snowy peaks from top of monastery.

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