Ladakh: Painted mountains, lush deserts

Khaana khaaaya…? Gaana gaaaya…? sings out Phuntsog, looking like sunshine, skipping towards us, as we lie among her impossibly colourful flowers, gently digesting our lunch. If I look to my left, there are sunflowers so bright the sun doesn’t know which way to turn. If I glance to the right, there are mountaintops so silvery that misers sit back and sigh in contentment. All around us are apples so big and red and inviting on their trees that they are positively brazen. It is really hard to believe that I’m in a land described as ‘mountain-desert’. Phuntsog’s Oriental Guest House does not usually offer lunch. But Amit has twisted his ankle and cannot walk down to the nearby restaurant. Phuntsog has asked the kitchen to feed us from the family’s regular lunch, unlimited food as you’d serve to any house guest. I charge myself for this lunch on our official bill.


At Oriental they don’t keep meticulous records of what you have consumed. At the beginning of your stay they give you a typed sheet saying ‘breakfast’, or ‘Internet’ or ‘flask tea’; throughout your stay you tick all the facilities you have used, and at the end of the stay it’s all added up, preferably as we all giggle over our maths. The first time I came across this unafraid informality, which was so free from the fear “what if they eat extra but don’t pay for it?”, “what if they are out to cheat me?” that I thought about it for days. But now I’m used to the relatively noncontractual ease that keeps popping up in Ladakh, the lack of the pressure to make money all the time from everything. I’m used to the children and their mothers at roadside villages who ply us with the sweetest peas we’ve ever eaten, or the bakery boy who tells us truthfully that all his cakes are from yesterday (“Aaj tooooo”, checks, looks at each cake, tries to recall, then… “koi bhi fresh nahin hai,” he pronounces with satisfaction).


Tso Kiagar Lake (Photo by Prabhuk)

Tso Kiagar Lake (Photo by Prabhuk)


When I leave the guest house, I present my bill sheet to Phuntsog. She comes across my mention of this lunch, grimaces, looks at me as if to say, “how could you?” and cuts it out emphatically. “Oh-ho,” I say. “Oh-ho,” she says. And our giggles wrap up the exchange under faded blue prayer flags. A ‘different’ land My heart lies in Ladakh but in the areas of India that my body inhabits there is a consensus that the place is ‘different’. My relatives often confuse ‘Leh’ and ‘Ladakh’, first-time visitors worry if they are physically up to making the trip, and friends-in-the-know call it Tibet. At the heart of this difference lies sheer geography, which Ladakh changes from a boring school subject into a superb drama of altitude and terrain.


A drama in which you can thrill to any random reference point: The Great Himalaya, the Zanskar Range, Indus River, Siachen Glacier…. Ladakh lies beyond such high mountains (so high that monsoon clouds can’t cross over to nourish the land), experiences harsh cold weather and for so long (the mountain passes into Ladakh are snowed under between late October and June), seems so remote and inaccessible (only two proper highway routes, linking Leh to Srinagar (via Kargil) and Leh to Manali (via Rohtang Pass) that for a long time it either seemed like an impossible fairyland or a logistical nightmare. Or at least it did till the flights started.


Indus River (Photo by Jiten Mehra)

Indus River (Photo by Jiten Mehra)


Ladakh lies at the topmost stretch of India, sharing its eastern borders with Tibet (or China, if you will) such that the lake Pangong Tso falls partly in Tibet and partly in India. The western regions of Ladakh are those made infamous by proximity to the Pakistan border, such as the town of Kargil — not tourist havens at all. North is the heavily contested Siachen region and Pak-Occupied- Kashmir (POK). Leh and the now-famous Buddhist monastery-villages around — you can access these in your hired taxi — lie more or less along the Indus River, in the central part of Ladakh. Leh, as well as these monasteryvillages, are oases in the central part of this mountain-desert. The villages are mostly written along the route of the Indus as she flows in from Tibet and into Pakistan, fed by many small glacial streams.


Go to any village and you will be enchanted by this oasis quality: the drawing together since forever of human beings where there is water and possibility of life, the sound of water bubbling down irrigation channels, the unbearably intense green of the standing crop, the silence, and the potential for your very being becoming quiet. You will see fields of barley, white houses with painted doors and windows, colourful prayer flags, and at the very top of the mountain, a Buddhist monastery, guarding the whole. The monastery and the village share their name, and it is these monasteries with their fascinating corpus of traditions and treasures that have made the villages so famous: Hemis, Thiksey, Basgo, Alchi, Lamayuru…. Much of what I love about Ladakh emerges from this terrain, this climate and this very remoteness. As in so many places, geography defines history as well as lifestyle.


Scarcity of agricultural land (since, in the absence of rain, only melting glacial streams or the Indus waters can irrigate this mountain desert) means that houses are built clinging dramatically and photogenically to hillsides on top of the fields, so as to not waste productive land. Scarcity of resources like water means that people have to cooperate and share. Walking through the fields we can still see how the irrigation channels of glacial waters are used cooperatively by farmers. Each farmer blocks the channel with stones, waters her fields till sufficient, and then scrupulously removes the stones so that the water moves on to other fields downstream.


Leh Valley (Photo by Dan Hobley)

Leh Valley (Photo by Dan Hobley)


Historically, scarcity of resources meant that nothing was ever thrown away. As Ladakh scholar Helena Norberg- Hodge wrote, “What cannot be eaten can be fed to animals, what cannot be used as fuel can fertilise the land…. Ladakhis patch their homespun robes until they can be patched no more. Finally, a wornout robe is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage…. Virtually all shrubs or bushes — what we would call ‘weeds’ — serve some purpose” (as fuel, fodder, roof material, fence material, dyes, basket weaving and so on). Even human faeces was not wasted. Each house had a dry composting latrine with a hole far below. Earth and kitchen-ash was added to the waste “to help decomposition, produce better fertiliser and eliminate smells”. This dry compost was used in the fields.


There is literally no waste, wrote the scholar, and today, as I sit amid my polluted rivers, unmanageable urban garbage, depleting resources, global warming — I wonder what we’ve lost. Leh time In Leh, we are walking in the Changspa area, away from the town centre and bazaar. We are at 11,500 ft, it is September and fiery autumn colours are setting in. Except for a couple of army vehicles and a mule with a secret sorrow, we are pretty much alone for most of the walk. We’ve decided, very sensibly, to not walk down the main road that leads comfortably to the bazaar but to zigzag through the terraced fields. This means that we climb the rocks that demarcate field boundaries, cross a stream of water, freshly melted, graciously allow some donkeys the right of way, and make friends with Tsering, all of two years old, who scowls determinedly into my camera.


At some point we are just lost in the fields. The views of the snowy Stok Kangri Range are divine when foregrounded by the intense green crop. I can spend hours just looking at how the sunlight polishes the running water, how the light gives colour to the pebbles, how the music of the stream falls into the silent canvas of the oasis. But we are hastening to see the documentary Ancient Futures made by scholaractivist Helena’s NGO, on the ecologically- economically-socially harmonious society that Ladakh used to be, and to some extent still is. We are struck by the changing psychological landscape of Ladakh that she draws up. In 1975, Helena had, while doing anthropological research in a village, asked a boy how many people he would call ‘poor’ among fellow villagers.


Ladakh (Photo by Karunakar)

Ladakh (Photo by Karunakar)


He thought and said, “None.” In their interdependent, selfsufficient, unwasteful ways, notions of sufficiency and sharing made sense but ‘poverty’ did not. Needless to say, all of Ladakh, especially Leh, where people are forced to earn their incomes in a few months of the tourist season, is not an innocent haven of such values. (The documentary film did go on to say that when Helena visited the same village after many years, after ‘development’ and tourism had come to Leh, the same boy told her “please do something for us, we are so poor”.) And yet. We are quite unable to separate the clarity of the air and the plenitude of the flowers and the peace of the whitewashed houses and the silence in which the rivulet gurgles and the way the light dances off colourful pebbles… from the inherent beauty of these ways of living, whatever is left of them. It’s the best reason to go to Ladakh.


The gompas Gompa: A solitary place. Ladakh’s gompas (Buddhist monasteries) are wonderful in simultaneously maintaining their aura of solitary contemplativeness and their attraction for tourists, especially at festival time. Central Ladakh is home to long-standing traditions of the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, particularly fascinating to visitors for its Tantra elements, vivid colourful art, mystical feel and erotic imagery. Historically, Buddhism came to the area we call Ladakh around the 2nd or 1st century BCE (the earlier shamanistic, pantheistic practices were called Bon-chos). Central Ladakh saw the rise of Buddhism throughout the first millennium, fell under the rule of Tibetan kings — saw a lot of Tibetan migration, especially in the 8th and 9th centuries CE — and from the 11th century (as Buddhism declined in India), started finding inspiration in Tibetan Buddhism. The gompas we see today were mostly built from the 16th century onwards, once King Tashi Namgyal (circa 1555- 1575) unified the Ladakh kingdom.


We visit a few of these. Leh’s old quarter and its tunnel-like passages lie in the shadow of the imposing nine-storey Palace of King Sengye Namgyal, and the Tsemo Gompa above it. Hemis (48 km south-east of Leh) is the best known of Ladakh’s gompas, since it has its annual festival in the summer when tourists can visit easily. The festival is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava and every 12 years the gompa’s greatest treasure, a three-storey-high thangka of Padmasambhava, studded with pearls and precious stones, is unveiled. But for our money, Hemis is best visited in a month like September, when the trees are golden and the wind dances along.


Built in the 1630s, Hemis is Ladakh’s biggest and richest monastery. Thiksey (19 km south-east of Leh), built in the mid-15th century, is another large gompa, impressively sprawled on a hillock above the village. The dark atmospheric main temple, like a large assembly hall, has old murals on the wall, mostly of scary-looking tantric deities, often in sexual poses. There are wooden bookracks holding ancient manuscripts and the mystical smell of ghee and incense is omnipresent. The roof offers spectacular views. Both the Hemis and Thiksey monasteries are typical of gompas here, with massive walls, small windows, prayer flags, and from inside, a maze of tiny dark rooms and passages.


You can also visit Stok Palace (close to Thiksey), the residence of the Namgyal dynasty since 1843, where a museum displays old thangkas, statues in bronze and gold, ornaments, and a sword twisted out of shape, it is said, by the legendary Tashi Namgyal himself! Basgo (north-west of Leh) used to be a capital of a branch of Ladakh’s Namgyal dynasty, and while its fortifications are now ruined, some lovely 15th-16th century murals can still be seen. Likir Gompa (60 km north-west of Leh) enjoys a lovely location, being well off the highway and has a lovely collection of old thangkas, images and manuscripts. The present building dates to the 18th century.


Alchi village, with a population of a few hundred, and its 11th-century chos-khor (religious enclave) is the jewel among Ladakh’s gompas, with 12th century murals that were preserved (they were not painted over, nor diminished by soot from lamps) because for some reason active worship stopped here in the 16th century. Travelling to practically any of these places, we are offered fresh peas when we stop, and happen on the most photogenic of green-gold views, and meet the cheeriest of smiles, and go deeper into the heart of an inimitable windy silence…. We agree that when we grow up, we want to become Ladakh.


By Juhi Saklani


Unlike the villian in the Harry Potter series, who divided his soul into several pieces to avoid mortality, Juhi Saklani is multiplying hers by travelling, under the guise of being a travel writer.