Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Ladakh Travelogue Part 7: Palaces & Monasteries of Leh

We had spent just over a week in Jammu and Kashmir. Harsha, Prasenjit, Ananya, Sreyashi and I, had been to Srinagar, Kargil, Drass, Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake and were now at the end of our trip. We would spend our last day in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, exploring the monasteries and palaces in the neighbourhood and shopping.






THISKEY MONASTERY

Open – 7 days a week
Entry Fee – Rs. 20
Timings – 7am – 7pm
Time needed – 2 - 3 hours
 
Thiksey (also spelt Thiksay, Tikse, Tiksey or Thikse) is located 19km to the east of Leh and was built sometime around 1481. In the early 15th century, Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, sent 6 of his disciples to spread Buddhism in Tibet. One of the disciples, Jangsem Sherab Zangpo, met the king of Ladakh and impressed him enough for the king to grant him permission to build a temple in Stagmo. The work was carried on by his nephew, Palden Zangpo who thought of building a larger monastery. For this he chose the village of Thiksey, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy of Je Tsongkhapa, who had said “On the right bank of the river Si-Ta (Indus), my teachings will flourish). It was only after the new monastery had been built that the Gelug School really took hold in Ladakh.

There are a number of temples inside the Thiksey Monastery, but the chief attraction is the giant 15-metre-tall statue of the seated Buddha. The entrance to the temple is actually from the temple’s 2nd level and through the door, what one encounters is the Buddha’s face. There is a Tara temple inside the monastery, which is beautiful. Also interesting is the Lamukang Chapel on the roof of the monastery. The assembly hall, where daily prayers happen, is fascinating and makes for some interesting photos. The ASI has been carrying out extensive repairs to the monastery, but, sadly, has replaced many of the old mud and rock constructions with granite and brick and concrete.


SHEY PALACE

Open – 7 days a week
Entry Fee – nil
Timings – 7am – 8pm
Time needed – 2 - 3 hours
 
Located 15 km to the south of Leh, on the Leh-Manali-Highway, the Shey Palace is believed to have been built in 1655 and is said to have served as the summer capital of Ladakh. The palace was once part of a much larger complex, comprising a fort, which predates the palace, and a temple. Historian Auguste Hermann Francke translated rock inscriptions at the base of the palace which he believed were more than 1000 years old and spoke of a king named “Tsanpo”. The palace itself is a large, L-shaped structure, approached through an elaborate wooden gateway. Shey palace is similar to, but smaller than, Leh palace. Most of the buildings inside are small, between 2 and 4 storeys tall, built in the typical Ladakhi style – with mud blocks. Access to the palace is through a narrow passage, while steps connect the upper levels. Given that the rooms on the upper level have very large windows offering excellent views of the surrounding countryside, I assume they must have been intended for residential use, but it is difficult to say for sure, because there are no signs or clues in any of them. The rooms on the lower levels, lacking windows, were probably used for storage.

The Shey Monastery or “Gompa” remains active and its chief attraction is the 39 foot tall Buddha statue, made of copper plates gilded with approximately 5 kg of gold. King Deldan Namgyal had the Buddha image built in memory of his father, the legendary Sengge Namgyal. Shey Palace was abandoned during the Dogra invasion of 1842. The royal family fled to Stok, on the other side of the Indus river, and the palace has remained abandoned since. In spite of the ASI’s attempts at restoration, most of the palace remains in an advanced state of decay today, while the fort is crumbling. We walked through the palace and found a narrow and somewhat treacherous path leading up to the old fort. However, we could only make it part of the way up. Climbing up was easy, but once we started wondering how were going to get down, we decided we simply had to stop. One wrong step would have sent us plummeting down to our deaths. Halfway between the palace and the fort, we found what looked like a large temple. Inside were dozens of oil lamps, which looked like they burned 24/7. Devotees left offerings of large amounts of oil. The entire floor was slick with vegetable oil, while the ceiling was caked in soot. But no matter how dangerous, the climb was worth it for the dramatic views we got. Ladakh’s desolate beauty was complemented by the lush green vegetation on the Indus River’s banks. By now, the sun was beating down on us, and we decided to make a move towards Leh.


SHANTI STUPA

Open – 7 days a week
Entry Fee – nil
Timings – 5am – 9pm
Time needed – 30 minutes
 
The Shanti Stupa is a relatively recent addition to Leh’s skyline, and for someone like me, who is always looking for things of historical interest, it doesn’t have much to offer. Construction of the Stupa began in 1983 and it was inaugurated in 1991. The construction was led by Japanese Buddhists, inspired by the ideas of Nichidatso Fuji, who wanted to build peace pagodas all over the world, and to resurrect Buddhism in India, with Ladakhi Buddhists pitching in. Since its inauguration, the Shanti Stupa has become a very popular tourist attraction, drawing large crowds every day, and featuring in some of the most iconic photographs of Leh. It offers panoramic views of Leh city. For photographers, sunrise and sunset are considered to be the best time to visit. Wikimedia Commons has a striking image of the Shanti Stupa by a user named Shiva Rajvanshi. I wonder where that image was shot from!


LEH PALACE

Open – 7 days a week
Entry Fee – Indians - Rs. 15, Foreigners – Rs. 100
Timings – 7am – 4pm
Time needed – 3 – 4 hours
 
When we told our driver that we wanted to see Leh Palace, he asked, “kya dekhna hai? Woh to khandar hai” (what is there to see? It is a ruin). Nevertheless, we persisted, and I was glad we did. This was our last evening in Leh and photographs of the Leh Palace dominated the Wikipedia page on Leh. There was no way I was going to miss it. To anyone unfamiliar with the Ladakhi style of building with mud blocks, the first question that pops up upon reaching the Leh Palace is how a structure like this has survived. This must seem especially marvellous considering the fact that this part of the world has frequent earthquakes. The traditional construction material is mud or stone. Often a combination of both would be used. The heavier stone at the bottom and the lighter mud blocks on top. Mud blocks were preferred for their insulation properties.

The Leh Palace represents the zenith of Ladakhi architecture. Built in the 1630’s by Sengge Namgyal, it is supposed to be a replica of Tibet’s Potala Palace, albeit on a smaller scale. It has 9 storeys and served as the residence of the royal family until the Dogra invasion forced them to shift to Stok. Ever since, the palace has remained abandoned. The palace, with its massive buttressed walls and projecting wooden balconies suffered massive damage at the hands of the Dogra forces and was in ruins by the 19th century. Of late, however, it has been extensively restored and repaired by the ASI and we found work in progress in 2016 when we were there. Even though the interiors of the palace are mostly bare, it is well worth a visit, if nothing else, simply for the commanding views of Ladakh that it offers.

 
With that, our tour of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh had come to an end. The next morning, we would be boarding a flight from Leh airport, which would take us to Delhi. From there, Sreyashi and I would head back to Calcutta. Prasenjit, Ananya and Harsha would head back to Bangalore. It had been an absolutely magical 9 days, and although I have been fortunate enough to travel around India, the vast open spaces and desolate beauty of Ladakh, are unlike anything I have seen anywhere in India. For a landscape photographer like me, Ladakh has a lot to offer, and I look forward to going back soon. This time, I’ll remember to carry more memory cards, because, as I took my last photograph of the Leh Palace from across the bus stand (one of the best vantage points), my camera showed me the “card full” warning. That was lucky. I hope I’ll be lucky again.

-          by Deepanjan Ghosh

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • Tour planning and bookings by Pathikrit Travels. Contact them at pathikritkolkata@gmail.com
  • Transport handled by Mountain Trails Adventures & Expeditions. Check out their website http://mountaintrails.in/


SOURCES

Harvey, Andrew - A Journey in Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism (Mariner Books, 2000)
Jina, Prem Singh - Ladakh: The Land and the People (Indus Publishing, 1996)
Sharma, Janhwij - Architectural Heritage: Ladakh (Har Anand Publications, 2007)
Bhasin, Sanjeev Kumar - Amazing Land Ladakh: Places, People, and Culture (Indus Publishing, 2006)
Mukherjee, M.M. - Exploring “The Himalayas”: The Land of High Passes, Ladakh (Partridge Publishing India, 2017)
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