Ladakh , the fascinating high altitude plateau at India’s furthest northern frontier probably occupies one of the topmost ‘must visit destinations’ for the nature lover.
Originating from La-Tags – Ladakh means “ land of the High Mountain Passes” where Nature has sketched some amazing landscapes with stunning pastel to make man feel spiritually high In summer the valley wears the colour of sullen grey,siltladen, and sometimes turning into violet. In autumn , the Indus valley is at the height of gracefulness-turquoise and aquamarine water weaving through golden banks of tall poplars and tumbling willows.
Tibet. To the west is Kashmir and to the south Himachal Pradesh. Indus river bisects the plateu and by the banks of Indus , sits Leh, the capital of Ladakh.
For thousands of years today’s Ladakh was the land of nomads. Then over the period of historical transition, combination of the ‘ Monn’ community from North India, ‘Dard’ from Baltisthan and ‘Mongolians’ from Central Asia finally gave birth to The Ladakhi community of today. Similarly the frequent changes in the name too took place. The Chinese pilgrim Hui-Ch’ao during the seventh century described Ladakh as the ‘land of Hoo’.While Huen sang described Ladakh as ‘Ma-lo-pho’ which means the Red Land. Ladakh has also been described as ‘Kanchapa’ –the land of snow or ‘Ripul’ -the land of mountains. Afterwards it became Ladwak from where the name Ladakh has been derived.
Leh is the state capital accessible by road from Srinagar in Kasmir via Sonmarg, Zoji La, Kargil, Fatu La and Saspol while from Manali in Himachal Pradesh via Rohtang La, Keylong,the Baralacha, Naki,Lachulung and Tanglang La. Leh from its vantage on the northern crag is a diminutive Potala. General Zorawar’s Fort, Leh Palace –the 9 storied construction which is the replica of Potala Palace,Tsemo the Red Gompha, the Stok Palace , The Mosque, and numerous other Gomphas are all of tourist delight.Leh became the capital of Stod ( upper Ladakh) during the reign of King Graspa Bum-Lde, who ruled Ladakh from 1400 to 1430 AD. In the later period, leh became an important center for trade in Central Asia. Leh remained merely the headquarter of Ladakh district until 1974, when Ladakh was opened for foreign tourists. Since then Lh became the center for tourism related activities in the region.
Places to see in Leh
The 'Red Gonpa' known as Tsemo Gonpa was built by King Graspa Bum-Lde in 1430 AD. The monument has three storey statue of Maitriya Buddha and a one Storey statue of Avalokitesvara and Manjushri.
consist of 108 temples, which was remarkable work done in the reign of king Graspa-Bum-Lde, located near Shanti Stupa.
The Namgyal Tsemo was build by the King Tashi Namgyal after the reunification of upper and lower Ladakh and victory over Hor (Central Asian invaders) and their bodies were placed under the image of Mahakala, the guardian deities to subdue the spirits of the deads and to prevent further invasion of Hor.
The Leh palace, known as ‘ Lechen Palkhar” was built by Singay Namgyal, around in the beginning of 17th Century AD. The nine-storey palace is now deserted, and Archeological Survey of India has taken up the renovation work.
Sankar Gonpa is a couple of kilometers away from Leh town. It belongs to Gelukspa school of Tibetan Buddhism. This small Gonpa is a branch of Spituk Monastery.
Shanti Stupa at Changspa, on the hilltop, was built by the Japanese for world peace, which was inaugurated by Dalai Lama in 1985.
Jokhang, the small Gonpa opposite the State Bank of India in the main Bazar was built by the Ladakh Buddhist Association in 1957, which is open throughout the day for visitors. The Gonpa contains statue of Jovo Rinpochey ( Crowned Buddha) and a statue of Guru Padma Sambhava.
Leh Mosque: The Jama Masjid of Leh was built in 1666-67 AD under an agreement between Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Ladakh ruler Deldan Namgyal. Initially, the architecture of the mosque bore Tibetan, Central Asian and Ladakhi style. Now it has been reconstructed with minarets and domes inspired from Iranian architecture.
Places to see around Leh
Saboo village is located at the distance of eight km east of Leh. Its altitude is 3450 m. It is composed of five distinct localities: Saboo, Meyak, Yoknos and Ayu. The village Saboo, as most of the villages in Ladakh, is still an agragrian society. Glaciers are the source of sustainance for the farmers for irrigation directly or indirectly.Ayu has in its domain natural springs that provide for their agricultural and drinking water-needs. Ayu is renowned for its medicinal spring water, to which Ladakhis travel far and wide for healing.Close to the spring lies Gonpa where three senior hermits reside.
Tak Tok Gompha:
This Gompha is located on the Leh-Manali highway at a distance of 15 km from Karu. It is said that Guru Padmasambhava flew to Tibet astride a tiger and awed the locals with his tantric power. He bound the local deities by oath to become his servants and protectors of Buddhadharma and established Tibet's first monastery at Samye. Tak Tok Gompha, the only Nyingma monastery of Ladakh in the 16th century is the place where Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have meditated.
Stok, around 14 kms south-east of Leh is a place where the present day royal family resides. Stok Palace and Museum were built in the year 1825, by King Tsespal Tondup Namgyal, after the Zorawar’s annexation of Ladakh. The royal family resides here since Ladakh lost to Zorawar Singh. At present the palace has a collection of royal dresses, King’s crownetc. Gurphuk Gonpa, a branch of Spituk monastery is a little away from the palace.
Shey means looking glass, received its name due to the reflection of the Palace in the small lake below the Palace. It stands proudly approximately 15 kms from Leh town on the bank of Indus river. Shey has credit for being the first fort constructed by the first King of Ladakh, Lhachen Spalgigon and the fort ruin can be seen even today above the present Shey Palace.
It amazes at first sight, when you see hundreds of Stupas occupying large area of land beside the Palace. As per local people , the stupas were built by those who got to build stupas as punishment.
Shey Palace was built by Deldan Namgyal in the beginning of 17th century AD. The main image in the monastery is three-storeyed statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, made of copper guilt. The statue is the only of its kind in the region.
Dresthang Gonpa near the palace was built during the reign of Singay Namgyal, contains the three storeyed statue of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Stakna (Stak-sna) Gonpa:
Stak-na means ‘tigernose’. This picturesque monastery on the left bank of the River Indus belongs to the Dugpa sect of Bhutanese origin which is 25 kms east of Leh. It is a small monastery founded in 1580 by King Jamyang Namgyal. The most important statue in the monastery is said to be Arya Avalokiteshvara.Hemis Gonpa The Hemis Monastery is around 45 kms south of Leh, which is the most famous and largest monestary of Ladakh. It belongs to the Dukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery was founded by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso in 1630, who was invited in ladakh by King Singay Namgyal.. The king’s youngest son Nawang Namgyal became a monk and his name was changed to Zamling Drags. The monastery was named Changchub Samling. Presently some 500 monks are enrolled with this monastery. The Hemis festival is held in the month of June. One of the special features of the monastery is the display of a special Thanka ( scroll painting) every 12 years. Last time this Thanka was exhibited to devotees in the year 2004.
Takthok (Dak-thok) Gonpa:
Takthok or Dak-thok means ‘rock ceiling’ derived from the rock caves (once a retreat), ceiling the shrines of the monastery. It is 50 kms eat of Leh. It is the only monastery belonging to the Nyingmapa School of order ( the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism). The monastery came into existence when a tantric guru Padmasambhava visited this place and blessed it in the 8th century. The Gonpa was merely a meditation cave of Padmasambhava with footprints and many other auspicious signs, until the reign of King Tsewang Namgyal. When Mahasiddha Kunga Phuntsog introduced monastic community, it was given the name of Takthok Padmalinggon.
Spituk (Pethup) Gonpa:
The Spituk or Pe-Thup literally means ‘exemplary’. It is 7 kms south of Leh town. It was founded by Od-Lde in the 11th century. In those days the Gonpa belonged to Kadampa School, but during the reign of King Drakspa Bum-Lde, Gelugpa order was introduced and Lama Lhawang Lotos restored the monastery.
Phyang (Chiwang ) Gonpa:
Phyang is 17 kms west of Leh is remarkably built on a hill top, wjich is similar to Likir Monastery. This monastery belongs to Dregungpa order. It was founded in the 16th century. It has about 50 monks residing.
Basgo (Bago) Chamba and Palace:
42 kms from Leh town Basgo village encompasses a rich heritage including the historic 75 feet Maitreya ( future Buddha) statue enlisted as one of the hundred endangered sites of the world 2001 by UNESCO. And the villagers led by an educated batch, have taken up this task to save the statue housed in a richly decorated structure standing precariously on cliffs some 300 mtrs above the village level.
First mentioned in the Ladakhi Chronicles in the 15th century as the capital of kings whose descendents were to become the Namgyal Dynasty of Ladakh, the fort is located in the well-nigh impregnable position, which enabled it to withstand a three-year siege in the 17th century and severely damaged during the Dogra Wars in 1834.
Likir (Klu-Khil) Gonpa:
A few kilometers further from Basgo is the Liker village, which has a Gelugpa order monastery. In fact the village got its name from the monastery Klu-khil meaning ‘ the Naga Encircled” – a myth associated with the founding of this monastery. It is 53 kms west of Leh. It was founded in 1065 AD , Lama Duwang Chosje during the reign of King Lhachen Gyalpo.
Alchi (Achi) Chaskor:
Alchi Choskor “religious enclave” is 69 kms west of Leh. It is the most famous and largest of all the Gonpas built by Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, the great translator, in 11th century and later he appointed four families to look after the Choskor as there was no monastic community introduced. Later, in the 15th century Choskar was taken over by the Likir monastery; since than Choskor is being taken care of by Liker Monastery.
Tso- Moriri Lake is located at a height of 15200 ft in Rupsu valley , 230 kms from Leh. The Korjok Gompha is one of the attraction on this way. One can go upto Numa even to have the glimpses of Kiyang.
Lamayuru (Yungdrung) Gonpa:
The Lamayuru “ Yungdrung Tharpaling” Gonpa is remarkably built on natural pillar like formations of sandstone. It is around 125 kms west of Leh, on the Leh srinagar highway.
The history of the monastery begins with the visit of Arahat Nimagung to this place, when there was merely a Lake here. It is said that Arahat made a prophecy that “ the monastery will come up at this spot” and he made offerings ( prayers with grains of corns) to the Nagasarpent spirits. The corns mixed with the earth and grew in the form of Swastika ( Yungdrung) and that was how the monastery got its name Yungdrung Tharpaling Monastery.
Originally called “Ldumra” meaning the valley of flowers’. It is situated in the north of Ladakh region. The average altitude of valley is about 10,000 ft above the sea level. The main settlement are along the Shayok River and the Siachen River. The river belt areas are sandy and the vegetative cover includes green farmarisk and myricaria. One of the unique features of the landscape in Nubra is the sand dunes between Deskit ( administrative center) and Hunder villages.
Ancient trade route passed through Nubra valley and imprints can be seen even today. The double-humped Bactrian Camels of Silk route trade period still wander in the wilderness of the valley.
The drive between Leh and Nubra involves negotiating the Khardungla Pass ( 5602 mtrs above sea level), which is considered as the highest motorable pass in the world.
Deskit is the administrative center for the Nubra valley; it is larger than surrounding villages. Deskit has sizeable number of shops and eateries providing for restocking some of your necessary supplies.
The village has a picturesque monastery perched on a hill. It was founded by Lama Sherab Zangpo of Stod in 1420 AD during the reign of King Dragspa. About 100 monks are residing in the Gonpa. It is a branch of Thiksey Monastery.
Hunder is located 7 km from Deskit. On the way to Hunder are the famous sand dunes of Nubra. A walk through these dunes along a small stream is a nice experience. You may come across double humped camels on the way. Camels are domesticated, but many are left uncared and wild, especially males. These camels remind you of the silk route.
Hunder is a pretty village amidst willow and poplar trees. There is a monastery, which is over 500 years old and history tells that this monastery withstood the once major flood in Shayok River that washed away the entire village.
Sumur is opposite to Deskit on the other side of the river Shayok. It has a large Gelugpa order monastery called Samstanling Gompa, which is about half an hour walk from Sumur.
Further away from Sumur is the Panamik village, which is known for the natural springs having medicinal powers. The village comprises twenty four families. Approximately five kilometers north of Panamik village is the furthest point tourist can go to; beyond this is the restricted area.
The ladakh’s portion of the great Tibetan Plateau, known as the Chang-thang, is inhabited by Changpa nomads, the traditional producers of the finest quality Pashmina wool used by Kashmiri weavers for their famous and expensive shawls. The scenic beauty including lakes and the vast wilderness of Changthang and its reach wild life is one of the most sought after destinies for tourists.
Home for many species of bird Tsomoriri Lake at Korzok in Changthang is tucked in the midst of barren mountains the 19 kilometer long 7 kilometer wide lake at an altitude of 4595 meters. It is located 215 kilometer south-east of Leh. The lake is fed by number of small glacial streams and it has no external drainage. Due to high rate of evaporation, the water itself is brackish and almost bereft of living organisms.
However , its northern offshore island of 80 x 60 meter size forms the main nesting site for Bar-headed Goose and Brown-headed Gull. Other birds found at the lake are Horned-lark, Red Billed Chough, different species of Wagtails, Tibetan Snowfinch, Crag Martin etc. This lake wetland harbouring rare birds in Korzok area of Changthang in Ladakh has become the highest Ramsar site surpassing Salar de Tara in Chile. Also wild animals including Kiang, Nyan, Bharal, Wolf, Red Fox, Lynx , Marmots etc. dwell about the lakes.
Besides beautiful habitats for birds Tsomoriri form an important living source for nomadic people called Changpas and their huge livestock that rely on the pastures around lakes.
Like Tsomoriri, Tso-kar an another important lake surrounded by wetlands and lush green meadows is not only home to many birds but also has the vast surrounding area forming the main pasture of the Samad-Rokchen nomadic community living in tents ( Rebo) around the lake. The lake water is brackish and in fact traditionally it was a major source of salt for the locals.
Pangong lake forms a part of the border area between India and China. On the Indian side the lake is 40 miles in length and nearly 2-4 miles in width- the majority lies on the Chinese side of the border. It is said that 75% of the Lake is in China and only 25% is in India. The landscape on the way to Pangong is spectacular.
This large , serene lake at an altitude of 13,930 ft. above sea level has a brilliant colour variations including deep blue, turquoise etc.
The Kargil town is 220 kilometers from Leh. It is almost halfway to Srinagar from Leh. This town remained a transit point of trade caravans from Tibet, Central Asia Yarkand enroute Kashmir until 1949. since Ladakh was open to tourists in 1974, the Kargil town became a night-halt place for tourists traveling between Srinagar-Leh-Zanskar. Kargil , at an altitude of 10,000 feet, has the mighty Suru River flowing through it. Once a Buddhist area, this Shia Muslim dominated district was converted to Islam in 15th century.