Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mystic Ladakh
(published in Chembur-Ghatkopar Plus-Times of India)

After a long, adventurous and tiring journey from Manali; we arrived at our hotel in Leh. Since we wanted to acclimatise to the high altitude of Leh, we did not cover 475 kilometres at one go. The altitude made us feel giddy and also made difficult to breathe. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to keep drinking water at intervals of 15-20 mins. It is also advisable to keep a bag of munchies along with you. The car on the way to Leh sputtered, hiccupped and groaned but kept moving over near-vertical lifts and gravity defying bends. The Manali-Leh highway is known as “The Bikers Paradise”. A lot of people opt for a bike ride; it gives them a opportunity to explore nature and the leisure to travel.

The first day in Leh began with a visit to the famous and the aesthetically pleasing Shey Palace. Shey Palace and Gompa (temple) are one of the oldest in Ladakh. Shey, like every other Gompa in Ladakh is situated on a hill with coloured prayer flags fluttering on the top of the building. This is common to all the structures in Ladakh. The magnificent statue of Lord Gautama Buddha, in a meditative mudra inside the Gompa was a divine sight.

Our next stop was the “Stok Palace”; where the present King of Ladakh resides. While we proceeded towards the palace museum, we were stopped by the caretaker at the entrance. It was sort of a stalemate. I greeted him, saying “Namaste” (that’s what a foreigner had told me a few minutes back when came face to face) and he said “50 rupees-Entrance fees”. We paid the fees and entered the museum; which has a big verandah with beautiful collection of Buddhist artefacts, weapons, jewellery etc. It also displays the beautiful head dresses of the previous queens of Ladakh, made from expensive gems like turquoise and gold.

After our visit to the Stok palace, while driving downhill, our driver pointed to a distant white structure. That was it, the Shanti Stupa our next stop. It is magnificent as the word “Shanti” is in itself. It was built to celebrate 2500 years of Buddhism by a Japanese organisation and was inaugurated by none other than the Dalai Lama himself.
It is a milky white structure and a realm of great stillness and peace. Shanti Stupa is a gift of the mankind. The breathtaking view of Shanti Stupa made us add more and more pictures of the structure.

By now, it was afternoon and we were hungry. We drove back to the hotel and had a delicious lunch which included the Ladakhi delicacy –“Momos”. In the evening we were to visit the Leh palace and Samkar Gompa.

The Leh palace is a magnificent monument and was an erstwhile home to the kings of Ladakh till the 18th century. The monument has been modelled on the Potala palace in Tibet which is the residence of the present Dalai Lama IV. However, the building is in a very poor state. The prime attraction of Leh palace is the beautiful idol of Lord Buddha known as Maitreya (compassion) Buddha.

Next, we went to the Samkar Gompa. It was shut. Our driver knocked a few doors around the Gompa, requested one of the Lamaji’s of the temple to open it. The Lama smilingly (just like most other Ladakhis) opened it for us. The walls of the structure depict beautiful pictures of Gautam Buddha. There were the three pictures of him representing the past, present and the future Buddha’s.

Later we went to the market - Shopping. Leh boasts of a huge market place buzzing with activity. The speciality of Ladakh culture, sold here are Buddhist scriptures, Thangka paintings, Carpets and Ladakhi jewellery. The must visit markets are the Tibetan markets and the Moti market near the Leh bus stand. The vendors in the market are nice and friendly but quote unrealistic prices for any item. After a few exchange of words with them, we had a feeling of “déjà-vu”. It brought the good-bad experiences of shopping at the Fashion Street in Mumbai into play and learnt that we were not too bad at bargaining.
The next day we got up early, with excitement as we were to go for “Rafting” in the river Indus. We were the first people to arrive at Phey, start point. A few minutes later, a big group of about 20 people and a few other Europeans arrived. After a briefing on Do’s and Don’ts of rafting by the instructors, we joined the foreigners in one of the rafts who were experienced rafters. We lifted the raft and pushed it in the water.
A little later we were on our way riding on the mischievous waves of the Indus. Rafting is a superb experience, and I kept cursing myself for not having it done before. Our raft instructor Babu, was from Nepal. He was sitting right behind me and was giving us loud and clear instructions. We kept moving ahead hitting the waves with our rafts sometimes softly and sometimes with all our might and force. As we moved through the mountains, the scene was stupendous. The currents in the water were not the same throughout our rafting. At places of high currents, the water came splashing on us. The water was ice-cold, nearly 3-4 degrees. The next time we were in the region of high currents we used to paddle hard so as to avoid getting drenched in the freezing water. After a short relaxation mid way, we continued rafting. We’d have moved a few kilometres, we came across ‘Sangam’ where river Zanskar meets river Indus. Since the raft was in control , I got a chance to take a break in between and enjoy the scenic beauty around Sangam. After about 3 hours of rafting, we reached our base camp at Nimo where hot lunch awaited us. After lunch, we bid good bye to our friends and moved to Alchi where we were to visit another monastery.

Alchi, situated at about 70 kilometres from Leh, is very calm and an ideal place to retreat. We were told that the sculptors and wood carvers were brought from Kashmir to build this magnificent structure. Attached with the Alchi Gompa is a beautiful Manjusri temple, reciting the Buddhist culture

The next day we were scheduled to visit the “Nubra Valley” (popularly known as the valley of flowers), around 120 kilometres from Leh. It is famous for the white sand dunes and the Camel safari. We passed through the world famous Khardung La, at the height of 18300 ft; the highest motorable road in the world. We experienced a little difficulty in breathing because of the high altitude; but this was compensated by the panoramic view of the mountains. After passing through a whirlpool of bends, we reached Diskit by afternoon. We took hot lunch at the guest house; followed by a short nap. In the evening we went to Hunder, for the Camel Safari. The Bactrian camels are unique, they have two humps. The safari was exhilarating.

After returning from the safari, we visited the Diskit Gompa. The next day we departed from Diskit, as early as 5.a.m. to avoid the scorching heat during the day.

While on our way back, we visited the Thiksey and the Hemis monasteries. Thiksey Gompa was the most beautiful monastery of Ladakh, situated on a hill top. The monastery also has a temple of goddess Dorje Chenmo which is known as Lakhang Nyerma. The distinguishing feature of this Gompa is the 15 meter tall statue of Lord Buddha which happens to be the biggest in Ladakh. This too represents the Maitreya (compassionate) Buddha. The main feature is the “Wheel of Life”. This wheel has pictures of snake, bird, and a pig which symbolizes greed, desire and ignorance respectively. The Lamukhang temple, is prohibited for women.

Hemis Gompa is the richest monastery of Ladakh which is situated in the Hemis village surrounded by the mountains. It has a well decorated copper statue of Buddha and Stupas made of Gold and Silver. The Hemis monastery is a venue of the famous Hemis festival held in July. This festival is a tribute to Guru Padamsambhava also known as Guru Rimpoche. He is known to have laid the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet, and the festival marks his birthday celebration.

The following day, we made a visit to the world famous, “Pangong Tso”. It took nearly 5 hours to reach the lake. On the way is the elegance, personified and mighty Chang la which happens to be the third highest motorable road in the world, at 17800 ft. It is so magnanimous, that it runs through both India and China(two-third in China and one- third in India)

The colour of the lake is royal blue and presents a spectacular view. While we kept marvelling at the beauty and majesty of nature; the sunrays painted hues of blue and green on the surface. We captured each moment of colour change. Reluctantly we headed back to our hotel.

Next day we bid Goodbye to Leh, still thinking “Blue”. This ended our romance (of a fairy tale kind) with Ladakh. If I were a painter, I’d have painted those vivid memories of Ladakh. With awesome affection for the place, I would twist and quote what Mark Twain once said “The world is divided between two kinds of people, those who have been to Ladakh and those who haven’t”.

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