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A glimpse of heaven?

Stark brown mountains pierce the sky, their snow-capped peaks merging with the clouds, and the rarified atmosphere leaves you a little light headed. Welcome to Leh, says VINITA SIDHARTHA.


Spectacular Leh bears the distinct stamp of its history.

THERE is something about the landscape of Leh that makes you hold your breath. It is not beautiful; there is no lush green vegetation. It is not spectacular with large and awe inspiring waterfalls ... It is the stark brown mountains that pierce the sky, their snow-capped peaks merging with the clouds. It is almost impossible to separate the heavens from the earth.

Situated about 10,000 feet above sea level, the rarified atmosphere leaves you a little light headed till you get used to it. It took us about a day or two. But 10 days was simply not enough to get used to the landscape.

The town itself is a tiny one with the central market sporting rows of shops catering to the tourist — Tibetan jewellery, thangkas, pashmina shawls, prayer wheels ... . But outsiders are not new to Leh. Although it lies surrounded by an imposing circle of towering mountains, Leh was an important place on the silk route to Yarkhand in China. For years, traders and travellers passed through Leh, seeking the famed Pashmina wool. In exchange, they brought silks from China and exotic goods from distant Europe.

Towering above the little town is the Leh palace — what was once the home of the royal family. Dilapidated and decrepit as it is, it still presents an imposing façade as it keeps watch on the town and the people below. Just behind the palace is the Tsemo Gompa — a Buddhist monastery. With Buddhism the prevalent religion and close ties with Tibet till very recently, the gompas are almost the central aspect around which life revolves. The line dividing religion and lifestyle, culture and commerce is very fine and often disappears.

We visited many gompas while in Ladakh. Among the best known were, perhaps the Hemis Gompa and the one at Thikse. The gompas themselves were built into the hill side almost fading into the landscape around it. Inside, the murals and detailing were exquisite, but perhaps the images that stayed with us the most were those of the monks clad in their red robes — serenity writ large on their seemingly ageless faces.

Not far from Leh is the Nubra Valley, a distance of about 130 km through the Kardung pass. Rising to a height of 18,000 feet, this is the highest motorable road in the world. The road to Kardunga is a steep one, climbing over 7,000 feet in a little over 30 km, but the landscape leaves you spellbound.

None of us took the climb seriously and paid the price, for, the air got thinner and thinner, leaving us nauseous, light headed, but awed, at the landscape. As we stopped for the inevitable photos, there was a feeling of moving in slow motion, a feeling that the body took twice as long to respond to the mind.

But happily these feelings soon passed and we were climbing down again to Nubra. If the climb up to Kardung was awe-inspiring, the climb down was bewildering. The landscape changed rapidly rolling out panorama after panorama of the most wondrous sights in the world. Cameras lay forgotten for in many cases, nothing could capture the sheer grandeur and depth of the landscape. Canyons deep and convoluted; valleys lush and green, brooks gurgling and dancing over the pebbles brought down from the mountains ....

We reached Nubra. Six brightly coloured tents were pitched in the rich green of the Tirit village. It glowed in the sun like a jewel, while the mountains, stark and sheer, almost mocked this indulgence in colour.

Here there are more stars than you have ever seen before and lying in your sleeping bag under the night sky makes you wonder if you might be in heaven after all.

We ventured into Tirit village to watch the people. Two grimy faced children at play, a young girl herding sheep, and faces brown as the mountains, deeply lined, yet strangely serene as they called out a cheerful "Joule" (pronounced Joolay) as we passed by.

And nearby, the fluttering prayerflags and the Mani wall. Made of stone tablets carved with the words "Om Mani Padme Hum (All Hail the Jewel of the Lotus") these walls are believed to protect the villages from all that life throws at them.

But perhaps the most exhilarating experience was white water rafting down the Indus river. The towering cliffs on either side and the icy spray on our faces was exciting enough, but more so was the feeling that it was by this river, centuries ago that the Indus valley civilisation flourished.

There is a story told about Leh. Many hundreds of years ago, there was a land at the bottom of the sea. Dragons attacked the residents of this land and they were helpless with nowhere to go. At that time, five fairies descended from the heavens and vanquished the dragons. The residents begged the fairies to stay... and so they did. They drained the land of water and took the form of mountains and surrounded the town that was to become Leh.

Science bears this out in the theory that the clash between the Indian plate and Asian plate led to the formation of these mountains.

The Zanskar range is believed to have been formed from the sediment of the ocean.

As our flight took off from Leh, I craned my neck to catch a last glimpse of the place. As the landscape started to fade and the mountains with the snow-capped peaks looked so ethereal, I could almost believe they were fairies. I wondered ... had I just touched the Heavens?

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