Taking off from the heat and dust of the Indo-Gangetic plains and flying for almost half an hour over snow-capped mountains, it was now time for the plane to wriggle through the barren, bare and brown mountain range to land in the broad valley.
Ladakh is one of the most photographed areas of the world. People, especially travellers from the 19th century onwards have written tomes in its praise and I wanted to have something new that I could offer to my folks back home in Delhi and to my readers in general.
So all along I was thinking, what new I can do as a photographer or a traveller to make my trip a memorable one?
The nearly 10 kilometre wide, majestic valley separates two of the most formidable mountain ranges of the Himalayas the Ladakh and the Zanskar. This is where Leh, the Capital of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is situated.
Named after a famed Buddhist Lama, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the airport is actually the property of the air force and thus a bare and functional facility. It was bare when I first visited in 1999 and it’s bare even now save for some more seats in the lounge area, few television screens, and two kiosks to sell snacks.
Twenty years ago Leh seemed like centuries away from the hustle of modernity. Internet and mobiles were non-existent and even telephone, television, electricity were a preserve of the well-heeled. Visitors and tourists were few and mostly foreigners.
However, in almost two decades the city or rather town has grown and prosperity is visible. The main market which used to be a row of small ill-equipped shops now had rows of well-stocked large shops and showrooms. Even the road was reworked to make it pedestrian friendly with a string of eateries, restaurants and bakeries. People were wearing better clothes. There was an explosion of mobile phones. Electricity had arrived and even when the tourist season hadn’t begun in right earnest all the parking lots were choked with cars of every size and status.
Two decades ago in the evening, the Leh town would be engulfed with the stench of diesel and kerosene as all the light and heating was done through diesel gensets (generator sets) and kerosene bukharis (a local innovation to provide warmth during the winters). Now in some parts electricity through hydropower was available. Similarly, the small shops that sold turquoise blue stones and other small but enchanting local stuff were now selling dry fruits and Kashmiri shawls and carpets which are rich and expensive.
Even the old houses are disappearing with alarming speed thanks to the new found prosperity among the current generation. The younger ones are more articulate and business savvy. Exposure to television and the internet has also made them aware of the new fashion so they are more or less as cosmopolitan in their appearance (if not mentally) as any in the big city.
My itinerary included a visit to Lamayuru Monastery and Pangong Lake as well as places in and around Leh like Hemis and Thiksey Monasteries. After two days of acclimatisation, I headed towards Lamayuru Monastery.
The moment we left Leh the landscape around us emerged in all its glory. Though telephone and electricity lines were now disturbing the pristine look, the grandeur and magnificence of the landscape were every bit as overpowering as it was when I first visited the land.
I had started very early to witness a phenomenon at a site which is very time specific. The site is the confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers 30 kilometres from Leh at a village called Nimoo. During my earlier visit, I saw it in the afternoon. It looked like any other confluence in the mountains – grey water of two rivers meeting in a brown-grey rocky terrain.
At that time my driver told me that I should have come in the morning before 9 or clock to witness the magic. I didn’t heed to his suggestion then but this time around I wanted to know, what was the “magic” he was talking about?
On our way, we had to stop at a local shrine called Patthar Sahib. It’s a shrine dedicated to Guru Nanak Dev Ji Maharaj, the founder of Sikhism. Legend has it that Guru Nanak was meditating at this place and a demon threw a rock on him. However, as the rock touched him it turned into wax.
When you visit the shrine you can see for yourself the rock which has contours and depth that looks like a mold in which a person sitting in a lotus position can fit in perfectly. The entire area is managed by the army and every convoy and local vehicle stops there to pay homage. The small gurudwara also offers kada Prasad (wheat flour halwa) and langar (lunch).
Another interesting site is the magnetic hill just before the confluence of Indus-Zanskar. Our driver stopped the car and switched off the ignition and lo and behold it was moving towards the hill on its own. I was told by a senior military officer that no airplane flies over the mountain. It is believed that it would be sucked into the hill and crash.
While I was stunned by the experience I was itching to reach the confluence site to look for the “magic”. I didn’t have to wait long. In a short time, we were there. As the sun rays were falling at forty-five degrees angle over the river water, I saw azure blue sky, the greenish grey water of Indus and turquoise blue water of Zanskar. It was no more an ordinary confluence. I stood there transfixed. It was “magic”.
Lamayuru Monastery is situated close to a unique landscape called moonscape. It’s a mud feature situated over rocky terrain. It really looks like a slice out of Moon. One of the oldest monasteries in the region, Lamayuru and the village around it has grown in size over a period of time. Education, electricity, mobile phones have made kids confident and they kept talking to us in English asking where we were from? What was our name?
Ladakh and especially Leh and its surrounding areas are dotted with Gompas or monasteries. Hemis, Thikse, Diksit, Chemdey are some of the important ones. These monasteries have similar architecture and location.
As most of the valleys in both Ladakh and Zanskar range are wide and slightly round and surprisingly have a standalone hillock somewhere at the centre, all the monasteries locate themselves on such hillocks. This makes them tower over other human settlements and make for a perfect picture. However, soon you realise the sameness of the pattern and feel exhausted and disinclined to click them.
But Hemis and Thikse are slightly different. Hemis, for almost a thousand years, was so well camouflaged from the public that it’s hidden from the visitor’s gaze even till the last turn. Legend has it that the armies of Genghis Khan remained unaware of its presence during their entire stay in the region. Over the years expanding quarters and the urge to be visible from a distance have led to many constructions that now give away its location.
Thiksey monastery, on the other hand, looks like a scale model or miniature of Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Apart from monasteries during my stay, I learned a few Ladakhi terms. Tso meant lake, Tse meant village and Thang meant open pastures. Dakh meant thousand which means Ladakh is a land of thousand passes.
I had to pass one such “La”, Chang-La pass to visit and see the famed Pangong Tso (Lake). Standing at close to 18000 feet above sea level at the Changla Pass with bright sunlight and temperature at minus 6-degree centigrade I ran the risk of having sunburn and frostbite at the same time.
Apart from military settlements, not many villages were visible on our way towards the lake. Road and telephone lines were the only reminders that the land has been breached by civilisation. However, the scene at Pangong Lake was very different. We could see tourists, tourist huts, tents and the telltale signs of garbage left behind by the earlier wave of tourists from the last season.
Ever since a Hindi movie “Three Idiots” featured the lake for its climax scene in 2009, it has become a hot destination among the new crop of tourists. The yellow colour scooter that was used by Kareena Kapoor (the heroine of the movie) has been kept there for the tourists to sit and get clicked.
On an average 4000 vehicles arrive at Pangong during the peak season between May to July. At that time the locals earn Rs 50 from everyone who wishes to be clicked sitting on the scooter. An army officer stationed there told me with a smile that there are close to 5 such scooters of the same make and colour and each one claims that this is the original one used in the film.
This is the time when even the vast expanse of serenity seems a little under stress from humanity and its cacophony.
The main attraction of watching the lake’s different shades of blue colour was missing as in April it was still under a thin layer of ice. Only at the banks did the snow receded enough to give a glimpse of magnificent blue that so typical of lakes in this area.
It was time to return and while sitting at the airport looking at the photographs I had clicked, I stopped at the photo of Indus-Zanskar confluence and I got the answer to my original question that kept nagging me when I was landing in Leh — what new perspective I will get from my travel? Will it be worth the effort?
I realised that two decades ago when I first saw the confluence, I forgot about it as it seemed so ordinary. This time around the same spot offered an almost surreal experience. And that’s the beauty of Ladakh. The same landscapes during the day and over the seasons offer unique perspectives.
Two elements – sun and shade – paint the grey and brown terrain and blue sky to create endless possibilities of breathtaking beauty.
It’s a land that will keep throwing up ever new frames for an artist, painter, photographer and anyone with even a strand of aesthetic appreciation in him or her. But it will never reveal itself completely to anyone keeping its magic and its mystical qualities intact.
Like an accomplished seductress, it will eternally enchant, entice and captivate the flippant and the devout seekers alike. Each patron will return with their bagful of stories, experiences and images feeling a special bond with the mystical land.
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