The first thing struck me about Leh, as I disembarked at the airport, was how friendly the people were. From airport staff to security personnel, prepaid taxi booth managers to drivers everyone greets you with a smile and a soft ”Jojilee”. As I smile back, a co-passenger, a local operating as a tour guide from Delhi, explains, “We are a small community here and it’s always a pleasure to see new faces.”
Day One of my stay is for acclimatization, a forced one at that. As I check into the hotel, the manager suggests, “It’s best to rest today.” In fact, he thinks nothing of telling my sister, who calls to check on me, ”Madam is resting.” The message is conveyed only when I saunter down to the lobby, seeking directions for local sightseeing. He’s appalled at the very idea and suggests that I take things easy for the day at least, if not three as advised by the medics. He gives in when told that my total stay here is of four days and suggest that I watch the Sindhu Sarshan programme.
The near two-and-a-half hour music and dance event is interspersed with archery contest. After every round of dance and music, all very traditional, a select few from the audience are invited to test their marksmanship. They are to hit the target, a CD nailed at a distance of about 40 feet. The winner is honoured with a silk scarf and is supposed to lead other contestants in a dance. Many more, from the audience, organisers, are only too happy to join in. “We have introduced these (archery) contests to involve the audience for they like to be a part of the performance,” an organiser explains.
Day Two is dedicated to visiting local must-see sights. I start the day with a visit to the Shanti Stupa, built by a lama from Japan. Located on a hilltop, it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985. It offers a panoramic view of the town hemmed by barren mountains. Down below is the tiny hamlet of Changspa with typical Ladakhi houses built along a stream. Namgyal Tsemo towers at a distance. The monastery has a three story high gold idol of Maitriya Buddha and a statue of Avaloketesvara and Manjushri. It also houses ancient manuscripts and frescos. At a little distance uphill, the now dilapidated fort clings to the sheer rock wall. Interestingly, the associated temples are intact and remain locked up except during the morning and evening hours. A monk from Sankar Gompa, situated at a little distance, toi;s uphill to attend to the butter lamps in front of the images. The gompa is a branch of the Spituk monastery, founded by the first incarnation of Skyabje Bakula (head monk of Spituk).
Leh Palace is the most captivating. Built in grand tradition of Tibetan architecture, it is modeled on the Potala in Lhasa. It has nine floors and is worn down in parts. Once the home of the royal family, it is now a protected monument and houses the Ladakhi branch of government’ archaeological conservation organisation.
In the afternoon, we drive upstream to watch the last day of Sindhu Darshan festivities. A roadside hoarding marks the site that’s all. There’s no action happening here. We drive on and make a halt at Shey palace, some 15 km from Leh. The palace is the ancient seat of power of the pre-Tibetan kings. The rulers and later shifted the capital to Leh. The gompa here has a huge copper statue of Buddha, plated with gold. The walls are bedecked with vibrantly coloured murals.
Day Three begins with a visit to one of the richest, biggest and most famous gompas in Ladakh-Hemis monastery. Its popularity stems from the major annual festival held in honour of Guru Padmasambhava’s birth anniversary during summer. Every 12 years, the thanka with his photograph the largest in the world is displayed. It houses silver chortens studded with precious and semi precious stones. It also has an impressive library of Tibetan stylebooks, numerous thankas and frescoes, including the famous “Wheel of Life’. Lore has it that in the earlier days, the basement housed kitchens where lamas prepared tea for the visitors, who savoured it tolling on the steps leading to it.
The monastery and its approach road is dotted with a number of Siachen rose bushes-all laden with pink blooms.
Next on our itinerary is Thikesy. An imposing monastery, it is said to be one of the finest examples of Ladakhi architecture. The 12 storey comples has stupas,statues, thankas, wall paintings, swords and a huge pillar inscribed with the teachings of Buddha. The main prayer hall has a 15-m high seated Buddha’s figure.
From here we hit the road to Kargil. Our first halt is Gurdwara Pathar Sahib. Guru Nanak, known here as Lama Nanak, is said to have resided here for sometimes. He lived near the base of a hill on which a demon used to stay. Unhappy with the visitor, the demon once pushed a rock down to crush the Lama. The sage survived. The rocks, enshrined in the complex, beats the impression of a human body. The Indian Armytakes care of the gurdwara now. In fact, we don’t get to see any visitors here other than those in olive green fatigues.
Magnet Hill is a disappointment. It is said that an unknown force make vehicles move at a set pace here. We drive to and from, not once but numerous times. Nothing bizarre happens. We even step on the breaks and the accelerate alternatively at the marked spot, the gravity defying center. It’s a tame affair.
Day Five dawns cloudy. There’s slight drizzle as we head for Khardungla. Just before we touch South Pulu, snowflakes come down. It’s funny, despite my obvious hill connection, this is the first time I’ve seen the snow fall. Sleet, hail yes, but snow, never.
I’ve slept the nights while it snowed outside, enjoyed my winter vacations elsewhere while it snowed back home. Well, to put it briefly, Khardungla makes up for those lost moments. It’s given me a memory to cherish for all times.