Once a western province of Old Tibet and then an independent kingdom, Ladakh (often called “Little Tibet”) was annexed by India during the partition of 1947 and remained closed to outsiders until 1974. Today it’s one of the top travel destinations in India.
The region takes its name from the Persian transliteration of the Tibetan word la-dvags, meaning “land of high passes.” Spanning the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, the region lies at over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and heavy snowfall renders it inaccessible by road for much of the year. Summers are warm, dry and short, yet long enough to grow crops. Barley, wheat and peas are Ladakh’s staple foods, and apricots and some vegetables are grown at lower elevations. Modern conveniences like electricity are scarce, everybody words hard, people share and almost nothing goes to waste. Inherently ecological, Ladakh’s traditional way of life is often praised by environmentalists as a model for sustainable living.
The unique culture of Ladakh has developed from its position at the crossroads of Tibet, Kashmir and India, and today it is home to one of the most intact Tibetan Buddhist societies in the world. The majority of Ladakhis are Buddhist, a minority are Shia Muslim, a small minority are Christian and there is a large Tibetan refugee community around Leh. In summertime, Kashmiri shopkeepers, Nepali road workers, foreign NGO workers and thousands of tourists add to the social mix.
Most of Ladakh’s historic villages and Buddhist monasteries are located along the upper Indus River that snakes through Ladakh valley, and many others are sprinkled around the larger region that includes Zanskar and Nubra valleys and the Changthang plateau. Roughly 35 monasteries (gompas) and 10 nunneries are active in region today. The four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism are represented, and each monastery holds an annual festival with masked dances (chams) that reenact stories in Buddhist mythology and purify the lands. Buddhist monks officiate at weddings, births, funerals, harvest rituals, Buddhist holidays and private ceremonies. Buddhist nuns play a lesser social role but are slowly gaining prominence. Traditionally, families offer one son, usually the second, to their local monastery, or a daughter to a local nunnery. Unlike in Chinese-occupied Tibet, Buddhism in Ladakh is unfettered by politics and its monasteries are the social and spiritual hearts of the land. His Holiness the Dalai Lama visits regularly and believes that Ladakh will play a vital role in the survival of Tibetan Buddhism.
I was immediately fascinated by the rich Buddhist culture of Ladakh with its crumbling monasteries filled with fascinating tantric artwork, the sounds of deep throat chanting during morning prayers, salty butter tea served by novices, sand mandalas and butter sculptures made for ritual ceremonies, and locals spinning prayer wheels chanting “Om mani padme hum.” Some of this culture dates back over 1,000 years to the second great diffusion of Buddhism when King Yeshé-Ö of Guge built 108 monasteries across his kingdom of Western Tibet. Rinchen Zangpo, the great translator of Buddhist Sanskrit texts, supervised the construction of these monasteries, hiring artists and craftsmen from Kashmir, and together they created the stunning small temples in the region at Alchi, Lamayuru, Mangyu, Wanla and Sumda Chun. Each of these sites houses cosmic Buddhist artwork that shows influences from South Asia, Central Asia and Tibet. These are my favorite places in Ladakh and many have been restored, thankfully, as the Ladakhis like to paint over the old artwork with big Tibetan style images using bright glossy paints. Ladakh’s later monasteries are larger complexes in the classic Tibetan style. Among these, Thiksey is the most famous. Built on a hill like a mini Potala Palace, the 12-story complex is filled with fascinating rooms, including a three-story temple with a gigantic golden Maitreya (Future Buddha) statue, the iconic image of Ladakh.
Ladakh is a genuinely special place and I’ve returned many times. My mixed bag of adventures includes attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Zanskar in 2009 and 2012 (and the treacherous/ heavenly two-day road trips to/from Zanskar), attending a village wedding in Zanskar, spending a month (with a sprained ankle) at the Buddhist nunnery in Zangla, a tiny village at the end of the only road into Zanskar, sleeping outdoors under a surreally close night sky bright with constellations and shooting stars, waiting tables at a friend’s Tibetan restaurant in Leh and meeting people from around the world.
Each year brings critical changes and challenges to Ladakh for better and worse — climate change, rapid development, a monetary economy, tourism, consumerism, Indian cultural values, education and much more. Nevertheless, outside of Leh, the intense wonders (and hardships) of this Shangri-La are still there for those seeking an authentic and humbling experience in the world.
Shown below are a few of my favorite images from Ladakh and Zanskar. Please see my primary website for the full collection.