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Ladakh- The Lands of Wonder

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Leh, is one of the two districts situated in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Leh is the second largest district in the country and has an area of 45,110 km2. Leh has a total population of 27,513 out of which, males make up 61 % of the population due to a large presence of non-local labourers, traders and government employees.

View of Leh City

Leh is at a height of 11,550 feet and is surrounded by the towering peaks of the Ladakh range. In fact, our flight, entering Leh was one of the most beautiful in-flight experiences I have had. Flying over the snow-capped mountains, they were so clear to the eye that it felt as though our plane was about to fly straight into them. Additionally, we flew over the Spiti Valley as well as Pangong Lake.

Spiti Valley is located in Himachal Pradesh and is a mountainous cold desert filled with fascinating valleys, windswept landscapes, and small villages. Author, Rudyard Kipling describes Spiti as ‘a world within a world’, ‘a place where gods live’ as the land of Spiti is filled with Buddhist Relics and prayer flags, holding those very words true, even today.

Lake Pangong, situated at a height of almost 4,350 m in Leh District is the world’s highest saltwater lake. What is interesting about this lake is that 1/3 of the lake lies in India while the rest of it lies in China. Derived from the Tibetan word ‘Pangong Tso’, meaning ‘high grassland lake’, the beauty of the lake can often not be described as it has been seen to change colours from blue, to green, to red at different times.

Leh is situated in the Upper Indus Valley, Leh was a major stop over for the trade routes between India, China, Kashmir, and Tibet, making trade one of the largest supporters of the economy there. Leh is one of the most remote areas of the Indian-administered portion of the Kashmir region and is one of the permanently inhabited towns in the world.

When in Leh, we visited a few of the monuments which make the city extremely special. First, we visited the Leh Palace, a monastery and the Shanti Stupa. Along with those places, we visited the bustling marketplaces and got a slice of heaven into the local life at Leh. With its small population, mud and stone houses as well as tall Poplar trees, Leh felt like a place I had never been to before.

Buddhism is one of the major religions followed in Ladakh, especially in the Leh district. Buddhism first came to Ladakh in the first century from Kashmir. The predominant religion along with Islam towards the Kargil district and some parts of Christianity is the Tibetan form of Buddhism. All books and prayers are Tibetan and Tibetan artwork adorns the walls of monasteries. Additionally, the Buddhists of Ladakh pay respect to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as their superior spiritual leader and living manifestation of Buddha.

For Ladakhis, religion is a regular affair, and it was certainly visible in all of the villages I visited. These affairs include spinning the prayers wheels. Making pilgrimages to monasteries (gompas) and chanting prayers.

Monasteries- During my visit to Ladakh, I was in awe by all the monasteries which dotted the ridges of a number of mountains along the high altitudes of Ladakh. The architecture of the monasteries from the outside of Ladakh, though thousands of years old still remained intact and gave me an insight into the architecture and history of these great buildings. However, visiting monasteries, was a completely different experience. Walls covered with illustrations of Lord Buddha, his manifestations, and followers, left my eyes wandering over all the tall Gompa walls, each with a new story to tell.

Alchi Monastery- The Alchi Monastery is one which is said to have a lot of History surrounding it. Built in the 12th century, the Alchi Monastery is the oldest learning centre in Ladakh. Known as one of the monastic jewels of Ladakh, the five shrines of the monastery contain wall art paintings which show the effect of Tibetan influence on local culture, dating back 1200 years. These many artefacts and paintings continue to remain intact because the monastery is no longer a religious centre and is looked after by monks from the Likir Monastery. It is also different from many other monasteries in Leh since it is built on flat ground, instead of on a hill.

Walkway to Alchi Monastery along the lines of the Indus River

Hemis Monastery- Hemis Monastery located in the Hemis region of Ladakh is one of the more important and rich monasteries in the region. It was founded in the year 1672 but its origins can be traced back to the 11th century. It is famous for its annual Hemis Festival which celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is complex and is spread over a large area which includes several temples and buildings. The monastery is home to a large collection of ancient Buddhist artifacts including, thangkas, statues, and other precious relics. In addition to its cultural and religious significance, the monastery is also known for its stunning natural surroundings. It is situated in a valley surrounded by towering mountains and is a popular destination for trekkers and hikers.

Center of Hemis Monastery

Thiksey Monastery- Thiksey Monastery is a monastery located 19 kilometres east from the city of Leh and is one of the most important monasteries in Ladakh and is known for its impressive architecture and beautiful location. Founded in the 15th century, the monastery is perched on a hilltop overlooking the Indus River Valley. The monastery is known for its extensive library which contains rare manuscripts and texts on Tibetan Buddhism. One of the most striking features of Thiksey is its architecture. The main temple is a 12-story building that is home to a 15-metre-high statue of Maitreya Buddha, the largest of its kind in Ladakh.

The Buddhist Prayer Wheels are a form of Tibetan Buddhism where a mechanical device is equivalent to the recitation of a mantra. The prayer wheel is often a metal cylinder embossed and mounted on a rod handle, containing a tightly wound scroll printed with the mantra. Each turning of the wheel in the clockwise direction by the hand is equivalent to the prayers oral recitation multiplied by the number of times the mantra is printed on the scroll.

Stupas- A Stupa (Sanskrit for ‘Heap’) is a monument usually consisting of a circular base supporting a solid dome, the earliest ones containing forms of Buddhas ashes, activating them with the energy of Buddha. The concept of the Stupa has now spread to all Buddhist parts of the world and many variations of the religion use them in their religions. The basic symbolism of a Stupa is that each central relic is identified with a sacred person or a concept which is marked as a call of remembrance within the building itself. The Stupa is also said to have Karmic benefits, affecting the person’s next existence or rebirth. One states that if one builds a Stupa, they will be born in a remote location and will not suffer from extreme poverty.

Shanti Stupa- The Shanti Stupa is a Stupa, however much bigger than the ones in the previous picture. It was built to promote world peace and prosperity as well as to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism. The Shanti Stupa was built in 1991 by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu. It holds the relics of Buddha at its base and is seen to be gleaming in the early hours of the morning or late evening as the sun sets. When we visited the Shanti Stupa, I was in awe by the sights it gave of the entire city of Leh. From Lamdon School to the Leh Palace, one could see it all.

Leh Palace- The Leh Palace was built during the 17th century by the current ruler King Sengge Namgyal, taking inspiration from the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The palace however was deserted by the royal family in the 19th century after the Dogras from Kashmir took control and forced them into exile in the Stok Palace. The palace consists of 9 storeys, with the lower floors serving as storerooms and stables and the upper floors serving as living quarters for the royal family. The top floor of the palace features a rooftop terrace that offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains. The Leh Palace is now a museum, restored by the Archaelogical Survey of India. The museum features a collection of artifacts that provide insight into the history and culture of Ladakh, making it a famous tourist attraction.

View of Leh Palace from the Shanti Stupa

Market place- The Leh marketplace was one of my favourite places in Leh. The colourful stores on either side of me selling, crystals, shawls among all sorts of other things. Seeing the Leh Palace in the distant with flags covering the blue sky, the marketplace looked as if it was out of a story book.

Buddha Statues Mulbek Kargil- The 30 feet statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved into stone is located in the Mulbekh Monastery in the Mulbekh town in the Kargil district. Overlooking the Leh-Kargil highway, this statue reflects a mix of Buddhist and Shaivite influences. In fact, there are three such statues all located at equidistant from one another. Though we were not able to visit all three, we were told that these statues all contain one unique feature, making them different from one another.

Rivers Zanskar and Indus (confluence)- The confluence between the two rivers, the Indus and the Zanskar is in the valley of Nimmu. The Indus River serves as the lifeline of Ladakh’s landlocked desert. The Zanskar, a tributary of this river merges into it from the Northeast. What fascinated me the most about the two rivers was the way you could distinguish between the two rivers just looking at their different colours!

During my trip to Ladakh, I also had the chance to visit the second district of Ladakh, the Kargil district. Kargil has a rich history and culture, and this is influence by its location at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Kargil played a significant role in the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. The war began when Pakistani troops infiltrated Indian territory and took control of strategic positions in the high-altitude mountainous region. The conflict lasted for about three months and results in the loss of many lives on both sides. However, the India Army was able to regain control of the territory.

During my short time in Kargil, I was able to visit a viewing point which allowed us to look over the border of India and look down into a valley shared by India and Pakistan. This was the first glimpse I ever had of Pakistan and although military troops decorated the surrounding mountains, it truly was a unique experience.

Although, there was not much to see in Kargil, this was largely to account for as a result of the war. Kargil was far less developed than its counterpart, Leh. The Kargil war, being largely accountable for this, the entire city still seemed to have not completely recovered from its effects.

Ladakh has by far got to be one of the best places I have ever visited. More than my initial aim to photograph the snow leopard, I experienced so much more than I ever expected. From interacting with communities of people and seeing their levels of hospitality towards us despite them having not much of their own showed me how important it is to appreciate the small things in life. The life of the Ladakhis is not an easy one and there are often a number of hardships which they need to endure typically including a lack of income due to the very few job opportunities available, having to deal with the harsh and dry conditions of Ladakh’s winters while constantly working hard to make a living even though their earning may not be enough. Everyone I met had a smile on their faces and welcomed us to their isolated haven with the utmost generosity. More than just the people, Ladakh itself is a land far from what I expected it to be. It felt as though I had been transported into a new land, far away from civilization and the city life. I was so glad that I was able to get this break to refresh and remind myself that some things in life are hard worked for and nothing comes to one easily. My experience in Ladakh humbled me and changed my perspective of the world and the way I used to view a number of things. Ladakh is by- far one of the most eye- opening experiences of a lifetime and I cannot wait to visit once again.

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