southeast of Leh and once the capital of Ladakh is now all but
deserted, the royal family having been forced to abandon it by the Dogras midway through the last century. Only a semi derelict palace,
a small Gompa and a profusion of Chortens remain, clustered around a
bleached spur of rock that juts into the fertile floor of the Indus
The ruins overlook the main highway, and can be reached on the
frequent minibuses between Leh bus stand and Tikse. Alternatively,
one can walk to Shey from Tikse monastery along a windy path that
passes through one of Ladakh's biggest Chorten fields with hundreds
of white washed shrines of varying sizes scattered across the
surreal desert landscape. One can get extremely dehydrated along the
4-km trek so bring plenty of water and a hat.
The Summer Palace
The palace, a smaller and more dilapidated version of the one in Leh
, sits astride the ridge below an ancient fort. Crowned by a golden
Chorten spire, its pride and joy is the colossal metal Shakyamuni
Buddha housed in its ruined split-level temple. Installed in 1633 at
the behest of Sengge Namgyal's son Deldan, the twelve-metre icon
allegedly contains a hoard of precious stones, 'Manadalas' and
Entering from a painted antechamber lined with shelves of ancient
manuscripts, and exquisite murals, which have been undergoing
extensive restoration, one passes through heavy wooden doors to come
face to face with the Buddha's huge feet, soles pointing upwards.
The customary circumambulation leads around the base of the statue
through a haze of incense smoke to total darkness behind.
Upstairs, from a balcony surrounding the statue's torso, one can see
the massive Buddha, painted gold with tightly curled blue hair, in
better light, and inspect the magnificent paintings of Buddhas,
Bodhisattvas, Mahasiddhas and fierce protector deities coating the
temple walls. Preserved for centuries by thick soot from votary
butter lamps, these are among the finest in the valley, painted in
stunning detail and tinted with gold applied with smooth hair fine
In July the Metukba festival takes place in the Shey Gompa with one
day of prayers for the well being of all life in the entire world.
The upper chapel of the Shey Gompa is used for everyday functions;
it surrounds the Buddha figure's head as a sort of balcony. The
lower, somewhat larger, chapel houses a large collection of Thankas
and a library. All the old Thankas bear the stamp of the 'Gompa
Association, Ladakh '.
The best time to visit the Shey Gompa is between 7.00 and 9.00 am or
5.00 and 6.00pm since the monks perform their prayer devotions at
these times. The Gompa is usually closed to the public at other
times. Near Shey there is a field with an impressive collection of
hundreds of small Stupas and Mani Walls.
The Temple Of Shakyamini
Fine minutes walk across the fields from the palace, in the centre
of a Chorten strewn plain, stands a temple, enshrining another
massive Shakyamuni statue (Daily 7.00 am - 9.00 am & 5.00 pm - 6.00
pm). Best viewed from the mezzanine verandah on the first floor, it
is slightly older than its cousin up the hill. The descendants of
the Nepali metalworkers who made it, brought here by Sengge Namgyal,
still live and work in the isolated village of chilling famous for
its traditional silver ware. Downstairs, the Gompa's Du-khang
contains dusty old Thangkas and manuscripts.
Shey's Ancient Monument
Easily missed as one whizz past on the road is Shey's most ancient
monument. The rock carving of the five 'Tathagata' or "Thus gone"
Buddhas, distinguished by their respective vehicles and hand
positions, appears on a smooth slab of stone on the edge of the
highway; it was probably carved soon after the 8th century, before
the "Second Spreading". The large central figure with hands held in
the gesture of preaching (turning the wheel of Dharma), is the
Buddha Resplendent, Vairocana, whose image is central in many of the
As in Mulbekh, Tikse, Matho, Stok and other Ladakh villages, Shey
has an oracle. During the Shey Shublas, the August harvest festival,
the Shey oracle rides on a horse and stops at various places around
Shey to prophesise the future. The oracle, a Shey layman, starts at
the Tuba Gompa where he engages in a two or three day prayer, while
in a trance, in order to be possessed and become an oracle.
The Shey oracle is held in the highest regard and viewed as a God
who has achieved the highest level of existence. Other oracles,
especially those in Tikse and Stok, are not so well regarded, but
are at the same time feared and revered because of their spiritual
state. It is said that if one asks a question of an oracle, but
disbelieves the answer and goes to another oracle, no answer will be
HOW TO GET
Regular minibuses ply from Leh and Tikse.
available at the Shil Khar by the bottom of the path leading up to
the palace. The rooms are clean and fresh, and provide great views
across the river and plains to distant Tikse.