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Publication Date : 02-11-2012
It’s magical, I told myself, again, as I stepped out of Leh Airport. Surrounded by mountains as far as I could see, I stood there for some time and forgot my encounter with a soldier a while ago.
The fact that Ladakh, a part of India’s northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir, shares borders with Pakistan and China makes it a militarily-sensitive region. Oblivious of it, I attempted to take photos of the runway after landing at Leh, the airport in Ladakh. A soldier, cradling an AK-47, brusquely told me off.
It was with a little trepidation that I embarked on the journey to Ladakh in August. During my first trip to this ancient land 16 years ago, I had merely carried my bag into the hotel and climbed a flight of stairs when I started to feel woozy for altitude sickness. This time around, nothing like that happened.
More than 3,657-metres above the sea level, Ladakh sits along the upper reaches of the Indus valley between Karakoram and Zanskar ranges in the western Himalayas. It is aptly called “Land of High Passes”. Though easily accessible through Delhi, just a 90-minute flight, it remains one of the most exotic and unspoilt regions in Asia.
Cold and harsh, it is only open to tourists during the summer. Much of the land is desert, broken up by great swathes of green along the Indus valley and at the foothills of the mountain ranges. This is where the indigenous poplar and willow trees grow, and farmers irrigate their fields of barley and wheat with water from the Indus or from snow melt streaming down into the valleys.
I came across many tourists, trekkers, adventurers, as well as Buddhist pilgrims from abroad. But this can be seen only during the summer. Known for its many Buddhist monasteries, Ladakh witnesses flocks of pilgrims from different places pouring in to the courtyards of these monasteries during the festival days. Many say that Tibet’s cultural losses in recent years have only accentuated the value of Ladakhi culture.
Locals’ feeling of a deep connection with Tibet can be traced back to its deep foundations in Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhist monasteries are scattered all along the valley of the Indus and its tributaries, many of them built on the rocky slopes of mountains, with others crowning low hills.
You can hire different modes of transport, the most convenient and boring being the hired car. The adventurous would probably opt for mountain bikes, and the romantics, the British-made Royal Enfield motorcycles. These thumping queens can be rented to make the adrenalin-pumping trips to neighbouring towns like Manali or Kargil, which will follow roads that snake up the mountains to the snow line before descending into steep passes.
Near Leh itself, there are several monasteries within an hour’s journey that offer rich visual and cultural experiences. Perhaps the most visited is Hemis monastery. Built into a mountainside, it is accessible by a road that winds through barley fields and offers spectacular views of the valley. The Drukpa Kagyu, a Vajrayana Buddhist school best known as the dominant sect in Bhutan, owns Hemis. While its Internet-linked teachers have taken its mystical teachings to an international audience, the monastery is visited and supported by pilgrims from around the world. In fact, Malaysians funded its new museum block.
On the other side of the valley lies Thiksey, another monastery popular for its architectural likeness to Potala Palace in Tibet. A long and breath-sucking climb up the stairs to the monastery, belonging to the Gelugpa School headed by the Dalai Lama, brings one to a two-storey hall housing a stunning image of Maitreya Buddha.
Down in the valley, on the southern banks of the Indus River, is the Alchi Gompa, a collection of shrine halls linked by narrow tunnels and passageways, which is famous for the detailed murals painted in the styles of ancient India. Even in the bright afternoon, it is cool and dim inside these halls, which remain as they have been for centuries. Sitting there, gazing upon the oil-darkened images on the shrine and listening to the sonorous chants of the maroon-robed lamas echoing off the walls, I imagined how it must have been like to be on pilgrimage in ancient times.
Near the entrance to the complex, however, is a busy bazaar selling locally made trinkets, curios and souvenirs.
The picturesque village of Tingmosgang, not too far from Leh, has become a popular destination in recent times. To get to this village nestled deep in a long and narrow fold of the mountains, you need to traverse 90km of road, across deserts and alongside roaring rivers.
On both sides of the village, barely a few hundred feet across, are almost vertical walls of brown, solid rock. Yet in the valley there are lush orchards of apricot and apple trees, and fields of barley and wheat watered by gurgling streams rushing down from the high end of the village.
All the houses here are built in the traditional style – flat-roofed structures of wood, mortar and mud bricks. Along the roads, between the houses are chortens (Tibetan-style stupas) and large prayer wheels. Above the village stands a monastery built on a peak to catch the early rays of sunrise just as it begins to slide down the mountain walls onto the valley below.
It was not more than four decades that trekkers, eco-tourists and adventurers have all come a-knocking in Ladakh. Its fast-flowing rivers, rugged mountains and secluded valleys saw a few recent developments. On one of the highest hills overlooking Leh is the huge Shanti stupa, built and presented to Ladakh as a symbol of world peace by the Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese sect of pacifist Buddhists. It is the highest among the scores of stupas the sect built all over the world.
Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre is the latest addition to Ladakh attractions. The Venerable Sanghasena developed his altruistic vision on 81-hectare land fringing the village of Choglamsar. It is now a campus that includes a monastery, residential schools, homes for the blind and the aged, a guesthouse with a restaurant, orchards, farms and a hospital. Many tourists spend summer months volunteering there, especially teaching English to the young monks, nuns and schoolchildren.
However, Mahabodhi is best-known for its three-day yoga and meditation retreats which are held at a beautiful retreat centre at the top of a hillock.
During evening breaks, participants would suspend their meditation practice to climb a small sand dune to watch one of the most beautiful spectacles in Ladakh: the sun slowly sinking into the Indus River as it flows past the village of Choglamsar, painting the entire valley a fiery blaze of colour.
For someone who has once visited the ancient land, it’s not easy not to go back.