A version of this article and images appeared in August issue of Terrascape, a travel magazine for whom I am an editorial consultant.
As the first rays of sun fell on the tip of icy mountain peaks of Ladakh, the atmosphere reverberated with sounds of ‘Om Mani Padme hum.’ About a hundred monks gathered for early morning prayers in Leh’s Soma Monastery and chanted mysterious-sounding hymns for the next two hours. As I watched sitting in a corner of the prayer hall, young monks with boyish grin on their face ran back and forth, serving butter tea to pious monks as well as to the curious tourists.
A cham dance performance during a monastery festival at Korzok Village near Tso Moriri Lake
In the remote mountain region of Ladakh where the terrain is harsh and the weather is so hostile that it remains inaccessible for eight months a year, a hospitable community practices a form of Buddhism that has remained unaltered for almost a millennium. Resident monks who practice and worship in the monasteries spread across Ladakh ensure perpetuation of this ancient culture in its original form.
The ochre-robed monks performed this morning ritual in the richly decorated prayer halls of every monastery across Ladakh. Travelling through the villages and towns of Ladakh, I went from monastery to monastery witnessing a similar scene in the morning hours. These places of worship are the last resorts of Buddhism in India that have retained the flavour of a religion that is a mix of original Buddhist preaching and the Tibetan animist practices.
Namgyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh
Ladakh is a sparsely populated area high up in the Indian Himalayan terrain bordering the Tibetan Plateau. Its hostile geography has an average altitude above 10,000 feet, where annual rainfall is negligible and nothing grows on the mountain slopes. This mountain landscape with its tall snowy peaks, streams running down from snow melt and narrow river valleys amidst the arid landscape, is home to a Buddhist population that is perhaps among the happiest communities in the world.
Buddha Statue at Likir Monastery
The contentment of Ladakh’s people is often attributed to their way of life and religious practices. Budhhism arrived in Ladakh more than a millennium ago when Tibetan rulers established their presence here, moulding the region’s cultural and religious practices. Having evolved with influences of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan animist culture, it emerged as a system of complex rituals and iconography with multitude of gods, demigods and demons.
Most of Ladakh’s Buddhist population resides on the bank of Indus River, which flows from Tibet and sustains life in its fertile valley. Monasteries have thrived along the river for over a thousand years, serving as religious and learning centers of the region.
Nearly every village in Ladakh has a monastery of its own, which serves as the spiritual command for its inhabitants. These monasteries are often located on a hill overlooking the village. The villagers make donations to the monastery and receive spiritual services from the monks in return. Decades ago, every family would send one of their children to the monastery to become a monk. The practice, though in decline, still exists in many parts of Ladakh.
The small town of Leh is the administrative capital and transport hub of Ladakh, and is home to some of these ancient monasteries. Located on a hill overlooking the town is the small red structure of Namgyal Tsemo monastery built in 16th century. I made the strenuous walk up the hill and was quickly left tired, thanks to thin mountain air. But the efforts were rewarded by panoramic views of the green valley of Indus and the snow clad peaks of Zanskar ranges.
Downstream of Indus from Leh, the affluent monastery in Likir village is dominated by a 25 feet high statue of Buddha overlooking the mountains. Likir Monastery is a cluttered assembly of buildings surrounded by willow trees on a crag. A stream runs at the base of the crag, originating from the taller ice-capped mountains beyond the monastery.
I arrived at Likir on a day when the monks were performing a special worship to install Yamantaka Mandala. The Mandala is a circular structure with complex combination of colours within it, symbolizing the wisdom and compassion that form the pillars of Buddhist philosophy. Along with the Mandala, the prayer hall was decorated elaborately for the rituals with oil lamps and small motifs made of butter and barley flour.
Not far from Likir on the opposite bank of Indus is Alchi Village, where the eleventh century monastery is in the tentative list of UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Sites. Inner walls of the monastery are covered with colourful murals of a thousand Buddhas that have survived with age. Three-storey high statues of incarnations of Buddha adorn the center of these painted walls.
The paintings in Alchi vary considerably from other monasteries that are influenced by Tibetan culture and its animist origins. It doesn’t carry the extraordinary stylization and figures with demonic and unearthly features commonly seen on the walls of most other monasteries. On the contrary, they are said to bear resemblance to Buddhist paintings from the Indian plains, indicating that Alchi was perhaps built in a time when a wave of Buddhist preaching spread into Ladakh from Kashmir and North India. The monastery is also unique in having secular painting on the walls of the prayer hall, which include a sailing ship and the court of a king.
For reasons that puzzle historians, Alchi was abandoned as a place of worship many centuries ago and its structure was left unattended. Perhaps this abandonment helped in preserving the ancient paintings in the long run, as the monastery escaped the attention of marauding invaders from Kashmir as much as it escaped renovation and restoration efforts from the Ladakhi monks.
Lamayuru monastery hidden among lofty mountain slopes
Further down the Indus, the monastery at Lamayuru village is reached by driving past a steep ascent through switchback roads that can challenge the most experienced driver. My bus drivers sweats on the steering wheel as he goes back and forth, taking multiple attempts in clearing sharpest of the curves at the inclines. The road treads over the remains of a drained lake that has left curious formation of wrinkled slopes, often called as ‘moon land’. The monastery is built on a crag of mud that appears ready to collapse any time, but has lasted for more than eight centuries. Young monks learn here in a small monastic school and recite prayers in unison in a dimly lit prayer hall every morning.
Chortens (stupa) at Lamayuru Monastery
While all these monasteries of Indus Valley are well connected by road and have some access to modern facilities, a different world unfolds in the remote Zanskar Region. Phugtal Monastery, deep in the valley of Zanskar, is so far away from everything that it takes two days of bus journey and another three days of walking just to get there. The monastery is located in a cave in the middle of a steep hill overlooking swift-flowing Lungnak River. Despite being in such a remote place that remains inaccessible and snowbound during the harsh winter months, the monks here were some of the happiest people I had ever seen. The elderly monks at the monastery had an affable and child-like smile that warmed me up the instant I looked at them.
Chortens (stupa) at Lamayuru Monastery
These monasteries come alive during their annual festivals when the village gathers together to watch vibrant dances performed by monks wearing masks. The dance, called cham, is a ritual depicting exorcism. I watched a festive crowd gather for the annual celebration at Korzok Village bordering Tibet, where the usually ebullient Ladakhis appeared happier than ever. Women arrived at the monastery dressed with best traditional jewellery adorned with large turquoise stones.
Phugtal Monastery, unbelievably perched precariously on a slope.
The cham dances are performed in an open quadrangle and is attended by a large gathering of people. Monks arrive one after other wearing demonic masks that have long canines and popping eyes. It begins with slow and easy moves of circling a flagpole and slowly gathers tempo, concluding with some quick moves that took me by surprise. The two day festival culminated in burning an effigy, symbolizing destruction of all evil that was accumulated through the year.
A traditionally attired Ladakhi woman at a festival in Korzok Monastery near Tso Moriri lake
Ladakh’s charm spreads beyond the ancient monasteries and extends into its beautiful landscape. While in Ladakh, I visited Pangong Lake that stretched more than 100km across two countries at an altitude of more 14,000 feet. I saw mountain ranges standing higher than 18,000 feet, where one can simply drive through. I went past more than 200 kilometres of arid and harsh landscape without seeing even single village.
People watching cham dance performance at the festival in Korzok Monastery near Tso Moriri Lake
Looking for such landscapes of great scale in Ladakh, I ventured deeper into the mountains to the north of Leh, where the road climbed up steadily and slowly. The road winds up the slope to reach the mountain pass of Khardung La, claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. The views from here are unrestricted, with lines of snowy peaks decorating the skyline in all directions, and deep valley of Indus seen far below to the south.
Despite the hardship of life in this difficult terrain, the Ladakhis, like the monks at Phugtal, are a contented and friendly community who make visitors feel at home. The rich culture, high mountains and the smiling faces together make the experience of being here memorable.
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