What’s the most iconic image of Ladakh? No doubt it features picture-perfect monasteries (seemingly) precariously perched high up in the Himalayas. There are so many of them that it’s difficult to decide which ones to visit! The husband and I travelled to Ladakh this summer with The Ultimate Travelling Campi. Rread about our experience of TUTC Chamba Camps here. During the trip, we visited four monasteries – Thiksey, Diskit, Hemis, and Matho. If I had to pick a favourite, it would definitely be the last one. Here’s why you must visit Matho Monastery Leh.
Matho Monastery Leh
The monastery is located in the Stok Mountains (part of the Zanskar Range) and overlooks the Indus Valley. From TUTC’s Chamba Camp Thiksey, it’s a 40-minute scenic drive.
The best part is driving over the bridge spanning the Indus River. Just look at that view!
Matho Monastery Leh dates back to 1410 and belongs to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Our guide Namgyal gave us a short tour of the monastery as well as a crash course in Buddhism. After admiring the elaborate murals and mandalas (spiritual symbols representing the universe), we walked up a steep flight of stairs to a large workshop.
Thangka Restoration Workshop
Here we met Nelly Rieuf, the manager of the on-going Matho Monastery Museum (MaMoMu) project. She is not only curating the collection but also restoring the monastery’s large assortment of ancient artefacts. There are bronze statues, Tibetan dance masks, ritual objects, and text scrolls and silks.
The most fascinating of these treasures is the monastery’s collection of thangka paintings, the largest such collection in the world. A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk and usually depicts a Buddhist deity or scene. Many of the thangkas at Matho Monastery go back to the 14th century. The monastery also owns four precious 12th-century works discovered only three years ago near Matho village.
The paintings were in a bad shape due to age. This is where Rieuf’s talent and qualification as a leading art restorer came into play. She has trained several local women who assist her with the delicate process of restoring the thangkas. This involves documentation, cleaning the silk fabric with special erasers and chemicals, repairing the cloth if it’s torn, and restoring the paint to make the colours more prominent.
I watched in fascination as two local women, Ishey and Angmo, proceeded to mix paint on palettes and then brighten up the colours on a 17th-century thangka. The painting showed a lama imparting his teachings, while the Buddha smiles down on him.
Matho Monastery Museum
MaMoMu should be ready in time for 2018’s season. We got a chance to peek inside the three-storey museum. It resembles a Ladakhi house built using traditional methods and materials like mud bricks and poplar wood. Each floor will have a separate theme – the styles of art in Ladakh, various Buddhist deities, and finally, an insight into life in a monastery. The museum’s rooftop will have a library and a small café. From here,you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Ladakh and Stok ranges and the fertile green Indus Valley below.
I can’t wait for the MaMoMu to open next year; I’m already planning my return to Ladakh! I hope this post inspires you to visit Matho Monastery Leh.
This article was commissioned by National Geographic Traveller and a version of it appeared in the October 2017 issue. Read it here.