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.
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-mud brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured
desert, and on the other by a swathe of lush irrigated farmland. Leh
only became regional capital in the 17th century, when 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. The move paid
off: with in a generation, the town had blossomed into one of the busiest
markets on the Silk Road. During the 1920s and 1930s, the broad bazaar that
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. One after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India
rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital's strategic value, did its
fortunes begin to look up. 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.
Leh has nonetheless retained a more tranquil side, and is
a pleasant place to unwind after a long bus journey.
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.
The Shanti Stupa :
Major Attractions of Leh - Ladakh
A relatively new
addition to the rocky skyline around Leh is the toothpaste white Shanti
Stupa above Changspa village, 3km west of the bazaar. Inaugurated in 1983 by
the Dalai Lama, the "Peace Pagoda", whose sides are decorated with
gilt panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha, is one of
several such monuments erected around India by a "Peace Sect" of
Japanese Buddhists. Hemis :
Thanks to the
Hemis Setchu festival - one of the few held in summer, when the passes are
open - Hemis, 45-km southeast of Leh , is the most famous Gompa in Ladakh .
Every year in mid-July hundreds of foreign visitors join the huge crowds of
locals, dressed up in their finest traditional garb, that flock to watch the
colourful two-day pageant. Likkir Gompa :
to the north of the main Leh -Srinagar highway, shortly before the village
of Saspol, the large and wealthy Gompa of Likkir, home to around one hundred
monks, is renowned for its huge yellow statue of the Buddha to come which
towers above the terraced fields and village below. It is also known as
Lu-khyil ("water spirit circled"), a reference to Naga spirits who
are said to have once lived here.