Shey Palace and Monastery – A COMPLETE Travel Guide

by Radhika Trehun

Everyone visiting Ladakh knows about Leh Palace and it is on the itinerary of every tourist. It commands an excellent view of the entire Leh City; and gives a great insight into the rich history of Ladakh. But there is, in fact, another Palace just a few kilometers away that offers an even more stunning view but does not receive as many visitors. What’s more? It is both a palace as well as a monastery so you don’t just learn about Ladakh but also a little about Tibetan Buddhism. Yes, I am talking about Shey Palace and Monastery, one of the most beautiful spots in Ladakh that you must visit while you were in Leh.

A trip to Shey Monastery and Palace can be a stand-alone affair or a part of a day-long monastery tour around Leh. Or, if you were short on time, you can easily include it with your trip to Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. Another option can be to cover the monastery while traveling between Leh and Manali.

In this article, I will provide more information on this topic including details like how to reach Shey, what to see there, things to observe and accommodation choices. For a complete travel guide covering the entire Ladakh region, please read How to Plan a Trip to Leh Ladakh.

shey palace and monastery

About Shey Palace and Monastery

People often confuse Shey Palace and Shey Monastery as two different places. The truth, however, is that both of them are one and the same place. The building that once served as a palace for the Royal family of Ladakh has now been converted into a monastery. Earlier, the monastery was part of the palace and built inside; but nowadays, the entire palace is pretty much the monastery only.

It sits on the top of a hill on the Manali Leh Highway in Shey Village, about 13 kilometers from Leh; and is among the most picturesque monasteries of Ladakh. At an elevation of 11,204 feet (3,415 meters), it commands an excellent view of the Indus Valley flood plains. If you are into photography, this is one spot in Ladakh that you definitely do not want to miss.

The literal meaning of the word Shey is ‘mirror’.  There is a legend that the small body of water on the other side of the road, in front of the palace, once used to be a huge lake. It mirrored beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains and this is why the place was named Shey; because when the water was still, it looked like a giant natural mirror.

Shey Palace in Leh

Shey may just be a small village now but it was originally founded as the capital of Ladakh. The history of Shey Palace as well is quite a glorious one. The original palace was built in the 10th century and served as the seat of power, controlling most of Ladakh and Zanskar, up to the Zoji La Pass.

A new palace and monastery were built in 1655, just below the old palace. After the Dogras of Jammu invaded Ladakh in 1842, the Royal family of Ladakh, the Namgyals, abandoned Shey and fled to the other side of Indus River, to Stok Village; where they remained for a long time and never fully returned to Shey.

Over a period of time, around the 17th century, Leh eclipsed Shey and became the capital of Ladakh. It did not, however, reduce the importance of Shey Palace any less. Shey turned into the summer capital of Ladakh and it became a mandatory custom for Namgyal kings to father their heir here.

Shey Monastery

The monastery in Shey was once a part of the palace but now occupies most of the building. So in a way, when you visit Shey Palace, you are actually visiting Shey Monastery as well; and vice versa. It is best known for its copper statue of seated Shakyamuni Buddha, gilded with gold. It is the second-largest such statue in Ladakh, second to only the Maitreya Buddha statue at Thiksey Monastery.

The monastery (or palace) is located right next to the Manali Leh route. You can just leave your vehicle on the highway itself; climb a set of steep stairs to enter the gompa. As compared to other monasteries, like Thiksey or Hemis, Shey is not really a big one and you can be done exploring it within an hour at most; unless you spend some time trekking above the monastery to where the ruins of the ancient fort are.

Shey Monastery can also be approached by trekking 4 kilometers from Thiksey Monastery. This entire path is marked with hundreds of whitewashed chortens scattered across the desert landscape. There is in fact an interesting story behind it.

It is said that the king of Ladakh was a kind-hearted man and had a unique way of punishing criminals. Rather than incarcerating or fining people for their crimes, he would instead have them build a certain number of chortens. This way, the criminal will have plenty of time to think over what they have done, to repent on it and in the act, absolve themselves through a holy deed. This is why this entire area is filled with chortens till date.

Leh to Shey

In order to reach Shey Palace from Leh, you will start driving on Manali Leh Highway towards Karu. About 13 or 14 kilometers later (depending on where you started from in Leh), you will notice this narrow dirt road climbing up to your left.

shey palace and monastery

Since it is almost like a U-Turn, the road is easy to miss so keep an eye out. There is no way that a car can go up this road so you will have to park somewhere on the highway itself. If you were in a bike, you can ride it up till the gate but my advice would be that you leave the bike as well parked on the road.

Walk up this narrow road and it will lead you to the spot from where you will have to climb a set of stairs to finally reach the gates of the monastery.

Exploring the Monastery

The main attraction of the monastery is the Shakyamuni Buddha. It is 12 meters (39 ft) in height and is so large that it, in fact, covers three floors of the monastery. Standing on the first floor, or the lowest level, you will only see the feet and part of the legs of the statue. The top floor is where you will see the upper torso and the face.

buddha statue

The statue is made of copper and gilded with 5 kilograms of gold. It was first built in parts and then transported to Shey palace to be put together.

Other than the statue, there are several beautiful wall paintings in the monastery that are working taking a look at. There is also a small library on the first floor that houses several ancient manuscripts and paintings of Buddha figures in different positions.

After exploring the shrine, you can further climb up the dirt path towards the top. But please keep in mind that it is a steep broken path and you will have to climb very carefully. From the top, you can get an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding valley and Thikse, Stakna, Matho, Stok and also Leh in a distance.

Sitting Buddha

You can also walk to another small shrine near the monastery that housed another large statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in a sitting posture. Just ask anyone at the monastery and they can point you in the direction of this shrine. Here as well, other than the Buddha statue, you will find several paintings of 16 Arhats, original disciples of the Buddha.

From this shrine as well, you can get scenic views of the Indus valley. The white chortens that I discussed above in the article are located towards the east of the palace. I will also recommend going towards the back of the place to get some pictures of an amazing landscape.

Photong, the official residence of the Head Lama of the monastery is located near the edge of the valley.

view from the monastery

Shey Gompa Festival

There are two festivals held in Shey Monastery each year; Shey Doo Lhoo (also called Shey Durlo) and Shey Rupla. Shey Doo Lhoo marks the beginning of the sowing season and is celebrated in either July or August. These festivals follow the Tibetan Lunar Calendar so the exact dates vary each year but it is either towards the end of July or the beginign of August. You can check THIS POST to find out the exact dates of all festivals celebrated in Leh Ladakh.

The festival of Shey Doo Lhoo is a two days affair and is marked by Cham Dances and rituals performed by the Lamas. The prayers in the monastery at the time of this festival are attended by a lot of locals in a spirit of celebration and hope.

The second festival is called Shey Rupla and marks the harvesting season. A dance called ‘Rupla Dance’ is performed by two men in tiger costumes as the villagers make offerings of their first harvest at the monastery.

It is also believed that women without Children offer special prayers at Shey Monastery to seek blessings in the form of kids.

How to reach Shey Palace and Monastery

For this part, I am going to assume that you have arrived in Leh and are now wondering how you can get to Shey from there. If however, you would like to know about getting to Leh first, I recommend taking a look at How to Reach Leh Ladakh by Road, Bus, Air and Train. In this post, I have talked about different modes of travel and route that you can take to reach Ladakh.

Once you are in Leh, getting to Shey is pretty easy. Your own vehicle, either a car or motorcycle, will be the best way to travel around for local sightseeing in Ladakh. This way, you can draft your own itinerary, follow your own schedule and take as many breaks as needed while on the way.

By Own Vehicle

The best way to plan this trip would be to stay in Leh for a day and spend it in what is commonly referred to as a ‘monastery tour’. You prepare a list of the monasteries you want to see, start early in the day, visit them one by one and return to Leh by evening.

The road that Shey Palace is on also has three other large monasteries, Thiksey, Stakna, and Hemis. So between Leh and Karu, you can visit 4 monasteries in total. If time allows, you can also go towards Kargil and cover Alchi and Likir Monasteries. On the way, you will also cross three other great tourist spots; Gurudwara Patthar Sahib, Magnetic Hill and Indus-Zanskar River Confluence, known as Sangam Point. After you return to Leh in the evening, you can go towards Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa.

The second way is to incorporate the trip with Pangong Lake or Tso Moriri. It is the same road that you will take to get to both of these lakes. So you can also cover Shey either while going to Pangong or Moriri or while returning.

The third way is to visit while commuting between Leh and Manali. For example, if you were coming from Manali, you can pay a short visit to the monastery before reaching Leh. There is no permit required for it so you won’t be stopped anywhere. Or if you were planning to return via Manali, then you can cover the monastery while on the way.

Leh to Shey Bus

If you were traveling by public transport, then you will have to board a bus going from Leh to Sakti. The timings of the buses are 8.15 am, 8.30 am, 1.30 pm, 2.30 pm, 3.30 pm, and 4.30 pm. Fare per person will be Rs. 30.

Since Shey Palace and Monastery is right on the highway, you can ask the driver to stop right in front of it. After you get down the bus, you can walk the remaining distance to the palace. For more details, please read Local Bus Timings in Ladakh.

By Shared Taxi

If you weren’t traveling by your own vehicle and a bus was not really a convenient option, then a shared taxi can be a great choice. These are available from the bus stand itself and on a regular basis throughout the day. Just reach the stand, ask around and find one that could drop you outside Shey and jump in. The fare per person will be around Rs. 40-50.

By Private Taxi

This will definitely be the best option if within budget. This way, you get picked from right outside the hotel, shown around and brought back. But if you were opting for a private cab, I will recommend booking one for the entire day of sightseeing and not just Shey. Please read Taxi Charges in Leh Ladakh to know how much it will cost you.

Rented Motorcycle

If public transport wasn’t convenient; and a private cab not in the budget, then the next best choice is to rent a motorcycle like Royal Enfield. These are easily available on rent in Leh at several places; and are a great way to add a bit of an adventure to the trip. Even if you did not want to rent one for the entire day; I will still recommend doing so for at least a day. Riding a motorcycle on the roads of Ladakh is really a ‘dream come true’ and while you were there, it would be best to give it a try.

If you weren’t too big on motorcycles, then you can also opt for an automatic scooter like Activa. Please read Leh Ladakh Motorcycle Rental Rates to find out how much it will cost you.

Hitchhiking

The most cost-effective way would be to simply hitchhike and in Ladakh, it is not difficult at all. Shey Monastery is located on Manali Leh Highway, a busy road. You will find plenty of locals and tourists traveling on it all day long. Someone in a car may not stop but a biker riding alone will not mind giving you a lift at all.

the road to shey monastery

Best time to visit Shey Palace and Monastery

May to September is the best time to visit Ladakh and will also apply to Shey Palace and Monastery. The weather at this time is very pleasant and perfect for tourists. Srinagar Leh Highway as well as Manali Leh Route will both be open and reaching Ladakh will not be difficult. All hotels, guest houses, and tourism-related activities too will be open in this period. Tourist places in Ladakh like Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake and Tso Moriri will be accessible during this time period.

If you, however, wanted to attend the Shey Gompa Festival, then you will have to plan a trip in either July or August, according to the dates of the festival.

Where to Stay

The best thing to do would be to stay in Leh City and plan a day trip to Shey. It is hardly half an hour’s drive from the city so commuting too will not be difficult at all. If you wanted to stay somewhere close to the palace, then you can look for a hotel near Shey Village. The entire route between Upshi and Leh, in fact, has several hotels and finding one in any budget will not be difficult.

As far as I know, staying overnight in Shey Monastery is not an option; nor there is any arrangement for the same. You will have to stay at a hotel only.

If you are eager on staying at a monastery, then you can try your luck at either Thiksey or Hemis. Both of these monasteries have basic rooms that they lend out to visitors.

Where to Eat

There are several small restaurants along the highway that you can eat at. About a kilometer before the palace, there is a Punjabi Dhaba that I will highly recommend. Please do not forget to carry your own water bottle though as there is nothing available at the monastery.

Mobile Network

BSNL has the widest coverage in all of Ladakh followed closely by Airtel and Jio. The thing that you should know, however, is that only postpaid phones work in Ladakh due to security reasons. Prepaid phones do not work at all and will be dead as a paperweight. So, if you were carrying a postpaid BSNL, Airtel or Jio phone, it will work fine in Shey Palace and Monastery. For more details, please read Mobile Connectivity in Leh Ladakh.

Shey Palace Timings

Shey opening hours  are from 6 AM to 1 PM and 1.30 PM to 6 PM every day, including Sundays and national holidays. The monastery also remains closed for 15 minutes between 4 – 4.15 PM for tea break.

Shey Palace Entry Fee

You will have to pay an entry fee of Rs. 30 per person to enter the monastery. The fee is the same for both Indians and foreign nationals. There is no parking charge.

Conclusion

I hope the information above on visiting Shey Palace and Monastery was of help. If you have any questions, or need any other details, please feel free to ask in the comments section below; or at our Community Forum; and I will be glad to answer.

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