The morning we were about to land in Leh, the first view our sleepy eyes had was that of the sunlight piercing through the background of the sky. An ocean of clouds later we saw the place we were to land, just in between endless layers of brown hills providing a stark contrast against the white of the aircraft.After landing at the small airport of Leh amidst sandy, rocky mountains and a few hours of rest to acclimatize, we headed to our first stop for the day- the Hall of Fame, a museum maintained by the Indian army in memory of the soldiers. There are different areas within the museum dedicated to artefacts from the war- weapons, documents, clothing. Especially heart-rending are the letters from Pakistani and Indian soldiers to their families and tales of awardees of the nationals highest awards for gallantry.While it’s intended to instil a sense of pride and patriotism, all I felt was despondency at the sheer futility of war and the tragedy of lost lives of extremely young men in such a violent manner. Specifically, a quote by the Dalai Lama that I saw at a monastery later put the thought well in brief “Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable….” (You can read more here if it interests you.)
After that sobering beginning, we somewhat aptly next headed to a place of peace- A shrine called Gurudwara Shri Patthar Sahib. The name “Patthar/stone” comes from a legend that Shri Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism had once visited Leh during a missionary tour and a demon who terrorised the people attempted to harm him by rolling over a boulder towards the Guru. However, the boulder melted on touching him and left his imprint on it instead. When the demon further attempted to kick the stone towards him, his foot got embedded in it and he finally asked for forgiveness and turned around his life in the service of humanity. A boulder supposedly with the imprint of the Guru is placed inside the monastery for people to worship.
The Gurudwara itself like most other gurudwaras we’ve been to is a simple structure outside. While it is pure torture for someone not used to the cold to take off the shoes and step into the running water to clean one’s feet before entering the space, it is quite heartening to have the delicious prasad once you’re done with your visit. We spent a little time there in silence and made our way back to go ahead to what is arguably the most popular image of Ladakh in Facebook- the Magnetic Hill.
However, there is no real magnetic hill but an optical illusion of going uphill when in reality we are going downhill. The reason for this is that our view of uphill/downhill is due to the horizon being a baseline for us to deduce it and in this area the specific layout of the hills obstructing the horizon causes us to see the slope as we do. Nevertheless, it’s a fun activity for folks to stop vehicles and let them seem to move uphill on its own. The group decided to make the best of the pit stop with me happily playing with a beautiful pup that decided to let me, and Anand and another friend decided to try ATVs for the first time on the rugged terrain.
An entertaining time later, we made a short stop at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers. One can see the colours of the rivers deep blue and green merge into each other at this point. In the right season, one could also choose to go rafting here (supposedly the highest rafting location) amidst the imposing hills and the chilly water.
Lunch was due and we were ravenous and so after some more winding roads, we reached the Alchi Kitchen restaurant. It is actually a beautiful home kitchen by run an older lady and 3 younger ones. Incidentally just as we ordered, we had an impromptu performance by a gentleman on guitar of a beautiful Elvis Presley number even joined in the end in a jugalbandi of sorts by another gentleman in a mesmerizing classical raaga. Perfectly delighted and with smiles even wider than before we continued our hilarious conversations while Anand busied himself taking pictures of the cooking – or so I thought. Much to my complete surprise, what should I see but Anand and A (another friend) coming in with a home-made cake from the ladies there and wishes for my birthday painstakingly written on it with tiny beads of…wait for it….mouth-freshener!
Needless to say, I had the best birthday cake cutting celebration ever! Friends, music, laughter and your name in minty fresh tiny granules- one really can’t ask for much more from life. We enjoyed our food leisurely (we’d recommend the mok mok/dumplings and the apricot walnut saffron tea) exchanging rip-roaring wedding stories and doubling up in laughter. Some shopping from the stalls on the way later, walking through an alley, we got to the Alchi Gompa.
Now all monasteries we’d seen along the way were on hilltops and this was an exception being on relatively plain land.
The 3 storied Sumrstek temple had idols of Maitreyi Budhha, Avalokiteshwara and Manjushri- the 3 forms representing Compassion, Hope and Wisdom respectively. The wooden pillars and structure of the temple for some reason reminded me instantly of the wadas in Pune.Even the clothes of the idols have stories from Buddhist lore drawn on them. The towering idols in the small chambers of the shrine make them somehow even more imposing than otherwise.
One shrine Lotsa- meaning translator- referring to the founder of the shrine Rinchen Zhangpo who is referred to as the Great Translator.
The shrine for Manjushri even had different chambers, 4 statues of Manjushri facing in each direction and a larger statue in another chamber.
The huge clay idols in each one are carved with remarkable detail with adornments and with celestial beings of all shapes and sizes, goddesses, fierce divinities, some even showering garlands. What takes your breath away even more than the remarkable idols are the vivid frescoes on the wall- some had endless rows of hand-painted images of the Buddha, while others had intricate mandalas in brilliant colours.
We walked around the monastery for a view of the Indus and headed back to the cab when what should we hear but the mewing of a silly kitten stuck atop an apple tree. Some significant jumping and rescuing later we made our way back. We decided to distribute the cake to the cab drivers who had all parked there waiting for their tourists to return. To my surprise, they broke out into singing a happy birthday and then insisted on a picture with us!And that’s exactly how dear folks, a perfect birthday gets a cherry on top.
Up next : Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies