The capital of Ladakh, Leh is about 10 km northeast of the Indus at the exit of a fertile side valley. From the town down to the Indus, the landscape is almost completely barren. Leh (3505 meters) has a population of 8500 and a large military camp stands between the town and the airfield, which is also down towards the Indus. There are a number of interesting places to visit in and around this fascinating town. At one time Leh was a major stopping point on the Asian ‘silk route’ and a commercial capital in its own right. Today it’s important mainly for its military base but also, more recently, as a tourist center.
The old town of Leh, with its houses for the aristocrats and servants of the royal household, is clustered at the bottom of the hill under the palace. The new city spreads away from the hill on land which once belonged to the royal family. Due to steady growth in recent years, Leh is becoming increasingly westernized. At one time Leh had a city wall with three gates one of which still stands close to the market – to the right and uphill towards the palace. The gate is called Kingsgate because only the king and his family were allowed to use it. The chorten above the city is the remains of a royal leisure site.
High above the palace and also overlooking the ruins of the older palace of the king of Tagpebums. The Red Gompa (Tsemo Gompa) was built in 1430 by king Gvags-Pa-Bum-Ide and has a fine three-story high seated Buddha figure flanked by Avalokiteshvara on the right and Manjusri on the left. The walls have recently been brightly painted and the Gompa is open from 7 am to 9 pm. The Gompa above it is in a very ruined condition but offers extremely fine views over Leh and the surrounding countryside. To the right of the palace, you can see a Buddha painted on the rocks, a remnant of an earlier monastery.
Other Leh Gompas
There are number of lesser gompas in the old town of Leh – such as the Guru Lakhang to the left of the palace, and the Chenrezig Lakhang, to the south-east, are similarly neglected since they contain little of interest compared to other more splendid Gompas around Leh.
Accommodation in Leh-Ladakh
There are quite an amazing number of hotels and guest houses in Leh and it is also relatively easy to arrange accommodation in private homes. Indeed many of the smaller guest houses are simply private homes which rent the odd room out. Prices are extremely variable, dropping right down in the off-season when there are very few visitors in Leh and shooting up in the high season. Many places close down completely over the winter. Prices quoted below are for the high-season, cheaper places may halve (or more) their rates during the off-season although the more expensive hotels are less likely to be so variable.
As Leh’s status as an international attraction grows the number of ‘upper notch’ hotels is rapidly increasing. Most of Leh’s more expensive hotels are very new; almost without exception, they quote all-inclusive prices with all meals. There is not a great choice of restaurants in Leh. The Shambala Hotel was taken over by the Oberoi chain in 1980 and has been considerably upgraded. Nightly for singles/doubles including all meals. The Shambala is rather a long way out of town, off towards the edge of the valley.
The recently completed hotels closer to the center are the Kang-Lha-Chhen where singles/doubles and the Hotel Lha-Ri-Mo. They’re both within easy walking distance of the center of Leh. The fourth more expensive hotel is the Hotel Indus, out of town on the Hemis road.
In the middle price category there is the Khangri Hotel, just down the road from the tourist office and uncomfortably close to the diesel generator. The side-by-side glacier view and Karakoram are similarly priced. They’re fairly close to the center and both have pleasant gardens, an attraction shared by many of Leh’s hotels. The hotel Yak Tail is also in this price category and is next to the Dreamland Hotel, on the road leading to the Lha-Ri Mo.
With rooms (none of them with attached baths), a pleasant garden, and the best restaurant in town, the Dreamland is a very popular hotel choice and also very close to the center.
In the rock bottom category, you can find doubles and dormitory beds. Some places in this bracket also provide bed bugs at no extra cost so take care! Popular cheapies include the Palace View Kidar Hotel, close to the polo ground. It also has a collection of braying donkeys for your nighttime entertainment but it’s run by a lovely woman who usually meets the bus dressed in her traditional costume. You eat meals in her elaborate kitchen, lovely breakfasts; nice atmosphere. There’s a second, unrelated, Palace View Hotel on the other side of the polo ground. The Antelope Guest House is on the main street of Leh, a stone’s throw from his mosque, and has dorm beds. The Moonland Guest House is in the upper-cheap bracket, and the Old Ladakh Guest House (quite close by) is similarly priced – both in the old part of town.
There are many, many other hotels all around the town – some in the winding, narrow streets of the old town; others out in the rice paddies to the other side of town. Leh also has several ‘official’ places which you are less likely to get into: there’s a Dak Bungalow, in which the tourist office is located, and the Leh Motel out towards the airport.
lifestyle in Leh-Ladakh
A visitor to Ladakh rarely has a chance to see a Buddhist wedding performed according to the old customs and ceremonies. Today too much foreign influence is likely to have crept in; European clothing is slowly replacing the traditional dress. Ion 1975 we were fortunate enough to be guests at a wedding performed according to the old rites.
The celebration began at 10 pm in the house of the bridge. The all-male party celebrated with change which, according to custom, one must take in three consecutive draughts. As a special sign, the host improved the change by adding butter. A celebration meal was served at 2 am but again only men partook. The bride remained in her mother’s kitchen, symbolically indicating where her place was! Clothed in a wedding gown with a silver embroidered cape, decorated by an old family jeweler, the bride is overwhelmed with lucky white ribbons (Kataks) and given gifts of money by her relatives and friends. While the men sing and the mother laments, the bride then goes to the family of the bridegroom where she is met, in front of the house, by lamas.
Now the proper celebration begins. In a long ceremony, in which the bride must first off all refuse the food which is offered to her, the bride is led from her father or a friend of the family to her husband, with whom she then symbolically partakes of a meal. She is then shown the house, with particular emphasis on the (her) kitchen. By sunrise, the ceremony is concluded, but not the celebration which is a social occasion for the families with musicians, food, and much, much change.
Near the palaces at stock, Shey, and Leh you may notice a large number of chortens, the old ‘pleasure gardens’ of the kings of Ladakh. If you go into the side valley, to the north-east of Leh, on whose eastern slopes the road to the Nubra Valley begins, you may find (particularly with the help of a local) a large stone where a curious funeral practice was also followed in Tibet and is still followed in the Mustang region of Nepal. Today the site of dismemberment is used for cremations. After a ceremony in the house of the dead person, the corpse is tied up in a covered sedan chair. Accompanied by lamas the procession makes its way into the side valley near Leh. A few hundred meters northwest of the chortens the procession halts and the chair is placed in a walled oven. This is really only a vertical tube with a fire hole underneath. The fire is started with many prayers and during the long ceremony, oil is frequently thrown into the oven river or, in the case of a person of high standing, placed in a chorten.
Places to Eat in Leh
Leh is not going to win any eating-out prizes, the choice is not wide nor the standards high. Far and away the best place to eat is the Dreamland Restaurant, right by the Dreamland Hotel and only a few steps from the Indian Airlines office. It’s clean, friendly, and very reasonably priced. Tibetan kothay, various chow means, and other noodle dishes top the bill and make a pleasant change from rice, rice, and more rice. They also do nice jasmine tea.
Almost next door to it is the Khangri Restaurant which is nice (but quite so nice) and fairly cheap (but not quite so cheap). Good for a change of pace. After that, the standards drop rapidly. The Hilltop right at the mosque and palace end of the street is merely so-so – a popular coffee and chat place for locals but little else. The Mumtaz Restaurant, down below gets good reports. There are many little places around the town center and a string of Indian restaurants at the bottom end of the main street selling good Indian restaurants at the bottom end of the main street selling good Indian sweets and remarkably insanitary looking food. Ok for a cup of tea take care with anything else.
The new Gaytime (great name) is new and reasonably good, it’s upstairs. Good tea, and not-so-good snacks at the Mini Cafe by Indian Airlines.
Or you can buy fresh vegetables from the pavement across from the Hilltop Restaurant. There’s more official vegetable market too. Early in the morning, you can get delicious hot, freshly baked bread from the cluster of little bakery stalls in the back streets by the mosque. It’s cooked Middle East style in hotel-in-the-ground ovens and is great for breakfast with honey-brings the latter with you from Srinagar.
Besides the monastery schools, the Indian government has 380 educational establishments including over 200 primary schools in Ladakh. In 1971 literacy in Ladakh was still only 14%. There are over 200 Ladakhi students at universities in Srinagar, Jammu, and elsewhere in India. We always found it interesting to visit the primary schools. We took some films in the village school at Parka, I photographed a schoolgirl standing with the typical wooden panel on which they write with a wooden stylus and thinned clay liquid. Chalk rubbed in is pressed onto the board and then plucked like a musical string. The result is a very sharp line. The Tibetan alphabet is learned by the pupils singing together.
Although the great religious festival of Ladakh almost all fall in the winter, practically all the villages have harvested the thanksgiving festivals and archery events during the summer. There are also private parties in which dance plays an important role. In these slow, sustained dances the dancers appear to be between dream and trance. Many of the dances, which have a musical accompaniment of drums and flutes, show interesting elements from the daily life of farmers. Hand movements, for example, are unmistakably taken from the actions involved in sowing seeds. In general men and women dance totally separately, if they are together on the same ‘dance floor’ they will still do their own, unrelated, dances. We experienced a special feature during a celebration at Bodh Kharbu – a dance master selected from the crowd some women and young girls to dance. After initial reluctance, they seemed to quite enjoy it.
Ladakhi archery contests, which are followed by more dancing, are only a pale reflection of similar festivals in other Himalayan states. Whereas in Bhutan specially designed and fashioned bows would be used for such a contest, in Ladakh the bows are much cruder. Nevertheless, these contests have their own charm and they do give you the opportunity to see the making of Chang, butter-tea, and Tsampa. No matter what else happens at a festival these three ingredients must be included. Festival musicians are generally paid for local produce. After a good meal they receive, with their cup of butter tea, a cup of Tsampa meal, sometimes also sugar and a piece of butter. The whole lot is wrapped up in a piece of cloth and knotted for transport.
Anyone wishing to tape-record festival; music should keep their microphone concealed. Otherwise, all that will result in a wild medley of noises since the Ladakhis are fascinated by these strange technological instruments. They will point it out to the audience and comment loudly! A cassette recorder with an inbuilt microphone can be kept out of sight, even inside a carrying bag.
Tikse Gompa possesses a rich and beautiful library with many hand-written or printed books. Recent editions are produced by block printing, as in old Tibet. This procedure is also used today for the printing of the holy books Kandshur, Tibetan Gkaghgyur, ‘the translated word’ of Buddha and Tandshur, ‘the translated teachings of the Lamaist religious teachers Bu-Ston (1290-1364 AD). The latter consists of a 225-volume commentary on the Kandshur! Wooden printing plates are made up for each page and pressed by hand. The many hundred volumes indicate how much space the printing plates must take up in the monastery. Older and more highly regarded editions are often printed not black on white but painted with gold ink on black lacquered paper. These are decorated with Buddha figures. The individual pages are not bound up but kept as collections of loose sheets, wrapped in cloth between two wooden boards, tied up with a strap, and stored on the shelves. Tikse Gompa has the most beautiful library. In Hemis Gompa, there are some rarities such as bilingual books in Tibetan and Sanskrit. You may meet one of the porters who have to lug the heavy books from the Gompa to a village for a festival – the monks themselves follow on much later.
Getting Around Leh
There is a reasonably extensive bus service around and most unreliable buses so breakdowns are not uncommon. There are also many jeeps, and a few taxis operating out of Ladakh. In a day you can easily visit the Shey, Tikes, Hemis and Spitok Gompas by jeep and split between six people the cost is not so excessive. There is a bus service out to the airport.
Visiting Places Around Leh
The Leh fort, built by Zonawar Singh, contains three temples but cannot be visited because it is within the military camp area.
The old palace of the kings of Ladakh (open 6-9 am and from 5 pm) overlooks the town from the southwest slope of the Tsenmo hill. It has eight stories and was built by King Singe Namgyal in the 16th century, at much the same time as the famed Potala of Lhasa – which it resembles. The damage to the palace, one side is gapping open, stems from the Kashmiri invasions of the last century. The Shey Palace and Leh palace still belong to the Ladakhi royal family, who now live in their palace in Stok.
Few of the palace wall paintings are worth looking at since they have been scratched and smeared over the years. The small Khar Gompa within the palace is also of little interest. In fact, the main reason to make the short, steep climb up to the palace is for the superb views from the roof, over which the colored prayer flags wave in the wind, the lines of which begin on the blue-white-red-green-yellow Tarchock mast. Beware of the many holes in the floors while you’re wandering around the palace. In good weather the Zanskar range, snow-covered until early summer appears close enough to touch although it rises from the other side of the Indus.
The Beacon Highway leads from Leh into Nubra Valley over a pass at 5606 meters – making it probably the highest road in the world. ‘You can have a dialogue with God’ according to the road builder’s sign! Only in September and October is the road open, at other times ice covers the road on the northern side of the Nubra Valley. For foreigners, the road is closed year-round since the Nubra Valley is in a restricted area and can only be visited with special permission.
Tibetan Refugee Camp
Near Choglamsar, on the left side of the Leh-Shey road, about nine km from Leh and close to the Indus is the Sonam Ling refugee camp. More than 2000 refugees have lived here, under the most primitive conditions, since the early 60s. They have managed to grow some vegetables on this rocky ground but live mainly on the donations of international aid organizations, and have had to come to terms with the change from the mountain heights to the banks of the Indus. They also earn some money from handicrafts, particularly the manufacture of Tibetan carpets. The Tibetans are known as fair dealers and have only slowly infiltrated the Kashmiri-dominated artifacts business in Ladakh.
Choglamsar is the main training place for Buddhist monks in Ladakh. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet the philosophy school, on the right-hand side of the road from Leh to Hemis, has become an important center for the study of Tibetan literature and history and of Buddhist philosophy in its pure form. Many westerners, interested in Buddhist learning and mediation, have also studied here. Choglamsar has an extensive syllabus and its library is worth seeing, even for the casual visitors.
In 1977 the old bridge at Sonam Ling was replaced with a new one able to take heavy vehicles. There are mani-stones in the village of Palam (across the road and turn right) which has a mixed Buddhist and Moslem population. The Hemis-Stagna-Palam road is very rough and there are some river crossings to be made but there is a regular bus connection.
The old ‘summer palace’ of the kings of Ladakh was built about 550 years ago. It stands next to the remains of a larger construction on the east side of a hill that runs southeast towards the Indus. From the palace, you can see over the fertile Indus plain north-eats to the Tikse Gompa and over the Indus to the Zanskar mountain range. Hundreds of chortens of the most diverse forms and sizes stand on the barren plains to the north, separated from the fertile river banks land by the Hemis road.
The old Shey palace has the largest golden Buddha statue in Ladakh in its Gompa. The statue is worked out of gold and gilded copper sheets stand 12 meters high, and has blue hair. It was erected by King Dalden Namgyal in the middle of the 17th century. Sacrificial offerings (grain, jewels), holy signs, and mantras are contained inside the figure. The most important moment in the construction of such a figure is when the eyes are painted in and the statue can ‘see’. No artist or monk would dare to look the Buddha in the eye so the pupils are painted over the artist’s shoulder, with his back to the idol.
In July the Metukba festival takes place in the Shey Gompa with one day of prayers for the well-being of all life in the entire world. The upper chapel (Dukhang-Chung) of the Shey Gompa is used for everyday functions; it surrounds the Buddha figure’s head as a sort of balcony. The lower, somewhat larger, chapel houses a large collection of tankas and a library. All the old tankas bear the stamp of the ‘Gompa Association, Ladakh’.
The best time to visit the Shey Gompa is between 7 and 9 am or 5 and 6 pm since the monks perform their prayer devotions at these times. The Gompa is usually closed to the public at other times. In that event, the monk Tashi, whom you can find in the small village before Shey, will know where to find the key.
As in Mulbekh, Thikse, Math, Stack, and other Ladakh village, Shey has an oracle. During the Shey Shublas, the August harvest festival, the Shey oracle rides on a horse and stops at various places around Shey to prophesy the future. The oracle, a Shey layman, starts at the Tuba Gompa where he engages in a two or three-day prayer, while in a trance, in order to be possessed and become an oracle. The Shey oracle is held in the highest regard and viewed as a God who has achieved the highest level of existence. Other oracles, especially those in Thikse and Stok, are not so well regarded but are at the same time feared and revered because of their spiritual state. It is said that if one asks a question of an oracle but disbelieves the answer had goes to another oracle, now an answer will be given.
The Tikse oracle is the most impotent oracle in Ladakh. An old man in the village is supposed to have supernatural powers. In a trance, this layman, for he is not a lama, is possessed by a spirit and speaks Tibetan, a language that he cannot normally understand. He is said to be able to perform miraculous cures on beasts and men. With the help of a small tube, he can ‘suck’ diseases from the bodies of the ill. He also gives advice for healing and can predict the future. In 1975 a new oracle appeared the young wife of a Leh carpenter. Even in her youth, thee were special indications of her status as an oracle.
Eight km towards the Indus from Stagna, then four km over a rubble slope at the outlet of a side valley, will bring you to the palace of Stok. Coming from Leh you cross the Indus at Choglamsar then travel a km towards the Indus and turn to the right. The palace is about 200 years old and is the only Ladakhi royal palace that is still inhabited. The last king, Rajah Kunsang Namgyal, died in 1974 and, as is customary for personalities of high standing, a Chorten was erected in the village where he was cremated. One of his brothers is now the ‘manager’ of the Hemis Gompa but only his widow, the Rani of Stok, and his youngest son live in the palace. The widow, who was formerly revered as the Gyalmo, Rani Parvati Devi Deskit Wangmo, the 18th Queen of Ladakh, was born in 1936. She has four children – the eldest son will become the next king of Ladakh when he is 20 to 25 years old. The exact date will be set by Lamas and people of high standing. Gyalpo means king, Gyalmo is queen, Gyallu is prince, and Gyalmo Chhunun is a princess.
The place of Stok has 80 rooms, only 12 of which are now used. There are 25 servants working for the Rani but because the palace is so difficult to heat the Rani moves south to Manali for the winter months. The king of Ladakh formerly had a cabinet of five ministers and the influence of Ladakh’s Kings once reached from Demchok (on the present-day Chinese-Tibetan border) to Mulbekh and in the north over the Nubra Valley. Today the political power rests with the Indian governor, the District Commissioner. Apart from the palace, Stok’s only other attraction is the July archery contest. As in Matho, you can see the small water mills in which the roasted grain is ground into meal. There are two lay oracles in Stok and they give their ‘performance’ at the Lchagrang festival on the 9th and 10th days of the third month of the Tibetan calendar.
The village of Pharka is on the opposite side of the Indus from, and insight of, the Spitok Gompa. You can only reach Pharka by the Choglamsar route last kms must be made on foot but up to that point, the road is jeepable. At the village of Pharka, there is a cave on the sandstone bank of the Indus. The cave Gompa was built by Lotsava Ringchen Sanghpo and is older than Spitok Gompa. In front of the Gompa cave, there is a building housing a small primary school. The teacher enjoys painting ‘modern’ Tankas in his spare time.