The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 5, 2001

Ladakh leaves you spellbound
V.K. Kapoor

NATURE has expressed herself in a myriad moods in Ladakh. Situated in the Indus valley region, south of the Karakoram range of mountains, on its North-Western side, Ladakh is contiguous to Gilgit district. Himachal Pradesh touches its borders towards the south-east.

The police memorial at Hot Springs
The police memorial at Hot Springs

Known by two names in the past, Ladakh was generally called La-Taghs, which literally means a mountainous country with passes. It was also known as Mang-Yul, which means a country inhabited by people with different origins as well as Mar-Yul which indicates a Lowland. The famous traveller Hieun Tsang visited Ladakh in 640 AD. He described this region as San-Pho-Ho or The Country of the Indus River and the name Mo-Lo-Poho for Ladakh. According to scholars, (Smra-Yul) was a Central Asian tribe which had settled in the upper Indus valley in early historical times. Two names; Lad-Wag and La-Dog by which the territory was also known are, in fact, phonetic variations of its Tibetan name, La-Taghas, which became Ladakh in the due course of time.

The earliest settlers in Skardu and Kargil Tehsils belong to a semi-Tibetan race called Baltis while Tehsil Ladakh (Leh) was inhabited by the Mongols of Central Asia. The population of Ladakh is the result of a long process of blending of at least three distinct stocks i.e. Dards and Mons from Aryan stock and the Mongolians from Tibetan stock. Ladakhi and Balti are the principal languages of the region.

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Buddhism and Islam are the two dominant religions of Ladakh covering as much as 96.94 per cent of the total population. Leh district is predominantly Buddhist, while the Kargil district is predominantly Muslim. Buddhism was first introduced in Ladakh during the reign of King Ashoka. The pure form of Buddhism prevalent in Ladakh today is Lamaism. It is considered to be a combination of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism and Tantrayan. Buddhist religious beliefs and practices in Ladakh appear to be a mixture of metaphysics, mysticism, morality, fortune-telling and idolatry.

The Leh golf course is the highest golf course in the world.
The Leh golf course is the highest golf course in the world.

Islam is the second most important religion in Ladakh. It is not precisely known when Islam was introduced in Ladakh but, it is quite reasonable to believe that the traders from Central Asia, who were mostly Muslims, brought the new faith to the region. Social intercourse and inter-marriages between these merchants and Ladakhis gave rise to a mixed race known as ‘Argons’. The Muslims of Kargil are predominantly Shias.

The spiritual life in Ladakh centres around monasteries which are called gompas.The monasteries are the most attractive features of the landscape of Ladakh. Monasteries are places of worship, isolated meditation and religious institution. There are approximately 40 major and more than 100 smaller monasteries all over Ladakh. Besides, there are also 10 nunneries in Ladakh.

The Hemis Monastery or the Sanguag Chosling Monastery is situated in the south of Leh on the left side of the Indus River (Singhe Khabab). It is at a distance of 43 km from Leh on the Leh-Manali Leh-Demchok road. It is the largest and most famous of all monasteries in Ladakh. Within the monastery, there are to be seen a copper gilt statue of the Lord Buddha, various stupas made of gold and silver, and many precious objects. A very tall statue of Guru Padmasambhava had also been installed there about eight years back. A nunnery just below the monastery is known as Chomoling (abode of nuns).

Gurdwara Pathar Sahib
Gurdwara Pathar Sahib

Thiksey Monastery (Khrigse) known as Tsultim Namdag Ling is about 20 km towards the east of Leh. This fantastic architectural complex, resembling the Potala of Lhasa, takes up a whole hillside on the right bank of the Indus river. One-Metre statue of the Maitreya or future Buddha was installed in the monastery which was completed in 1981. A Buddha image from the mid 15th century is house in this monastery.

Leh, the headquarters of the Leh district, at an altitude of 11,500 ft, is certainly one of the highest inhabited spots in the world. Termed as the soul of Ladakh region, Leh is strategically the most vital part as it forms the meeting ground of China, Russia and Pakistan. The plateau of Changthang, at an elevation of 13000 to 15000 ft above sea level, is impressive and extends far beyond the Ladakh border into what is now Chinese territory. From the Ladakh side, there are two gateways to this vast prairie; the Taglang La to the south east of Leh attaining an elevation of 17000 ft and Chang La to the north east rising to an elevation of 17600 ft.

Leh is a town where Kashmiris, Punjabis and soldiers representing various racial types mingle with the indigenous population in different patterns of relationship. Sexual relationships with the native women are not excluded. Leh has a highest golf course in the world, situated at a height of 11,500 ft above sea level.

The social life of Ladakhis is unique in many respects. By nature, Ladakhis are very social, courteous and straightforward. They live in a peculiar natural environment which makes their society cohesive, integrated and interdependent as far as various sections of it are concerned. In religious affairs, they are liberal but superstition had a firm hold on them in the past. In matters of diet and drink also they do not follow very hard and fast rules. These people are very hospitable to outsiders and strangers. In matters of matrimony, the Buddhists of Ladakh are liberal because the system of polyandry forced upon them by natural compulsions has made them so. However, with the modernisation of the region, Ladakhis have ceased to adhere to this system of marriage and monogamy is gaining popularity. A reflection of the modern times can be seen in the dresses of young girls, who wear jeans and skirts instead of traditional Ladakhi dresses. Onslaught of electronic goods has also affected the younger generation. Pop music cassettes and CDs can be seen displayed in the main shopping centres along with computers and other gizmos. The electronic media is gradually affecting the lifestyle of the people by bringing more awareness.

A view of the Sindhu river.
A view of the Sindhu river.

Womenfolk of Ladakh are sturdy, and well-built physically and cheerful by temperament. They participate in all economic activities including manual work in field and farms, in workshops in knitting and embroidery centres. Naturally, they enjoy a better social status and rights.

Nestled deep in the Himalayas, about 25 km from the town of Leh, is the Gurdwara Pathar Sahib which was built by the Lamas of Leh in 1517 to commemorate the visit of Guru Nanak Dev. It was run by them for over four centuries. Currently, the Army is looking after it.

According to legend, a wicked demon who terrorised the people of the area lived where the Gurdwara is situated. The people prayed to the Almighty for help. It is said that Guru Nanak heard their woes and came to their aid. He settled down on the banks of the river below the hill where the wicked demon lived. The Guru blessed the people with sermons and became popular in the area. The locals call him Nanak Lama. The demon got into rage and decided to kill Guru Nanak Dev. One morning when the Guru was sitting in meditation, the demon rolled down a large Pathar (boulder) from the hill top, with the intention of killing the Guru. The boulder came rolling down and when it touched the Guru’s body, it melted like wax and the Guru kept on meditating undisturbed. Thinking that the Guru had been killed, the demon came down and was taken aback to see him deep in meditation.

In a fit of anger, he tried to push the boulder with his right foot, but as the pathar had already melted like wax, his foot got embedded in it. On seeing this, the demon realised his own powerlessness as compared to the spiritual powers of the great Guru and fell at his feet. Guru Nanak, thereafter, continued his holy journey towards Srinagar via Kargil. The pathar (stone) pushed down by the demon with imprint of the body of Guru Nanak Dev as also the foot imprint of the demon is at present lying in the Gurdwara Pathar Sahib. Since 1517, the local Lamas hold the pathar sacred and offer prayers to it.

The Hemis monastery
The Hemis monastery

It is on the Chinese border and is situated at a height of 15,300 feet, above sea level. On October 21, 1959, 10 policemen were killed in the icy wastes of Hot Springs in Ladakh in an unequal combat with heavily armed Chinese troops. The latter had violated the Indian borders and intruded deep into our territory. The corpses of these policemen were handed over by the Chinese on November 13, 1959 and were cremated at the Hot Springs at 8 a.m. on November 14, 1959. In memory of these 10 gallant policemen, every year October 21 is celebrated as Police Commemoration Day throughout the country. A memorial has been raised in their memory at Hot Springs.

It takes about 50 minutes by chopper from Leh to Hot Springs. While flying over the Sindhu River, through crevices and mountains, one can see the most breathtaking landscape. One also realises the majesty of nature and the insignificance of human life. The immensity of nature is overpowering. I was overwhelmed by the morale and hospitality of the ITBP jawans. I felt proud of them. I asked them what troubles them the most? Loneliness was the general reply. There are two things, which ail humanity — need and loneliness. People who can cope with these two are generally a happy and contented lot.

In their underground bunker, I discovered a small make-shift temple, which housed all gods and goddesses. I felt that the presence and remembrance of God is one single factor which gives strength to the human being to meet all odds of life. The place has a stark elemental beauty. There is neither vegetation nor habitation. There is an atmosphere of eerie and forbidding calm in the region.


This feature was published on July 29, 2001