Monastery also written Sanee, is located next to the village of Sani where the Stod Valley broadens into the central plain of Zanskar
in northern India
. It is about 6 km to the northwest of the regional centre of Padum
, a gentle two hour walk. Like Dzongkhul Monastery
, it belongs to the Drukpa Kargyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is the only one of this order in Zanskar which has nuns. It is thought to be the oldest religious site in the whole region of Ladakh
Unusually, the gompa is not built on a hill or mountain but on flat land. It is in the form of a castle and the Kanika chorten is in the backyard of the enclosing stone walls with chortens mounted at intervals. Next to the Kanika chorten are ten standing stones with engravings of deities in a pre-Tibetan style. One enters the rectangular compound of the gompa through a gate chorten with prayer wheels. As well as the usual depictions of protective deities there is a goat's head filled jewels and prayer cards with "Om mani padme hum" written on them.
The Assembly Hall or Dukhang has 16 columns and houses images of Chamba, Chenren and Padmasambhava as well as others. Behind the altar is the Gongkhang, a small room containing an ancient figure of Cho Rinpoche and a bookshelf holding the sacred volumes of the Kangyur. The smaller temple dedicated to Naropa is decorated with unique bas-reliefs in stucco painted in bright colours and with niches for the images. There is also "a magnificent plantation of huge old poplars" adjoining the gompa - a rare treat in the mostly treeless Zanskar.
One of the eight most important cremation grounds of Tibetan Buddhists is outside the monastery complex and the cemetery is ringed with ancient rock-carvings which show Indian influences. In the cremation ground is a two metre high boulder with a painting of Maitrya on it which shines from the sacrificial oil poured over it by pilgrims. There is also a nearby mast with prayer flags on it.
The gompa is built to accommodate an ancient chorten 6 m (20 ft) high and of unusual shape, known as the Kanika Chorten, is presumed to date back to the time of the famous Kushan emperor, Kanishka. Kanishka's era is now thought to have begun in 127 CE. 'Kanika' is a commonly used form of Emperor Kanishka's name. He is famous in Buddhist literature as a promoter of Buddhism and he is said to have sponsored an important Buddhist conference in nearby Kashmir. This seems to be the only monastery in the region other than Gandhola Monastery in Lahaul which has a history which purportedly goes back to Kushan times.
Nungnes has no fixed date but usually takes place in July. Sani Naro-Nasjal is usually in the first week of August, between the 15th and the 20th of the sixth Tibetan month. It takes place during the blooming of the 'Guru Neropa Flower'. Every year the statue of Naropa is unveiled in late July or early August on the eve of the Naro-Nasjal Festival. Lamas from Bardan Monastery
perform masked dances as ritual offering.
There is an annual ritual reading of the Tibetan canon, the 'Great Prayer Festival', held at the monastery during winter with the firewood provided by villagers in the region. From time to time the monks boil up goats' heads in a long ceremony in which symbols of fortune and other garnishings are added according to the wealth of the person sponsoring this activity. These goats' heads hang outside the houses of almost every house in Leh
and are thought to bring good fortune. Normally, these symbols are changed annually.