If you are staying anywhere close to the bus station, it is difficult to get a decent sleep. Like Bangalore, Leh is a town of stray dogs barking away the night. Perhaps all of Leh is like this at night. This is the ugly side of India creeping into beautiful ancient Leh. Making your way to the bus station in the early hours before the day’s first light is a danger in itself. Believe it or not, the only bus to Kargil leaves at an unearthly hour of half four in the morning.
But I am not going to Kargil today. I do the usual stuff that people do every morning and get to the bus station by six. Being the capital of Ladakh District, I had imagined a good and frequent bus service to other parts of the district. Surprise, surprise. Not only there is no bus to Hemis at six in the morning, no one really has information about buses. Someone says there is a bus at seven. I wait an hour but the time is not wasted. I watch the mountains.
The morning sun paints the mountains in a new light. There is such a great deal of difference in the light from last evening’s sunset. Thick white clouds move silently through light blue skies. The sloping ridges, pointed peaks and gentle saddlebacks catch the light on one side and throw their shadows on the other. There is a painterly feel to the natural canvas before me. Every shade of brown of these mountains is a deliberate brushstroke. Every wisp of cloud is perfectly positioned to throw its shadow over the slopes and peaks. In the upper left corner of the canvas, a snowy conical mountain loses it peak into high clouds. Poplars stand in the foreground, their leaves waiting to catch the dazzling light.
At seven, there is still no bus. Some more queries and I realize that the first bus is only at ten. I return to Leh old town because I like the place so much. I am sure it will look different in the mornings. The palace can be seen from many places in Leh. I can see it from the bazaars. I can see it from the rooftops of houses in the old town. I can see as I turn corners. I can see it when I climb the neighbouring hills. The palace and the lower structure of Leh old town are almost in monochrome. Only occasional touches of muted colours stand as highlights in a scene of great serenity. Sometimes it looks removed from the main town as it stands proudly on its high rocky throne. Sometimes it seems to be part of Leh town, a backdrop to the hustle and bustle of the bazaars, the wandering tourists and the constant traffic. Sometimes it loses itself in union with the crags; at other times it catches the morning light and glows as a jewel crowning the town below. The palace is an icon of Leh just as the mountains are iconic of Ladakh.
Every morning a water tanker does it rounds around some of the streets and people scramble to fill their cans. Vegetable and fruit vendors occupy the pavements with their fresh produce – radishes, carrots, turnips, cauliflowers, broccolis and lettuce. Some of these vendors stay here the entire day. Stalls sell dry fruits. The smell of freshly baked bread escape from bakeries. Milk and newspapers are delivered. A man is busy making tandoori rotis. Near the town’s large mosque, lots of men and women are waiting for their daily transport to their worksites outside town. After countless “jhulays” this morning, I arrive back at the bus station at quarter to ten.
Sure enough, there is a bus waiting to depart for Hemis. I manage to get a seat in this crowded bus. Actually, it is only a mini-bus. There are many foreign tourists in it. Some are forced to stand. There are no more seats left. Precisely at ten we leave Leh. All this may sound like the start of an expedition. It is not. Hemis is just a couple of hours away. The remoteness of Leh and the unworldly terrain makes every journey only a little short of an expedition.
Hemis is closer than I expected. Though the journey is slow, we arrive at the monastery at 11.15 am. The sad fact is that the bus will return to Leh at 12.30 pm. There are no buses back to Leh after that. A monastery as famous as Hemis, just as ancient and vast, an hour is too little time. My visit to Hemis is going to be bit of a rush.
Hemis Monastery was built in the 17th century. It is of the Drukpa order of Mahayana Buddhism. The monastic buildings are spread out on the hills. The landscape all around is stunning. I have no words to describe the beauty. This is one of those days when I care little about descriptions and praises. I simply enjoy the moment. Weather today is simply brilliant. I head straight for the main building.
‘Fifty rupees,’ quotes a monk at the ticket counter. Understandably Hemis has begun to charge tourists. Tourists are generally here to look at the buildings, not for any spiritual experience or Buddhist knowledge.
‘Is this to visit the monastery?’ I ask. Fifty rupees does sound an excessive amount.
‘This is for the museum. The monastery is free.’
So walk in without a ticket. I really have no time to visit museums. I am more interested in the architecture of Hemis. The plainly whitewashed building is large, supposedly largest in Ladakh. Windows puncture the walls neatly in three rows. The lintels are plain but just above them are the corbelled architraves of wooden beams and bundled groups of wooden sticks. They project a little from the wall. Not only are they decorative in the Ladakhi way, they provide shade and keep out the snow in winter. A similar scheme is followed at the top of these high walls. A couple of narrow balconies project from the walls at a high level. They are quite plain. A black border is painted around every window, feature common all over Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti. The architectural styles here are not limited to monasteries. I saw them yesterday at the palace at Leh. Houses use them too.
After walking past these walls, I enter by a doorway into the inner courtyard. Two tall flag staffs wrapped in blue cloth face the main building. At their tips hang a decorative “cloth-drum”, a term I will use for not knowing the true name. The cloth-drums are plain, pleated and stitched in bands of colours. I see the same decorative device on the terrace above. These are unique to Tibetan Buddhism but it has be mentioned that similar decoration can be found in South Indian temples, often during festivals. In the south, the decoration is richer with floral motifs, animal figures and lamps embroidered into the cloth. I have seen elsewhere richer decoration inside Buddhist temples rather than outside.
The facade is quite a spectacle of colours – whites, blacks, reds, oranges, yellows and browns. Yet the effect is not garish. The colours are subtle and the mood blends in with that of the landscape around. Dashes of blues and greens appear at the two entrance porches, on the painted capitals and entablatures. It is a facade of windows and balconies except for two short flight of stairs leading to the entrances into the building. Faded murals decorate the porches. At the lowest level, prayer wheels line a pillared corridor that opens into the wide courtyard. Peeping over the terrace and the cloth-drums are the slanted slopes climbing to serrated rocky peaks. The blue sky is rich in the midday sun and patches of thin clouds float across leisurely.
However, my situation is anything but leisurely. I have to hurry inside to see the rest of the monastery. Part of the monastery is closed for restoration and I visit the parts that are open. The main prayer hall is lit naturally by a skylight that projects out from the terrace above. Solid wooden columns, simply tree trunks, with minimal decoration support the hall. Thangkas and other sanctified cloths decorate the interiors. Wall murals stare from the dimness. In one mural a demonic face with fanged teeth and bulging eyes inspires fear. A headress of skulls with eyeless sockets crowns the head. Hands hold fantastic weapons. Bands of cloths swirl freely, suggestive of the energy in the composition. Most of all, jewellery gilded in real gold leap out of the dim walls.
Carpets cover the wooden floor. Narrow benches are arranged on them. These benches are really reading desks for monks who sit cross-legged on carpets or cushions. A monk is seated at one of the desks, reading from a traditional long leaf scripture. In his right hand he holds a cane beater and steadily drums a beat. In a temple nearby a large colourful statue of Guru Padmasambhava sits almost touching the high ceiling. The walls bear recently painted murals.
I spend a few minutes on the terraces. In the bleak brown landscape, there are patches of autumnal colours showing up early in the season. Dots of yellow comes from little flowers that hug the ground. Flushes of purple are the work of flowering bushes. Summer is the time for cultivation and it brings with it lots of green cover to the landscape.
I hurry back to the bus and we depart on time. I take one last look at Hemis and try to recall the recent images of this monastery inside and out. During times of festivities and special ceremonies, this place must be quite a scene.
I get off at the village of Thiksey. Here stands a magnificent monastery. At first sight, it is surely more picturesque than Hemis. The monastic buildings cover completely this part of the hill on which they stand. Whitewashed for most part, their subtely is unlike loud grand palaces. Neatly laid windows on their own decorate the facades in a simple manner. But first I have to have lunch.
The monastery runs a restaurant just across the road. I join a couple of Japanese tourists and we sit for lunch. Service is slow and the guy who serves us is not all that attentive. For the first time, I order the Ladakhi skui. I find that it is similar to thenthuk I had eaten at Dharamshala. It is made of wheat chunks boiled in a broth of cooked vegetables. It is rather heavy. My friends from Japan settle for vegetarian dishes as well, fried noodles and noodles in soup. We spend a few minutes chatting over lunch and then walk to the monastery.
‘Are you guys planning on any treks in Ladakh?’ I ask them.
‘No trekking. Lazy. We are on a picnic,’ one of them says with a laugh.
We walk through a lane lined with interesting walls. The base is stone bricks. On top are layers of hardened mud bricks. The wall is topped with dry sticks and twigs. The Japanese walk up the hill as I take my time at a chorten. It is a unique chorten in that it is topped with stones carved with the universal mantra of the region. Such stones also surround the chorten. It appears the entire chorten is made of these stones. Three smaller chortens stand beside it. Their mouldings are standard – stepped square bases supporting circular platforms, bulbous structure leading to tapering rings that finally support the sun in the cusp of a cresent moon. There are lots of chortens on the lower slopes in various stages of repair. Only a few of them have decorative moulding.
On the outer walls of higher buildings are stucco figure in half-relief. They are colourful figures but the weather has taken its toll on their forms and colours. Yet they continue to hold on steadfast to their beliefs, stand fiercely in this harsh climate in their fight against evil and the preservation of eternal life.
The architecture of the buildings are no different from that at Hemis, except that here I have more time. I walk in and out of narrow paths. I run my palms against the texture of mud walls. I look up to the sky beyond the high terraces. I look out to the far mountains framed by uphill paths and buildings laid out on these slopes. A line of chortens breaks the monotony of traditional buildings. Sometimes I see the rocks on which these buildings stand but mostly I am looking at the buildings themselves. I simply love the way the textures and colours blend rather than detract from the wider landscape. There is not a sound to be heard except silence itself. When I am done with the buildings, I gaze at the wonder of the mountains. The mountains do not stand in isolation. They huddle in vast ranges stretching the horizon. When I am done with the mountains, I return to the buildings for new perspectives. In this manner an hour passes easily, lost in the beauty of Thiksey and all that surrounds it.
The monastery has many rooms and temples. The temple dedicated to Tara has many miniature images of the goddess. The temple of protectors, deities that protect from evils, has many stucco images. They make a fearsome spectable, their aspects enhanced in the dim lighting of the temple. The monastery has lots of beautiful wall murals. Among them are the lokpalas, or the four Cardinal Kings, who usually grace the entrance the doorways to inner temples. Images of Buddha clothed in saffron cloths sit on pedestals attached to wooden poles inside the main temple. Richly decorated thangkas hang and reflect their brilliance in the little natural light that creeps inside. In another temple, a huge statue of Maitreya Buddha sits looking out across the flat plains to the distant mountains. A strong breeze blows across the plains and flutters the prayer flags on the terraces. Flaming tridents standing on the same terraces appear to reach for the sky but really they are sending out a warning to the great evils of the world. In the main courtyard, colourful flowers bloom in neat little garden beds.
One particular view from the hill is filled with poplars and green fields. The River Indus flows across the plains. I learn that the monastery is the richest in Ladakh in terms of land ownership. It is likely that these lands belong to the monastery and are cultivated by laymen attached to it. The same place would look quite different in winter.
The Chortens of Shey
There are quite a lot tourists in these monasteries. Both Hemis and Thiksey are near Leh and most tourists to Leh visit them. I climb down from Thiksey by the other side of the hill. The slope is sandy and soon I reach the road to Leh. This is a shortcut to Shey. I read a milestone by the road. Is there something missing? Actually, no. Both Leh and Shey are places represented by single Hindi alphabets. Shey is another 2 kms away.
Shey is an ancient capital of Ladakh. A fortress and a palace stands on a hill here. But it is evening and approaching the sunset hour. The palace would be closing for the day. I will have to miss it but I don’t regret spending much of the afternoon at Thiksey.
At Shey, some distance away from the road and the settlements, are dozens of chortens spread out on sandy slopes. All of them are neatly whitewashed. Such chortens are built as an offering. They stand to propagate the message of Buddhism. Some of them contain relics of the dead. They are an important aspect of Buddhism everywhere. Chortens are more commonly called stupas in Central India, chedis in Thailand and wats in Sri Lanka. Each region has its own distinct shape for the chorten and I quite like the ones in Ladakh.
Shey itself is a beautiful place of willows and poplars. Yet it is the chortens at Shey that captivate me. Against a backdrop of brown craggy hills they make quite a sight. When the sun comes out of the clouds, their sharp shadows fall on each other. They are in part a reflection of the mountains of Ladakh. You can meditate on all of nature by looking at these chortens. They stand in isolation like a prayer to life, death, suffering and existence. The philosophy of Buddhism is embodied in the silence of the chortens. Their yoga is one of patience, prayer and compassion. Like the Bodhisattvas who take birth time and again for the liberation of the world, the chortens at Shey will stand for the essence of nirvana.
There is something about the light at Shey, indeed in all of Ladakh. Light has a certain lightness. It seems to have been distilled by the mountain air. It seems to have been purified by the prayers in the winds. Everything it touches acquires that purity. It is a purity reflected in unadulterated colours. Everything stands in its own essence and at the same time in union with everything else. The thing that joins them all is light.