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Enigmatic Leh-Over

Located in one of our planet’s most desolate places, Ladakh is blessed with strikingly alluring natural beauty and a rich legacy of history & culture.

An enigma called Ladakh – the land of high passes – sweeps you off your feet from the moment you land at the airport.

The majestic, untouched and unpardonable rugged landscape, devoid of any vegetation, stares at your face as if evaluating your strength. The mountains of Ladakh are right. It is unfathomable to devour the entire beauty and culture of the region in just one trip, however long it be.

While this was Mousumi's (my wife and fellow travel writer) first sojourn to Leh, it was my third trip. Yet, I feel, I haven't fully-explored the real character of Ladakh in its truest essence.

Ladakh, with its thousands of years of history and divine culture, is a centre for teaching and learning Buddhism. It is the birthplace and source of the great River Indus – the creator of the majestic Indus Valley civilisation some thousand years ago. The spectacular and breathtaking views of Indus is indeed awe-inspiring. The river pierces through the heart of Ladakh, passing through lush green paddy and barley fields, taking meandering turns and jumping over deep ravines and gorges.

The monks and chartons of Ladakh greet you at every nook and turn. No matter where you visit, you will always find a monk or a chorten or a majestic monastery on a hilltop. Monasteries and the monks, people who follow Buddhism and regularly practice its rituals, are an integral aspect of Ladakh.

Some of the iconic monasteries we visited during our trip to Ladakh in the month of June were the historical Alchi Monastery. This temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and on the verge of extinction. Alchi Monastery is an offbeat attraction and in ruins. Nestled in the Alchi region, about 70 km from Leh, it is renowned for its protected and preserved 11th and 12th-century wall paintings in the Indo-Himalayan style. Situated at 10,200 feet, the Gompa has three main temples – Dukhang, the Sumtseg and the shrine of Manjushri.

The religious details of Hindu deities and Buddhist kings are depicted intricately on the wall paintings inside the main shrines. Situated on the banks of River Indus, Alchi is a tiny hamlet that nestles a few cosy home-stays and restaurants. Once on your way back from the Gompa, you can do a lot of souvenir shopping from the numerous roadside stalls that yearn for your attention. We did our bit and we realised it was time for lunch. Though we had beautifully packed our food from The Grand Dragon Ladakh, we noticed a couple of restaurants and forayed into one of them. The restaurant quickly rustled up my order – Egg Thukpa – while my better half ordered Egg Noodles. In a matter of no time, the restaurant was filled with Indian and international tourists.

After this, we explored the biggest and the wealthiest monastery in India – the Hemis Monastery in Hemis. Two other monasteries which we visited were the beautiful Thiksey and Lamayuru monasteries.

Hemis Monastery is the wealthiest monastery in India. Beautifully located in Hemis, around 45 km from Leh, this is the oldest monastery in Ladakh. It took us a solid two to three hours to cover the entire Hemis monastery. Hemis Monastery has a Museum that contains several precious religious treasures. "It is one of the richest museums in Ladakh," said our cultural tourism guide, Tashi Phunchok. Indeed, it is.

Built in 1672, this 17th century Gompa belongs to the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and hosts the annual Hemis festival in the months of June-July to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. This event is one of the most fascinating festivals of Ladakh.

Once we were done with Hemis Monastery, we went to Thiksey Monastery, located in Thiksey, at an altitude of 10,800 feet, near Leh. The monastery stands out from the rugged landscape in its stark red and white coloured architecture. The Gompa houses about 10 temples, homes for monks, a nunnery and an assembly hall. We visited the Maitrayee Buddha and Lamokhang Temple which are among the main attractions of Thiksey Monastery.

Thiksey Gompa hosts the annual Gustor Festival in the months of October and November with the famous mask dance that showcases the skills of monks wearing myriad masks to delight the audience.

One of the centres of great historical importance is the Leh Palace. This epic 17th century monument overlooks the Leh township from the Namgyal Hill. It was the erstwhile seat of the Royal Kingdom of Leh. It was a short five-minute drive from The Grand Dragon Ladakh and we rightfully chose the golden hours for the visit.

The grand palace quietly snuggles itself in the lap of the hill and is today one of the most significant landmarks of Ladakh. It is built on stone, wood, mud and sand. The palace significantly shows some of the best medieval Tibetan architecture and contains a museum of old photos. It also has some hundreds of year old paintings.

The nine-storied Leh Palace is in ruins and is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Did we not say that you get some of the most unmatched spectacular views of the entire Ladakh Valley from the terrace of the Leh Palace. Don't forget to take your camera (however, videography is not allowed inside the palace).

During this epic trip to the desert of the Himalayas, we stayed at the Grand Dragon Ladakh. Ladakh was opened to tourism about two decades ago, when visitors started coming in. There are now many good hotel sand home-stay options in and around Leh that will suit every kind of traveller – from budget to luxury.

The best part of a trip to Ladakh is the availability of comfortable staying options at Pangong Lake. A night stay at the lake is an ideal option, though we skipped it this time, making a promise that we will have to come back here soon someday.

In the meanwhile, we hope these images take you through a virtual journey of Ladakh and make you pack your bags to travel there soon.

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