Ladakh is a mysterious land shrouded in myth and legend. Much of its ancient history is known only through the mythology of its people, as its written history is of very recent origin. Ladakh was discovered by Fa-Hien, who traveled across its inhospitable terrain in 4th century A.D, as ‘The land where snow never melts and only corn ripens’.
Its landscapes are forbidding by any measure. Snow-swathed mountains rise to several thousand feet above one of the most elevated plateaus on earth. A treeless wind-swept country, much of Ladakh can be termed as mountainous, Arctic desert, where everything is parched by the rarefied dryness of the atmosphere. Scattered here and there, a few narrow fertile valleys provide a clear sparkling air. The limpidity of the atmosphere, in fact, gives the night sky a unique clarity, so full and bright with stars that one feels transported to some ethereal setting, far removed from Earth.
Today, a high -altitude desert, sheltered from the rain-bearing clouds of the Indian monsoon by the barrier of the Great Himalaya, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, the vestiges of which still exist on its south -east plateaus of Rupshu and Chushul – in drainage basins with evocative names like Tsomoriri, Tsokar and grandest of all, Pangong Tso. Occasionally, some stray monsoon clouds do find their way over the Himalaya, and lately this seems to be happening with increasing frequency. But the main source of water remains the winter snowfall. As the crops grow, the villagers pray not for rain, but for sun to melt the glaciers and liberate their water. Usually their prayers are answered, for the skies are clear and the sun shines for over 300 days in the year.
Gompas or Buddhist Monasteries dot the landscape and are central to the life of the villages. The inhabitants of Ladakh are simple smiling people who greet one and all with the all-encompassing ‘Julley’ which could mean hello, thank you, and please. So if there is a word of Ladakhi that you must learn it definitely is Julley!!
It’s landscape, sky, shooting stars, silence, wizened faces, rosy cheeks, culture, Buddhism and Zen everything makes Ladakh a must visit place.
Ladakh is an arid, cold desert interspersed with rough mountaineous terrains where only the fittest animal and plants survive. Although the environment is harsh, it boasts of a bounty of wildlife, endemic to this region. Its exotic highland flora springs up in the summer that covers up the landscape in various colors. The fearsome predators include the elusive snow leopard, lynx, mighty brown bear, Shanko or wolf, fox and wild dog.
The herbivores include the wild yak, the Kiang (wild ass), marmot, wild hare, Nyan (Marco polo ship), Shapo, Bharal ibex marcher, goat and the Chiru, which is now almost hunted to extinction for its soft under coat worth its weight in gold for the Shatoosh shawls made out of it.
Ladakh is also home to some beautiful and rare birds like the critically endangered Black-necked Crane, Bar-headed Geese, woodpeckers, ducks, partridges, barbets, kingfishers, parakeets, swifts eagle, owls to name a few are some of the birds commonly seen in Ladakh. This rich rather exclusive wildlife, however, is severely threatened by habitat loss and poaching.
For a Buddhist, beginning the journey along the road to enlightenment commences with the first understanding of the possibility of realising our Buddha nature. It is only when we fully understand this possibility of evolution into a higher being and discover the need to visualise our inner potential that we see the necessity for the development of an art form which matches our aspirations. In the religious arts of the world’s many and diverse cultures, few have provided as wide a canvas as the Tibetan Buddhism on which to project visualizations of the vast range of possible aspects of the enlightened mind.
The painting medium best known outside Tibet is the Thangka, or scroll painting. Usually painted on cotton cloth, more rarely on silk, colors are traditionally made from minerals as well as vegetable dyes. Before application they are de-saturated in varying degrees in lime and mixed with boiled gum Arabic. These ‘stone’ colors maintain their intensity so well that many old Thangkas still retain striking colors. Today, Tibetan artists also use modern synthetic dyes.
Metal, clay, stucco, wood, stone, and butter are all used in the creation of sculptural images, yet by far the best known of these is metal, since small, portable, bronze images of a great variety of meditation deities are most frequently encountered. Nevertheless, clay and stucco have been used since ancient times, particularly in the creation of very large images installed in monasteries and temples. Wood is also widely used, intricately carved for entrances to temples and for interior pillars and in covers for scriptures in monastery libraries.
These are a complex and uniquely Tibetan concept and are usually constructed by teams of monks for a festival or religious event.
They are not entirely made from butter, however, being constructed on frames of wood and leather, to which are applied barley flour and butter dough. They are then painted. Some were truly gigantic being as high as a three storey building. After the ceremony they are destroyed. In this they are like sand mandalas such as the well known Kalachakra Sand Mandala, painstakingly constructed over many days from different colored grains of sand before being swept away at the end of the ceremony. The symbolism behind the destruction of such works is based on the illusory nature of things, even those we cherish most.
Ladakhi Music and Dance
Ladakhi music and dance has its unique features suited to the topography of the region. The dance forms are slow and rhythmic, and songs are enchanting high pitched, which lend colors to this unique geographyand its people. These songs and dances which have been passed on as oral and practical tradition from one generation to another, reveal the cultural heritage of the land wherein its history is hidden. Folk artists of Ladakh, male as well as female, attired in full traditional costumes comprising of multiple jewelry items, especially turquoise head gears (worn by ladies), perform most exhilarating dances. The movement of dance provides an expression of entire personality of the dancer. Each dance starts with a homage and gradually develops into the second stage. When the music and movement become faster, the dance reaches the third stage and then it ends. Below are mentioned some of the most famous folk dances of Ladakh:
Daman & Surna
It is believed that Daman and Surna were inspired from Persian music. Almost all folk dances and music forms in Ladakh aredependent on these simple instruments, and there are 360 music tunes ( lharna, sumgya, tukchu) evolved and based on Daman and Surna. Marriages and other celebrations still, include this music as an essential part of such occasions due to which its popularity has not lost luster though there is a need to revive all 360 tunes.
Mask dances are religious ceremonies, which take place in the Buddhists monasteries of Ladakh. These dances are arepresentation of the manifestation of good over evil and also reveal religious facets of the cultural heritage of Ladakh. They are performed by the monks of monasteries.
Calendar of monastic festivals
|Name of festival||2014||2015||2016||2017||2018||2019||2020|
|Spituk Gustor1||Jan 28-29||January18-19||January 7-8||January 25-26||January 3-4||January 3-4||January 22-23|
|Stongde Gustor||July 4-5||July 22-23||July 12-13||July 1-2||July 20-21||July 8-9|
|DosmocheyLeh/Likir||Feb 27-28||February 17-18||February 6-7||February 24-25||February 13-14||February 2-3||February 21-22|
|Deskit Gustor||Oct. 21-22||October10-11||October 28-29||October 17-18||October 7-8||October 26-27||October 14-15|
|Stok Guru Tseschu||March 10-11||February 27-28||February 16-17||March 6-7||February 24-25||February 14-15||March 3-4|
|Matho Nagrang||March 15-16||march March 4-5||February 21-22||March 11-12||March 1-2||February 18-19||March 8-9|
|Sindhu Darshan||June 12-14|
|Saka Dawa||June 13||June 2||May 20||June 9||May 29||June 17||June 5|
|Hemis Tseschu||July 07-08||June 26-27||July 14-15||July 3-4||June 23-24||July 11-12||June 30-July 1|
|Yuru Kabgyad||June 24-25||June 14-15||July 1-2||June 21-22||June 11-12||June 29-30||June 18-19|
|Karsha Gustor||July 23-24||July 14-15||July 31 Aug 1||July 21-22||July 11-12||July 30-31||July 18-19|
|Phyang Tserup||July 24-25||July 14-15||July 31-Aug 1||July 21-22||July 11-12||July 30-31||July 18-19|
|Korzok gustor||July 30-31||July 19-20||August 5-6||July 26-27||July 15-16||August 3-4||July 23-24|
|Dakthok Tsechu||Aug 06-07||July 26-27||August 13-14||August 2-3||July 22-23||August 10-11||July 29-30|
|Sani Naro Nasjal||Aug 09-10||July 30-31||August 17-18||August 6-7||July 26-27||August 14-15||August 2-3|
|Shachukul Gustor||July 14-1||July 4-5||July 21-22||July 11-12||June 30- July 1||July 19-20||July 7-8|
|Ladakh Festival||Sept 20-26|
|Thiksay Gustor||Nov 09-10||October 30-31||November 17-18||November 6-7||October 27-28||November 15-16||November 3-4|
|Chemday Angchok||Nov 20-21||November 9-10||November 27-28||November 16-17||November 5-6||November 24-25||November 13-14|
|Galdan Namchot||Dec 16||December 5||December 23||December 12||December 2||December 21||December 10|
|Losar||Dec 22||December 12||December 30||December 19||December 8||December 27||December 15|
June in Hemis.
Hemis Festival is one of the most famous monastic festivals in June to commemorate birth of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. The sacred dance drama of the life and mission is performed wearing facial masks and colorful brocades robes. . During the monkey year, which comes in a cycle of 12 years, the four-storey thangka of Guru Padmasambhava is hung in the courtyard and other precious thangkas are also exhibited.
Thiksey, Kaesha and Spituk Gustor
Gustors take place at Thiksey, Spituk and Karsha in different months of the year. The festival takes place for two days. The celebration is to mark the victory over evils. The mask worn by the dancers represent the Guardians, Protectors and the Gods and Goddesses. The festival ends with the symbolic assassination of evil and burning of the effigy of evils.
February, in the end and starting of the Tibetan New Year, in Leh, Likir and Deskit (Numbra valley).
The monks from different monasteries perform the Chams every year turn by turn. The monks of Takthok monastery prepares the offering with Thread crosses which binds all the evil, hungry ghosts and guard against natural disaster in the coming year. On the second day of the festival, the offerings are taken out of the town in a procession and burn it while people whistle to chase away the evil spirits.
15th day of the 1st month of Tibetan Calendar, at Matho monastery.
The festival is famous because of appearance of the two oracles after full month meditation in complete isolation. The two oracles appear in the courtyard accompanying mask dancers and predict future events and people from far away come to seek advice to perform ritual to tackle with disasters.
Eleventh month of Tibetan calendar, two months ahead of Tibetan New Year.
The festival lasts for around a month, during which Gods, deities, ancestors and even the animals are fed without fail. Images of Ibex are made as auspicious symbols, walls of the kitchens are dotted and are believed to bring prosperity in the coming year. The Metho (procession of fire) is thrown out chanting slogans and chasing hungry ghosts and evil spirits, and they return with rocks of ice as auspicious symbol and these are kept in the stone.
Stock Guru Tsechu
February, a week before the Matho Magrang
During the two days festival two oracles appear, but they are laymen from the same village prepared by monks to receive the spirit of deities.
Monks wear colorful brocade robes and Masks in the form of different god and goddesses and perform mask dances. The huge thangka of Skyoba Giksten Gonbo is hung in the courtyard during the festival.
June in Lamayuru monastery.
During this festival monks perform prayer and rituals to get rid of disaster and to attain peace in the world.
1st to 15th September in Leh.
The program includes Archery, Poolo, and Mask Dances from the monasteries, traditional dances by cultural troupes from Villages. There are series of musical concert and dance program in Leh town.
Sindhu Darshan (Visit Indus) Festival
1st to 3rd June in Shey Manla.
For the first time it was organized in October 1997, as a symbol of unity and Communal harmony and national integration.
During this festival, artists from different parts of the country perform traditional dances and people from all religions, castes and regions participate.
Ladakhi’s Himalayan ecosystem has led to the development of a distinctive agricultural economy and lifestyle. Many of the local people of Ladakh practice farming and the produce of their fields is made into the delicious dishes of Ladakhi cuisine.
International cuisine is also available and there is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from.
Must try dishes:
Momo: a Tibetan delicacy, prepared by stuffing minced meat, vegetables or cheese in flour doughs and then moulding those in form of dumplings resembling some sort of a water droplet.
Thukpa: It is a noodle soup with assorted vegetables and chiken or mutton in addition for non vegetarians.
Thenthuk: Unlike thukpa, in thenthuk instead of noodles its wheat flour dough cut unevenly in big pieces with thick soup. This too is served in veg and non-veg.
Sku: Sku is the most favourite local food among the people here. It’s a daily meal in everyone home made of wheat flour and it can be veg or non-veg.
Paba and tangtur: Perhaps the most nutritious and once the staple food of Ladakh has wheat, peas as main ingredients of Paba, which is like a bread eaten with Tangtur and Zathuk.
Khambir and Butter tea: The most common local bread Khambir is pan shaped with the thick crust and brown in colour served mainly for breakfast with butter tea/ salt tea.
Chang: Chang is the local brew made by fermenting millet with yeast in a cylindrical porcelain pot. The pot is topped with warm water a couple of times until the millet losses its potency and the liquid extract is Chang.
Places of interest:
Kardung La Pass
Originally named Ldumra, meaning the valeey of flowers, Nubra valley is situated in North of Ladakh, at about 10 000 feet above the sea level.
The main settlements are along the Shayok River and the Siachen River. The river belt is sandy and the vegetation includes green Farmarisk and Myricaria.One of the unique features of the landscapes in Nubra is the sand dunes between Deskit (administrative center) and Hndar villages.
An ancient trade route (a branch of the popular Central Asian Silk Route) used to pass through Nubra valley and its imprints can be seen even today. The double humped Bactrian Camels of th Silk route trade period still wander in the wilderness of the valley.
Tourists require permits from the local administration in Leh for a stay of maximum seven days in this strategically sensitive area. Six photocopies of the permit should be carried along by you to be submitted at the various check posts on the way.
The drive between Leh and Nubra involves negotiating the Khardong La Pass (5602 m above the sea level), which is considered the highest motorable pass in the world. The temperature and altitude differs, as one ascends, calls for necessary preparations including carrying warm clothing and first aid and even oxygen cylinders in some cases.
Like Tsomoriri, Tso-kar an another important lake surrounded by wetlands and lush green meadows in not only home to many birds but also form the main pasture of the Samad-Rokchen nomadic community living in tents around the lake. The lake water is brackish and in fact traditionally it was major source of salt for the locals. Thugjay is the main station of this nomadic community and it has a small shrine of Avaloketeshvara (Buddha of Compassion). A four day trek between Tso-kar and Tsomoriri lakes is asvisable as they are short and satisfying.
Home for many species of birds, Tsomoriri Lake at Korzok in Changthang is tucked in the midst of barren mountains. It is the perfect place to experience the nomadic life at high altitude (4595 m). The lake is fed by a number of small glacial streams and has no external drainage. Due to high rate of evaporation, the water itself is brackish and unfit for living organisms.
However, its northern offshore island (80X60 m) forms the main nesting site for a great variety of rare birds. This lake has become the highest Ramsar site surpassing Salar de Tara in Chile.
Also, this area forms an important living source for nomadic people called Changpas and their huge livestock that rely on the pastures around the lake.
Measures have been taken to conserve this rich biodiversity, since the increased human activity around the lake has brought a decline in the wildlife population.
Pangong Lake form 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 color variations including deep blue, turquoise etc. The trip to Pangong lake includes an overnight stay ar Tangtse. Travelers are not allowed to pitch their tents near the Lake and the tourists are restricted to visit the lake-side village called Spangmil village concerning border security reasons.
The route along the Pangong Lake from Merak to Chushul and then across Tsaga La, Tsaga to Loma Bend is open for tourists. It is also permitted to travel along the banks of the Lake, right up to the villages of Man and Merak.
Zanskar Valley lies to the south-west of Leh, surrounded by the Himalayan ans Zanskar ranges, which is the most isolated of all the trans-Himalayan valleys. It takes two days, with a night halt at Kargil, to reach Zamskar negotiating the rough road beginning from Kargil.
Zanskar comprises two main valleys of Stod (Doda chu) and Lungnak (Tsarab chu), which converge below at Padum. The valey remains inaccessible for nearly 7 months a year. All the high passes get closed in winters. The only alternative route out of Zanskar in winter is the frozen Zanskar River, which has become a popular destination for winter hikers. It takes nearly a week walking on the frozen river from Zanskar to reach Leh.
The Kargil town is 220 km from Leh. It is almost halfway to Srinagar from Leh. This Shia populated town remained a transit point of trade caravans from Tibet, Central Asia, Yarkand enroute Kashmir until 1949. Since Ladakh was opened to tourists in 1974, the Kargil town became a night-halt place for tourists travelling between Srinagar-Leh, Zanskar. Kargil, at an altitude of 10000 feet, has the mighty Suru River flowing through it.
Monasteries around Leh
Buddhism plays an important role in Ladakh’s cultural life. There are some amazing monasteries rich with history and culture that are not to miss.
Thiksey Gonpa, situated 17 kms South of Leh, is the most beautiful of all the monasteries in Ladakh. It belongs to Gelugpa order. Around 100 monks are enrolled in Thiksey Gonpa at present.
Hemis Gonpa is the most famous and the largest monastery of Ladakh, situated around 45 km south of Leh. It belongs to Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso in 1630, who was invited to Ladakh by king Singey Namgyal, who offered to this Buddhust saint a large religious estate spread all over Ladakh region. The Hemis festival is held in the month of June or early July (see festival calendar). One of the special features of the monastery is the display of a special Thangka every 12 years. Last time this Thangka was exhibited to devotees was in 2004.
Likir Gonpa also belongs to Gelugpa order and is 53 km west of Leh, in Likir village. The village got its name from the monastery Klu-Khil, meaning the Naga Encircled – a myth associated with the founding of this monastery.
Alchi Choskor (“religious enclave”) is 69 km 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. Later on, he appointed four families to look after the Choskor, as there was no monastic community introduced. Later, in the 15thcentury Choskor was taken over by the Likir Monastery.
Lamayuru Gonpa is remarkably built on natural pillar like formations of sandstone. It lies around 125 km west of Leh on the Leh-Srinagar highway. Lamayuru belongs to the Drigungpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. The great Narupa meditated in this monastery.
Before packing your bags to travel to Leh, Ladakh, here is some helpful information that can help to prepare for your trip. Due to Ladakh’s location, the high altitude can become a problem for some visitors. Therefore, it is strongly advised that rest be taken for at least 12 to 24 hours immediately after reaching Leh. Upon arrival all types of strenuous activity should be avoided. Acute mountain sickness normally occurs during the first 24 hours and mild symptoms include: shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue. Resting, drinking water, and consuming energy bars can lessen the symptoms and make you feel better.
The dry desert air and scorching sun can quickly harm your skin so be sure to pack a moisturizer, sunscreen, sun glasses, and a hat.
Ladakh is known for experiencing sudden power cuts and dim light is quite common. A good torch is an essential item and be sure to always carry it with you since street lighting is quite poor in and around Leh.
Ladakh has wonderful scenic views, so carry your camera and bring additional equipment such as your charger and adapter.
Ladakh is spread over an area of approximately 97,000 Sq. Kms. and lies at an average altitude of 3,000 m above the sea level.
The best season for traveling to Ladakh region is from beginning of May to Mid of October. However, it is possible to travel in the winter months just keep in mind that many guesthouses and restaurants will be closed.
Tourist attractions and services are quite scarce during the harsh winter months when temperatures can plummet to -25 C. During winter the road routes are closed and the number of flights are reduced.
There are a few ways to reach Ladakh, either by road or you can fly directly into Leh from Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar. Traveling by road is more adventurous however, it is time consuming and treacherous yet it is rewarding with scenic views and life time experience of a road journey through the Himalayas.
There are two roads that connect Leh with the rest of India. One via Srinagar and the second from Manali.
The road from Srinagar to Leh is around 434 kilometers and the distance can be covered in one or two days with an overnight stay in Kargil. The local taxis that depart from Srinagar leave early in the morning and arrive in Leh in the late evening. The buses run by the state transport cover the journey in two days. The road remains open from May till late October depending on the closure of the passes due to snowfall.
The road from Manali to Leh is around 473 kilometers and the distance can be covered in one or two days with an overnight stay in Sarchu or Keylong. The local taxis from Manali to Leh depart early in the morning and arrive late in the late evening.
Also, there are tour companies that run tourist buses or mini buses between Manali and Leh.
If you travel with a Himachal Pradesh state run tourist buses their fare generally includes an overnight stay and two meals.
It is also possible to hire your own taxis or share a taxi with other travelers.
Usually, the road remains open from late May till mid October depending on the weather conditions.
Indian airlines, Jet Airways, and Go Air all provide flight services to Leh from Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar. During the summer, the fare increases and it is wise to book your flight in advance to ensure a better price.
Visit the airline websites for the flight schedule and the reservation or search online for better deals from travel sites.
Renting a motorbike is the perfect way of traveling in and around Leh; if you are adventurous enough to dare the winding roads of Ladakh, or you can use local buses and taxis.
The new bus stand is located at south of Leh market, and the local buses and mini buses leave from there, it has a good network to all the major sights and places.
If you want to travel around in a more comfortable way then hiring a taxi is best option, it gives you more flexibility to make stops for photos and visit places at your own pace.
It is easy to hire a taxi from travel agencies or directly from the taxi stand. Regardless of where you hire the taxi prices are all fixed. Cycling is another way of getting around; as there are many sights within cycling distance from Leh.
Indian nationals do not need a passport but, it is better to carry a proper picture ID. However, foreign travelers are required to complete a registration form. If traveling by air, you must fill out a foreigner registration form at the airport on arrival, and at your hotel/guest house. If you are traveling by road, the registration form will be filled out at Drass, Rumtse, or Serchu.
The restricted area permit for Indian nationals is no longer required however, a valid photo identification is required. As for foreign nationals, the permits are still required to the restricted areas of Nubra valley, Pangong Lake, Tsomoriri Lake, and Dhahanu. It is available through registered travel agencies and it costs a few hundred rupees.
An Environmental Fee was introduced in 2012, the fee collected is used for keeping the environment clean and to promote awareness about the fragile ecosystem of the region among the tourists and locals. For the domestic tourist, the fee is Rs. 200 and for foreign tourist Rs. 300.
The banking facility has improved over the past few years, State bank of India, J&K Bank, Axis Bank, HDFC bank are all located in an around the main market. They have money exchange facilities and ATM services, but keep in mind there is a daily limit for withdrawal. Besides the bank there are shops with money exchange facility and some of them also provide the facility for receiving money through Western Union.
The main hospital in Leh is Sonam Norbu Memorial Hospital and it is located approximately 1 Km away from the center of town. For minor health issues, there are several clinics and pharmacies in the main market but for more serious health issues (acute mountain sickness) it is advisable to visit the main hospital. Also, there are few amchi (Tibetan medicine doctor) clinics in and around Leh. The higher end hotels provide a doctor on call service if necessary.
Leh has numerous ISD/STD shops that offer long distance calling facilities. Be advised that connections are very poor especially in the evenings. It is possible to send a fax but again they are unreliable and a bit expensive. Internet cafes are common but the connection is slow and occasionally doesn’t work. The main post office is located 2 kms away from the main town but, there is another post office in the main market. Small packages can be shipped via the post office but it is unreliable; for more reliable services a courier service like DTDC would be better.
Travel with warm clothes, good sun block (SPF 30 +), good shades to protect eyes from the glaring sunrays.
Sunlight can be quite glaring and direct during the summer. Also Ladakh experiences a high level of UV rays because of its elevation. Besides you may also need some warm clothes even during the summer season but mostly during evenings and early mornings. It is also possible to buy these items in the Leh market.
If you plan to go trekking, don’t forget to bring quick dry long sleeve shirt, durable hiking pants, warm socks, insulating layer, insulating hat, underwear (normal and long). Other accessories you may need would be: sleeping bag, mattress, headlight, medication, maps, GPS, water purifier, camera& accessories, notebook& pencil.
Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) are scattered on the pristine mountain sides throughout Ladakh. Visitors to the monasteries are expected to maintain utmost respect by covering their arms and legs, removing shoes upon entering the shrine, never spitting, drinking, smoking, or disturbing the monks, avoiding the use of camera flash, and remembering to walk around chortens and prayer wheels in a clockwise direction.
GOOGLE MAP OF LEH
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MAPS OF INDIA, JAMMU & KASHMIR, LEH LADAKH TREKKING