I visited Leh a week before the cloudburst disaster. It happened the day I returned to Bangalore. I am sure things would be different today. This post is about Leh before the disaster.
Leh looks an unlikely place for a settlement. The entire landscape is dry and desert like. It nestles in an isolated valley between spectacular mountain ranges. Water is scarce though River Indus is only a few kilometers away. There can be no large scale industries here. Opportunities for employment are limited. When winter comes, it becomes snow bound and the only access route to Kashmir or Himachal is by air.
Yet Leh is a thriving town and much of the action comes from tourists. Some spend a few weeks while others fall in love with the place and end up staying here for weeks or even months. It is part of India but it is all but Indian. Apart from a couple of Punjabi dhabas, Ladakhi skuis and Tibetan thukpas are the order of the day. From the Buddhist monasteries to the crumbling castles, from the stone-mud houses to the numerous shops of curios, Leh is as exotic as any place can be.
What first captivates me are the mountains in the far distance and the scraggly hills nearer to town. In fact, when I wake up the first morning in Leh, I see from my dormitory lined with bay windows, mountains spread out magnificently. Mountains are not just to my left or to my right. They are everywhere except in the skies above me. It does not feel like visiting a capital city. It feels like Leh is simply incidental and I am actually visiting the mountains. Whatever Leh may have in offer, the mountains are the real magnet for me. I can’t seem to take my eyes off them.
So I sit down at Tsemo near the ruins of the old castle perched spectacularly on the high pinnacles of a steep rocky hill. I take out my little book and attempt a silly pencil sketch of the mountain range spread out to the south and southwest. It is silly because I can never hope to capture the grandeur and the moods that are before me. Beyond this town of little lanes and neat stone-mud houses with flat roofs, the mountains stand next to one another, one behind another, in a long train of peaks and ridges. Clouds have gathered in the distance and rain drenches the mountain tops. Evening light slanting from the west brings out the ridges and rugged slopes in sharp contrast. Mountains wear pleated cloaks of golden browns and dark shadows. With the moving clouds and the changing light, the same mountains are never the same. They are changing every second and sketch a new mood. In each mood there is an emotion and a story waiting to be told. It is like what some great philosopher once said that you cannot step into the same river twice.
The castle at Tsemo is more interesting for its location than what remains of it. It is today just a few whitewashed stone walls decorated on the top with tangled lines of colourful prayer flags. It is managed by a monastery nearby. A monk sitting at the entrance charges a fee for the little interest it holds. I have a short chat with a rich fat kid from Mumbai, one with a precocious attitude. Climbing up to this point is quite an achievement for him, as if Everest itself has been conquered.
The old palace of Leh, started in the 16th century by the Namgyal Dynasty, sits below the castle’s high perch, looking subservient to the latter. The palace is built on many levels with flat roofs and terraces. Low parapets define the terraces. Black bands of sticks fill the top of walls and sometimes over the lintels of windows. The entrance porch stands on unique wooden pillars made of slender natural poles probably joined to a central column. Tall stone towers, neat slender windows with heavily corbelled wooden lintels and pillared balconies with minimalistic decor are unique and make an interesting study of local architecture.
A plan in one of the galleries shows the foundation of the palace standing on many levels on the slopes of the hill. This gallery contains an exhibition of photographs of the Ladakh region. In particular, I found the petroglyphs (rock-art) interesting. They form solid evidence of inhabitation in Ladakh by prehistoric man.
The temple standing within the palace walls is quite a place. Old books covered in cloth are neatly arranged in receptables in the walls. Stucco images of Boddhisatvas and many-armed deities sit in the dim interiors. Except for a little skylight there is no other lighting inside the sanctum. A stucco image of a pig’s face stares fiercely from its wooden pole. Other similar masks stare from other wooden poles of the hall. A drum and its serpentine cane beater stand silently catching filtered light from above. A magnificent image of a goddess ranging with thousand arms and feet stands at the back. She is the great protector of diseases and evil spirits. A sacred cloth tied to a circular handle on the door glows translucent.
Despite the dryness of the land, there is sufficient green cover near lower town. Poplars are common. I guess these have been planted in recent times. I wonder if these trees are native to the region. This part of town is like a green oasis in the middle of this desert land. Beyond that stands the Japanese sponsored Shanti Stupa on a hill. I decide against visiting it, having seem similar ones at Dhauli (Orissa) and Rajgir (Bihar).
Old town of Leh is spread about the immediate slopes below the palace. With narrow lanes, low overhanging walkways and bridges, it is an experience to walk through town. As I walk under the upper level of a house, built across a public lane, I notice the ceiling is the medieval wattle-and-daub construction. The constructions may appear primitive but they are mature in character. Nonetheless, these buildings don’t have the strength of concrete and are particularly vulnerable as they are built on slopes. A natural calamity here could prove costly.
Once in a while I pass a stupa or chorten, locally called mani, of which they are many more in lower town where a high decorated gateway straddles the entry roads into Leh. Most walls in old town are built of stone and often caked in mud paste. The mud plaster is locally called mar-kalak. The mud is spread out on the walls in swirling patterns in what appears to be the work of bare hands. From the lanes here I can see the palace looming on the high slopes. The scenes are almost monochrome in the dull brown character of the landscape. Once in a while a potted plant hangs from a window sill adding a touch of greens and oranges. There is no luxury here for separate garden beds, lawns or approach paths. Houses share walls, lanes and approaches. Prayer flags seem to link one house to another. A pleated cloth shade at a window flutters in the breeze.
It is afternoon and an old bearded man is napping in a shade. A Japanese tourist is taking a picture of him unawares. A woman is waiting in a lane near a water pipe with a couple of empty cans. Her hair is worn as two long thin plaits which are then joined together into a loop, an age old Ladakhi fashion still current. A couple of kids are pretending to ride a scooter parked in a lane. An old man is whirling a prayer wheel. At a shop tucked between houses, a man is dyeing a white duppatta into the desired shade of red. A temple stands quietly elsewhere. A cafe waits for tourists for much desired business.
‘Jhulay,’ says a woman sitting at her doorstep.
‘What?’ I ask bewildered. After a pause I recover from the sound of this new word to ask, ‘Is that the Ladakhi word for namaste?’
She nods and says only one word, ‘Jhulay.’
‘Jhulay,’ I reply and move on. Little did I know at that point that greeting strangers everywhere in Ladakh with this word is as common as the French bon jour.
In the touristy part of town I visit the Chokhang temple. It is a new temple and the walls contain 89 prayer wheels with supposedly 150 million occurences of the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hung.’ Elsewhere in town the same mantra is carved in bas-relief on smooth rocks. These are usually stacked up outside temples, around chortens or on top of walls. Inside the Chokhang, there are some thangkas but more interesting is the superb woodwork. In places they appear almost like the high art often found in silver filigree. In one corner of the temple, a monk is beating a drum with a curved stick. At the same time he is occasionally sounding the cymbals as he continuously chants memorized mantras.
Leh may be exotic in every way but it is nothing if no one visits it. Without tourism Leh would be like a great garden with no walking paths to admire it. Tourism has truly given life to Leh. Restaurants and hotels are many. Every second shop in Leh town appears to be either a trekking agency or a curio shop selling Tibetan antiques. For those who have already seen Dharamshala, the shops of Leh will have only some things new to show. The same singing bowls will sit silently on the counters. The same prayer wheels will wait on their axles to spread out their blessed mantras. Kashmiri woodcrafted incense stick holders will attract attention. Jade-studded Buddhas and long faced wooden masks with drooping Chinese moustaches and beards will stare at you blankly. Shoes of sheepskin soles and woollen covering will hang behind glass windows. Rich Indian motifs in wooden blocks will invite women tourists for a quick mehandi. Colourful Tibetan hats will hang at doorways. Women’s long frocks will display a similarity to those the women of Lahaul Valley wear.
There are plenty of shops that sell shawls. I am truly bowled over by the designs and the rich colours. Although some shops stock on Kullu shawls, Kashmiri shawls are more common.
‘Why is this so messy?’ I ask the shop owner. I have just picked up a wonderful shawl costing Rs. 2200 but the flipside of loose threads and ugly knots does not appeal to me.
‘This is hook work. Reverse side is always like this,’ he explains. The beauty about hookworked shawls is that the design has clean lines and solid form. Shapes stand out. The design almost pops out of the cloth. But frankly I don’t like the mess on the reverse.
He then shows me another shawl, ‘This is needle work. This is cleaner on both sides.’
But the design of needleworked shawls is primarily of thin lines. It does not have the same beauty as hookworked shawls.
I go in search of a famous drink of Leh, a juice made from seabuckthorn that’s simply called berry juice. I find it in a shop and buy a bottle for twenty rupees. It is orange in colour and looks almost like carrot juice. It tastes different though. Without added sugar but with added preservatives, it is sweet. It is packed with vitamins that occur naturally in the fruit – vitamins C, E, B, A, K and P. I wish I could drink this lovely drink more often but I believe it is rarely exported out of the valley.
Back in lower town, near the bus station, I step into a restaurant for vegetarian thukpa. The lady says she is originally from Bhutan. The thukpa turns out to be wonderful and the soup hot and spicy. It is as unique as the tomyam of Thailand or the mee siam of Malaysia. In the evening I return to the same place for chowmein – noodles with a balanced mix of cabbage, carrot, onion and beetroot.
Tomorrow I’ll visit a few sites around Leh along the Indus Valley – monasteries, chortens, poplars, orchards, mountains and who knows what else.