Area: 98,000sq km
Altitude: 7,500m Max.
Religion: Buddhism, Islam. Hindu
Locational Status: Cold Desert
The region of Ladakh once formed part of the erstwhile Kingdom of Ladakh and for nearly 900 years from the middle of the 10 th century existed as an independent kingdom. After 1531, it was periodically attacked by the Muslims from Kashmir, until it was finally annexed to Kashmir in the mid 19th century. The early colonizers of Ladakh included: - the Indo-Aryan Mons from across the Himalayan range, the Darads from the extreme western Himalayas, and the itinerant nomads from the Tibetan highlands. While Mons are believed to have carried north-Indian Buddhism to these highland valleys, the Darads and Baltis of the lower Indus Valley are credited with the introduction of farming and the Tibetans with the tradition of herding. Its valleys, by virtue of their contiguity with Kashmir, Kishtwar and Kulu, served as the initial receptacles of successive ethnic and cultural waves emanating from across the Great Himalayan range.
Its political fortunes ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and the kingdom, was at its best in the early 17th century under the famous king Sengge Namgyal, whose rule extended across Spiti and western Tibet up to the Mayumla beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
During this period Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Pubjab and Central Asia. The merchants and pilgrims who made up the majority of travellers during this period of time, travelled on foot or horseback , taking about 16 days to reach Srinagar; though a man in hurry, riding non-stop and with changes of horse arranged ahead of time all along the route, could do it in as little as three days. These merchants who dealt in textiles and spices, raw silk and carpets, dyestuffs and narcotics entrusted their goods to relays of pony transporters who took about two months to carry them from Amritsar to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Knotan. On this long route, Leh was the half-way house, and developed into a bustling entreport, it bazaars thronged with merchants from far countries. This was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar- Leh motor-road was constructed as recently as the early 1960s.
The 434 km Srinagar-Leh highway follows the historic trade route, thus giving travellers a glimpse of villages that are historically and culturally important. The famous pashm (better known as cashmere) was produced in the high altitudes of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet and transported thorough Leh to Srinagar where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth. Ironically, it was this lucrative trade, which finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. Hence, followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India. Ladakh, together with the neighbouring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the newly created State of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, Baltistan becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir.
LEH / THE CAPITAL OF LADAKH
Leh, the capital of Ladakh is situated at a height of 3505 meters and is towards the eastern parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The region is watered by the Zanskar River, which flows into the Indus River just below. Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks, the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan style palace - a maze of mud-brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert, and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated farmland. As one approaches Leh for the first time, via the sloping seep of dust and pebbles that divide if from the floor of the Indus Valley, one will have little difficulty imagining how the old trans -Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia''s most scenic and atmospheric towns. Leh is a beautiful destination with so many attractions and is the center of Tibeto-Buddhist Culture for 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.
HISTORY OF LEH
King Sengge Namgyal who ruled Ladakh during 17th century and during whose rule Ladakh was at its greatest shifted his court from Shey to Leh. Leh became the regional capital and very soon the town blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Route. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad bazaar that still forms its heart received more than a dozen pony- and camel-trains each day.
Leh's prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarter, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950''s. However its fortunes begin to look up after India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital''s strategic value after two wars in quick succession with Pakistan . Today, Khaki-clad Jawans (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 and far between.
GATES OPENED FOR TOURIST
Indian government''s decision in 1974 to open Ladakh to foreign tourists was a major shake-up. From the start, Leh bore the brunt of the annual invasion, as busloads of backpackers poured up the road Srinagar. Twenty or so years on, though the main approach is now via Himachal Pradesh rather than Kashmir, the summer influx shows no sign of abating.
Leh has doubled in size and is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan town of the early 1970''s. During July and August tourists stroll shoulder to shoulder down its main street, most of whose old style outfitters and provision stores have been squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants. Around the Town
AROUND THE TOWN
Leh has nonetheless retained a more tranquil side, and is a pleasant place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town itself include the former Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the Old Quarter.
A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery of Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand beaded Avalokitesvara (also spelt as Avalokiteshvara) deity.
Leh is also a good base for longer day trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and Gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict 17th century palace, and the Spectacular Tikse Gompa. Until one has adjusted to the altitude, however, the Only sightseeing one will probably feel up to will be from a guesthouse roof terrace or garden, from where the snowy summits of the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6,120m), magnified in the crystal clear Ladakhi sunshine, look close enough to touch.
FEATURES OF PEOPLE
The people of Ladakh are hardy and tough akin to the rugged mountains which surround their dwellings yet very soft and plane at heart .With round faces, short noses, and chinki eyes they resemble more to the people of Tibet and central Asia than of India.
The original population is believed to have been that of Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But over years, a huge influx from Tibet overwhelmed the culture of the "Dards" and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, today''s population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further west, in and around Kargil , there is much in the people''s appearance that suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization is the "Arghon", a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants.
INFLUENCE OF BUDDHISM
Buddhism reached Tibet from India via Ladakh, and there are ancient Buddhist frock engravings all over the region, even in areas like Drass and the lower Suru valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population.
The approach to a Buddhist Village is invariably marked by ''Mani'' walls, which are ling chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the Mantra "Om Mane Padme Hum" and by ''Chorten'', commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-posts. Many villages are crowned with a ''Gompa'' or monastery, which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks'' dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home to a solitary Lama.
THE MUSLIM INHABITANTS
Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of the ''Shia'' sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the Sub-rulers of Drass, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, ''Mani'' walls and Chorten are replaced by mosques often-small unpretentious buildings, or ''Imambaras'' imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.
WOMEN OF LADAKH
In Leh area women of both the communities, Buddhist and Muslim, enjoy a greater freedom than other parts of the region. They not only work in the house and field, but also do business and interact freely with men other than their own relations. In Kargil and its adjoining regions on the other hand, it is only in the last few years that women are merging from semi-seclusion and taking jobs other than traditional ones like farming and house-keeping.
TRADITIONAL RITUALS & LEISURE ACTIVITIES
The natural joie-de-vivre of the Ladakhis is given free rein by the ancient traditions of the region. Monastic and other religious festivals, many of which fall in winter, provide the excuse for convivial gatherings. Summer pastimes all over the region are archery and polo. Among the Buddhists, these often develop into open-air parties accompanied by dance and song, at which ''Chang'', the local brew made from fermented barley, flows freely.
Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of ''Surna'' and ''Daman'' (Oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as "Mons".
The first year of childbirth is marked by celebrations at different intervals of time, Beginning with a function held after 15 days, then after one month and then again at the end of year. All relatives, neighbors and friends are invited and served with ''Tsampa'', butter and sugar, along with tea by the family in which the child is born.
There is a mix of music and dance, joy and laughter, in the air whenever a marriage is held. The first day is spent in feasting at the bride''s house, the second at the groom''s place. The bride goes to live in the house of bridegroom after marriage. Boys are usually married or promised for marriage at about 16, girls at about 12. To make a proposal a relative of the boy goes to the house of the girl and gives a ring together with presents of butter, tea and ''Chang''. If the gifts are accepted then the marriage follows some months later. The boy offers a necklace and clothes to the girl. The parents of the girl give the couple clothes, animals and land if they are rich. These gifts are known as a "Raqtqaq" or dowry.
RULES OF INHERITANCE
When the father of the family dies his place is taken by the eldest brother. The other brothers must obey the eldest brother. All inheritance of the family goes to the eldest brother and then to the next brother when he dies. If the family consists of all girls, then the father will bring the husband of the eldest daughter into the house and all land stays in the daughter''s name and passes to her first son. Both sets of parents must accept the proposal of the boy for the girl. Usually the marriage is set by both sets of parents, who will choose a suitable partner for their child on the basis of manner, health and ability to earn income and look after a house.
Polo and archery are the two favourite past times. In Leh, and many of the villages, archery festivals are held during the summer months, with a lot of fun and fanfare. Different teams from surrounding villages compete with each other in these archery festivals, and the shooting takes place according to strict etiquette, to the accompaniment of the music of surna and Daman (oboe and drum). As important as the archery are the interludes of dancing and other entertainment. Chang, the local barley beer, flows freely, but there is rarely any rowdiness.
Unlike the international game, Polo in Ladakh is not exclusively for the rich. Traditionally, almost every village had its polo-ground and even today it is played with verve in many places. Probably introduced into Ladakh in the mid-17th century by King Sengge Namgyal, Polo played here differs in many respects from the international game. Here, each team consists of six players, and the game lasts for an hour with a ten minute break. Altitude notwithstanding, the hardy local ponies - the best of which come from Zanskar- scarcely seem to suffer, though play can be fast and furious. Each goal is greeted by a bust of music from surna and Daman; and the players often show extraordinary skill. For example, when starting play after a goal the scorer gallops up to midfield holding ball and mallet in the right hand, and throws the ball, hitting it in the same movement towards the opposite goal.
ASTROLOGERS AND ORACLES OF LADAKH
The lamas are the vital intermediaries between the human and the spirit worlds. Not only do they perform the rites necessary to propitiate the gods, they also often take on the role of astrologers and oracles who can predict the auspicious time for starting any enterprise, whether ploughing the fields, arranging a marriage or going on a journey. The most famous monk-oracles are those of Matho Gompa. Chosen every three years by a traditional procedure, two monks spend several months in a rigorous regimen of prayer and fasting to prepare and purify themselves for their arduous role. When the time comes they are possessed by the deity, whose spirit enables them to perform feats that would be impossible to anyone in a normal state such as cutting themselves with knives, or sprinting along the gompa''s topmost parapet. In this condition, they will answer questions put to them concerning individual and public welfare. However, the spirit is said to be able to detect questions asked by sceptical observers with the intention of testing him, and to react with frenzied anger.
LADAKH RELIGION & CULTURE
Twelve centuries after the Buddha attained ''nirvana'' the Tibetan King Songstsen Gampo (Sron-bTsan Sgam-Po) who ruled from 618 to 649 AD, married Wen Chen from the court of China''s Tang dynasty and Bkrikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess. Under their influence, Buddhism slowly developed in the Central Himalayan and Trans Himalayan regions of Tibet, Spiti, Lahaul and Ladakh till it became the predominant faith.
GLIMPSES OF PRESENT LIFE
Buddhism is the way of life in Ladakh. There are ancient Buddhist rock engravings all over the region, even in areas like Dras and the lower Suru Valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population. The divide between Muslim, and Buddhist Ladakh passes through leh (on the Kargil-Leh road) and between the villages of Parkachick and Rangdum in the Suru Valley, though there are pockets of Muslim population further east, in Padum (Zanskar), in Nubra Valley and in and around Leh. The approach to Buddhist village is invariable marked by mani walls which are long chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the mantra in mane paddle hum and by shorten, commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-pots. Many villagers are crowned with a gompa or monastery which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home to solitary lama. Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of the Shia sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the sub-rulers of Dras, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, mani walls and shorten are placed by mosques, often small unpretentious buildings, or Imambaras imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.
APPEARANCE OF PEOPLE
The traveler from India will look in vain for similarities between the land and people he has left and those he encounters in Ladakh. The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The original population may have been Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But immigration from Tibet, perhaps a millennium or so ago, largely overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, today''s population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further west, in and around Kargil, there is much in the people''s appearance that suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization are the Afghans, a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants.
The demeanor of the people is affected by their religion, especially among the women. Among the Buddhists, as also the Muslims of the Leh area, women not only work in the house and field, but also do business and interact freely with men other that their own relations. In Kargil and its adjoining regions on the other hand, it is only in the last few years that women are emerging from semi-seclusion and taking jobs other than traditional ones like farming and house -keeping. The natural joie-de-vivre of the Ladakhis is given free rein by the ancient traditions of the region. Monastic and other religious festivals, many of which fall in winter, provide the excuse for convivial gatherings. Summer pastimes all over the region are archery and polo. Among the Buddhists, these often develop into open-air parties accompanied by dance and song, at which Chang, the local brew made from fermented barley, flows freely.
Of the secular culture, the most important element is the rich oral literature of songs and poems for every occasion, as well as local versions of the Kesar Saga, the Tibetan national epic. Buddhists and Muslims. In fact, the most highly developed versions of the Kesar Saga and some of the most exuberant and lyrical songs are said to be found in Shakar-Chigtan, an area of the western Kargil district exclusively inhabited by Muslims, unfortunately not freely open to tourists yet. Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of surna and daman (oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as Mons.