Every travel that involves visiting a new place has its own charm, but all said and done, some places leave you overwhelmed. Especially those, where time seems to have stood still and where the arrogant, cocksure, smug ‘man’ is still humbled, having not been able to fully reign in nature. Add to that the fact, that this place was not easily accessible for a long time, increases its attraction.
The ‘Wow’ about Leh
And Leh, which was once the capital of Ladakh, and now the largest district in Jammu and Kashmir, is one such place. (Incidentally, it’s the second largest district in India)
My niece lived there at the time and we had heard many exciting stories from her. The place is not only a dream destination for those interested in adventure, but also those interested in learning more about the most peaceful religion — Buddhism. Also called as the Land of Monks and Monasteries, the ancient ‘Gompas’ located in the remote and rugged Himalayas, are a crowd puller. The very thought how these could be built in such inaccessible areas in ancient times, when limited means were available and of monks walking all those hundreds of kms through mountain passes to reach this valley, boggles the normal human mind.
Add to these, beautiful locales like Pangong Tso Lake which has the eerie charm of being shared with China and the most important of all — for the patriotic Indians – being so close to the historic Kargil City and the Siachen Glacier (The World’s highest battle field).
Leh has too many exciting places to see and in this section we will cover just the Palace and monasteries.
On our way – From New Delhi to Leh
With these in our agenda, we stuffed our bags with woolens and boarded the early morning AI flight from New Delhi to Leh. We were advised to take the early flight as weather during the day can fluctuate and if it becomes bad, the landing at Leh becomes difficult and these flights are invariably cancelled.
The flight was smooth and as we prepared for landing, I happened to look out of the window. The view was breathtaking. We saw snow topped mountains of the Himalayas being caressed by white clouds, all around.
The pilot landed smoothly at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, the highest commercial airport in the world, one hour 15 minutes after take off from New Delhi.
Some pointers to be followed
1. Although most tourists ‘pooh-paah’ the instructions given to tourists, we followed it to the ‘T’.
Since Leh is situated at such a high altitude, it has a marked effect on the blood pressure of a person-specially those suffering from Hypertension (Blood Pressure). Tourists are advised to rest for minimum 24 hours. We were told not to use the cell phones and even keep conversation between us to a minimum. ‘No exertion of any sort on the first day’, was the motto. A sponge bath was recommended the next day, instead of a regular bath. ‘No washing of hair’,we were told sternly.
The advice was reinforced by anecdotes of how some tourist’s Blood Pressure had shot up just because he did not rest. How he had to be put in the next flight out of Leh (So there went his holiday!)… and how once due to bad weather, the flight was cancelled and a tourist had to be admitted in the hospital to control his rising Blood Pressure.
Since my husband was on BP medication, we RESTED. In spite of 24 hours of resting, the next day his BP read 110/140!
2. The weather is totally unpredictable and it can drizzle any time.
The lovely sights of Leh
We were dying to get a feel of this beautiful place. As we stepped out of our hotel, the rocky mountains (seen from any part of the city), gave the place a very surreal look. Behind the rocky range, were the snow-capped mountains, from where cold breeze blows down the valley all the time.
The Royal Leh Palace
We decided to first check out the 17th Century Palace. To reach the Palace we passed through the interesting looking town. The roads are narrow at places but people are friendly, patient and accommodating, giving way to vehicles cheerfully. Their livelihood also depends on the tourist season which hardly lasts a few months in summer. After that, many go down into the plains for the rest of the year, to sell their ware.
The houses are small, mud-bricked, with just a few windows. Most of the older generation are seen carrying the prayer wheels in their hand. Like typical Buddhist dominated places, this too had all sizes of colourful prayer wheels constructed on roadsides. One can see all age group people turning the wheel clockwise with reverence, as they pass it. Turning it is considered equivalent to reciting prayers.
Colourful triangular prayer flags can be seen strung almost everywhere. Each flag has a certain significance and shouldn’t be undermined.
The market had small shops, most selling woolen clothing and artefacts. At many places, there were still remains of the awful cloud burst of 2010 although army had quickly taken over and helped restore most of the town.
We tried walking up to the palace taking a back entry to it but that was a bad decision as we started panting with the steep climb. A motor able road goes all the way to the entry gate. The Palace is a miniature version of Potala Palace in Lhasa (Tibet) and boasted of being the highest building in the World in its time. It was made using stone, mud bricks, wood. Most of the valley can be seen from the top and the mud coloured houses merging with the backdrop reinforced the ‘arid-ness’ of the desert.
The entry fee is just about USD $1.5 and other than the view of the city, we didn’t find the palace very interesting. It was neither very well kept nor as vibrant as the palaces in the plains of India.
Only the Chapel inside is in religious use but everything looked really ancient and almost untouched in here too. The Dalai Lama is worshiped here alongside and his picture is found all over Leh.
The beautiful mystical monasteries
Leh is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful monasteries, also called ‘Gompas’. They invoke spiritualism in you and make you realise the essence of peace. The monks who have renounced the world to stay in these far off monasteries, appear ‘Godly’. It is fascinating to imagine how they continue staying here in the harsh winters in their perusal of attaining ‘Nirvana’. Just not everybody’s cup of tea!
While visiting these monasteries there are certain rules one needs to respect, the most important being, to maintain silence. Since they are cleaned and maintained by the monks, its important not to litter their abode and place of worship. At some monasteries, photography is not permitted of deities. So, that needs to not be disregarded.
The oldest monastery (Almost 800 years old) in Leh, is Alchi and it’s located on the banks of the River Indus, almost 70 Kms from Leh. The drive here is the most beautiful. You feel like you are driving on the moon, with flat, arid, brown land interspersed with rocks, stretched as far as eyes can see. (Of course, always with the mountains as the backdrop). When you roll down the windows of the vehicle, it’s the coldest wind that’s going to lash at you.
It’s the only monastery that is built on flat ground (Other monasteries are all situated on hill tops).
A gigantic figure of a well-preserved Bodhisattva statue in the main hall, is the high light of the monastery. Ancient paintings of various forms of Buddha adorn the walls of this hall. The entry is free. You have some interesting shops outside where one can buy beautiful Pashmina and other Ladaki and Tibetan artefacts.
The Alchi village has its own ethnic charm. There are also small budget hotels here if you want to stay the night to get more of the right feel. We went down towards the river and the very cold wind blowing didn’t give us the courage to even put a finger in the water.
The Spituk monastery was founded in the 11th Century. It is located approximately 11 Kms from Leh.
The long walk up to this Monastery, had us panting. Inside the monastery, we had to climb several flight of stairs to reach the beautiful temple of Goddess Kali. We would stop after every few steps because of shortness of breath. But the incredible view of Leh town from the top made the climb here worthwhile. The icy winds that was blowing as the sun was about to set, made us quickly cover our heads and head back.
The Hemis monastery is the largest and the richest in Leh. It was built in 1630. It is situated almost 47 Kms from Leh and needless to say, the drive here too, is beautiful. The rugged mountains that stand silently alongside, stand testimony to its history.
It seemed like a long walk up to the monastery from the car stand since one easily gets breathless in the rarified atmosphere. The moment you enter the gate of the monastery, the bright and colourful interior catches you by surprise and wonder. Creativity is seen on every inch of the walls in the form of paintings and carving.
This was one monastery where we found the most footfalls. It has a huge courtyard in the centre with rooms on either side. Narrow wooden stairs lead up to the rooms where the monks lived.
There was a fee of USD $1 to enter the museum that houses invaluable, historical, cultural and religious artefacts.
The Hemis village celebrates its colourful, annual festival in July to commemorate Lord Padmasambhava, whose beautifully coloured and adorned huge statue is present inside one of the sanctum sanctorum.
Although there are a number of wondrous monasteries that dot the landscape of Leh, we decided to see a last one – the Thiksey Monastery also called ‘Mini Potala’ since it strongly resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. This is one monastery that has a nunnery too.
I realised that if it wasn’t for the numerous small windows in the monasteries, one can miss seeing it from far as the walls merge with the rocky mountain. I suppose that was one way to camouflage themselves from invaders.
Thiksey too, has the traditional mud and stone courtyard with brightly painted rooms on either side. The monastery is almost 12 storey’s high with many temples inside.
The temples mostly have different forms of Buddha and the high light here is the statue of Maitreya Buddha – which is almost two storeys high. Rows of prayer wheels are seen and also some really big ones. Beautiful murals adorn the walls.
I came away feeling overwhelmed at the austere life led by these monks in orange robes — their communal yet solitary confinement, their commitment and surrender to the almighty. Was this another form of escapism? How many embraced this willingly and how many were not given a choice?
Also read: Mesmerizing Leh: Its mystery and challenges