Chapter 12 of 22
…Past the bridge, the road rises and falls along the right bank of the Indus to reach villageKaru (3450m), primarily a military settlement now. At a roundabout after the military station, the right one goes to the Taktok Gompa, Wari La as well as Pangong Tso and the straight towards Leh. We took the left one to cross the Indus and climb up to the Hemis Monastery (3778m) located at a distance of seven km from the bridge…
Situated in the lap of the Masho Mountains and overlooking the Ladakh Range – the largest monastic institution of Ladakh, the Hemis Monastery, has more than 200 branches in the Himalayas and more than 1000 monks under its tutelage. Re-established in 1630, the historic Monastery, belonging to the Drukpa Lineage houses some of the most invaluable cultural as well as religious artefacts including images, scriptures, etc. The entry ticket for the monastery-cum-museum was priced at Rs 50. It may, however, appear a little strange to pay for entering a temple but the claimed-fact is that every bit of the money thus collected funds the welfare of monks and the monastery. The Hemis also happens to be the most famous monastery of Ladakh mostly because unlike most other Gompas that hold their annual festivals in winter, the yearly festival of Hemis is held in summers, a peaking tourist season. Having spent a little more than couple of hours at the monastery, we got down, crossed the Indus again through the same pathway and headed towards Leh from the intersection at Karu.
Just as Hemis, the Stakna Monastery is located on the left bank of the Indus on the 21 km road-stretch connecting Karu and Thikse (3450m). The Stakna Gompa belongs to the Drukpa lineage and is perched on top of a tiger-nose-shaped hillock surrounded by poplars and willows. Offering some pleasant options to stay, the iconic Thikse monastery is still a few convenient kilometer away (on the Manali – Leh highway).
Belonging to the Gelugpa lineage, the 15th – century Thikse Gompa resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet and is among the largest gompas in central Ladakh. Typically perched on top of a hummock, the 12-storey complex houses a 15m high statue of Maitreya, future Buddha. Commanding a beautiful landscape from the terrace at 3590m, apart from humans other visitors to the monastery include Eurasian Magpies and House Sparrows. The Thikse Gompa houses over 100 resident lamas as well as maintain one of the biggest libraries of Ladakh.
As Leh was just at a few minutes distance from the monastery, we covered the remaining distance quite leisurely. A little ahead on the same highway, after crossing the Stakna River, was our next halt Shey Palace and Monastery complex which was currently under renovation. The mid-seventeenth century palace complex was used as a summer retreat by the royal Namgyal family of Ladakh until the 1842-invasion of Ladakh by the Dogras when the family abandoned the complex and fled to Stok to set up a permanent residence there. The monastery is noted for its giant copper – gilded – gold statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha. Spread between the highway and mountain-face along the right bank of the Indus was the largest chorten-field of Ladakh comprising hundreds of whitewashed reliquaries of varying sizes scattered across the desert landscape. Just past the village is a huge eighth-century rock carving of Tathagata Buddhas. On the same bank by the highway is the venue for annual Sindhu Darshan Festival as well as the open amphitheatre. A brainchild of the then home minister, Sh LK Advani, the first edition of the festival was held in 1997 and with increasing popularity has been an annual affair since.
Ahead the road crosses Sobu River and passes through the village Choglamsar (3235m), spot where maximum devastation had occurred during the 2010 Leh floods, and climbs to reach Leh (3557m) one of the most important junctions of ancient trading routes to reach Central Asia. On the dusty climb, just before Leh, lies the highest golf course in the world which is nothing more than a vast dusty bunker that often doubles up as a training ground for the defence forces.
A few kilometres ahead is the main roundabout of the Leh town. The town offers umpteen options to shop, dine and stay. We headed straight to my old pal Dorje’s home-cum-guest house located in village Yurtung, now part of Leh town just like Sankhar and Changspa which are always abuzz with tourist activities including relaxing in street-side garden cafés, sauntering nearby the poplar-outlined barley fields, exploring the town’s ancient marvels or setting out to explore further afield.
Being a perfect base to explore the region by way of trekking or bike rides, Leh is a busy tourist destination reaching its peak every summer. The Yak trains that once dotted the dusty lanes may have been replaced by army trucks or tourist jeeps but the headquarters of Ladakh will always be a fascinating destination. The souring relations with neighbours after the Sino – Indian 1962 war brought ever increasing military presence to the area. Ever since 1974 when Ladakh was declared open to foreign tourists, the economy of Ladakh has received a major cash boost that has transformed the cultural as well as occupational lives of residents of the area.
Intending to transit-halt at Leh, we had budgeted only a single day to visit the sites as well as market lying within close proximity of the town. The chief attractions within the vicinity of the town include Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace, War Museum, Chamba Temple, Jama Masjid, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, Stok Palace, Victory Tower and Zorawar Fort, etc. Having grabbed a quick bite at a popular street café, we set out to visit some of the popular destinations which included Shanti Stupa, Leh Palace, Namgyal Tsemo Gompa and Fort, Jama Masjid and the local market.
Built in 1991 by a Japanese Buddhist on a hillock of village Chanspa, in the lap of Ladakh Range, the Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base. Offering panoramic views of the entire landscape including the Stok Range and the Leh city, the white-domed Chorten could be reached by either taking 500 steps or the narrow road. Across a vast expanse of poplars in the city, the historical Leh Palace complex is spread on the facing Namgyal Hill.
Perched on top of the Namgyal Hill overlooking the Leh city, the fifteenth-century Namgyal Tsemo Gompa or Leh gompa houses a 13.7m high gold-coloured statue of Maitreya Buddha as well as ancient manuscripts and frescoes. According to the Lamas, this splendid statue or Chamba, as locals call it, is the future Buddha. On the right of Chamba stands the statue of Avalokitesvara and on its left the statue of Manjushree. Part of the same complex, there is another monastery located at the foothill, below the Palace. On a mound of the same hill, marked by the fluttering prayer flags, stands the Victory Tower that was built to commemorate Ladakh’s victory over the Balti Kashmir armies in the early sixteenth-century.
Situated a few metres below the Namgyal Tsemo Fort and occupying a major portion of the hill-slope is the nine-storeyed Leh Palace. Currently being renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the construction of the Palace was started in 1553AD by the royal Namgyal family of Ladakh. Often claimed to be the inspiration behind the design of Potala Palace, Lhasa (Tibet), the Leh Palace was once the uppermost building of the world. The complex was later abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century when Dogra armies took control of Ladakh. The main attraction of the Palace today is the museum that displays ancient collection of jewellery, ornaments, thangkas, ceremonial wears, crowns, old paintings, stones, etc.
Passing through the labyrinth of dusty streets in old Leh, immediately below the hill, we looked for the Jama Masjid which was in fact positioned just in the middle of the main market. The Jama Masjid of Leh can accommodate up to 500 worshippers at a time and most of its followers, Sunni Muslims, are located nearby the mosque area. The predominant religion of the town is Buddhism closely trailed by Islam. Only a marginal population follows Hinduism while just a handful follows Christianity.
Spread along both sides of lanes in the middle of the Leh city, the market is an assortment of shops selling products across all categories including books, pashmina shawls, baked foods, handicrafts, etc. Evenings see vegetable sellers descend to the streets from the nearby villages. Looking for an authentic map of Zanskar in a book shop, I bumped into Valmik Thapar who had just returned to the base from a popular trail.
Lost in the narrow sandy lanes of the old town are a few ancient rock carvings on slim stone steles (rdo-ring) that constitute an important evidence of the early Buddhist artistic heritage of Ladakh. We located one such rock-carved slab, recently-shifted, just next to the entrance of Lala’s Café near the Leh mosque. Now transformed into a gallery-cum-café, the old monastery complex Labrang in the old town offers budding artists and photographers a small platform to exhibit their works.
Today, the old town reflects the confused transition of itself from the olden silk route days to tourism-driven sustenance achieved at the cost of customs as well as traditions across all categories. The Land of High-Mountain Passes, influenced by increasing tourism-traffic as well as opening up of more occupational-avenues, is undergoing continuous change pertaining to its rich traditional and cultural heritage. While a majority of the age old practices have lost their essence, a few of them, mostly related to religion, have withstood the test of time and remained intact.
The acceptance of Amul butter instead of the traditionally preferred Yak-butter in kitchens worried even the management of the Dairy Cooperative from Gujarat. Initially attributed to smuggling out, the management had to commission a special team to the region to understand the reason behind ever-increasing demand of its pasteurised butter. With the passage of time, the traditional attires and peraks have become ceremonial objects. Chaang has been restricted to only the remote or isolated villages. I intend to delve more into this but a serious effort would require a closer interface with all accessible regions.
Returning from the market, we almost got lost in the narrow lanes in trying to retrace the path to Dorje’s home. The remainder of the late-evening was well utilised in dining and whining with Dorje, his family as well as Pullu, his pet cat.
View and read more on the area at the Ladakh Region Photoset on Flickr
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