Ladakh — Where Do We Travel?

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Ladakh is one of these case. We surf information about Ladakh, but what we find is reasons to go to Ladakh and packages. But nobody gives you broader understanding — Where do we travel, when we go to Ladakh.

Ladakh is a part of Himalayas in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. Being in Tibetan cultural area Ladakh represents different face of India than famous Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) representing splendid Indo-Islamic history of Mughal dynasty. Last decades Ladakh is getting more and more popular among travellers. If you type word Ladakh in Google search, you find many links to “5 reasons to go to Ladakh” and similar. If you try to read scholar books about Ladakh, you find yourself lost among Tibetan names and terminology, which is very hard to memorise or even to understand. I am not going to name the reasons why to go to Ladakh or give detailed cultural and historical description. Reasons are written in the virtual space already too many times. Ladakh culture and history are too rich to put it in one blog post. So, it is just short look into Ladakh history and influences, which created nowadays Ladakh.

Ladakh attracts travellers with its beautiful sights

Archaeological excavations have proved that Ladakh was inhabited already in Neolithic era. It is thought, that Ladakh was the area, where the first know Indo-European tribes, Mons and Dards, got settled. They religion must have been animism. Till these days we can see some decorations of animals scull and horns on the roads. It must be the artefact left from old days.

The decoration of animal scull and horns
 reminding us old animistic times

What we see the most in Ladakh is Buddhist monasteries. Only guide with good knowledge can help you to understand the differences between and specific of each monastery as well as confusing network of Tibetan Buddhist schools.

Ladakh monasteries. Photo by Inga Urbonaviciute

The Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism of Vijarayana school, is the main religion in Ladakh. They worship Budha as deity, who reached Nirvana. They also believe in Boddhisatvas, the Buddhas, who reached enlightenment, but decided to stay in this word to help other beings to reach Nirvana. People usually is stunned by pictures on monasteries walls, which depicts demons and other fearful beings. “I never thought, Buddhism can have such creepy iconography”- somebody told me. The pictures depicts the Buddhist stories, which usually have some sermon behind. The fearful faces of protector scare the bad spirits and keeps them stay away from monasteries.

The most common picture in monasteries

Dalai Lama, the spiritual head, is the other important figure in this Buddhism. You will see His Holiness photos with his enlighten smile everywhere even under animal skulls decorations. Many monasteries and holy sights have a touch of Holy Dalai Lama. What surprised me most was a parking place for helicopter next to remote Insa monastery. His Holiness Dalai Lama wanted to visit it, but his body was to weak to reach the monastery. So, immediately big H letter and circle around made from stones appeared near Insa monastery. What was left for His Holiness was to sit in small helicopter. It proves locals love and dedication to His Holiness Dalai Lama

Helicopter parking made to Dalai Lama

It is not known, when exactly Buddhism reached Ladakh. It is thought, that it happened in 1st century, when the empire of Kushan reached this area. Anyway, at that time Buddhism didn’t become the main religion and didn’t do big influence on local culture. From 8th century Ladakh started to get influence from Chinese and Tibetan culture, until finally Tibet culture took the top. Ladakh became a part of Tibetan empire. The era of fragmentation in Tibetan empire gave an opportunity for Ladakh to create the new Ladakh Kingdom with its own dynasty. The oldest know monasteries, still present today, are Samstaling and Alchi monasteries. They have this mystical aura being filled with mystic energy of monks’ meditation already more that 1000 years.

The old prayer wheels of Alchi monastery
 built 1000 years before

The kings and rulers of new Ladakh Kingdom welcomed coming Buddhist monks and gifted them land to built monasteries. Many famous monasteries as Thiksey, Hemi, Dikshit and other started to find their place in between Himalayas mountains. But Budhism is not the only one religion of Ladakh. The Leh bazaar was and still is full of Muslim traders selling Cashmere, jewellery and carpets. In 15th-17th century Ladakh started to be attacked by Muslim communities. But fights was not the only one Islam way to Ladakh. Few famous Sufi visited Ladakh. They travelled here, meditated and shared their knowledge with locals. Ladakh folklore is full of stories about Sufi teachers, their teachings and miracles. They influenced an appearance of new kind of Islam, which, I think, was influenced by Ladakh Buddhism philosophy. Example could be Noorbraksia, the Islam practice, which is still alive in Baltisthan (now in Pakistan). Islam got its firm foundations, when one of Ladakh kings married to Muslim princess from Baltisthan. Anyway, Tibet did the strongest impact to Ladakh culture. Mughal-Ladakh war in 17th finished with the Treaty of Tingmosgang, which settles the dispute between Tibet and Ladakh and restricted Ladakh’s independence.

The mosque in Leh market

I was surprised to find out, that for a short time Ladakh also was a part of Sikh empire (the empire founded in 19th century by Sikh religious group). Now Ladakh is also holy pilgrimage place for Sikhs community. The holy Pathar Sahib Gurudwara is near Leh. It witness the superpower of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak. At that times one demon was running amok around Leh. Guru Nanaksar disturbed his bad deeds by meditation. Guru Nanak was meditating on the top on the hill behind big rock. The demon saw meditating teacher and decided to kill him by rolling him down from the hill with the rock. He pushed the rock with his big feet and rock rolled down with the guru Nanak. On the ground rock pressed the teacher, but he came out of it without any harm. Guru Nanak body was heated by austere practice, so the rock, instead of pressing him, got melted. You will see the rock with shape of guru Nanak and footprint of Demon in the Pathar Sahib grurudwara.

The holy stone with the shape of Guru Nanak
 in Pathar Sahib gurudwara

On British Raj times Ladakh was princely state ruled by local king, who paid taxes to British government. When India got its independence in 1947, Ladakh became a part of Jammu and Kashmere state. China closed Tibet border in 1960 and some restless times came into Ladakh area. It lost its importance as trade market and was closed from outer word till 1947. In 1947 India government opened Ladakh for tourism. Now it is becoming one of the most popular destinations. Ladakh culture is being influenced by tourism and global culture. Some people are afraid that tourism will spoil local culture and will effect Ladakies honest character in negative way. But why, instead of complaining about changing honest ladakies character, we do not bring their sincerity with us to home? From the other hand, Ladakh is improving its infrastructures and cities. Locals have better access to education, healthcare and food products than before. Is it good or is it bad is the matter of discussions. The fact is that Ladakh is changing and is affected by global culture. I believe that global culture will effect the culture of Ladakh, but I don’t think it will destroy it. Students of international marketing know very well, that if you are introducing any global product into new area, it is a must to adopt the product to local culture and needs. A good example is veg burgers in McDonalds, which reached the market when McDonalds decided to open their restaurants in India. The cultural changes are natural process. Only dead cultures do not change.

The best memories from Ladakh
 Photo by Inder Thakur

Thanks for India Miles for opportunity to know this land better!

Originally published at on December 7, 2016.

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