There are a very few places with an enigma about them. A mere reflection on them transports you to another era, a time long gone by. One can hear echoes of the past. Certain voices softly whisper in your ears, the songs of their majestic antiquity, grandeur, their glorious past and some folktales of those good old days.
Leh, the ancient capital of the Himalayan kingdom is one such place. Legend has it, that Leh was submerged under water, many centuries ago. A pious Buddhist saint, by the name of ‘Dha Chomba Nomegung’, prayed for human habitation and his wish materialised in the form of the ‘Leh’ that we see today.
The old town of Leh is known to the localities by the name of ‘Skyanos Gogsum’ and is situated behind the present day marketplace. This old town was like a fortress, with gates that opened only for a few hours every day. The ‘Leh Palace’ is perched up on a small hill inside this fortress and its first occupant was ‘Senge Namgyal’, one of the most powerful kings of the Namgyal Dynasty, which ruled Leh since the 17th century.
The old town, situated on the legendary ‘Silk Route’ was home to a bustling, live market place full of traders, craftsmen and artisans. It flourished, until, the ‘Dogra’ invasion of 1834. After this intrusion the royal family shifted their residence to ‘Stok’, where they reside till date. Once abandoned by the Namgyals, the old town lost much of its splendour and riches to its new rulers.
The remainder of the buildings of this battered town are some of the best surviving examples of the vernacular domestic architecture of that time, an architecture that had prospered to its fullest under its previous Buddhist rulers. Many of the houses and monasteries were built on elevated, sunny grounds, facing the south, and were often constructed from a mixture of rocks, wood and earth. To make the dwellings appropriately suitable to the extremely cold local climate, they were well-insulated with mud and straw, and the most important rooms always faced south for abundant sunshine.
Blessed with rich culture and breathtaking beauty, Leh has seen an unprecedented surge in tourism during the past decade and a half. Mountains dominate the immediate landscape and this sunken bowl of flattish land has two main access ways, one being the Srinagar- Leh highway and the other being the Manali-Leh highway. Winters see the closure of both these roadways due to heavy snowfall and the only link with this otherwise cut off landmass remains air transport.
Summers witness an enormous flood of travellers and the streets are crammed up with tourists from across the globe. The market place is full of craftsmen and traders exhibiting the best embroidery and handicrafts. This lively and busy marketplace is without a doubt a shopper’s delight. Summers witness the opening of a lot of eateries and café’s offering exotic foodstuff that you cannot even imagine you will get in Leh.
Old Leh town, the market place, The Kali temple and The Shanti Stupa remain the most common places of interest within the city.
In the very immediate surrounds, about 15 kms from Leh, on the main Leh – Manali highway are located The Shey Palace and the Thikse monastery. The Shey Palace complex, which was the old royal abode, houses in it, the Shey Gompa which has a 10 meter tall Buddha enshrine chiselled out in copper. The Shey Palace also boasts of a victory stupa carved out in pure gold. The festivals celebrated in Shey during summers include the Metuka festival in July and Shey Shublas festival in August. The festivities that take place in the Shey Palace and are attended by a hoard of people, summers being a major tourist season. The Sindhu Darshan festival is another very popular festival in Leh. Traditional Ladakhi Buddhist prayer ceremonies inaugurate the festival and cultural groups from all over the country participate in this three day long fiesta.
The Thikse monastery built about 660 years ago belongs to the ‘yellow hat’ sect of Buddhists. This twelve storeyed structure houses a 15 metres high statue of Maitreya,(the future Buddha), the largest such statue in Ladakh. The annual celebration held in this monastery is known as the Gustor ceremony, which is held from the 17th to 19th day, of the ninth month, of the Tibetan calendar (October –November).
The Lamayuru monastery, about 127 kms from Leh is one of the oldest and the most stunning monasteries you will come across. This ancient structure put up during the 10th or 11th century is sure to captivate you with its meditation caves carved out of rock. The Yundrung Kabgyad festival celebrated here on the 28th and 29th days of the 2nd Tibetan month is quite a spectacle.
Among the other monasteries worth visiting are the Hemis Monastery, Spituk Monastery, Phyang Monastery, Lekir Monastery, Alchi Monastery and Rizong Monastery.
About 160 kms from Leh, ahead of Thikse and crossing a whole host of mountain ridges you can find some peace and solace in The Pangong lake, which the highest salt water lake in the world at 14,256 ft. Another place very popular amongst the travellers, in the Ladakh region is The Nubra Valley. Accessed by the highest motor able road and passing the Khardung La Pass at 18,380ft, the enchanting Nubra valley offers tourists a glance into the Indus valley and Zanskar mountain range. The close by village of Hunder is very well known for its sand dunes and double humped camels. Diskit is the closest market place in the vicinity.
Sited amidst several mountain passes and ranges of the Himalayan and the Karakoram mountains, Leh provides a good base for several fantastic trekking opportunities across Ladakh.
Leh is a haven of peace and serenity. The barren geography of this place contains in itself a unique Buddhist lifestyle and culture. The monasteries built long ago draw people from all over the world. The ancient rock carvings, large stupas and the peace and calm found in the monasteries leave a profound mark on the souls of travelers. Apart from the picturesque magnificence and sightseeing options, the culture and lifestyle of Leh is one of the reasons why holiday-makers love to flock here aplenty.
A peculiar music reverberates in my ears as I write this. A whiff of fresh breeze passes by me reminding me of something familiar. Maybe it’s just mountain air or maybe I was here once, long long ago.