Around fifty million years ago, the Indian-Australian plate broke away from Gondwanaland, drifted north and collided with Eurasia. The Tethys Ocean, which once separated the two landmasses, was pushed up by the plunging Indo-Australian plate, and today is the vast Tibetan Plateau. The ‘roof of the world’ as it is affectionately known, was once an ocean bed. And as the Indo-Australian plate surged upward, with layers of continental crust faulting and folding into mountain ranges, it brought old Gondwana to the highest point on the earth.
Photos by Ben Journee
In Sanskrit, ‘himalaya’ means ‘abode of the snow’. Eventually, the Himalayas grew high enough to become a climate barrier, and subsequently occasioned the name. The mountains to the north of the Himalayan range were to become as parched as the Tibetan Plateau. And to the south, the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers ensured the lands were kept wet.
Ladakh, a district of Jammu and Kashmir state, means ‘land of high passes’. And this serves as an accurate descriptor for our experience of the landscape, both in our journey to Leh and in our two day excursion to Nubra valley further north.
The Ladakh range is bound by the Himalayas to the south, and the Karakoram mountain range to the north. And just north of the Ladakh range lies Nubra valley.
Before descending into the Nubra district, you first must cross the Kardung La. The local signs at the summit claim it is the world’s highest motorable pass at 5602m, but this height is now disputed by modern measurements.
The Nubra valley is marked by two large converging rivers, the Nubra the Shyok. Along the Nubra River are small Ladakhi villages. At Panamik, there is a small hot spring, rich in sulfur, which is believed to have curative properties.
Between the villages of Kyagar and Sumur, there hides the Samstangling monastery. It’s not particularly old, built in 1841, but the temple is beautiful, richly decorated with fabrics and paintings, and in the back corner we noticed a cabinet full of impressively old looking texts. A rather sweet coupling of a young monk with his pet kitten was also charming.
Following the Shyok river there are the villages Hunder and Diskit, which are separated by several kilometres of sand dunes. Hunder has become home to a group of semi retired Bactrian (two-humped) camels, who are now employed to give tourists short rides across the high-altitude sand dunes, that feature cool temperatures (in the summer season) and snow capped mountains in the background, which is not the typical image one associates with camels and deserts.
The earliest inhabitants of Ladakh were likely to be nomads of Tibetan origin, and, like the people of Tibet, practiced the ancient animistic and shamanistic Bon religion. It was around the 3rd century BC that Buddhism was first introduced to the region under the reign of King Ashoka, the first Buddhist King who ruled over almost all of the Indian subcontinent.
But another form of Buddhism took hold in Ladakh in the early 10th century AD, with various kings of Tibet bringing Tibetan Lamaism, or the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, to the region, which resulted in the form of Buddhism practiced in the region today.
The highlight of Nubra valley is the Diskit Gompa (monastery). Established in the 14th century, it belongs to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, order of Tibetan Buddhism.
Diskit is considered a ‘sub-gompa’ of the larger and more well known Thikse Gompa that lies a little to the south-east of Leh. In the 18th century, Diskit monastery was given to Rinpoche (term given to a high-ranking lama meaning ‘precious one’) of Thikse, and it is still under the management of Thikse today.
The monastery houses 100 monks, and the complex stands high on a hill, with the Tibetan-style living quarters arranged rather disorderly up the steep rocky slopes. The prayer hall houses a statue of the Maitreya (future) Buddha, and an outstandingly intricate and stunning sand mandala that was one of the focal points of the puja that we were lucky enough to witness.
Dozens of tourists, us included, were allowed to sit around the temple’s edges as the monks congregated to perform their puja, chanting in their deep, resonant tones, and every so often adorning themselves with hats, executing delicate hand movements and using the drum and horns to signify the start of a new prayer.
Diskit also features the massive 106 ft high Maitreya (future) Buddha which catches your eye as you drive toward the town, and indeed demands your attention.
Nubra valley itself, as well as Kardung La, was an important point historically, as it was the main route for trade caravans travelling from Leh to central Asia across the Karakoram Range. Ladakh’s position, being roughly in the middle of many mountain ranges, meant it connected India with central Asia, and Tibet with the western Himalayas.
Trade caravans crossed these arduous roads, and merchants traded various and sundry goods: saffron and woolen shawls from Kashmir; textiles, dyes and spices from India; raw silk, tea, hashish and carpets from central Asia and China, manufactured goods from Europe and raw wool from Tibet and Ladakh.
It would take months to cross the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, but traders traversed these routes in summer and winter, utilising the frozen rivers in the winter, aided by their camels, horses and yaks. Trade reached its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but with the post-independent struggle in Kashmir and China’s invasion of Tibet and subsequent closing of borders in the mid 20th century, these ancient routes through Asia were finally, and sadly, closed.
And with the ceasing of this trade, the region became isolated from the rest of the world until tourism opened it back up in the 70s. And with this came change on a massive scale for the region, change that permeates the Leh that we experienced.
Sources: wikipedia, travel.india.com, Ladakh: a photographic journey (by Nicholas Eakins)
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