The myriad hues of
nature in Ladakh
— William Wordsworth
LADAKH is like a dreamland, nay, a naturalist’s Shangri-la! Its geographic isolation generates feelings of awe, while the antiquity of its cultural and spiritual heritage commands reverence. Resonance of Om Mani Padme Hum is spiritually exhilarating, and the presence of shrines and chortens in remote places exalts the human mind for a communion with Eternity! A monastery, or gompa, perched on the most austere precipice conjures up introspection, material renunciation, and a genuine longing for nirvana.
The sublime character of the deep valleys, high peaks defying the stars, and desolate plateaus represent a naturalist’s paradise. Sparsely inhabited areas of Shyok and Nubra valleys, dotted with tiny hamlets amidst patches of vegetation along watercourses, are of great beauty. The magnificent yak is a symbol of strength and vigour in an environment where the fittest can survive. Ibex, Iynx, mountain goat, bactrian camel, and snow leopard characterise the elusive wildlife of the high peaks and plateaus.
High on the Siachen glacier frontier, snow has formed near-perfect pyramids, and the melting snow in summer gives life-sustaining water to the inhabitants of the valleys below. Siachen the largest glacier chisels a 50-mile long valley through the Karakorams, and it is the site of confrontation between India and her hostile neighbour Pakistan. The border villages are a mosaic of Central Asian and the nomadic Aryan cultures evolving into a pattern reflective of the situation and circumstances.
The chortens exude a sense of divine introspection, exaltation of human spirit, and hence the obliteration of human frailty. The prayer wheels and the mane walls are a common sight in the region and complement the spiritual tranquility of the landscape. During summers, the desolation of this arctic desert is interrupted by monastic celebrations, community gatherings, archery contests, feasts, and religious ceremonies. Local brew, the chang and the famous Ladakhi tea, gur-gur chai are toasted during festivities. The rhythmic dance of the brightly-dressed damsels with a perek, a headgear, adds colour and a touch of class to the carnival atmosphere. It is not an exaggeration to say that the inhabitants of this intractable corner of the country are a courteous, pleasant, and friendly breed. Furthermore, the local greetings of Jule, Jule are genuine and spontaneous.
Hemis, the most famous monastery is known for its exuberant summer carnival. The serenity of the place and the contemplative asceticism of the lamas engender veneration, reflection, and introspection. The atmosphere is imbued with peace and tranquility, so characteristic of Buddhism. Prayer-wheels on the premises are reminders of human quest for the Infinite. The practice of offering hkat-tak, a small scarf, to visiting dignitaries and especially on ceremonial occasions is a graceful tradition in the region and is definitely appreciated by visitors honoured with such a souvenir.
Valleys, villages, monasteries, and the native scriptures are rich in ethnomedicinal heritage and the local Amchi (medicine man) is the custodian of this unique treasure-trove. Several medicinal plants abound in the area and are prescribed by the local Amchis. Some of the useful medicinal plants of the area are: Aconitum gamiei (bhonkar), Aconitum napellus (dhutsiloma), Allium sativum (stotse), Berberis ulcina (karpa), Ephedra gerardiana (tsaput), Gentiana algida (spungunwompo), Juniperus macropoda (shuksar), Lannea tibetica (payaksava), Malva verticillata (champa), Meconopsis aculeata (achakhsarum), Nepeta brachypetala (tiyankoo), Oxytropis lapponica (staksha), Pedicularis oederi (lugruserpo), Prunus armeniaca (chulli), Rosa webbiana (sevemethook), Salix angustifolia (changma), Swertia petiolata (tikta), Virola sp. (Pashakha), and Waldhemia tomentosa (shrokarpa).
The border areas of Nubra and Shyok valleys in Ladakh represent a primordial world! Siachen glacier and Saltore Ridge are tense spots. The monastery at Diskit shines like a star in the quiet desolation of the valley and is a source of inspiration to the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages. Monasteries, inhabited by meditative lamas, are the centres of various ceremonies and reflect a sophisticated understanding of the floral, faunal, and ecological factors affecting the lives of human populations. Driving to Khardung La pass, located at 6,000 metres, is perhaps one of the most exciting and daring feats for a naturalist, since the road is narrow and winding and is the highest motorable road in the world. Travelling through high passes requires stamina and immunity from High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema, but the rewards are worth the risks involved.
While trekking through the vast wilderness, the change in scenery is remarkable. Occasional waterfalls from the melting of heavy snow in the summer are spectacular.
One of the most delightful travel experiences in Ladakh is to enjoy the beauty of the most gorgeous and delicate flowers at high attitudes. The colours become deep and conspicuous because of the ultra-violet rays of the sun at high altitudes. Along the watercourses in the valleys of Nubra and Shyok, the majestic brilliance of Siachen rose transforms the valley into a rather small remnant of paradise on Earth! The unspoiled landscape with its flora and fauna is a naturalist’s dreamland. One rarely feels lonely amidst the affluence of scenic panorama afforded to a trekker. Village folks, travelling on foot for various festivals and social gatherings, love to share tagi — Ladakhi bread and chang with a lonely trekker. Furthermore, their friendliness and smile are refreshing and contagious. With the pleasant sound of a nearby brook and the clear blue sky above, the sharing of local delicacies at a lunch-break makes the event a great banquet in the Nature’s dinette.