Ladakh, the land of jagged peaks and barren landscape is alluring and awe-inspiring. Hidden behind this harsh and forbidding façade is an ancient civilization and captivating people. Beyond the old frontiers lies the land of wilderness with its unaltered character and overwhelming natural beauty beckoning the more intense and adventurous of travelers. This awesome wildness and magic belongs to that great land of towering mountains and Buddhist simplicity-Ladakh.
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR CULTURE
With the strong prevalence of Buddhism, the Buddhist monastery or gompa is a pivotal force in Ladakhi life. Besides being centre-stage during all celebrations and ceremonies, a gompa and its lamas are involved in education, medication and many such social activities. Then there are the lovely Ladhakis. Cut off yet content, their most winning feature is a total absence of urbanity. How reassuring it is to meet a Ladakhi-simple, cheerful and so incredibly industrious. Against the harsh backdrop of barrenness, the famous Ladakhi spirit shines like a beacon. With a total population of less than 150,000, the people of Ladakh belong to a variety of races such as the Hunja, Daradas, Mons and Droks. The latter have the distinction of being survivors of pure Aryan stock and the men of this race are called Drokpas.
Among the various attributes of Ladakhi life that strike an outsider as strange is the headgear that is worn by the women-the perak. Studded in close rows on this long article of skin from the black lamb, are a dazzling variety of precious stones with turquoise the most striking. Coming back to the gompas and lamas, these monasteries may be either of the Mahayana or the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. The head lama is called a kushak meaning reincarnation. The gompas of Ladakh are what give the region its unique flavor and beauty. Typically, most gompas are built so that they perch precariously on lone rocks or craggy mountain faces. Hemis, the largest monastery in Ladakh, is a surprise to the traveler, as it cannot be seen from the road. Impressive and intriguing, Hemis is different from other important monasteries of Ladakh. The annual festival commemorating the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava is held for two days in June-July, enlivening the courtyard of the monastery. The festival of dances where good triumphs over evil in a colorful pageant is also the annual 'bazaar' where Ladhakis from remote areas buy and sell wares.
However important these festivals may be to the native of Ladakh, he or she is really most at home while working, be it in the fields during the short summer or in the house during the arduous and extremely cold months of winter. Most of the local people are farmers. A specific variety of barely-girm -is grown and eaten. The dzo, a hybrid between the yak and cow and hardy enough for the climate of Ladakh, is used to plough fields. Beautiful, exotic flowers such as the iris and larkspurs are common during the warmer months. Production of the famous pashmina and other varieties of wool is a major profession since sheep, goats and yak are in plenty. Synonymous with Ladakh is the yak; its meat, horns, hooves, hide, hair and even tail are useful.
The Ladhakis believe in hard work. The long bleak and cold months of winter find them busy weaving wool into garments, making local handicrafts to be sold during festival and manufacturing ropes, bags and other such useful articles. These simple folk also follow a special social structure. Interestingly, the eldest son of the family inherits all the property, gets married and must also shoulder responsibility for looking after the rest of the family. In a further attempt to retain the original family unit, another peculiar custom is practiced. The younger sons may either live on in the family and also be husbands to their sister-in-law or they can become lamas and get recruited into a monastery. These customs are still prevalent though attempts are being made by the law to make the situation morally more acceptable.
The lamas, on the other hand, like most servants of God the world over, are totally set apart from worldly affairs. There must be close to 5,000 lamas in Ladakh. Hemis monastery alone can house 150 lamas at any one time. There is a gompas in every village with its income coming from gifted land and donations. The monastery land is tilled by peasants and not the lamas who are not supposed to do such work. Valuable works of art-tangkhas -and masks, musical instruments of a typical kind and various precious figurines are housed in the gompas. Hemis is especially renowned for a huge painting of the Buddha which is displayed once in 11 years. Thikse monastery, near Leh, is considered an architectural wonder whereas Shey monastery has a huge gold-plated copper statue of the Buddha. Alchi, Likir and Lamayuru are amongst the oldest gompas of Ladakh. Alchi was built 1,000 years back and Likir in the 11th century. Each monastery, distinct and attractive, imparts to Ladakh that specially intense culture where simplicity is so intricately interwoven with color and industry.
Every year the city of Leh welcomes visitors as it prepares to launch into a weeklong festival of Ladakh to showcase its dances, sporting skills and handicrafts. The cultural extravaganza starts with an impressive ceremonial parade through the streets of Leh. Two long lines of prominent citizens, participants and school children march in file to the festival venue, the Polo Grounds. Every now and then the procession briefly stops as dancers break into impromptu display of footwork. The women holding vases of colorful flowers serenely parade through the streets as traffic grinds to a halt. The dancers twirl and sway as the rhythmic drumbeats and the sounds of trumpets and pipes fill the air. Preceding the ceremony is the traditional welcome invoking the gods. Heavily ornamented and dressed in the rich traditional silk brocades or gonchas with colorful headgear, the dancers take slow measured steps to the beat and rhythm of drums. Other dances follow-the Spavo, the joyous peacock, Argon and the Shon-all of which feature prominently in the festival opened with much fanfare.
The Ladakh Festival organized on a large scale is now a regular tourist event on the tourist calendar. There are several schemes to promote tourism to the Ladakh region. These include opening up of inner line areas such as the beautiful Pangong Tso lake on the Indo-China border, Baima, whose villagers trace their descent to the early Aryan settlers and Nubra Valley which is situated near the strategic Siachen glacier on the Indo-Pak border. Along with the Ladakh festival, adventure tourism will figure prominently in the tourism package. A white water river rafting expedition along the 26-kilometre stretch from Fhey to Nimo along the mighty Indus River is a thrilling experience. It the highest point where river rafting is possible in the world. The high altitude and mountains make it an ideal spot for paragliding, mountaineering, trekking and even skiing. The Ladakhis are keen sportsmen and archery contests are frequently arranged at the village level, which draws all aspiring marksmen. Another popular game, polo, is played with great gusto reminiscent of the Mongol horsemen. The no holds-barred, robust game is far removed from the watered down version seen in today's polo circuits.
Visitors to Skara village near Leh are treated to a local archery contest. As the contestants draw bow and arrow, bowls filled with the delectable apricot, apple and dry fruits are served to the visitors followed by chang, a heady brew made of barley and gur tea, a regional favorite. There is a change of scene as the Festival shifts to the Nubra Valley. The sleepy pastoral countryside of Nubra which has recently been thrown open to tourism is located on the Indo-Pak border. A trip by helicopter over flies an intricate network of mountains including the Khardungla Pass, the highest motor able pass in the world. The mountains have a reddish hue.
Nubra boasts of a more liberal and progressive attitude having been on the ancient silk route and thus open to outside influence. The people are educated and speak fluent Hindi. Nubra is also the home of the double humped Bactrian camel rarely seen elsewhere in Ladakh. It is in Nubra that one sees the co-existence of water, mountain and desert-a rare sight. But then as many will testify, Ladakh is indeed a rare destination.
By Air: The nearest airport is Leh. There are flights from Delhi, Chandigarh and Srinagar.
By road: It is a two-day journey from Srinagar to Leh (434 kilometers) with an overnight halt at Kargil. The road is open from June to October. There is also a road from Manali to Leh via Keylong open from June-October.
WHERE TO EATThe hotels mentioned above have their own restaurants. Good food is also available at Dreamland, Chopsticks and Our Restaurant.
LOCAL TRANSPORTThere is an extensive bus network to reach places around Leh. Jeep can also be hired on a per day basis.
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