Ladakh - In between the Himalayas and the Karakoram Ranges of India
Cradled between two of the world's most stupendous mountain ranges, the Great Himalaya and the Karakoram Range, the remote, fascinating land of Ladakk is surrounded by dauntingly austere mountains and miles and miles of the never ending celestial cold desert. Leh, the nerve-center of the region, and the low-profile Kargil are the two main districts of Ladakh.
Ladakh weaves a magic spell with its mesmeric beauty and mystic charm. Whether it is the silent, stunning views of the amplitude of the mountains, mammoth prayer wheels laboriously turning away, sampling butter tea and Tibetan thupka under a starry night or the effervescent, incessant convergence of people navigating their way into the severe and barren landscape, to travel across steep valleys and gigantic mountains under skies that are as bright as the smiles of the ladakhi people. Little Tibet as Ladakh is popularly called is lost in time. Life is unchanged. The villagers grow wheat, rajma, vegetables and apples; they tend to cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep and still weave their own clothes. Ladakh escaped the colonial British attempt of civilizing hill stations, they never built a ‘hill station' here nor did they lay rail tracks or construct sprawling bung laws. You can spend an entire lifetime here, surrounded by the magnificent mountains, without seeing anything remotely human.
Ladakh was a kingdom of isolated tribes with only the constancy and contours of the mountains to give them company since the 10th century. Under King Singge Namgyal, Ladakh prospered and became an important route between India and China. Mule caravans carrying precious stones, spices, raw silk, carpets, and silver from the Punjab to the towns of Central Asian would stop at Leh to buy handicrafts, soft pashmina shawls and tribal jewelry, it soon transformed into a bustling commercial city. Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir annexed Ladakh in 1834 into the state of Jammu and Kashmir which was occupied by the British at that time. The exquisite pashmina shawl had invited the greedy attention of the ruler and proved to be the reason of the ultimate loss of independence of Ladakh. History repeated itself a hundred years later when Ladakh was partitioned into Baltistan, now a part of Pakistan and Ladakh which remained in India as part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. If you are passionate about Tibetology, Ladakh is the answer to all your questions. The land of Buddhism, lamaism being a unique feature of the Buddhist way of life style here, which places great importance on celibacy and monastic existence for its disciples. The Ladakhi people are devout Buddhists, famous for their benevolence and righteousness.
The nine-storey high Khar Leh Palace, dating back to the 16th century was built by King Singge Namgyal. Within the palace are Buddhist wall paintings, centuries old 'tankas' or painted scrolls and other artifacts that display the rich cultural traditions of Ladakh. Above Leh Palace, on the Namgyal Tsemo Hill lie the Stok Palace, dating back to the 16th century where the deposed royal family now lives. A section of the palace has been converted into a museum called the Stok Palace Museum which has on display the royal crown, 'tankas', coins and other invaluable items. An oddly-shaped crown which looks like a traditional ladakhi hat embellished with coral and turquoise stones, the Royal seals and the ornate silver teapots: one for the king and one for the queen are amongst the most interesting artifacts. The royal monastery, better known as Tsemo Gompa houses an impressive solid gold statue of the Buddha and ancient books and paintings.
The arid, bare land of Ladakh is dotted with hundreds of gompas or monasteries. Gompa in Tibetan means a "Solitary Place", with their small wooden windows and whitewashed walls the monotony of these "chortens" or sacred places are broken only by the colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Villages support gompas economically, and some families send their children to gompas for education. The Lamayuru gompa is not only believed to be the oldest in Central Ladakh, but it is also where the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon was practiced. Legend has it that it was founded by a monk called Naropa. More than 200 monks live an austere life in the monastery, sleeping on the ground, without windows and electricity. The Namgyal kings founded the monasteries of Phiyang, Hemis and Chemrey. The most interesting is Phiyang, built as an act of repentance by the 16th century King Tashi Namgyal for the bloodshed he caused in order to ascend the throne.
The Hemis gompa is dedicated to Guru Padmsambhava. Hemis and Hanle were commissioned by King Singge Namgyal to build this gompa in the 18th century. The Gompa nestled in a gorge and surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery houses a wide range of beautiful frescoes, Buddha statues, and several gold statues decorated with precious stones and intricately painted tankas adorning the walls and an excellent library marked by masked dances and other festivities. Hemis also stages the annual Hemis festival in the month of June. This two-day festival is celebrated to mark the birth anniversary celebrations of the Buddhist guru Padmasambhava. This festival is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist Gompa festivals in Ladakh and is celebrated with a lot of pomp. During this festival the lamas and monks perform sacred mask dances that depict the destroying of evil forces and the celebration of good over evil.
An interesting visit is to the galaxy of monasteries in Alchi where you can see the most spectacular frescos of Ladakh. The village of Alchi is full of interesting and ancient temples. It's at Alchi that you can see the most spectacular frescos of Ladakh. In the Du-Khang temple you can see several tiny Bodhisattvas and guardian figures, as well as mandalas and sacred forms that illustrate the structure of Buddhist cosmology. Sum-tsek is a temple with a stunning wooden façade and inside the hall the walls are decorated with mandalas, and figures of Bodhisattvas, Manjushri Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya Buddha. The two twin temples of Lotsawa Lha-Khang and Manjushri Lha-Khang are covered with thousands of Buddha. The monasteries are closed to the public except during the morning and evening hours, when a monk from Sankar Gompa hikes up the hill to light the butter-lamps. When you visit Chos-kor, or the religious enclave, you will get to see five temples, with intricate and rich paintings dating back to the 12th century. The ancient temples are extremely well preserved.
The Ladhakh Festival is organized annually from 1st to 15th September, with an aim to revive and promote the richness of Ladakh’ s centuries-old culture, traditions and customs.
The monastic festivals are annual events of the major monasteries which the local people eagerly look forward to attending, generally held to celebrate the birth anniversary of a patron saint, commemorate the establishment of a particular monastery or some major events in the history and evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. People turn out in the thousands to attend these festivals in their colorful best making every event a riot of colors and laughter.
Ladakh is a Himalayan melting pot: Kashmiri Muslims, Tibetan or Ladakhis Buddhists, Hindu people all co exist in perfect harmony in this town. The tribes of Ladakh provide for the most interesting learning experiences through their beliefs and their lifestyles. The Drok-pa community living between the Khalatse and the Shayok-Indus confluence are an experience in them selves. Visit their villages and learn that their pure Indo-Aryan features and the way they have preserved their racial purity down the centuries. They practice an ancient pre-Buddhist animist religion, known as Bon-chos and worship the ibex. They still celebrate their festivals according to age-old traditions, the most well-known being the triennial Bono-na festival, a celebration of the harvest. The customs of the people remain untouched and ancient because it had been closed to the outside world, due to its inaccessibility for centuries. The sheer, stark landscape, comprised of aloof mountains, dramatic ridges, and valleys and the beautiful cheerful faces of Ladakis leaves an indelible imprint on the visitor's mind.
Ladakh is much to offer for the adventure enthusiasts. The mountains and the rivers offer plenty of opportunities for river rafting, mountaineering and trekking. Indus and its tributaries offer challenging rafting opportunities. The stretch between Spituk and Nimu or Saspol is good for first-timers. Upstream is the Karu, which is ideal for basic training. But the real challenge is negotiating the unruly Zanskar River. It is the most difficult and requires professional assistance.
Ladakh offers the most exotic and artistically designed artifacts. The government run emporium is a good bet and so is the Tibetan refugee market which has a fascinating array of priceless handicrafts: semi precious stones are easily available, rubies from Burma, turquoise from Tibet, Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan along with delicate silverware. The native thangka paintings hand painted using real gold and silver are a must buy. Besides that Buddhist masks, silverware, cymbals with special religious motifs that are used during meditation, decorative copper and brass trumpets, chunky shell bangles worn by Ladakhi women, brightly painted masks, hand-knitted woolens, and exquisite jewelry made from semi-precious stones and silver make good gifts.
The cuisine here is wholesome and fresh, home-grown potatoes, pumpkins, and beans cooked with mutton and chicken is the staple. Momos is the region’s most popular dish, but other Tibetan food like thukpa, noodles cooked in mutton soup and skieu which is made with veggies, mutton and flour are popular. Leh has a variety of hotels serving all forms of cuisine. The Himalaya Café or Tibetan and Shangri La for Korean cuisines are especially worth mentioning. Another joint that serves delectable cuisine is Ladakhi Kitchen in the Main Market, where everything is fresh and appetizing. The Pumpernickel German Bakery bakes deliciously soft fresh bread and cookies.
Ladakh has a cold and dry climate. The winters are long and bitter, the mercury plunging to even -20C. Summer that lasts from June-November is the ideal time to visit Leh. The temperatures in these months are between 8C and 25 degrees Celsius. In the summer, pack layers of cotton clothing so you can put on many shirts in case of cold, and peel them off as the sun comes out. It is bitterly cold in winters so be prepared with layers of sweaters, socks, gloves, boots and jackets.
How to Reach
There are regular flights to Leh from Delhi and Srinagar, and less frequently from Chandigarh and Jammu. However, as the weather is unpredictable, a two-three hour hold-up is normal, especially on the early morning departures. Opt for a window seat as there is a visual fiesta awaiting you.
There are two land routes to Ladakh: from Srinagar and from Manali. The J&K State Road Transport Corporation (J&K SRTC) operates deluxe and regular buses between Srinagar and Leh, with an overnight halt at Kargil. Taxis are also available at Srinagar and Leh for the journey.
On the Leh- Manali route, both J&K as well HP Tourism operate deluxe and ordinary buses. The journey takes about 19 hours or two days, with an overnight halt in camps with basic facilities. The road routes are open for traffic from early June to mid-November.
There is no rail head in Ladakh. Passengers will have to get off at Kalka station (Shimla), proceed to Manali via bus and then reach Leh by taking a taxi/bus from Manali.
How to Get Around
Public buses are the cheapest mode of travel. They are operated on various routes and stick to their time schedules. The most comfortable way to get around, however, is by taxi. Though expensive, cabs take you around on the basis of fixed point-to-point tariff. The newly opened areas of Nubra, Changthang and Dah-Hanu can be visited only through registered travel agencies.