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The flight into Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is an unforgettable experience - over the dramatic expanse of the Himalayas - for Ladakh straddles four main ranges - the great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram. This is the highest inhabited region in India and the River Indus with its tributaries, slice their way through the ranges.
Journey To Ladakh Via Road
Travelling into Ladakh by road is exciting. It takes two days from Srinagar to Leh with a mid way halt at Kargil, which gives the visitor a marvellous introduction to this spectacular destination, while easing the acclimatisation process to the high altitude low oxygen atmosphere of Ladakh.
The road leaves behind the verdant beauty of the Kashmir valley at Zoji-la, the pass in the Great Himalayan wall that is the gateway into Ladakh. Densely forested slopes give way to bare mountains in shades of russets and brown as the road descends to the alpine meadows of Minamarg on to Drass, the first village after the pass. It is reputed to be the second coldest habitation in the world after Siberia! The people here are different. They are of Dard origin and believed to be an Aryan people who migrated from the Central Asian steppes.
Onward the road traverses a narrowing gorge on to the little trading town of Kargil, the mid point of the journey. Located on the river Suru, at 9,000 feet, Kargil is the base for visits to the spectacular Suru and Zanskar valleys and for a variety of adventure activities in the region. 40-km ahead of Kargil is Mulbekh noted for its immense figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha, carved in deep relief into a rock face high above the village.
The road climbs its breathless way to more passes Namika la and Fotu la a truly top of the world feeling. It sweeps past the amazing Lamayuru monastery spilling spectacularly over a mountain side down the incredible Langroo loops to meet the river Indus at Khalatse - a descent of 4,000 ft. /1,219 m in about 32-km. A panoramic view of the amazing russets, yellows and greys of the Ladakh range unfolds as the road follows the river. Gompas and forts can be glimpsed in the distance. At the Spituk monastery the visitor gets a first dramatic glimpse of Leh, floating like a mirage in the distance.
Buddhism & Monasteries In Ladakh
Though Leh has been capital of this region since the 17th century, strewn around it along the Indus valley are earlier capitals of he region. From Leh one can wander off on marvellous day expeditions to get a glimpse of some of the treasures of Ladakh.
Not far from Leh, Shey is the oldest capital of Ladakh from where its earliest Tibetan kings ruled. Perched on top of a huge rock are the royal palace and temples adorned with brilliantly coloured murals and a 7.5 metre gold statue of the Buddha. Basgo and Tingmosgang with their forts and palaces were also capitals of Ladakh. Stok Palace across the river from Leh is the home of the erstwhile royal family. The Palace Museum here has collections of beautiful royal costumes and jewellery, exquisite Thangkas, porcelain, jade, weapons and armour.
Within easy reach of Leh is the Spituk Monastery with its commanding view of he indus. It has fine Thangkas and a collection of ancient masks. Thikse Monastery one of the most impressive in the area is spectacularly located and is noted for its beautiful murals. Hemis is of course the biggest gompa in Ladakh and the best known for its magnificent summer festival that celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The largest thangka in Ladakh is to be found here. It is unfolded only once every 12 years.
Other magnificent gompas located in the vicinity include the splendid Lamayuru, Likir, Phyang, Rizdong, Stakna, Matho and Chemrey Gompas, all easily accessible from Leh. Alchi no longer an active religious centre, is among Ladakhs most beautiful monasteries. Over a thousand years old, its wall paintings like those of Tabo in Spiti are reminiscent of the Ajanta style of painting.
Around Leh in the upper Indus valley is the cultural heartland of Ladakh, where the old capitals of the area are located and where many of the splendid palaces and Gompas are also to be found.
The people of Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist and practise Mahayana Buddhism tempered with the old Bon animistic faith and Tantric Hinduism. It was brought Buddhism to Tibet and Ladakh during his travels in the 7th century AD. In the 11th century the Buddhist scholar Rinchen Tsangpo established 108 monasteries in the region. The Gompas at Lamayuru and Alchi are said to date from that time.
The living Buddhist heritage is manifest in the villages where Mani walls are engraved with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and stones are piled into commemorative mounds known as Chorten. The Gompas precariously perched on steep hillsides or rock faces seem an integral part of the rugged landscape.
In Western Ladakh, in Drass, Kargil and the Suru valley where the Muslim Shia faith prevails there are mosques and imposing Imambaras in the Islamic style, surmounted with domes.