Ladakh lies in the eastern half of Jammu and Kashmir state in the far north of India.it shares its much-disputed north western border with Pakistan, while to the north lies the Chinese province of Sinkiang, and to the east, chines occupied Tibet. Covering an area of about 60,000 sq. km and ranging in elevation from 2600m to 7670m (8500ft to 25,165ft), it is the largest and highest union territory in India. A further 37,000 sq. km of north east Ladakh, an area called the Aksai Chin, is currently illegal occupied by China.
Ladakh is sandwiched between two vast mountain system: the Himalaya to the south and the Karakorum to the north, it is the latter range which provides the region with its highest peak, Saser Kangri(7670M/25,165ft).Between the two ranges are the Ladakh and the Zanskar mountain, north and south of the Indus valley respectively. These run north – west to south-east, almost as far as Nepal in the case of the Zanskar mountains, and have peak of mainly between 5000m to 6000m.
Ladakh’s heartland is the central Indus Valley. This runs from Khalsi in the west to Upshi in the east, bounded by the Ladakh Mountains to the north and the Zanskar Mountains to the south.
This region of deep valleys and high mountains to the north of Ladakh Range encompasses the Nubra and Shayok valleys and the eastern end of the Karakoram Mountains. It can be reached by road from Leh over the 5602m(18,380ft) Khardung La, reputedly the highest motorable road in the world.
This dry, high-altitude plateau (4000-5500m) is in the south-east of Ladakh. If you’re travelling up from Manali by bus, it’s the first region you see. It’s the western fringe of the much larger area of Chang Tang, which spreads east into Tibet for about 1500km to the province of Qinghai in China, and whose landscape is characterized by vast plains, rolling mountains and brackish lakes.
Between the Great Himalayan Range and the jagged mountains of the Zanskar Range is the 300km-long valley of Zanskar. Access can be gained only by crossing high passes which effectively cut off the valley from the rest of the world during winter. With an average valley-bottom altitude of 4000m(13,000ft), it’s one of the world’s highest inhabited regions. The two major rivers are the Stod and the Lungnak which join to form the mighty Zanskar. This eventually merges with the Indus having cut an impressive gorge through the Zanskar Mountains.
The area around the town of Kargil is sometimes referred to as Lower Ladakh. It comprises a number of river valleys, principally the Suru, Drass, Wakha, and the Indus, downstream of Khalsi. The altitude here is lower than the rest of Ladakh so vegetation is much more varied. Further to the west is the Zoji La, Ladakh’s western gateway, which takes you over the Great Himalayan Range into Kashmir.
There’s a saying that anyone whose head is in the sun and feet are in the shade in Ladakh will endure both heatstroke and frostbite at the same time. While this is something of an exaggeration, in summer the sun is incredibly powerful but step into shade and you may need an extra layer of clothing. Night temperatures are comfortably cool. Altitude also plays a strong role in regulating the temperature. One day you can be trekking at 3000m in the stifling heat, the next day you can be battling over a 5000m pass in a blizzard. Generally, summer days are a warm 20-25 C.
Winter is a different matter. Even in Leh the thermometer rarely rises above freezing and has been known to drop as low as -35 C. In Zanskar and the far west of Ladakh temperatures as low as this are more frequent.
Ladakh is dry in the extreme; a typical year sees under 150mm of rainfall which produces the characteristically barren landscape. This is because the Great Himalayan Range forms an almost impenetrable barrier for the monsoon clouds that sweep up from the south across the rest of the subcontinent. Recent years have been a slight change in the normal weather pattern with some rain-bearing clouds crossing the mountains in August and early September, producing a few days of light rain.
In central Ladakh little snow falls in winter while in Zanskar and the far west of Ladakh, especially around Drass, substantial falls are common. Valley travel becomes arduous without skis in the deep unconsolidated snow and avalanches are a constant hazard in narrow steep-sided valleys.
Buddhism was flourishing in western Ladakh well before the Tibetans arrived, possibly taking root as early as the 2nd century while much of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet was still practicing ancient Bon religion, an animistic belief presided over by shaman priests. The Buddhist influence came via India and in particular, Kashmir. The rapid rise of Hinduism throughout India forced Indian Buddhist monks to seek sympathetic areas to which they could migrate. Many travelled to Ladakh bringing with them their artistic skills and religious beliefs. The 8th century rock-carving of the Maitreya, or future Buddha, at Mulbekh is a fine example of Buddhist art in the Indian tradition, prior to the Tibetans.
Nyimagon’s dynasty was keen to nurture Buddhism and help encourage its revival in Tibet, a move which became known as the second spreading. By the 12th and 13th centuries Buddhism was well established in Tibet but had been replaced by Hinduism in India and Islam in Kashmir. Ladakh, unable to rely on its traditional religious and cultural guides, turned instead to Tibet. A strong bond developed between their monasteries with young Ladakhi monks being sent to Tibet to be trained in the finger points of monastic life. This tradition continued for over 700 years until Chinese occupation of Tibet put a stop to it.
It was at the beginning of the seventeenth century, during the reign of Jamyang Namgyal, Tsewang’s brother, that the proponents of Islam made the most concerted effort to convert Ladakh once and for all. The Baltistan army under Ali Mir stormed through the country destroying all Buddhist artefacts that they came across and thwarting the Ladakhi’s attempt to stop them. Today there are few gompas that date from before his catastrophic episode as most were razed to the ground. Alchi and a few hill gompas are the exception.
Jamyang Namgyal was forced to marry Ali Mir’s daughter, Gyal Katun, and to promise that any offspring from this union would be first in line for the throne, thereby ensuring future Islamic Kings. However, in an ironic twist of fate, her subjects saw the new queen not as a Muslim but as a manifestation of a Buddhist goddess! Buddhism was reconstructed with increased vigour.
For centuries Ladakh has enjoyed a stable economy based on self-reliance. But over the last 50 years, the region has shifted away from this sustainable economy towards one based on dependence on outside forces and is slowly being drawn into a much wider economic sphere over which it has little control.
Misguided policies to help this deprived and backward region, along with the build-up of a large population of Indian troops and the influx of foreign tourists, have all contributed to encouraging a money economy. A materialistic culture where the notion of having a job and buying what you need, rather than producing it your, is now becoming more widespread. While change is inevitable, it doesn’t have to take the form of rapid Western-style modernization.
Ladakh has traditionally been an agricultural subsistence economy based on growing barely, wheat and peas and the keeping of yak, dzos (yak-cow cross-breeds), cows, sheep and goats. At lower elevations fruit is grown successfully, while the high-altitude Rupshu region is the preserve of nomadic herders. Surplus produce is traded for tea, sugar, salt and various luxuries such as the semi-precious stones that adorn women’s headdresses, or peraks.
There is little that can be exported for economic gain. Two exceptions, however, are apricots from western Ladakh and pashmina.
Since 1974, when Ladakh was opened to tourists, the industry has expanded rapidly. On average it now receives 18,000 tourists a year. Although in Ladakh as a whole tourism employs only 4% of workers, in Leh it employs 15%. It also accounts for almost 50% of the region’s GNP. See p153 for information on how to limit your impact on Ladakh.
The 200,000 strong population of Ladakh is a result is a result of the blending of many different races, in particular the Tibetans and the Dards.
The nomadic and semi-nomadic Changpa people of the Rupshu plateau are pure Tibetans. It is probably herders like them who first populated Ladakh. Through centuries of experience they have mastered the art of not only living but thriving in one of the most hostile environments on earth. Since the early 1960s their numbers have increased as Chang Tang nomads from across the Tibetan border flee the occupation for their homeland by the Chinese. Leh has also provided a home from home for about 3500 refugees who live in the various camps around the city.
The looks and the way of life of both the Ladakhi’s of central Ladakh and, perhaps even more so, the Zanskaris, reflect a strong influence from central Tibet. Moving west, this influence diminishes and is replaced by that of the Dards. The one exception to this is the Baltis who live around Kargil and the Suru Valley. They have Tibetan origins, speak a language that has Tibetan links and were Buddhists, though today they are devout Shiite Muslims.
These people originate from Gilgit in Pakistan. They now live in Drass and the Dha- Hanu area. Although originally Buddhist, the Dards around Drass have embraced Islam and have been strongly influenced by their Kashmiri neighbor, those in the Dha Hanu area known as Brokpa, have preserved their Buddhist Faith and retain many of their original custom and traditions.
In most villages in Ladakh you will find another group of Dards, the Mons descendants of Ladakh early settlers. whilst these people represent Ladakh’s lower class the segregation is nothing like as severe as that found in the Indian caste system, their traditional roles as musician’s, blacksmith and carpenters are highly valued in the community.
Some of the constant visitors to Ladakh over the centuries have inevitably settled here. This is particularly true of Leh, where you can find small communities of Kashmiris and Central Asians whose forefathers came when it was an important city on the great trade routes across Asia. Thousands of Indian military personnel are the most recent incomers.
Ladakh is one of the few places where you can see this branch of Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes also called Lamaism, being practiced as it would have been in Tibet before the brutal Chinese suppression. Buddhism has permeated Ladakhi and Tibetan culture since the 7th century A.D.
Tibetan Buddhism is a mystical religion which absorbed many of the magical and superstitious features of Tibet’s previous shamanistic Bon religion, along with elements of Hindu Tantrism. With an array of deities, beliefs, rituals and symbols it’s incredibly complex but to most Ladakhis, who don’t concern themselves too much with these difficulties, it becomes a practical and down-to-earth philosophy which emphasizes one thing – compassion.
It is usual for most families to have at least one son who is a Lama(monk). At an early age he will be sent to the gompa(monastery) to which his village is attached where he will be educated in the religious teachings. Monks are highly respected in the community and spend a lot of their time away from the gompa performing religious ceremonies in the villages. The heads of gompas are called kushoks and are reincarnations of previous venerated lamas. The head of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional political ruler of Tibet is the Dalai Lama, an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in a succession that originated in the 14th century and lives in exile in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.
The lamas of Tibetan Buddhism are divided into four main sects. The oldest is the Nyingmapa (the Ancient Order or Red Hat sect), founded by the great sage Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Next came the Sakyapa sect, followed by the last of the Red Hat schools, the Kagyupa. The most recent order is the Gelukpa, more commonly known as the Yellow Hat sect, who came from a reform movement in the 1400s and which is led by the Dalai Lama. All these sects are represented in Ladakh but the most common are the Kagyupa and Gelukpa.
Although Ladakh is usually described as a Buddhist region, there is a large minority of Muslims (about 45%). Constant invasion by Islamic forces in the west of Ladakh gradually led to the conversion of the previously Buddhist people. Most of Ladakhi Muslims still live in Kargil District where they account for 85% of the population. Here they are puritanical Shiites. Leh also supports a small population of Muslims, mainly Sunis, who are decendants from immigrant Kashmiri and central Asian traders.
There is a small community of Christians in Leh. Most belong to the top rungs of Ladakhi society and were converted by the Moravian Missionaries who first came to Ladakh in 1885.
They built two churches, one in Leh and one in Shey.