Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ladakh, aka 'Little Tibet'

"The land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best of friends or the fiercest of enemies would want to visit us."
~ An old Ladakhi saying

This beautiful saying, framed on our hotel-room door, got glued to my heart for a very long time. True, only a very good friend would dare to traverse through this expanse of tall mountains, high passes, and cold deserts. And, only a fierce enemy like our neighbouring country would intrude with their troops now and then, every couple of months because our borders are iffy. Then there are some who would call Ladakh a No Man's land, and to some it is a land too foreign in its culture that might tickle their touristy apprehensions. To us, it was just perfect. A sanctuary full of natural wonders and kind, ever-smiling faces that make you forget the dust and drudgery of a mad, mad city. A place that heals, listens to your worries, and sometimes even talks back to you in soothing whispers. A place where one can just be.

Bald mountains and feathery poplars, the towering guardians of the place. Leh Palace, the stoic reminder of Ladakh's royal past. Prayer flags lending a hint of colour to rusty doors. The shambled past giving way to a green present. Bleached stupas, the ruins of Shey - the erstwhile summer capital of Ladakh royalty. Sindhu Ghat or the banks of the Indus River, a culturally significant place for the locals. A bactrian camel couple relaxing on the parched sands of the Hunder desert. Sweet-smelling wild roses, one of the scant blooms found in the region. Leh market, where a myriad colours and faces come together. Tibetan refugee shops, chockablock with many a treasure. The market walls adorned with inviting handicrafts. A journey to the culinary heaven via Tibetan momos. Beautiful Ladakhi buildings thronged by poplars and stumpy hills. The Royal Enfield, aka the 'Bullet', the wheels that take you through the ups and downs of the intriguing, never-ceasing-to-fascinate terrain. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Of monks and monasteries

"Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart and out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thought towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."

~ Dalai Lama XIV

I found these wonderful words framed on the walls of a monastery in the outskirts of  Leh. Climbing the what always seemed an unattainable height from the entrance, gasping for breath after every ten steps at a good 13,000 ft, the rewards on having finally made it to the top of the monasteries never went amiss. So etched with beauty was every nook and corner, and such awed were we by the gamut of hidden treasures that the daunting perch ceased to matter within moments. If it wasn't for the echoing serenity and the balmy silence of the monasteries alone, the dramatic panorama of the sandy mountains that one got from their top added layers to the unforgettable experience.

Fixed to the mountains like a crusty lump of gem on the rocks, the Diskit monastery stands at a formidable distance from the main road. And when you have made it to the top, a 106 ft towering statue of Maitreya Buddha awaits to wash away your breathlessness. Watchful stupas stand out from the frame of the Shyok river valley, facing the mighty Himalayas of Pakistan. Huge, colourful prayer wheels dotting the neighbourhoods. The Shanti Stupa, in its pristine glory, rising from the earth like a giant white bird fanning out its wings across the azure sky. Its circuitous walls chockablock with myriad Buddhas and the important phases of his life. Its turns giving way to breathtaking glimpses of the jagged mountains. Another round of panting through the stone stairs of the Thikse monastery, on our way to meet another Buddha. The ever-radiant face calming one's frayed nerves. The courtyard walls adorned with kaleidoscopic murals from many a Buddhist lore. Monks on their way back to their quarters. The eternal words of Dalai Lama XIV.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The bald Himalayas

"... the true smell of the Himalayas, ... if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die."

~ Rudyard Kipling

These lines couldn't have reverberated more truly in my heart, not after the last month's vacation to Ladakh. My love affair with the ever-bewitching pull of mountains was reaffirmed and how! I'm still feeding on bits and morsels of their surreal charm, those silent, ungrudging guardians of time. But the mountains of Ladakh that span the Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges have a different story to tell. Sitting at a dizzying altitude with much of it being over a good 10,000 feet at least, and robbed of even a speck of green, they guard this land of high passes with a zealous loyalty. Unlike the pine-choked, verdant peaks that one comes across in the valley of Kashmir, the mountains here are what they are in their just-born, nascent form - bald, brown, and unpretentious.

Framing the face of the region with their jagged fringes, one simply needs to turn, in order to view the innumerable breathtaking panoramas the intriguing landscape offers. To tag the mountains as 'omnipresent' would be a poor understatement indeed, for I cannot recall a single place or a scene that did not face the high mountains. And I realized, surrounded by all that raw beauty, that no other kind of nature-roving could be more humbling than to be amid these naked mountains, feeling intimidated and protected by their outright barrenness at once.

From the square of the hotel windows. Arms laced together, hugging the azure skies. Serene monasteries perched safely in their sandy cradle. Prayer flags everywhere, lending a dreamy color palette to their tanned monotony. Watching over the army settlements, who, in turn, watch over them, their green tents dotting the barren expanse of the landscape. Basking in its rusty glory by the banks of the turquoise dream, the Pangong Tso lake. A mute witness to the coming together of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers. In the backdrop of the fragrant, wild-rose blooms. Flanking roads and highways, lending some expressiveness to their otherwise tiresome meandering. Sculpting cold deserts with silver sands, the home of the peculiar two-humped, Bactrian camel. Playing hide-and-seek with the big, cottony fluffs of cloud. Beholding the only other constant of the place - the red and maroon robbed monks - descending the rocky staircase of a monastery. 

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