Monday, 5 September 2016

Ladakh Travelogue Part 3: From Kargil to Leh

Although Ladakh is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, it is culturally, linguistically and ethnically distinct from either Jammu or Kashmir. In fact, when one is in Ladakh, one does not say that one is in Jammu and Kashmir, but simply in Ladakh. This was my first venture into this part of India, and it was only on the 3rd day of our tour, that we actually entered Ladakh (follow the Ladakh travelogue here - part 1, part 2, part 4). What stood out to me immediately, were the landscape and the light. I had never seen any other place in India, which looked like this. So how did a place so distinct and different, come to be part of J&K?


The earliest settlers of Ladakh were the Dards of Gilgit and the Mons of North India, many of whom were gold prospectors. German missionary August Hermann Francke mentions a curious tale of “gold digging ants” in his book History of Western Tibet. “These ants make for themselves burrows below ground, and in doing so throw up the earth, as ants do with is, and in the same manner; they also look exactly like ours. This thrown-up sand contains the gold, and for the sake of this sand the Indians are sent into the desert”. Once the men were done filling their bags with gold dust, they would have to escape quickly, because the ants would apparently chase them. Francke found no confirmation of this legend, but it is fascinating. Remnants of Dard gold mines can still be seen in Ladakh. Ladakh remained in the hands of the Dards and Mons until the 9th century, when Tibetan rule of Ladakh began.

View from Fatu La Top
The earliest Tibetan settlers in Ladakh must have been nomadic herders who came here around the 5th century BC. They raised yak, goats and sheep, much like the people of Ladakh today. In 842 AD, the Tibetan Empire broke up, and Nyima-Gon, a Tibetan royal established the first Tibetan ruling dynasty of Ladakh. 600 years down the line, Ladakh had been split into two and was facing constant attacks from the Central Asian states when Lhachen Bhagan came along. He united the two parts of Ladakh. To his name, he added the Tibetan word for “victorious”, Namgyal, and thus began the reign of the Namgyal Dynasty of Tibet in 1460. By 1616, Sengge Namgyal was the king, and in his attempts to further expand the boundaries of his kingdom, he ventured into Zanskar and Spiti. But here his army was defeated by the Mughals who had already captured adjoining Gilgit and Baltistan. While the Mughals did not launch a full-fledged invasion of Ladakh, the kingdom now became part of the Mughal sphere of influence, sort of like a Soviet satellite state.

NH 1
In 1679 Ladakh sided with Bhutan in a dispute, leading to an invasion of Ladakh by armies under the command of the 5th Dalai Lama. After two rounds of conflict, The Treaty of Tingmosgang was signed in 1684, which settled the dispute but restricted Ladakh’s independence. That independence would disappear altogether in another 150 years when Zorawar Singh’s armies would invade Ladakh. Zorawar Singh was working for Gulab Singh, who in turn was working for the Sikh Empire. A Jamwal Rajput Dogra, Gulab Singh would shrewdly favour the East India Company in the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46. In return, the EIC would sell him Gilgit, Baltistan, Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh through the Treaty of Amritsar and thus, Ladakh came to be part of the Dogra kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir.

The Indus River
1947 saw the end of British rule in India and while India and Pakistan fought over control of Kashmir, Ladakh remained under Indian control. Until 1962, that is. India’s support of the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 and China and India’s inability to agree upon the McMahon Line, a border between India and China named after British diplomat Henry McMahon who had it drawn up in 1914, led to a Chinese invasion of India’s North. The month-long conflict led to the Indian Army being routed. While the Chinese Army declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from most of Indian territory, the easternmost part of Ladakh, known as Aksai Chin, still remains under Chinese control. The Line of Actual Control or LOAC presently separates Indian and Chinese forces and skirmishes between the two armies keep happening on a regular basis.


Lamayuru Monastery

Before Buddhism came to Ladakh, the dominant religion was the ancient and mystical “Bon-Chos”. Relics from this period of Ladakh’s history may still be seen all over the region. Hindus will be familiar with the left-facing swastika symbol, which was used in Bon-Chos. Buddhism came to Ladakh in 250 B.C. with missionaries sent by Emperor Ashoka. The Kushan Emperor Kanishka sent some 500 Kashmiri missionaries to Ladakh to propagate Mahayana Buddhism. As is often the case with a new religion, Buddhism in Ladakh absorbed many of the rituals and practices of the dominant Bon-Chos faith, including the ritual masked dance known as “Chhaam”. During India’s Gupta period, Vaishanvism, Shaivism, and other Hindu traditions gradually gained ground. Hinduism absorbed many Buddhist influences and philosophies, pushing Buddhism towards redundancy. As Buddhism was eclipsed in India, the death blow being dealt by the Turkic Muslim invasion, in Tibet, the Dalai Lama was established as the ultimate spiritual authority. Ladakh turned to Lhasa for guidance in religious matters and Ladakh came under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. Even during the reign of the Namgyal dynasty, the king had authority only over temporal matters. When it came to matters of faith, it was Lhasa, not Leh, which had the final word.


The Mulbek Chamba

Our first encounter with Tibetan Buddhism was to be through the Mulbek Temple. Situated around 40 km from Kargil on the Kargil-Leh Highway (National Highway or NH1), the village of Mulbek marks a sort of middle point. Up to this point, the locals we encountered were mostly Muslim. Beyond this point, most locals would be Buddhist. Like most tourists, we skipped the two monasteries which were up in the mountains to the North of the road. Our visit was to the famous Mulbek Chamba statue, a statue of the Maitreya Buddha, a Bodhisattwa yet to appear on earth, carved on a nine-meter rock. A temple has been built around the rock, and the whole thing appears to magically stick to the highway!

Interior of the temple
The statue close up
 As we walk in, we take note of the fact that shoes must be removed, and silence must be maintained inside the temple. While photography is permitted inside the temple, the use of flash is not allowed. All this made sense for several reasons. There were monks inside the temple, reading scripture, and the noise and sudden bursts of bright light would disturb them. The dazzling white camera flash would also destroy the paintings that covered every inch of the wall inside the temple. The same logic is used to prohibit flash photography inside Ajanta Caves, and the interior of the temple immediately reminds of Ajanta. While Ajanta’s paintings are severely damaged, here they are intact. Inside the temple was a young monk, quietly reading his scriptures, and not paying attention to the tourists milling around, many of whom were leaving money for him and bowing to him. It is a fairly common practice in Hindu temples to leave money in a “donation box” or “daan peti”. While the logic of that is that money to maintain a temple should come from devotees, in the absence of royal patronage, many people leave money in lieu of wish fulfillment. Bribing the Gods?! Only in India!

Tourists at Mulbek
While I found the leaving money bit to be somewhat strange, what really ticked me off was a group of tourists who walked in immediately after we did. The group was all Indian. They were noisy, talking and giggling amongst themselves, and were armed with two very large DSLRs, and firing off their flash with every photo. Prasenjit and I exchanged a look and nod. I walked up to one of the DSLR owners and told him, very politely, that they shouldn’t be using flash inside the temple. The man smiled apologetically and said they were very new to photography, had just bought their cameras, and didn’t know how to turn the flash off! Facepalm! Thankfully, even though I use Canon gear, I found the Nikon D750 and D810, which is what they were using, had controls very similar to my 70D. They were shooting in the auto mode with flash. I showed them the auto without flash option and came away rolling my eyes.


Panoramic view from Fatu La Top

View from Fatu La Top
We were now in the Zanskar region of Ladakh and the valleys and mountains were beautiful. The light was bright and crisp. Puffy white clouds punctuated the clear blue sky, creating complex patterns of light and shade on the mountains and valleys as they moved. But as we rose higher up, I began to notice the landscape changing again. The mountains became yellow and bare. There were fewer trees. While it was still beautiful, it was now extremely stark. It was also empty. There were no human settlements as far as the eye could see, and coming as I did from one of the most densely populated areas of the world, that was a new experience. Some 50 kilometres later, we made our next stop at Fatu La Top. The suffix “La” means pass in a number of Himalayan languages and dialects, so, this was a mountain pass named Fatu or Fotu. The highest point in a mountain pass is referred to as “Top”. At 13,478 feet above sea level, Fatu La Top was the highest point not only of the pass, but in the entire Srinagar-Leh Highway. Naturally, this is a place where cars stop, where tourists take photographs, or just generally stare out into the distance. I found my choice of lens had changed. Before this, I was mostly using my ultrawide 10-22. Now, everything appeared to be more spread out. I was fine with my 18-135. Even a 50 was good for picking out details or focusing in on one particular part of a scene. In spite of the height, Fatu La wasn’t particularly cold. It was somewhat windy, but not uncomfortable. Our photographs done, we moved on. Our car went up and down and around mountains, and we stared, amazed, at the scenes unfolding before our eyes.


Lamayuru Monastery from a distance

15 km further East brought us to the picture postcard town of Lamayuru, famous for its Buddhist Monastery. Legend has it that Lamayuru was once a lake, which was drained by Arhat Madhyantika aka Nyi-ma-gong-pa in the 5th or 6th century B.C. In the 11th century, Lamayuru was visited by the famous Indian Buddhist Maha Siddha, Naropa (who appears to have been Bengali). Sometime around the mid-11th Century, construction of the Lamayuru Monastery was begun under the great Buddhist scholar and leader, Rinchen Zangpo. Lamayuru was initially under the control of the “Red Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, although today it is affiliated to the Drikung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. It has faced multiple attacks, the last and most destructive of which was led by Zorawar Singh, in 1834. But in spite of this, the monastery has survived, has been rebuilt, and today houses some 150 monks, and has housed as many as 400 in the past.

Lamayuru town from the monastery rooftop
One of the 108 gompas or monasteries built by Rinchen Zangpo, Lamayuru today is the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, and it is worth a visit simply for the spectacular views of the surrounding country that it offers, if nothing else. We climbed all the way to the top and found ourselves staring out over the ruins of previous structures that must have been part of the monastery. But most interesting of all, was what is locally known as “Moon Land”. This area, which looks like someone scooped a bit of earth out of the mountains, looks very much the bottom of a dry lake, so perhaps there is some truth to the legend after all. The bad news at Lamayuru was that photography inside the main temple was not permitted. If you are there, take out a couple of hours, and walk around. Climbing stairs will leave you feeling a little winded, but it’s nothing a little rest can’t fix. By the time we finish our explorations of Lamayuru, it is already past 1. The heat is absolutely merciless, and all the walking around has made us very hungry. Our driver informs us that there is a restaurant immediately outside the monastery and we can have lunch there. The restaurant turns out to be very large, serving a wide variety of dishes, including North Indian and Chinese cuisine.

Lamayuru Moon Land
Stupa at Khaltsi
The landscape continues to offer plenty to gape at as we proceed from Lamayuru towards Leh. There are very few trees, the mountains are bare and rocky and the clouds continue to create patterns of light and shade. But how come I have never seen these patterns in Calcutta, I wonder? Several reasons come to mind. There being very little air pollution here, the sunlight is clear and strong. Also, in Calcutta, we can hardly see beyond the next couple of buildings. High up in the mountains, we can see right up to the horizon in all directions. As we go down NH1, I notice a board warning drivers that they are in a “shooting rocks zone”. Our driver explains that here there are strong gusts of wind; strong enough to dislodge rocks and make them roll down the slope. As they roll down, they gather momentum. When such a rock hits a car, it can cause significant damage. At regular intervals, he peers up at the mountains looking for the tell-tale dust cloud that shooting rocks cause, but thankfully we see none and by 3:45pm, we enter Khaltsi. The next item on the itinerary is Alchi gompa.


Alchi Sum-tsek

Located on the left bank of the Indus river, in a village of the same name, Alchi Monastery’s history is not entirely clear. It was probably one of the 108 gompas built under orders of Rinchen Zangpo. Together with Mangyu and Sumda Chun, Alchi forms a group of historic remains. The monastery is currently administered by the Likir Monastery, and the most visited building is the Sum-tsek or Sumtseg. The small three-storeyed building was made using loam and stone, as is common in Ladakh, but the exquisite woodwork bears the stamp of Kashmiri craftsmanship. Inside are 3 giant Bodhisattva statues, each about 13 feet tall. Through the door, the one straight ahead is Maitreya. On either side are Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. Each statue is wearing a dhoti with interesting prints. Maitreya's dhoti depicts the life of Buddha, Avlokiteshwara's dhoti shows holy places and royal palaces while Manjushri's dhoti has the 84 Buddhist Mahasiddhas printed on it. Unfortunately, photography inside the Sum-tsek is not allowed and given how much trouble people have following simple instructions like “don’t use flash”, I’m not surprised. Alchi village can be a nice place to stay. There are hotels, restaurants, a thriving local market, and plenty to see in the vicinity. However, by the time we were done with the Sum-tsek, the sun was dropping below the mountains. We hurry up and move on.


Where Indus meets Zanskar

Our next stop is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, which turns out to be kinda “meh”! It is a great place if you are into rafting, and there are arrangements in place, but none of us is the rafting type, so we stick around for a few photos and move on to Magnetic Hill, which turns out to be one of the few things in Ladakh that you can actually skip. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Magnetic Hill – “The layout of the area and surrounding slopes creates an optical illusion that the downhill road is actually an uphill road. Objects and cars on the hill may appear to roll "uphill" in defiance of gravity when they are, in fact, rolling downhill”. Seriously? Rolling cars? By now, the sun was pretty low on the horizon and our driver was worried we wouldn’t reach Leh before dark. None of us could understand why that was a problem, but he was right, by the time we rolled into our hotel in Leh, it was dark, but we had one more thing to look forward to.

Light and shadows as the sun begins to set over Magnetic Hill

(Disclaimer: For reasons of security none of the army units or personnel have been identified by name)

It had been something of a surprise for me when my classmate S joined the army. But then, my memories of him are from the 7th grade, after which we had never met. In my head, he was still that thin little boy I used to know. My knowledge of the army was also from books and films, and there are things that no book will tell you. For example, when S said, “come over to my officer’s mess”, the first question I asked was, “is there like a regiment or unit name or something?” “In the field, there’s nothing like that. There are only TAC numbers, Tactical Numbers. If you get lost, give any army jawan the TAC number and he will give you directions”. I had lived all my life near the Ballygunge Maidan Army Camp, without ever being able to enter it, so it was somewhat unreal to be entering into an actual frontier army base for dinner. So what is an army base like? It is almost shockingly pretty. The entire base is spick and span and there are all these little details that caught my eye. For example, pebbles had been painted in different colours and arranged in geometric patterns, someone had sawed the tops off old telegraph poles, painted them and arranged them to form fences – who knew the army liked it pretty?

Approaching Leh
The officer’s mess turned out to be pretty spectacular as well, just as well decorated as any club in Calcutta, with a place for all the honours and accolades the unit had earned, a brass plaque with the names of the commanding officers, gifts to the mess by departing officers and one spectacularly well-stocked bar. “It’s a good thing you’re here”, S said, “the service guys will get some practice. Otherwise, they’re just serving the handful of officers who happen to be here”. For the evening S had pulled out all the stops. Single malt whisky, multiple kebab platters and to top it all, an officer who had been in the NSG (National Security Guard, a special forces unit that fights terrorism) who regaled us with an endless stream of hijacking stories. Dinner at the mess was on par with any restaurant in Leh. “The guys who have cooked for you, the guys who are serving you, they’re all army guys”, S said, and that made it all seem a little more unreal. When one thinks of the army, guns and tanks come to mind, not chicken tikka masala! But there is one more un-army-like thing the army does in Ladakh that you probably don’t know about. But I’ll save that story for another post.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



  • I am grateful to the officers and men of the Indian Army for their cooperation.
  • Tour planning and bookings by Pathikrit Travels. Contact them at
  • Transport handled by Mountain Trails Adventures & Expeditions. Check out their website


Francke, August Hermann - A History of Western Tibet: One of the Unknown Empires
Francke, August Hermann - Antiquities of Indian Tibet
Kaul, H.N. - Rediscovery of Ladakh
Jina, Prem Singh - Ladakh: The Land and the People
Jina, Prem Singh - Recent Researches on the Himalaya
Zutshi, Rattan - My Journey Of Discovery
Bhasin, Sanjeev Kumar - Amazing Land Ladakh: Places, People, and Culture

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