Ancient Buddhist traditions live on in this rugged mountain area


Originally published on on May 2009

Photos by Arun Bhat

Photos by Arun Bhat

Nestled high in the Himalayas, Ladakh isn’t exactly the most hospitable of places. At an average altitude of over 10,000 feet, annual rainfall is negligible and nothing grows on the mountain slopes. The winters are long, and temperatures can drop as low as -35C. Yet this remote and sparsely populated area, with its towering peaks, snow melt streams and narrow river valleys, is home to an ancient Buddhist civilization that has remained unchanged for centuries.

Tibetan rulers established a presence in Ladakh in the 9th century, molding the region’s cultural and religious practices. The influence of Buddhist teaching was combined with Tibetan animism, evolving into a system of complex rituals and iconography with a multitude of gods, demigods and demons.

LadakhMost of Ladakh’s Buddhist population now lives on the banks of the Indus River, which flows in from Tibet before continuing on through Kashmir and eventually ending up in the Arabian Sea. Monasteries have thrived in the river’s fertile valley for over a millennium, serving as religious and learning centers for the region.

Some of them can be found in Leh, Ladakh’s administrative center and transport hub. It takes a strenuous climb to get to Namgyal Tsemo monastery, a 16th-century structure built on a hill overlooking the town. The effort—which is all the more tiring in the thin mountain air—is rewarded with panoramic views of the valley and the Zanskar range. Back in the center of Leh, you’ll find the modern Soma monastery, where the monks’ daily morning worship involves elaborate ritual chanting that lasts for several hours.

Downstream from the town, the affluent monastery in Likir village is dominated by a gilded 25-foot high statue of Buddha that was erected in 1970 to commemorate a visit by the Dalai Lama. Not far away, on the opposite bank of the river, the village of Alchi boasts a rather older attraction. The inner walls of its 11th-century monastery, which is being tentatively considered for UNESCO World Heritage status, are covered with remarkably well-preserved frescoes, centering on statues of incarnations of Buddha that rise to two stories in height.

Farther down the Indus, a steep ascent through switchback roads leads to the monastery of Lamayuru. The route traverses the remains of a dried-up lake whose wrinkled slopes are popularly known as “moon land”—and not without good reason. The monastery itself is built on a crag of mud that seems ready to collapse at any moment, but has endured for eight centuries. Young monks learn in a small school onsite, and recite prayers together in a dimly lit hall every morning.

LadakhThe monasteries really come alive during their annual festivals, when the village gathers together to watch vibrant dances performed by monks wearing masks. The dance, called cham, is a ritual depiction of exorcism, and the festival culminates with the burning of an effigy to symbolize the destruction of evil.

Ladakh’s charm extends beyond its ancient monasteries, of course. Driving north from Leh, deeper into the mountain range, the road climbs slowly and steadily as it winds through the vista to reach Khardung La. This is said to be the highest drivable mountain pass in the world, and the views are truly spectacular. Snowy peaks dot the skyline in all directions, with the deep Indus Valley visible far below to the south.

Despite the hardship of life in this difficult terrain, Ladakhis are a content and friendly community who make visitors feel at home. The rich culture, high mountains and smiling faces guarantee a memorable experience for every traveler.

Travel Tips

Japan Airlines flies direct from Tokyo to Delhi, from where you can take an Air India or Jet Airways service to Leh. The best time to visit is from June to September. Hotel Grand Dragon ( in Leh has rooms starting from around ¥10,000, and it’s easy to find budget hotels throughout the town. All the monasteries are well connected by road from there, and can be visited as a day-trip by bus or taxi. Monastery festivals follow the Tibetan calendar, meaning that the dates change each year. Yuru Kabgyat festival will be held in Lamayuru on June 9-10 this year, and Dosmoche festival in Leh and Likir on Feb 11-12, 2010.