The next morning we made our way back to our home for the vacation, Leh, however not before passing by even more charming scenes of the Shyok river along the way.
We had a slow day and then headed off to Leh to explore the town a bit more. We headed to the bazaar that housed Jokhang, a small Gonpa that is quite literally the spiritual heart of Leh with the lanes heading outward from it into the Leh town. It was probably the one place that had a lot of devotees of all ages on the steps outside chanting to themselves while counting prayer beads. We first hesitantly stepped in as the monks were in prayer, but soon an older monk nudged us to spend more time inside and really see the idols in all their beauty. Once outside we walked around the place, rotated the prayer wheels, sat for a bit thinking of the last days of the trip and then headed back into the hustle of the market.
Another spot on our itinerary was the Leh Mosque, also very well within the market itself. It was undergoing renovation and we were only finally able to find it when a storekeeper took us all the way up the under-construction stairs to the prayer room there. On seeing us being unsure of the etiquette to follow, he kindly urged us that we wouldn’t offend anyone and could make a visit. It was a beautifully carpeted room that was otherwise simple. What caught our attention were copies of the Quran decorated in an intricate script. We sat there a while in the calm spot amidst the market noises and then made our way back. Outside it’s completely cement covered and with scaffolding at this point. I daresay it will be a different sight in a few months.
The bylanes of the Leh market are endlessly entertaining- we saw everything from freshly prepared yoghurt and butter, to clothes being dyed, to stores carrying souvenirs, silver jewellery and fabrics, to fresh peaches and radishes sold on the street.
The next day while 2 of our group headed back, the rest of us headed to the Leh Palace from the 17th century AD. At first glance, it’s both very simple having been constructed with stones, wood, mud and sand and majestic at the same time. It has 9 storeys, each reached via narrow steps which the ASI has done a good job in using to showcase the history of the place with everything from ceremonial dresses, ornaments and the paintings made of crushed stones and gems. The upper floors were used by the royal family to live in and appropriately has balconies that provide a panoramic view of Leh, the Ladakh mountain range and the Zanskar mountain ranges. They even have a video showing the history of the place, it’s stories and its reconstruction that’s worth a watch.
Our next stop was the Sankar Gompa. The door to the inner sanctuary was closed, do note that it opens up only early in the morning or evening. We, therefore, missed quite an impressive deity with 1000 hands holding various weapons and 1000 heads.
We rested a bit in the assembly hall just outside that was painted with detailed murals in vivid, rich colours. The well-loved garden lit up with the flowers in brilliant shades.
We then headed to the Shanti stupa, its location and brilliant white colour against the arid background makes it hard to miss even from afar. It has 2 levels each with stories painted on the walls. The first level has relatively simple art with 2 deer sitting on either side of the Ashoka chakra and Budhhas image atop it. The second level showcases the birth and life of Buddha until his death. It was constructed by the Buddhists with the help of the Ladakhis who volunteered labour thereby making it a true work of love.
We ended the day yet again amongst the people of Ladakh trying to absorb as much as we could in the sights, food and sounds of its market. It happened to be the day of Muharram and the area was filled with security personnel with weapons. Hence, coincidentally, starting and ending our trip with the army. One only hopes this little pocket of delicate life amongst the arid mountains that has both harsh weather and the kindest people continues to be a haven of peace for the times to come.