|Facts and Figures|
|Languages||Ladakhi, Purig, Tibetan, Hindi, English|
|Best time to visit||May to October|
THE BUDDHIST CAPITAL OF NORTH INDIA
Leh is one of the favorite tourist destinations located in the northernmost parts of the country. Lapped in the snow-covered fringes of the Himalayas, Leh has been the center of Tibeto-Buddhist culture since ages. Its colorful gompas have attracted the devout Buddhists from all over the globe. Besides, it is also a favorite hiking locale and is known for some of the best hikes in the country.
The capital of the Ladakh district, Leh is towards the eastern parts of Jammu and Kashmir. It is perched at a height of 3,505 m above sea level. The region is watered by the Zanskar River, which flows into the Indus River just below. The Stok mountain range lies just south of Leh, while towards the north one can find the snow-capped Ladakh range. In the winters, it is freezing cold with temperatures going below 0°C.
Leh became the regional capital in the 17th century, when King Sengge Namgyal shifted his court here from Shey (15 km southeast) to be closer to the head of the Khardung La-Karakoram corridor into China. Very soon, the town blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Route. Leh's prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim traders, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950s. Only after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered its strategic value, did Leh’s fortunes begin to look up. Today, khaki-clad soldiers and their families from the nearby military and air force bases are the mainstay of the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors are few. It was in 1974 that Leh was opened up for tourists.
SITES TO VISIT
A miniature version of the Potala in Lhasa, the Leh Palace is one of the major attractions here. The palace was built in the 17th century and is now dilapidated and deserted. It was the home of the royal family until they were exiled to Stok in the 1830s. Above the palace, at the top of the Namgyal hill, is the Victory Tower, built to commemorate Ladakh’s victory over the Balti Kashmir armies in the early 16th century.
The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, built in 1430, contains a three-story high Buddha image and ancient manuscripts and frescoes. The fort above this gompa is ruined, but the views of Leh from here are breathtakingly beautiful.
The Sankar gompa is located a couple of kilometers north of the town center. The gompa belongs to the Gelukpa order and has an impressive impression of the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshwara Padmahari or Chenresig, with 1,000 arms and an equal number of heads.
The Shanti Stupa was built by a Japanese order and was opened by the Dalai Lama in 1985. From the top, one can view the exotic locales nearby. The stupa is located at a distance of 3 km from the Fort Road.
The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb commissioned the mosque at the head of the Leh Bazaar. The Soma gompa lies near the mosque.
Seventy kilometers from Leh, on the banks of river Indus, is the Alchi gompa dating back to the 11th century. It is one of the largest and a famous monastery with a widely renowned collection of paintings.
At a distance of 45 km south of Leh, Hemis is one of the biggest gompas in Ladakh. Built in 1630, it belongs to the red sect, Brokpa. It is also known as Chang Chub Sam Ling or “the lone place of the compassionate person.” To commemorate the birth of the renowned Indian sage, Padmasambhava, the annual Hemis festival is held in the month of June/July.
Situated on the opposite bank of the Indus across Thikse, the Matho gompa was established in the first half of the 16th century and has a valuable collection of old and beautiful thangkas, some in the form of 'mandalas.' Its annual festival of oracles in early March is an important event in the Ladakhi religious calendar.
Until the 16th century, the Shey gompa was the royal residence. It is located at a distance of 15 km south of Leh. This Palace Monastery has the largest statue of Maitreya Buddha (the Buddha to come) in Ladakh. Erected in the mid-17th century, worked out of gold and gilded copper sheets with blue hair, it stands 17.5 m high.
At a distance of 8 km from Leh, standing majestically on top of a hillock overlooking the Indus Valley, lies the Spituk Gompa. It was built in the 15th century and houses a collection of ancient masks, antique arms, icons and thangkas. Higher up the hill is the Mahakal Temple, containing the shrine of Vajrabhairava.
About 20 km south of Leh, Thikse gompa is an imposing monastery and one of the finest examples of Ladakhi architecture. It belongs to the Gelukpa order. The 12-story monastery complex contains numerous stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings, swords and a large pillar engraved with the Buddha's teachings.
A few kilometers upstream from Thikse, Stakna is situated on a 60-meter-high isolated rock. The word Stakna means “tiger’s nose.” It was built by the stepbrother of King Sengge Namgyal, as a part of the Brokpa order.
Built in 1814, the Stok gompa is the site where the last king of Ladakh died in 1974. The museum here has a unique collection of royal ornaments, and traditional clothing, along with exquisite thangkas representing the life of the Sakya Muni Buddha.
The Lamayuru monastery was founded in the 11th century. It houses a library, thought to be the oldest in region. The present monastery dates back to the 16th century and has the 11-headed image of the Avalokiteshwara Buddha.
Founded in the 11th century, the Likir monastery was rededicated to the Gelukpa order in the 15th century. The earlier gompa was destroyed in fire and the present gompa dates back to the 18th century. It contains huge clay images of Buddha and various old manuscripts. It also houses an interesting collection of thangkas, old religious and domestic costumes and implements.
Belonging to the Brokpa sect, the Phyang gompa was built in the 16th century. Located at a distance of 16 km from Leh, it houses hundreds of statues, thangkas, old manuscripts and some old weapons.
The Bagso gompa is located 40 km downstream from Leh, and was the seat of power of a branch of the Namgyal family. It is here in ad 1680 that invading Mongol and Tibetan armies were held in check over a three-year-long siege. Original 16th-century murals and other arts of Bagso are worth seeing.
About 45 km from Leh, the Chernry gompa is situated in a picturesque valley leading to Changia. It was constructed upon Sengge Namgyal's death in 1645. A large collection of scriptures with title pages in sterling silver and the text in gold letters is kept here.
Precariously perched atop a 200-meter-high crag, the Mulbekh gompa has an imposing rock carving of the future Buddha. On the other end of the valley is a phallus-shaped rock with a monastery at its base.
At a distance of 50 km east of Leh, the Thak Thog gompa is the only monastery belonging to the Nying-ma-pa order. Gum Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava) is said to have founded this monastery and the temple where he meditated is still to be seen here. Tu-Phuk houses the images of Guru-Tsan-gyet (eight forms of Padma Sambhava), Guru Takpo Tsahl and the 11-headed Avalokitesvara. The new monastery is built on ground level and contains the image of Guru Nang Srith Zilon in a central position. To its right is an image of Guru Dorje Dolo and on the left is an image of Guru Padma Gyalpo. There are seats for the Dalai Lama and Taklung Rinpoche (the incarnate Lama of the monastery). The monastery stages two festivals every year. Thak Thog Tse Chu is held from the ninth to the eleventh day of the sixth Tibetan month. Thak Thog Wangchogis is held from the 26th to the 29th day of the ninth Tibetan lunar month.
Nearby, the town of Choglamsar is an important center for Tibetan Buddhism and the study of Tibetan study and culture. One can find here a Tibetan library, medical center, handicraft shops, study center, bookshops, plenty of restaurants and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies.
ACTIVITIES AT LEH
Leh is a trekker’s favorite spot in North India. The treks from Spituk to the Markha valley and Lamayuru gompa to Chiling village alongside the Zanskar River are the most popular treks of the region. Another trek path is from Likir to Temisgam. Treks can be completed from the end of June until the middle of October. Proper acclimatization is necessary as many of the passes are as high as 5,000 m in altitude. Many trekking agencies in Leh offer inclusive treks with a guide, packhorses, food and supplies.
Besides trekking, polo is also a popular pastime in Leh. During summers, one can play polo on Tuesdays and Saturdays on the Polo ground. Regular matches and competitions are held during the Ladakh festival.
Archery competitions are held at the National Archery Stadium.
From July to September, one might also indulge in rafting in the Zanskar River.
Buddhist study centers have been set up at both Leh and Choglamsar. Summer meditation sessions are held at the Mahabodhi Meditation Center on Changspa Lane.
WHERE TO SHOP
Prices are quite high at Leh. The places for local goods are the Ladakh Art Place in the old town, the Ecology Center and some shops behind the Main Bazaar road. During the Ladakh festival there are many stalls selling local handicrafts and clothes.
HOW TO REACH
There are regular flights from Delhi to Leh that are run by the Indian Airlines. There are direct flights once a week from Leh to Srinagar and twice a week to Jammu. The Delhi flights are overbooked throughout the year.
There are two overland routes to Leh-the roads from Srinagar and Manali. The Leh-Srinagar road is usually open from June to October, while the Leh-Manali route is open from July to September. An expensive but useful alternative can be the taxis plying from both Leh and Kargil.
FOOD AND SHELTER
There are a large number of hotels and guesthouses in Leh and they are mostly open in the peak season (July-mid-September). Local tourist authorities decide the price of accommodation. Budget lodging is available in three main areas: the old town, the newer areas along the Fort Road, and within the peaceful village of Changspa. The lodges can be very romantic, being made of wood. There are many mid-range and top-end lodges as well.
There is no shortage of eating joints in Leh, and one can enjoy many different cuisines here. Indian cuisine, especially Kashmiri, is cheap and delicious. Tibetan cuisine is also very popular. Western food can be obtained in the hotels along the Fort Road. Leh is also famous for its bakeries and their sweetmeats. There are a couple of bars as well.
The Tourist Reception Center (Ph. 52297) is 3 km south of the town center on the road to the airport. The District Magistrate’s Office (Ph. 52210) handles the permits for the newly opened areas of Leh. The only place in Leh to exchange money is the State bank of India’s foreign exchange counter at the Tourist Information Center on Fort Road. There are many bookshops and libraries around which give information on Leh and Ladakh. One can check out the bilingual Ladags Melong magazine for more information on Ladakh.
It is very important to acclimatize to the atmosphere to avoid acute mountain sickness (AMS). Medical service is available at telephone numbers 52014 and 52360.
|Adventure Tours of India|