Leh and the Gompas of the Indus Valley

EyeOpener – Ladakh Photography Workshop Diaries

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A Photographic Journey in the Indian Trans-Himalayas - (Part 1)

19 days; 1250 kilometres on some of the most challenging roads in Asia; 6 mountain passes over 4000 metres; high altitude lakes the colour of turquoise; ancient rituals; solitary monasteries; prehistoric, glacier-eroded landscapes, and thousands of images: our photographic journey to Ladakh has been a breathless adventure.

Situated at the crossroads of the so-called ‘Roof of the World’ – the mountainous interior of Asia known as High Asia – Ladakh, whose name means ‘Land of High Passes’, is a high altitude desert of stark, monumental beauty

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Geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh stretches across the Zanskar and Ladakh mountain ranges at an average elevation of 3,500 metres above sea level and is bordered by the Great Himalaya in the south and the eastern range of the Karakoram mountains in the north.

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In the summer, when the mighty Himalayas isolate it from the monsoon rains that sweep across the rest of the subcontinent, glacial melts are channelled to irrigate the crops on which the inhabitants rely as their staple; mainly barley. At this time of the year, oases of green and yellow fields appear across the otherwise lunar landscape, creating surreal vistas and unique opportunities for landscape photography.

In the rarefied air of what was once known as ‘The Kingdom in the Sky’, colours are vivid, shadows are sharp and distances are deceptive since there is no haze. This is only one of the particularities of Ladakh that make it ideal for photography. Rich in opportunities for people and landscape photography, our journey traversed a wide range of breath-taking sceneries while exploring some of the key cultural features of this fascinating trans-Himalayan region.

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Despite its remoteness, Ladakh was for centuries at the heart of commerce between East and West; Leh, the capital, where our journey began, was once one of the busiest markets along the southern stretch of the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean.

Encircled by awe-inspiring mountains, the former royal seat of Leh retains a distinct charm. Gazing down from the nine-storey, 17th century palace that surmounts it, the Old Town is a maze of mud-brick houses and narrow lanes where, despite the odd concrete intrusion, the atmosphere echoes that of other times, when traders reached here on foot, horse-back, or with camels, laden with silk, spices, tea, carpets, semi-precious stones, pashmina, salt, and charas (a form of cannabis).

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Driven by the demand for silk – a commodity which Rome’s upper class craved, whose manufacture process was unknown, and whose supply China was, for a time, the only source –   as early as the first century A.D., goods were traded along a network of routes linking Rome to the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, a town known to classical geographers as Sera Metropolis, or Chang’an, near today’s Xian.

Of the towns in India and Central Asia that owed their prosperity, if not their very existence, to the caravan trade – such as Kashgar, China’s westernmost city at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, or Yarkant, in present-day Xinjiang province; or Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Samarkand in Uzbekistan – Leh was of key strategic importance as it served the most difficult of all the Silk Road’s routes – the one over the Karakoram Pass, which obliged traders and their animals to cross a minimum of four passes, none below 4500 metres high.

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High above the town, on the summit of the palace hill, overlooking the town and all approaches to it, the 16thcentury Namgyal Tsemo fort, the first recorded royal residence in Leh, stood guard over this valuable trade as it passed through the streets of Leh.

Among the many customs brought by the diverse peoples who travelled to this distant Himalayan region, is the game of polo. Indigenous to central Asia and parts of the Himalaya, polo has been played in the western Himalaya from time immemorial, long before the 1860s, when the British first discovered the game in Calcutta to subsequently formalise and spread it worldwide.

In Ladakh, however, as in remote areas of the Karakoram, people continue to play what is known as Balti-style polo, an unrestrained version of international polo, in which there are no chukkers and two, six-men-strong teams play for one hour with a ten minute break in the middle. Their mounts are Zanskari ponies, a local breed of diminutive size (only 120 to 140 cm in height) known for its strength, speed, and stamina at high altitude.

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Together with archery, polo is the traditional summer pastime of the Ladakhis and almost universally popular in the region so, whilst in Leh, we could not pass up the chance of seeing a Balti-style polo match. In Leh, up until the last century, polo was played up and down the main bazaar, where the speeding ball would often land in the crowd of spectators settled in the doorways, balconies and rooftops of the houses lining the road.

The town’s polo ground now stands directly below the royal palace, surrounded by the peaks of the Ladakh range, in what has to be one of the most spectacular settings for a polo match in the world; but, as we were to discover, the line between players and spectators is still easily crossed.

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In Balti-style polo – we were told as we took our seats in the packed grandstand amongst elderly gentlemen, traditionally dressed women, and even Buddhist monks – the only foul is ‘to cut across the path of another’s player’s horse’. To us at least, this looked like a loosely applied rule and the game that we saw seemed to be played with the same speed and fury observed by early visitors to Leh.

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One of the peculiarities of Balti-style polo is the practice of starting and resuming play by tossing the ball and hitting it in one action from mid-field, while galloping towards the opposing team’s goal; cameras in hand, we hardly had time to turn to each other to comment this display of bravura, when an avalanche of pounding hooves came thundering towards us, the riders jostling for control of the ball edging closer and closer to our seats until they were literally amongst us, sending the first two rows of seated spectators scrambling back. As a commentator observed of a game played here in 1906: “’Tis both hot and fast, is polo at Leh”.

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The first part of our photographic journey spanned the upper Indus valley, the geographical backbone as well as the cultural heartland of Ladakh, and was timed to coincide with Hemis Tsechu, Ladakh’s largest monastic Buddhist festival.

Held once a year in the grounds of the 17th century Hemis Gompa (monastery),  Hemis Tsechu takes the form of a dance-drama enacted by monks dancing to the sound of ancient instruments, known locally as a ‘devil-dance’, in which evil spirits are symbolically vanquished over a two-day-long ceremony.

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The festival marks the anniversary of the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who brought tantric Buddhism to India, and its popularity is such that it has turned Hemis into the best-known and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh.

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A living tradition, Ladakh’s religious dance-dramas and the music that accompanies them – both an import from Tibet – have been performed unaltered for centuries. While the detail of their symbolism remains beyond most lay spectators, as a performance, they provide a beguiling glimpse into the local culture.

Costumed in richly decorated brocades and wearing masks with expressions that range from the benign to the menacing, during Hemis Tsechu, the monastery’s lamas dance and solemnly parade around a ceremonial flag-pole in the gompa’s courtyard.

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Their performance, part dance and part enactment of sacred plays, is punctuated by the clash of cymbals, the piercing wail of shawms, the boom of large-pan drums beaten with sticks in the shape of question marks, and the deep, almost groaning sound of eleven-foot horns that are so long they have to rest on the ground while being played.

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The solemnity of the event is enlivened by comic interludes in which dancers dressed as skeletons leap into the courtyard and tease the audience with grotesque movements. The most important event in the monastery’s calendar, Hemis Tsechu is attended by monks of all ages with senior lamas sitting under a roofed  gallery and novice monks crowding at their feet, cheerfully enduring a hail storm if need be.

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An important part of Hemis Tsechu is the unrolling of a thangka, a delicate scroll-painting embroidered with silk representing Guru Padmasambhava, which was lowered under the watchful eyes of monks. In Buddhist tradition, thangkas perform different functions; they can be used as teaching tools to illustrate episodes from the life of Buddha and other deities, or as meditation tools to help the individual visualise and internalise the qualities that may bring them closer to enlightenment. Being able to gaze upon the thangka is one of the auspicious activities that are believed to confer spiritual strength and good health to the festival’s attendees.

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An intriguing and intensely colourful event, Hemis Tsechu provided excellent opportunities for people photography on either side of the gompa’s walls; while in the main courtyard the ceremony for which the monks train all year was taking place in front of a packed audience of lamas, local dignitaries, and visitors from India and beyond, just outside the confines of the monastery, a circus of secular activities was taking place – local families enjoyed a picnic; young boys swaggered past pretty girls, and wayward novice monks bet on a game of dice.

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Unlike most of the rest of India, the predominant religion in Ladakh is Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhism, which was introduced here nearly a thousand years ago from Tibet. Frequently dubbed ‘Little Tibet’, Ladakh’s Buddhist heritage seems woven into the fabric of the landscape; scattered along its forbidding terrain, Ladakh’s monasteries, the gompas for which it is justly famous, are living centres of worship as well as repositories of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts, which preserve the religion, philosophy and culture of a civilization that has all but disappeared in neighbouring China-controlled Tibet.

True to their name – gompa means ‘solitary place’ – monasteries are typically built in remote, isolated locations, often at the summit of a rocky outcrop, spilling over a slope. Their dominant position in the landscape exposes them to an endless play of light and shadows that transfigures their outline throughout the day.

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Returning to the same gompas to explore them from different viewpoints at different times of the day was a lot of fun; sometime, we were able to do this whilst travelling between other locations. At other times, it involved a very early wake-up call and a short wait for the sun to come up. But, on occasion, when wind and clouds combined to create unpredictable effects and shadows passed gigantic on the land, capturing the light required an exhilarating, flat-out chase across both sides the Indus Valley.

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Traversed by the Indus River and contoured by the Ladakh range to the north and the Zanskar range to the south, the valley is strewn with dramatically positioned gompas. Strikingly different in appearance, the mountain ranges either side of the Indus, provide the gompas with spectacularly varied backgrounds, which the light sculpts ceaselessly.

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In contrast to their austere exteriors, the interiors of gompas are richly decorated with frescoes, carvings and drapes.

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During the Expedition, we visited and photographed many smaller and larger gompas belonging to different sects, including those of Alchi and Lamayuru, which are amongst the oldest in Ladakh. Shadowing the historic trade route that connects Ladakh with Kashmir and beyond, to reach Lamayuru, we left the Indus Valley and entered the narrow gorges of the Zanskar range, travelling along the Leh-Srinagar Highway, one of only two roads connecting Ladakh with the rest of India.

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One of the most picturesque villages in Ladakh, Lamayuru clings to the ridge of a hillside above a narrow valley of fields, crowned by a 10th century gompa and surrounded by an expanse of rock formations molded into fantastical shapes by millennia of wind erosion, which the locals call ‘Moonland’.

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To access the best viewpoints, we braved what the locals call the ‘Old Road’ – a miraculous piece of design and engineering that descends nearly 1,200 metres in a series of serpentine bends; these include the famous Hangro Loops, 18 consecutive hairpin bends that zigzags over steep gorges and ravines. It was a hair-rising ride but, rewarded by unparalleled views of the landscape, we could not seem to get enough of it and, over the course of two days, we returned to the Old Road time and again, marvelling at the endless photographic opportunities it provided.

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Although a new road now carries traffic at the bottom of the valley, the Old Road is still being maintained as an alternative route of this key artery connecting Ladakh with Kashmir.

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On our second day in the area, from Lamayuru, we continued along the Leh-Srinagar Highway to the Fatu La pass (4,100 m) –  the highest of three passes separating central Ladakh from Kashmir, and the furthest point west on our route, to photograph a panorama of the Zanskar range’s striated ridges and saw-tooth peaks that seemed to stretch into infinity.

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At the end of a long day, exhausted and elated, from our base in Lamayuru, we watched the velvet Himalayan night envelop the village and its ancient gompa.

Starry night over Lamayuru village, Ladakh, India

End of Part One.

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