Ladakh, a repository of cultural and religious influences from mainland India, Tibet and Central Asia, has often been referred to as ‘the roof of the world’. A perfect name as three major mountain ranges—the great Himalayas, Zanskar and Karkoram fill the region with snow-capped peaks and glaciers. This is where valley heights range from a mere 8,000 ft up to 15,000 ft and mountain passes can be found as high as 20,000 ft.
The region’s major waterway is the River Indus, which flows in from Tibet at Demchok. Starting near Mt Kailash, according to mythology the Indus sprouts from the mouth of a lion and is hence known as ‘Sengge Chhu’—in Tibetan Sengge is lion and Chhu means flowing water. The Indus is joined in this region by its tributaries Zanskar, the Shingo and the Shyok—forming the main inhabited region.
For adventurous travellers, Ladakh is a must-see destination and in the past two decades, it has steadily gained in popularity. If one takes a flight from Delhi directly to Leh, there is no way that you can ignore the spectacular sight of the Spitok Gompa. High up on a hilltop above the river Indus and beside the end of the airport runway, the temple is more than 11,000 years old and offers one of the most breathtaking views of Leh.
Leh , located at an altitude of 11,562 ft needs getting used to and it is advisable to relax at least for a day, before rushing off for sightseeing. Instead it is a good idea to explore the shops overflowing with Tibetan and Kashmiri goods. Many hours can be spent bargaining for semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, turquoise, coral and even pearls. Even more interesting are the quaint brass locks, yak-horn boxes, china soup bowls and metal bowls with matching spoons—there is usually something for everyone.
There are also several restaurants, some open air eateries set in gardens, serving some of the best Tibetan food as well as Indian and Continental cuisine—what better way could there be of adjusting to the altitude and whiling away time on the first day?
Located in the bazaar, Jo-khang is a modern ecumenical Buddhist temple. Almost opposite is the Leh Mosque, built in 1594 by Singe Namgyal in honour of his Muslim mother. If you decide to walk away from the Bazaar, past Zangsti, there is the Moravian Church, the Ladakh Ecological Centre and a footpath across the fields that leads to the Sankar Gompa—a half hour walk. While there are many monasteries in the region, there is only one within the valley, the Sankar Gompa with its beautiful image of Avalokiteshvara, the ‘Buddha of Compassion’.
The town’s main sight-seeing attraction is the nine-storey Namgyal Palace on a granite ledge, built around 1600. The ledge is shaped rather like an elephant’s head. The palace was badly damaged in the 19th century wars, when the royal family fled to Stok, where their descendents continue to live till today. Centuries of vandalism has added to the Palace’s deterioration. However it appears that an effort at restoration has been taken up. Higher up in the mountains is the even more dilapidated palace-fort built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century. The Leh monastery also located here is still well preserved. Monks climb up the hill morning and evening, to light the lamps.
To visit the modern Ladakh Shanti Stupa on a hill, one has to go up via a winding road from Changspa, a charming village in the suburbs of Leh. Also worth seeing are the ramparts of Zorawar Singh’s Fort, which houses the army within its barracks.
Just 6 km away from Leh is the Shey Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. Built on a huge rock it was attached to the summer palace, which now lies abandoned and forgotten. The monastery on the other hand is well-preserved with a 12 metre high golden Buddha – said to be the largest in Ladakh. The popularity of the monastery is also because of its ‘oracle’, who predicts events while in a trance.
Sabu, another charming village with a small Gompa, nestles 9 km away between two mountainous spurs. In the same direction, but slightly closer to town is Choglamser, where the Tibetan Refugee Settlement is located. Here there is also a children’s village, a handicrafts centre, mainly for carpet weaving and the Dalai Lama’s prayer ground —Jiva Stal. Close to the Choglamser Bridge, a road leads to the 200-year old Palace of Stok. The last king of Ladakh passed away in 1974, but his family continues to reside there. There is also a museum here that can be entered by paying a small fee.
The Gompas of Ladakh are rich in art and create supurb ‘Tankas’ (painted scrolls) and Buddha images. These can be seen at most of these places of worship. In addition each of the the Gompas have festivals, spread through the year with dates based on the lunar calendar. The Thikse Gompa, 17 km from Leh is an interesting reddish structure with several temples. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the village and the Indus River, it also has a fairly recently created Buddha and is known for its library and excellent artwork.
Among the Gompas, the largest and most important one is Hemis Gompa, 45 km away from Leh. It is famous for its 2-day Hemis Festival, held in the second half of June or early July. This is one of the largest and most spectacular of the Gompa festivals and features elaborate mask dances—giving tourists a very good reason for a visit.
Ladakh also has its own very popular yearly festival in the 1st week of August. This is definitely the best time to visit Ladakh, the skies are clear and the lakes are full of water.