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Ladakh: Heaven on Earth

May 27, 2008

Merinews (India)
May 18, 2008
LADAKH -- THE very name spells magic. Ensconced in the lap of nature, Ladakh was and still remains a mystery, waiting to be unravelled; its natural beauty being unparalled, pristine and ethereal. Bounded by two of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges – the Himalayas and the Karakoram, it lies at an altitude ranging from about 9,000 feet (2,750m) at Kargil to 25,170 feet (7,652m) at Saser Kangri in the Karakoram. Summer temperatures rarely exceed 27 Celsius, whereas in winter, it drops down to around –20 Celsius.

The physical features of the people are akin to those of Central Asia and Tibet. The ’Dards’, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus are regarded as the original inhabitants of Ladakh, only to be swamped later by immigration from Tibet.

In eastern and central parts of Ladakh, the population is mostly of Tibetan origin, but in the western part, in and around Kargil, the population is of mixed origin. The ’Arghons’ are another community, who are descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants. Islam came from the West – a considerable number of Shias can be found in the areas around Dras, Kargil and the Suru valley.

Leh, the capital city, is breathtakingly beautiful. One can go to Ladakh from the Kashmir valley via the 434-km Srinagar-Leh road, which remains open for traffic from early June to November. Then there is also the 473 km Manali-Leh road. Leh houses the nine-storey palace of the Sengge Namgyal, which is said to have inspired the famous Potala Palace at Lhasa, built half a century later.

Namgyal Tsemo, the peak overlooking the city, is home to the ruins of the earliest royal residence at Leh, a fort built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century. The Jokhang, a Buddhist temple and an imposing mosque dating back to the 17th century are almost side by side in the city.

The sight of the morning sun, spreading its glimmering rays across the verdant expanse is a treat for the senses. It’s just the right medicine for those who want to escape the dust and din of our cramped and overcrowded cities. The simple and hospitable people of Ladakh are always ready with a smile. Ladakh is a land of festivities. There are many monastic festivals, of which the biggest and the most famous is Hemis, which falls in late June or the first half of July. Every 12 years, the monastery’s greatest treasure, a huge thangka – a religious icon painted or embroidered on cloth – is ritually exhibited. Other monasteries, which have summer festivals, are the Lamayuru (also early July), Phiyang (late July or early August), Tak-thik(about ten days after Phiyang), and Karsa in Zanskar (11 days after Phiyang). Like Hemis, the Phiyang festival too involves the exhibition of a gigantic thangka, though here it is done every year.

Kargil is the second most important town of the region. It remains the main staging point between Srinagar and Leh, and the gateway to the Suru valley and Zanskar. The geographical backbone of Ladakh, the Indus valley is also the region’s historical heartland – all the major sites connected with the former kingdom’s dynastic history are here, starting with Leh, the capital city, since Sengge Namgyal built his nine-storey palace here. A few kilometres up the Indus is Shey, the ancient capital, with its palaces and temples and their vibrantly coloured murals. Partly as a result of royal patronage, the central region of Ladakh has the greatest collection of major monasteries – of the 12 situated on or near the Indus, the oldest is the Lamayuru, believed to have been a sacred site for a pre-Buddhist religion known as ’Bon’. ’Phiyang’, ’Hemis’ and ’Chemrey’ were all founded under the direct patronage of the members of the ruling ’Namgyal’ dynasty.

The awe-inspiring natural beauty of Ladakh is an overwhelming experience. The barren windswept mountain slopes, the cascading mountain streams soothe the frayed nerves of the visitors to this wonderful land. But it is advisable for tourists, especially those arriving by air, to get themselves acclimatised to the thin air of the region for a day before venturing out. In ancient times, Ladakh’s position at the centre of a network of trade routes traditionally kept it in constant touch with the outside world. From central Asia, the mighty Karakoram was breached at the Karakoram pass, a giddy 18,350 feet. The trail from Yarkand crossed five other passes, of which the most feared was the glacier encumbered Saser-la. Travellers from Tibet could take one of the two main routes. >From the central part of Tibet, they could pass the holy sites of Kailash Mansoravar and reach Gartok, a tributary of the upper Indus, from where they followed the river, down to Leh or by the Chorbat-La pass over the Ladakh range.

The people of this ancient region are very fond of archery and polo. The polo played here is a variation of the traditional one; each team consists of six players and the game lasts for an hour with a 10-minute break in between. Chang, the locally brewed beer, flows freely and the people come to watch and participate in the events dressed in their best. The people also believe in the influence of spirits on the material world and undertake no major task without taking this into consideration.

Ladakh is a dream come true for those who don’t want to take the beaten track. It offers tremendous scope for adventure activities like trekking, mountaineering and river rafting. A wide range of rafting options is available on the Indus and its major tributaries. The best stretch for professionally guided runs in white water rafting is on the Indus between Spituk and Saspol. For those who want to go for trekking, there is a 10-day Markha valley trek, the 11-day Lamayuru – Padum trek and the Stok-Khangri trek. Trekkers in Ladakh should be prepared to face considerable fluctuations in day and night temperatures. For mountaineers, there are lots of options. The Nun-Kun massif is popular among mountaineers. There is also the Stok- Khangri massif in the Zanskar Mountains south of Leh. The climbing season extends from mid-May to mid-October, the ideal period being from June to September. Certain areas of Ladakh, which were formerly closed to foreigners because of their strategic location, have recently been partially opened. These are:

1.The Drok-Pa area circuit
2.The Nubra valley circuit
3.The Pangong lake circuit
4.The Tso-Moriri circuit

The Pangong-Tso in the Pangong lake circuit is the largest brackish lake in Asia and is bisected by the international border between India and China. But tourists are only allowed up to a certain point

Ladakh’s beauty lies in its aloofness. The people, culture and society are very different from other parts of India and therein lies its beauty. But why take my word for it? Pack up your bags and check out this incredible land for yourself. As they say, seeing is believing.
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