Sunday, June 04, 2006

8 million pictures of Ladakh

So, it's been three trips since I updated the blog. Whoops. See the prologue below for more info on that front. Yes, I've had fantastic trips to Sri Lanka, Amritsar, and Ladakh (currently part of Jammu & Kashmir) in the past 2 months. Most recently, Auracana and I went to Ladakh!

There are really two stories to Leh and Ladakh generally. The first one is the story of the society of Ladakhis and what they're going through in terms of trying to preserve their identity, traditions, and environment. Ladakh suffers through extremely severe winters, but it has for centuries had a fairly high standard of living through its tradition of communalism and ecologically smart farming techniques. Somewhat unfortunately, an influx of western goods and a more materialistic vibe generally has invaded Ladakh over the past couple of generations. Of course, freedom to choose one's life and to have options is a good thing, and it's an option that never used to exist here, but the active dismantling of years of tradition seemingly overnight is tough to see.

Luckily, Ladakhis have not just rolled over. Instead, many seem to have quickly ingested some of the disadvantages connected with Western life, and are starting to make savvier valuations of the pros and cons involved in the equation. As this article discusses (perhaps slightly hyperbolically), the fight is on in Ladakh, and what is emerging looks to be an interesting hybrid of tradition and modernity. At least it's not been a TKO decision for Western Culture, as so often seems to have occurred.

The second story here is my (much smaller) story of seeing Ladakh! A and I landed in Leh, which sits at about 11,500 feet above sea level. All the guide books tell you to not do anything for the first couple of days but drink tea in order to acclimate to the altitude. I thought I was in fine shape and basically scoffed at such warnings. Hey, I'd done some hiking at up to 14,500 feet a few times before, I thought. Clearly, these guidebooks are written for much less demigod-like persons than your humble blogger. Hmm, apparently this is not the case. While I was not bed-ridden, man I was huffing and puffing just walking up some easy little hills from our hotel. A good lesson indeed. Apparently flying in from sea level can really sock it to you. Luckily, we had a very pleasant first day exploring Leh and didn't attempt any crazy treks right off the plane. To the left is a shot from our hotel room; it was so wonderful to be in a place where it felt like we were floating in among the mountains, and where it wasn't 110 degrees. At night we gratefully wore fleece jackets and celebrated the cold air with hot minty tea.

Walking around, it was clear Buddhism is very much alive and well in Ladakh. I believe the type practiced here is basically Tibetan Buddhism (derived from Mahayana Buddhism - the "Greater Vehicle"?? - that's a guess from Jim Laine's 1991 Intro to Non-Western Religions class). In any case, pictures of HH the Dalai Lama are everywhere. A wide cross-section of people throughout Leh seem to be quite genuine and devout in their practice. Araucana and I stumbled on a talk being given (in Ladakhi) in this city courtyard. The mood was very inviting and relaxing. We could have stayed for quite a while soaking it all in. It was a feeling we would have over and over again in Ladakh.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Leh, looking at Thangka paintings, drinking tea, and looking up at the Leh Palace, where the old Kings of Ladakh used to live. I've long wanted to have a Thangka painting, ever since I was exposed to them in Dharamsala in 2004 by a good friend who was doing a Vipassana course. Leh is one of the best places in India to get a Thangka painting, and it was amazing to look through the hundreds available, spend some time with the shop owners, drink some tea, and gently negotiate. I was pretty sure I wanted a "wheel of life" motif, just because it's easiest for me to really understand and appreciate, although the mandalas and other thangkas are all very beautiful. But I wanted something that would be a helpful reminder of escaping ego, ignorance, suffering, etc, and the Wheel of Life really does that for me. I wound up purchasing the one to the left, which I think is just fantastic. It's hanging up next to my bed now, and it's kind of wild to see every morning! A good reminder of where visa work fits into the scheme of things....

Over the next couple of days, we hired a car and went out to see the nearby gompas (monasteries) to the east and west of Leh. The first day, we went to Thiksey, Shey, and Hemis. Without retelling the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, suffice to say that these are all working gompas, with Shey also being the former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh. It was simply a pleasure to see the monasteries rising in front of us. They were often near a stream, and they were simultaneously integrated into the surrounding geography and dominating of it. There's something about this kind of architecture that is very appealing and harmonious, while also looking very strong and enduring. All the places we visited seemed to be adding more buildings and patching up existing ones. It looked like it was an attempt at restoration as well as expansion, all done in a precious few summer months.

I am honestly not entirely sure where we saw which enormous Buddha or which piece of artwork, but I do definitely remember (again) the wonderfully peaceful feeling at all of these places. In this shot, it was clear that this was an area for teaching. There were texts lying around, and the monks were going about their business, very friendly but definitely not part of any theme park or cultural reproduction / zoo featurette. The monks generally spoke Hindi, so we were able to talk about living in the monastery, what everyone does in winter, etc., at least to a certain extent.

It was also quite beautiful to see the little touches of artwork everywhere. Again and again, we saw the same types of devotional artwork, including wheels of life, Maitreya buddhas, Tara, guardians, mandalas, etc. The great thing was that sometimes they were 700+ years old, and sometimes they were being painted just then. It put things in perspective, some kind of small statement on our purpose in a disintegrating world.

At perhaps three different gompas, there were very large Buddhas in various states of repose. At the back of this picture, you can see a very small person, which gives some idea of the scale. On this day, it was one of a handful of fairly important holy days, so we were accompanied not only by a few other tourists but also by a cross-section of Ladakhi culture. There were several older men and women in traditional dress, spinning hand-held prayer wheels constantly, as well as younger folks in jeans and t-shirts, also prostrating themselves and circumnambulating.

I believe it was at Shey where in addition to the smaller gompa there was a section of ruin that was unoccupied and crumbling. In defiance of a wee small altitude headache, we scrambled up and through fallen rocks and what looked like soon-to-fall rock walls, up to a wonderful view. I also confess to having a mish-mash of two Tintin books in my mind at this point in time, Tintin in Tibet (naturally) and The Black Island. I happily clambered about the rocks, half-waiting, half-hoping for a yeti or gigantic ape to jump out from behind the next teetering cairn of rocks. No such luck, but the sky was beautiful and the view impressive.

In all the driving around looking at temples, we also a number of pretty incredible signs. We couldn't get all of them, unfortunately, including the several public service announcements about persistent dry coughing potentially being TB. "Check your sputum!" Indeed. However, I asked our driver to stop so I could hop out and add this to the collection of brilliant Indian armed forces marketing images. In addition to this sign, there were many such slogans painted around, both in Hindi and in English. The military presence was everywhere, tho it didn't seem particularly domineering. At the checkpoints, the police and armed forces folks were very friendly, and happy to chat in Hindi for a few minutes. I got the feeling they were posted there, and happy enough, but they wouldn't mind heading back south.

While this sentiment is perhaps not remarkable, it was pretty surprising to happen upon this sign in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere. It's a great public service announcement, but we did also wonder what percentage of the population understood all the english. It's certainly a conversation starter!

Another poster we saw in both the monasteries and in Leh itself was this very sad shot advertising the stolen Panchen Lama. What can one say? "10 Years of Anguished Cry: Where is the Panchen Lama?" To me, it spoke to the desire and ineffectiveness so many of these refugees must feel all the time. I believe the Chinese have their own Panchen Lama that they "found" and are advertising as the "real" one, while trying to tamp down interest in the other Panchen Lama. In the Dalai Lama's books, he never seems to miss a chance to comment on how he meditates on and tries to take on all the bad karma the Chinese are accumulating through their actions.

Last, every couple kilometers on the road were some often brilliant signs exhorting drivers to slow the heck down. This one is not that great, but some were priceless. My favorite was "Better Mr. Late than Late Mr." but there were many really good ones. "He who touches 90 flies to die at 19." "Darling I love your curves, but not so fast." Very few in Hindi though, again I'm not sure why.


At 9:48 AM, Blogger Bombay Addict said...

Very nice. Did you go to Nubra ? I thought it was completely and totally out of the world.

In fact, I'd posted some snaps on an earlier post. I was just lost in the sheer rawness of Leh. Amazing.

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Crawdad said...

Hey bombay addict, you know I never was able to see those snaps. Does that URL still work? It brings me to an Indian Express story about Bihar. I'd love to see your snaps. Cheers.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Ruby Holidays said...

egli vero comfort รจ dato dalle piccole cose piccole , non per le cose di lusso...........Viaggi Rajasthan & Trekking in Ladakh


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