More about Ladakh
General Information about Ladakh
Area: 98000 square km.
Altitude: Altitude ranges from 9000 feet (2,750 m) at Kargil to 25,170 feet (7,672 m) at Saser Kangri in the Karakoram.
Temperature: In summers, up to 27 degree Celsius, and in winters it is -20 degree Celsius and below in the higher reaches.
Best Season: Early June to October
Clothing: In summers, light woolen clothes and in winters, heavy woolens with wind proofing
Information about Ladakh:
Since then, foreign tourists, particularly a large number of young visitors are traveling to Ladakh to see its unspoiled beauty. The landscape of Ladakh is glorious but stark and the surrounding mountains are painted in colors that only nature could choose. Only adventure lovers are recommended to visit Ladakh. Ladakh should not be compared with a hill station like Srinagar. The region is predominantly Buddhist and several important Buddhist monasteries dominate the region. Some of them are located within visiting distance from Leh and normally day excursions are ideal to visit most of them. The clean, dry air, magnificent scenery and the warm hospitality of the happy people makes Ladakh truly memorable.
The territory of Ladakh represents some 70 per cent of area of the State of Jammu and Kashmir with the lowest density of population in the world which is less than one or two per square kilometer. The effect of elevation and isolation amidst snowy mountains has made the countryside forbiddingly arid and produced one of the most unusual climates in the world. Burning heat during the day is normally followed by extreme cold at night and dry cold air makes you feel its presence. The average annual rainfall is less than four inches. As you drive up and down this arid, barren, sun-beaten and wind-swept countryside, you may get a peculiar feeling that you are somewhere on the lunar surface – this topography character has given Ladakh the term “Moonland”.
History of Ladakh
The region of Ladakh once formed part of the erstwhile Kingdom of Ladakh and for nearly 900 years from the middle of the 10th century existed as an independent kingdom. Its dynasties descended from the king of old Tibet. After 1531, it was periodically attacked by the Muslims from Kashmir, until it was finally annexed to Kashmir in the mid 19th century. The early colonizers of Ladakh included the Indo-Aryan Mons from across the Himalayan range, the Darads from the extreme western Himalayas, and the nomads from the Tibetan highlands. While Mons are believed to have carried north-Indian Buddhism to these highland valleys, the Darads and Baltis of the lower Indus Valley are credited with the introduction of farming and the Tibetans with the tradition of herding. Its valleys, by virtue of their contiguity with Kashmir, Kishtwar and Kulu, served as the initial receptacles of successive ethnic and cultural waves emanating from across the Great Himalayan range.
Its political fortunes flowed over the centuries, and the kingdom, was at its best in the early 17th century under the famous king Sengge Namgyal, whose rule extended across Spiti and western Tibet up to the Mayumla beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. During this period Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and Central Asia. The merchants and pilgrims who made up the majority of travellers during this period of time, travelled on foot or horseback, taking about 16 days to reach Srinagar, although the people riding non-stop and with changes of horse all along the route, could do it in as little as three days. These merchants who deal in textiles and spices, raw silk and carpets, dyestuffs and narcotics, transported their goods on pony who took about two months to carry them from Amritsar to the Central Asian towns of Yarkand and Knotan. On this long route, Leh was the half-way house, and developed into a bustling entreport, its bazaars thronged with merchants from far countries. This was before the wheel as a means of transport was introduced into Ladakh, which happened only when the Srinagar-Leh motor-road was constructed as recently as the early 1960s.
The 434 km Srinagar-Leh highway follows the historic trade route, thus giving travellers a glimpse of villages that are historically and culturally important. The famous pashm (better known as cashmere) was produced in the high altitudes of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet and transported thorough Leh to Srinagar where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls which are known all over the world for their softness and warmth. Ironically, it was this lucrative trade, that finally spelt the doom of the independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous gaze of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, and in 1834, he sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh. Hence, followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India. Ladakh, together with the neighbouring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the newly created State of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, Baltistan becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Geography of Ladakh
Ladakh has an area of approx. 98,000 sq km., situated at an altitude of 2,500 to 4,500 meters with some of the passes at 6,000 and peaks up to 7,500 meter all around the region. The mountains of Ladakh do not seem to be very impressive, the reason being the city of Leh is situated already at an altitude of 3,500 m and the mountains appear only 3,000 m higher and they do not look any bigger than the Alps. The Ladaeh region is part mountain, part flat terrain and is quite arid. Ladakh is really a high altitude desert area and there is only little snow on the mountains and look like big brown hills. When you get into them they are dry and dusty, with clusters of willows and desert roses along the streams. Yet visitors still find that Ladakh is a magical and remote place with its happy people. The four mountain ranges of Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram pass though the region of Ladakh. Ladakh also has the world’s largest glaciers outside the poles. The towns and villages occur along the river valleys of the Indus and its tributaries, Zanskar, Shingo and Shyok. There is also the large beautiful lake Pangong Tso which is 150 km long and 4 km wide at a height of 4,000 m. Due to necessity and adverse conditions people of Ladakh have learnt to irrigate their fields. In the fields barley is the main crop which is turned into tsampa after roasting and grinding. Apple and apricots trees are also grown with success. Most of the crops are reserved for the hard winter time. At lower altitudes, grape, mulberry and walnut are grown. The willow and poplar grow in abundance and provide fuel and timber, especially during the winter. These trees are also the source of the material for basket making. The fragrant juniper is reserved for religious ceremonies. It is burnt at several occasions by the Buddhists filling the atmosphere with its fragrance.
Climate of Ladakh:
In peak winters the temperature in Ladakh goes down to - 30 Degree Celsius in Leh and Kargil and - 50 Degree Celsius in Dras. Temperatures remain in minus for almost 3 months from December to the month of February. But on clear sunny days it can become very hot and one can get sun burnt. Rainfall is very less due to the geographical location of Ladakh. The rainfall is around 50 mm annually. It is the melting snow which makes the survival of human and animals possible. In the desert like landscape one may come across the dunes or perhaps occasionally to the dust storms.
Economy of Ladakh:
Although, most of the places in Ladakh are more or less cut off for 6 months from rest of the world, the state has retained cultural links with its neighboring regions in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Tibet and Central Asia and also traded in valuable Pashmina, carpets, apricots, tea, and small amounts of salt, boraz, sulphur, pearls and metals. Animal transportation was provided by yaks, ponies, Bactrian camels and hunia sheep with broad backs. Livestock is a precious contribution to the economy of Ladakh, especially the yaks and goats play an important role. Yak provides meat, milk for butter, hair and hide for tents, boots, ropes, horns for agricultural tools and dung for fuel thus paying the most vital role in the local economy of the region. Goats, especially in the eastern region, produce fine pashmina for export. The Zanskar pony is considered fast and strong and therefore used for transport and for the special and famous game of Ladakhi polo!
People of Ladakh:
The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The people of Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist and practice Mahayana Buddhism influenced with the old Bon animistic faith and Tantric Hinduism. Bon religion and Tantrism involved rituals to fulfill the wishes and so they were very popular before Mahayana Buddhism dominated. The people of Ladakh are very hardy and tough like the rugged mountains and also very soft and plain. With round faces, short noses, and chinki eyes they resemble more to the people of Tibet and central Asia. The original population is believed to have been that of Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But over years, a huge influx from Tibet overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, there are Tibetans. Further west, in and around Kargil, there is much in the people's appearance that suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization is the "Arghon", a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants. There are four main groups of people. The Mons who are of Aryan stock are usually professional entertainers, often musicians. The Dards are found along the Indus valley, many converted to Islam, though some remained Buddhist. Tibetans form the bulk of the population in Central and Eastern Ladakh, though they have assumed the Ladakhi identity over generations. The Baltis who are thought to have originated in Central Asia, mostly live in the Kargil region. The Ladakhis are cheerful and live close to nature. The Ladakhis wore the goncha which is a loose woollen robe tied at the waist with a wide coloured band. Buddhists usually wear dark red while Muslims and nomadic tribes often use undyed material.
Influence of Buddhism in Ladakh: Twelve centuries after the Buddha attained 'nirvana', the Tibetan King Songstsen Gampo (Sron-bTsan Sgam-Po) who ruled from 618 to 649 AD, married Wen Chen from the court of China's Tang dynasty and Bkrikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess. Under their influence, Buddhism slowly developed in the Central Himalayan and Trans Himalayan regions of Tibet, Spiti, Lahaul and Ladakh till it became the predominant faith. Buddhism is the way of life in Ladakh. Buddhism reached Tibet from India via Ladakh, and there are ancient Buddhist rock engravings all over the region, even in areas like Drass and the lower Suru valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population. The division between the Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh passes through Mulbekh (on the Kargil-Leh road) and between the villages of Parkachick and Rangdum in the Suru Valley, though there are pockets of Muslim population further east, in Padum (Zanskar), Nubra Valley and in and around Leh. The approach to a Buddhist Village is invariably marked by 'Mani' walls, which are long chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the Mantra "Om Mane Padme Hum" and by 'Chorten', commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-posts. Many villages are crowned with a Gompa or monastery, which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home of a solitary Lama.
The Muslim Inhabitants: Islam too came from the west. There is a peaceful penetration of the 'Shia' sect spearheaded by missionaries. Its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the sub-rulers of Drass, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, 'Mani' walls and Chorten are replaced by mosques, small unpretentious buildings, or 'Imambaras', the imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.
Women of Ladakh: In Leh, women of both the communities, Buddhist and Muslim, enjoy a greater freedom than other parts of the region. They not only work in the house and field, but also do business and interact freely with men other than their own relations. In Kargil and its adjoining regions, it is only in the last few years that women are merging from semi-seclusion and taking jobs other than traditional ones like farming and house-keeping.
Traditional Rituals & Leisure Activities in Ladakh: The monastic and other religious festivals, many of which fall in winter, provide the excuse for convivial gatherings. The Ladakhi Buddhists are very happy people who love dancing, music and sports. Their favourite sports are archery and polo. In Leh, and may of the villages, archery festivals are held during the summer months, with a lot of fun and fanfare. Different teams from surrounding villages compete with each other in these archery festivals, and the shooting takes place according to strict etiquette, to the accompaniment of the music of surna and daman (oboe and drum). Most Ladakhis are farmers and they make their living by ploughing their small, dry plots with sturdy Dzos, cattle crossbred from yaks and hill cows. People living in villages survive on a simple diet of roasted barley or buck-wheat flour called Tsampa. They drink green salt tea mixed with yak butter. Among the Buddhists, these often develop into open-air parties accompanied by dance and song, at which Chang, the local beer made from fermented barley, flows freely.
Oral Tradition in Ladakh: Of the secular culture, the most important element is the rich oral literature of songs and poems for every occasions, as well as local versions of the "Kesar Saga", the Tibetan national epic. This literature is common to both Buddhists and Muslims. In fact, the most highly developed versions of the Kesar Saga, and some of the most exuberant and lyrical songs are said to be found in Shakar-Chigtan, an area of the western Kargil district exclusively inhabited by Muslims, unfortunately not freely open to tourists yet.
Ceremonies in Ladakh: Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of 'Surna' and 'Daman' (Oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as "Mons". The first year of childbirth is marked by celebrations at different intervals of time, Beginning with a function held after 15 days, then after one month, and then again at the end of year. All relatives, neighbors and friends are invited and served with 'Tsampa', butter and sugar, along with tea by the family in which the child is born.
Wedding in Ladakh: There is a mix of music and dance, joy and laughter, in the air whenever a marriage is held. The first day is spent in feasting at the bride's house, the second at the groom's place. The bride goes to live in the house of bridegroom after marriage. Boys are usually married or promised for marriage at about 16, girls at about 12. To make a proposal a relative of the boy goes to the house of the girl and gives a ring together with presents of butter, tea and 'Chang'. If the gifts are accepted then the marriage follows some months later. The boy offers a necklace and clothes to the girl. The parents of the girl give the couple clothes, animals and land if they are rich. These gifts are known as a "Raqtqaq" or dowry.
Rules of Inheritance: When the father of the family dies his place is taken by the eldest brother. The other brothers must obey the eldest brother. All inheritance of the family goes to the eldest brother and then to the next brother when he dies. If the family consists of all girls, then the father will bring the husband of the eldest daughter into the house and all land stays in the daughter's name and passes to her first son. Both sets of parents must accept the proposal of the boy for the girl. Usually the marriage is set by both sets of parents, who will choose a suitable partner for their child on the basis of manner, health and ability to earn income and look after a house.
Astrologers and Oracles of Ladakh: The lamas are the vital intermediaries between the human and the spirit world. Not only do they perform the rites necessary to propitiate the gods, they also often take on the role of astrologers and oracles who predict the auspicious time for starting any enterprise, or starting ploughing the field, arranging a marriage or going on a journey. The most famous monk-oracles are those of Matho Gompa. Chosen every three years by a traditional procedure, two monks spend several months in a rigorous regimen of prayer and fasting to prepare and purify themselves for their arduous role. When the time comes they are possessed by the deity, whose spirit enables them to perform feats that would be impossible to anyone in a normal state such as cutting themselves with knives, or sprinting along the gompa's topmost parapet. In this condition, they will answer questions put to them concerning individual and public welfare. However, the spirit is said to be able to detect questions asked by sceptical observers with the intention of testing him, and to react with frenzied anger.
Religion in Ladakh:
The Buddhist gompas or monasteries are places of worship, meditation and other religious and festive activities. The monasteries still remain the central part of a normal Ladakhi people. It was the Guru Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to Tibet and Ladakh during his travel in the 7th century AD. In the 11th century, the Buddhist scholar Rinchen Tsangpo established 108 monasteries in the region. The gompas of Lamayuru and Alchi are said to date from that time. The living Buddhist heritage is manifested in day to day life in the villages where so called “mani” walls are engraved with the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ and stones are piled into commemorative mounds known as ‘chorten’. 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. Most of the mosques in Ladakh are influenced by the Persian architecture.
Society of Ladakh: With the exception of those places on trade routes, Ladakhi society has been very introverted and for long time has been isolated from the rest of the world. The economy developed in such a way that it was self-sufficient, but not an easy development in such a hostile environment like in Ladakh. Ladakh also developed a very distinct culture which was otherwise not observed in other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Polyandry was common in the Ladakhi Society. Women were allowed to become monk and so in the past many women became monks. The harsh climate caused high death rates, which resulted in a stable population based on the limited agriculture activities which could take place in the environment of Ladakh. In the recent times, the society has changed rapidly. Imported goods are becoming widely available and more and more people are involved in the trading and selling of goods. Traditional Ladakh is being quickly brought in step with the 20th century. Ladakh is open to tourists only since 1974 and has attracted already a large number of tourists and the influence of the tourists does not remain unnoticed on the society as a large number of people, especially in the capital Leh has to do directly or indirectly with the tourists.
Festivals of Ladakh
Festivals in Ladakh are celebrated as the occasions for merry-making. These festivals provide people with various opportunities to interact with each other, form new ties and renew the old ones. Many of the annual festivals of the Gompas in Ladakh takes place in winter, which is a relatively idle time for majority of the people. It is time when the whole village gather together. Stalls are erected and goods of daily need and enjoyment are sold. Eatables are brought along and families and relatives would enjoy the meals together. The whole activity takes place around the gompas. In the courtyards of the Gompas, colourful masked dances and dance-dramas are performed. Lamas, dressed in colourful robes and wearing startlingly frightful masks, perform mimes symbolizing various aspects of the religion such as the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil. Local people flock from near and far to these events and the spiritual benefits they get are no doubt heightened by their enjoyment of the party atmosphere. This is also an occasion to demonstrate the cultural heritage as well as the wealth of that particular monastery. Big and rare musical instruments, old weapons and religious objects including Thangkas are brought out during the performances. The first ceremony of any festival is very interesting as the male Lama is accompanied by the monks. Musicians, dancers and singers in an harmony create for visitors an unforgettable experience. Some of the popular themes includes the victory of good over evil or some special stories related to great Lamas where their supernatural power is demonstrated or the stories related to Guru Padmasambhava. Their dances are also very colourful. A clown plays an important role so that the villagers do not get disinterested by an overdose of religion or history so that atmosphere is joyful. Spituk, Stok, Thikse, Chemrey and Matho have their festivals in winter, between November and March. There are some festivals which are celebrated in warmer months. These are Lamayuru Festival (April or May), Phyang Festival, Thikse Festival (July or August). Some other festivals celebrated in Ladakh are as follows:
Hemis Festival in Ladakh: Hemis is the biggest and most famous of the monastic festivals, frequented by tourists and local alike. Hemis Festival is celebrated in the end of June or in early July and is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. After every 12 years, the Gompa's greatest treasure, a huge thangka or a religious icon painted or embroidered on cloth is ritually exhibited. The next unveiling is due to take place in 2004 AD.
Dosmoche Festival in Ladakh: Dosmoche Festival, the festival of the scapegoat, is celebrated with great enthusiasm at Leh. Dosmoche Festival falls in the second half of February. Dosmoche is one of two New Year festivals, the other being Losar. At Dosmoche, a great wooden mast decorated with streamers and religious emblems is held up outside Leh.
At the appointed time, offerings of storma, ritual figures moulded out of dough, are brought out and ceremonially cast away into the desert, or burnt. These scapegoats carry away with them the evil spirits of the old year, and thus the town is cleansed and made ready to welcome the new year. Likir and Deskit (Nubra) also time their festivals to coincide with Dosmoche festival.
Losar Festival in Ladakh: Losar, the spectacular festival celebrates the Ladakhi or Tibetan new year. The festivities last for 2 weeks during December or January, depending on the Lunar Calendar. All Ladakhi Buddhists celebrate it by making offerings to the gods, both in Gompas and in their domestic shrines. The festival is marked with ancient rituals, the stage fights between good and evil, chanting and passing through the crowds with fire torches, the dance of the Ibex deer and the dramatic battles between the King and his ministers. This festival is full of music, dances and merry-making. This important festival changes its location and dates every year.
Phyang Festival in Ladakh: Phyang Festival is celebrated in the month of July (late July or early August) in Ladakh. Like Hemis, the Phyang festival also involves the exhibition of gigantic Thangka, though here it is done every year.
Ladakh Harvest Festival in Ladakh: The festival usually starts from 1st September and lasts till September 15th. It is a colourful celebration of the rich, cultural diversity of Ladakh's people. The weeks long festivities are held all over the region. Music, theatre, polo, archery and wedding ceremonies are performed daily along with mask and folk dances, with the final carnival parade passing through the streets of Leh.
Ladakh Festival in Ladakh: The Ladakh festival is conducted for 15 days i.e. from the 1st to the 15th of September in Ladakh. Various sports such as polo and archery, folk dances and songs, age-old social and cultural ceremonies, art and handicrafts, all come alive in a colorful kaleidoscope.
Tak-Tok Festival in Ladakh: Tak-Tok festival is celebrated at cave Gompa of Tak-Tok in Ladakh. It is one of the major festivals of Ladakh. Tak-Tok festival is celebrated for about ten days after Phyang festival. This festival is celebrated in summer, and yet another tourist attraction. The festival is celebrated with fanfare and locals from far areas storm the place on the occasion.
Sindhu Darshan Festival in Ladakh: Sindhu Darshan Festival, as the name suggests, is a celebration of the Sindhu river. The people travel here for the Darshan and Puja of the River Sindhu (Indus) which originates from the Mansarovar in Tibet. The festival aims at projecting the Sindhu river as a symbol of multi-dimensional cultural identity, communal harmony and peaceful co-existence in India. This festival is also a symbolic salute to the brave soldiers of India who have valiantly fought the odds at Siachen, Kargil and other places. It is also an opportunity for people from around the country and overseas to visit the beautiful regions of Leh and Ladakh. This festival was first celebrated in the year 1997 and later this festival is organized annually at Leh in the month of May-June by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir with the support of the Ministry of tourism and culture, Government of India. The festival is kaleidoscope of Indian culture and showcases an exciting array of performing arts being brought together at an exciting place. As part of the celebrations, various groups from different states in India bring water from the other mighty rivers in the country in earthen pots and immerse these pots in the Sindhu river, thereby mingling the river water with other waters of the land.
Where to stay in Ladakh
At Leh and Kargil, accommodation is available to suit all budgets. Hotels are rated as A, B, C and economy categories while guest houses fall under upper medium and economy class. Most of the hotels are run by family and providing services that are more personalized than professional. In Leh, guest houses located in residential houses offer rooms with facilities that range from good to basic. Tariffs are low and they give visitors a chance to see and experience the life of the ordinary Ladakhi. During peak tourist season early June to mid September, it is advisable to book rooms in advance. In winter too, advance booking is essential to ensure provision of heating arrangements during the intended stay.
High Altitude Travel – Precautions to be taken
All visitors must ensure they are physically fit before visiting Ladakh and Lahaul and Spiti. The high altitude environment is demanding. People with heart or lung disease must consult their doctor before planning a trip. Acclimatization is mandatory for visitors traveling by air. It is important to take complete rest for the first 24 hours after arrival and as much rest as possible for the next 12 hours. People traveling to altitudes above 10,000 feet (2700 m) are likely to suffer from acute mountain sickness. The most common symptoms are disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, nausea, coughing, irregular breathing, breathlessness, lack of concentration. In its more serious form, acute mountain sickness can be life threatening and so needs immediate medical attention.
How to reach Ladakh:
Travel by road gives you an advantage over flying into Leh as it enables you to acclimatize easily. As Leh is situated on a high altitude plateau and travelling by Jeep or car will give you the flexibility of stopping to see the several sights on the way. Srinagar – Leh road (434 km) is the main route with an over night halt at Kargil. The road is open between mid June and November. The Manali-Leh highway is a spectacular journey with an over night halt at tented camps at Sarchu or Pang. Kargil is situated on the main highway between Srinagar and Leh. The road from Kargil into the Suru and Zanskar valleys is open only between July and October.
Leh is the main airport for this area. Direct flights link it to Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu.