Ladakh : Of peaceful stupas and tense celebrations

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.IMG_3623.jpg

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. IMG_2175.jpgOnce 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.IMG_2210.jpg

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.IMG_2410.jpg

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.IMG_2407.jpg

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. IMG_2294.jpgIt 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.IMG_2249.jpg 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.IMG_3646.jpg

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. IMG_2314.jpgWe, therefore, missed quite an impressive deity with 1000 hands holding various weapons and 1000 heads.IMG_2312.jpg

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. IMG_2318.jpg

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. IMG_2354It 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. IMG_2358The second level showcases the birth and life of Buddha until his death. IMG_2363It was constructed by the Buddhists with the help of the Ladakhis who volunteered labour thereby making it a true work of love.IMG_2360

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.IMG_3542.jpg

Ladakh: Of snow fights and sand dunes

Continued from here

The next morning we proceeded to Nubra valley via one of the world’s highest motorable road at 17,582 ft of elevation- the Khardungla Pass. It is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier that is guarded by our armed forces.


The scene is quite breathtaking out here, and not just due to the lack of oxygen! The mountains still had significant snow cover in September much to the delight of the subset of the group for which it was their first experience of snow.IMG_1960

There is an absolute riot if prayer flags at this point perhaps in the hope that those prayers will protect the passers-by and those who stand guard. IMG_1971Further ahead and Skarma very kindly stopped to let us have a go at a snow fight. IMG_3536This was a terribly one-sided battle with all of us on one side with our snowballs getting powdered even before we threw them and him, the mountain dude on the other side aiming at us with lethal precision and robust snow missiles! With hands freezing and getting even more out of breath with laughter, we left the place swearing to get back at him on our way back.

A little ahead for all of us, we experienced our very first snow-fall- a trip with happy firsts makes it all seem worth it! We stopped for lunch at a place called New Punjab restaurant, and it was like many other places run by just a couple. However, they had something we hadn’t seen on any menu in Ladakh before – Chitranna (Lemon rice). IMG_3550Something that’s quintessentially Karnataka. Much amused we enquired with the owner and he said he had just learnt it online. We enjoyed all the other dishes too. When he came after we were done, he enquired about the dish and himself said that we may not have liked it because it missed one key ingredient- curry leaves. Finding yummy chitranna with peanuts when travelling the Himalayas was enough of a delicious miracle for us, expecting curry leaves was too much even for his level of dedication to try to cook it for us! Adding to the ambience was their cute daughter who spent the time playing peekaboo with us and the friendly dogs around who chilled out in the sun during the few hours of relative warmth.


Some of our views ahead were unreal- one could actually not tell if a photo had been inverted or not with the mountains getting replicated on the water better than a copier every could. IMG_1977Just a few meters before we reached the top to Deskit Gompa, a tire of our car decided to get punctured! Much to Skarma’s amusement, with everyone pitching in, we were done with the tyre change in just a few minutes. The 32-meter statue of the Maitreya Buddha in vivid colours is visible well before you reach the place in stark contrast to the surroundings in neutral hues. IMG_2028The monastery is one of the oldest and largest in the Nubra valley and while monasteries are almost always atop craggy hills, it still never fails to make you wonder how they were even constructed there.IMG_1984


We moved on from the statue and then climbed up the steps of the white-walled monastery. IMG_2052IMG_2064And despite its beauty, what was truly wondrous to me was a little kitten that came directly to me and like one’s supposed to, we proceeded to pet it for the rest of our time there. IMG_2090We spent some time in the prayer halls and temples within the monastery and slowly made our way back.IMG_2081


We soon reached the Hunder Sand dunes where we crossed a narrow stretch of the Shyok river and landed in probably the only place on our trip that had a significant number of people all in one location. What’s impossible to miss are the rows of Bactrian camels available to be ridden on. Incidentally, all of us in the group decided to skip that, and instead decided to do something that was even more fun, sliding down sand dunes and watching the evening change colours with the setting sun!IMG_3591IMG_2131IMG_2152


We stayed the night at a hotel Sten-Del which had excellent service and food- if you needed more incentive it even had Mani Ratnam stay there during the making of one of his movies. So well, that was our celebrity connection for this trip. But we didn’t really need it, after all, we had seen snowfall and sand dunes in the desert- all in one day- I wonder how many other places could boast of that!

We headed back to Leh the next day stopping for yet another round of snow-fights at Khardungla, however, I’m sorry to report that we were badly defeated yet again. IMG_3623Ah well , we’ll deal with Skarma when he comes to visit us in the warm plains on our own home ground – maybe in a dosa-eating contest, another battle for another time.IMG_3633

Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains

Continued from here

The next day was yet another long drive, this time to the lovely Pangong lake. It was supposed to be warmer in comparison to Tsomoriri so we were thrilled to be on our way.


But there was more to the journey, as our first stop was the Thiksey monastery. It is possibly the most recognisable monastery in Leh with several layers of simple buildings cascading down a rocky hill. IMG_1638 Just a few stairs up passing by prayer wheels and monks’ living quarters, we reached the courtyard and entered the temple on one side of it. The temple was unlike any we had seen before. It had a very large statue of Maitreya Buddha 15 meters tall where you could see only the shoulder upward and the rest seemed to emerge out of the floor from a storey below to grace us with its presence. The idol had an intricate crown with each section having one diety with its own details bordered with more patterns. It was housed inside a hall with paintings of the stories of Budhha in vivid colours. The wooden pillars held up an equally colourful ceiling.

The colors and the stories even just on the crown!

A hall with stupas and rows of idols of various forms of Budhha was on the other side of the courtyard. IMG_1508The predominantly red and white walls of the courtyard and the paintings there presented a brilliant contrast to the beautiful skies in blue.IMG_1546


A short climb up and one would reach the prayer hall but not before seeing the scene that had become for me the most enduring image of Buddhism for me from the movie Samsara. Monks in a circle cheerfully and meticulously working on a mandala- a labyrinthine pattern inside a circular outline made with chalk using a huge wooden geometric compass and slender brushes dipping into clay to define the contours. On the other side was a single monk mixing colours into small heaps of sand to be used later to fill in the pattern.

The effort had just begun

They’d spend a whole day or more painstakingly poring over this work and at the end calmly destroy it and scatter the sand- a sign of the impermanence of things and a lesson in not being attached to material things.

The monk making up the colored sand with paint


The assembly hall itself had at its very end statues of Buddha with the Bodhisattvas- Manjushri and Maitreya.IMG_1577Inside the assembly hall is when I first noticed the small sculptures made of barley and butter that would be made as offerings to the deity – it was a tradition unique to Tibetan Buddhism.

Sculptures made of barley and butter


On the other side of the assembly hall is the Tara temple, this form of Tara was the Prasanna Tara and even though it was mostly covered, to my eyes, she had the fierce beauty that made the Goddess Kali so mesmerizing. She had 16 arms with an assortment of weapons and a necklace of bloodied heads. We weren’t completely sure why the idol and the ones beside it were partially covered but it was quite a contrast to the other temple with its bare ceilings with wooden logs and yet managing to keep you fascinated at its raw imagery.


The view from the top of the temple is that of the Zanskar Mountain ranges all around and the villages below. We chose to take a different way down and even passed by several stupas with varying degree of decorations.IMG_1629


With the bare mountains providing steady company we headed on along the roads snaking over them. IMG_1664The Border roads organisation makes sure you stay entertained with puns and funny quotes giving us respite from the endless roads. We continued to be fascinated by how close the clouds were to form perfect shadows on the mountainside.

Have you been so high that the clouds are your 

umbrellasWe stopped for lunch at an eatery run by a couple, the highlight being their toddler who calmly stayed the whole time in a chair, brushing away most people and blessing a few of us with her endearing giggles.

The center of our attention

Pangong felt starkly different to Tsomoriri, there were scooters and butt-seats(??) made popular by the movie “3 Idiots” for people to take pictures in.

Oh Bollywood!

There were quite a lot of people here but it didn’t feel too crowded either. It is at a height of 14,000 ft. To put that in perspective- Bangalore is at an elevation of 2953 ft. of  The water in perfect blue seemed to compete with the colour of the sky. IMG_1718We even had a few birds making their way along its surface. IMG_1725The water, the prayer flags, the mountains of the Changchenmo range and the stacked stones will be a snapshot of the Pangong lake that will stay on with us. R and G took the most lovely pictures in the Ladakhi costume as an apt souvenir from the location. Skarma, our driver, was right to huddle us to the water instead of letting us check-in to the hotel, because quickly, without warning, the sun-set and it was instantly too cold, windy and dark for pictures or to stay by the water.


The next morning, we woke up early to experience the lake just by ourselves, the crowds had either left for their journey on ahead or not woken up as yet. Just the water, wind and us let us finally find the peaceful oasis that is the Pangong lake.IMG_1771 Before we left, Skarma took us to another viewpoint to the Pangong lake, this time with no other people around and a spot of lavender coloured blossoms. It was the perfect location to watch the gentle ripples and practice skipping stones on the water. We sat by the lovely blue water this time the sunlight a little kinder to us , enjoying our time there before bidding farewell to yet another memorable scene at Ladakh.


On our way back we were lucky to see the most darling creature- the Himalayan Marmot- a cuddly plump ball of fur that looks even more endearing due to its serious look, fine whiskers, tiny ears, rounded paws and a disproportionately long tail. We were lucky to have a couple of them come out of their shared burrows, however, we wished they were a bit more wary of people because people honestly don’t deserve to see them. There were people getting unnecessarily close to them, shouting and even some utter idiots throwing stones towards them to get them to come nearer-I could only yell at such people but in times like this, one really wishes to do more. It is even more disturbing when such people have children with them who will then mimic their parent’s ghastly behaviour.

But well, we had to move on ahead and not let that ruin our time in a beautiful place. We went on along our journey and reached Sindhu ghat– we’d give it a miss if we knew that it was only a point by the river and there were several before it that were much more scenic.


Once back in Leh we had the evening to ourselves and decided to make the best of it with a walk around the town. We started off with different types of warm tea while petting the friendly mountain dogs and then headed to the Leh market. The market like in most towns is the hub of social life. IMG_1941We have everything from souvenirs for tourists, silver jewellery to fresh peaches and apricots, but what really got our attention was a chalkboard with a dish that called out to us like no other- Pani Puri! We were so thrilled to have that sweet, spicy and sour favourite that we re-visited the place every evening that we were at Leh. We’d recommend exploring the bylanes of the Leh market- every turn had something interesting to see.IMG_1959

Up next : Ladakh : Of sand dunes and snow fights

Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies

Continued from here

Day 2 and whether we were ready or not, we were off to the coldest place on our itinerary- the Tsomoriri lake. Like the Ganga accompanied us all through our trip in Uttarakhand, here it was the Indus. Since we’re a bit closer to the point of origin, however, the visible difference between the 2 rivers is quite vast. The Ganga is a no-nonsense powerhouse of potential destruction in no uncertain terms and quite intimidating while the gentle flow of the Indus makes you want to sit by it and have a picnic all day long.

The tame Indus providing us company amidst the arid landscape

Note: the restrooms were extremely bad on the way, so do give your driver advance notice to stop in smaller villages along the way for possibly better facilities.


Our first stop on the way was at Chumathang at the hot springs there. The plus is that it is a hot spring with very small areas of it bubbling and sputtering up to the surface, the negative is that it’s not the cleanest place around since the locals use the water for their daily needs. IMG_1110However, it is by the banks of the Indus so we sat a while and watched the mountains and the water gurgling by.


After lunch there, we were lucky enough to spot a herd of mountain goats calmly grazing and perched on the narrow cliffs like it was no-big-deal at all.


The journey is long and arduous especially for our spines- even in a comfortable SUV, we found ourselves with aching backs by the end of the day. However, the good news is that the roads are in a bad state only because they are making them wider, so maybe by the time you get to it, it’ll be a breeze. IMG_1164And there it was, our very first view of the perfect oasis amongst the arid mountains and the sands. IMG_1173Kyagar Tso, a saline water lake in the Rupshu valley,  much smaller than Tsomoriri but we instantly fell in love with it. Since we visited Ladakh at the fag end of the season, there was nobody else around. There were a few wild horses grazing nonchalantly, a cold wind, the golden grassland, the ubiquitous mountains, the perfect sky and us. IMG_1195Though small, possibly since it seemed like a reward at the end of a long journey or because of the isolated place that almost seemed like one we had discovered ourselves, this was my favourite among the lakes we’d see on this trip. We spent some time dancing completely out of step and soaking in the surroundings but just because of the cold were soon driven back to the relative comfort of our car.


We went on ahead to the point of our long journey-the Tsomoriri lake. We first checked in to our comfy tents It gets very cold as soon as the sun sets around here, so our driver, Skarma huddled us on to a viewpoint for a more clear view of the beautiful water.IMG_1273 The place is windy, very windy which means the cold is also amplified as much. However, it felt incredibly unspoilt because there were absolutely no other tourists.IMG_1301 We sat by a stacked pile of stones watching the unmoving water, a huge herd of furry goats with their shepherd, the cerulean blue skies with picture perfect clouds and the unchanging part of the scenery throughout- the rugged mountains.IMG_3442.jpg


After a while, we drove back to the safety of our tents only to come out into the biting cold on our way to dinner. Just a glance upward and there it was, a sky like no other, an incredible number of stars blinking down at us from the inky darkness. If not for the cold we’d have been content spending the night watching them.


But spend the night awake we did, with the low air density and the cold, despite our comfortable tents, all of us had trouble sleeping. Nevertheless, we were kept entertained by the sounds around- the howling mountain dogs, the braying donkeys and the wind howling like galloping horses just outside our tents all night- if we ever needed a soundtrack – there it was.IMG_1318


The next morning after a stroll around the area trying to absorb as much of the scene as we could, we headed back to Leh this time stopping at a scene we’d passed by- my first view of autumn colors in India- the flaming reds, the brilliant yellows and the unapologetic oranges bursting through the green color that was meekly receding to the background. IMG_1367More company of the gurgling Indus and we reached what now felt like home, the town of Leh.IMG_1355

Up next : Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains


Ladakh : Of surprises and warm wishes in cold places

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.IMG_0885While 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.


A nondescript exterior to the Gurudwara that is a calm oasis in the cold weather nonetheless


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.


Are you convinced it’s actually downhill?


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.


The Zanskar and the Indus- merging into one



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.IMG_0954.jpg 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!

IMG_3085.jpgNeedless 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.IMG_0993


Now all monasteries we’d seen along the way were on hilltops and this was an exception being on relatively plain land.


The deceptively simple exteriors


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.IMG_1026Even 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.IMG_3095

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 circular design on the wall (visible on the right) are actually individual handpainted images of the Buddha


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.

Never enough prayer wheels



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. IMG_1075.jpgWe 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!IMG_3110.jpgAnd that’s exactly how dear folks, a perfect birthday gets a cherry on top.IMG_1001


Up next : Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies