Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In the Land of Extremes

The very first day, my two companions declared that they see no beauty in the barren mud mountains. I told them to be patient. By the end of the seventh day , I had one definitive and one hesitant convert. Being there once, I know it takes time for our sensibilities to appreciate beauty in “nothing”. Yes, at that height- it is nothing that prevails. Miles after miles without any vegetation, bird or flower. The freezing streams too match the colour of mountains with mud in them. The glazing sun burning your skin hardly helps the matter. But with all this – Ladakh is beautiful. It is hauntingly bare and stunningly enthralling. It lures different people for different reasons. The peace seeking troubled souls for its Gompas and the adventure tourists for its imposing passes, geologists to study its ecosystem and the historian to get the pulse of its rich history.  The place has so many shades and colours that at times one fails to appreciate all of them at one go.

The land like its neighbouring Tibet is a land of dhamma. It is the land of Gompas and prayer wheels, prayer flags and Buddhist paintings – even on the high mountains these signs of Buddhism very defiantly declare the presence of this peace loving ideology. I always find it very intriguing, how this particular philosophy conquered some of the toughest terrains of the world and managed to rule the hearts of these people for centuries. Sometimes I feel that Buddhism in this region is very much like the Gompas which stand high above every habitation almost hanging from the peaks. These monasteries are fascinating.

 Some like Alchi and Lamayuru are definitely ancient places of worship. They bear such solemn and “knowing” look of their ancientness that even most unobservant visitor would note it  Others like Thiksey, Likir etc are very alive, very happy places to be. But the Monastery which stole my heart in first look was not one of these. Deep inside the Nubra Valley, while your eyes are still adjusting to the change of scenery from the snow peaked mountains to the white sand dunes, you find a huge Maitreya statue welcoming you to Diskit.  In Diskit, next to a huge waterfall stands the beautiful Diskit monastery- the oldest and the biggest in the entire valley.

The 32 metre tall Maitreya statue facing down the Shyok River towards Siachin is of course a recent addition to the place. The monastery however stands guard there from 14th century onwards. The architecture is very interesting and reminds you more of a fortress than a Gompa.  Perhaps there was good reason for such a built. Being located on the Silk Route – this monastery has a series of attacks from robbers lured by its legendary wealth donated by the traders over the centuriesand also the reigning Kings of the Nubra Valley. Somehow, this colourful history makes the place much more fascinating in my eyes than the Alchi Monastery located amidst beautiful orchards of apricots and apples with the river Indus flowing below.....or even the Monastery at Lamayuru giving a fantastic view of the moonland.

 But Ladakh has much more to offer than these Gompas. As a trekker I fell in love with the idea of a cold desert while trekking in Spiti. The place is magical. It shows you the power and the serenity of nature in the same canvas. A fragile eco system- where winds can recite poems in your ears and can also change the look of the mountains. Where streams provide a much needed rest to the monotonous scenery and also play a role in flooding the habitations ...where mountains make you philosophical about life and also fill you with ambition to conquer them.

The place filled me up with so many contrasting emotions. While rafting in the river Indus ,I got a distinct sense of achievement , of riding the waves , of power of human race over the wild river . On another occasion, staring at the crystal clear blue water of Panong Lake , I could not help feeling spiritual  . What a beautiful reminder God left in the midst of high mountains of the sea which was there long time ago. A salty lake of 110 Km hidden from the eyes of civilisation ...where only the deserving can reach through a strenuous path . The place also made me realise the folly of human nature – who in the race of “owning “ this beauty end up ruining the peace of the region . Yes this is part of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir and China is just few miles away . The Kargil region and the Siachin is unfortunately remembered more for the fights than for the beauty. The place if full of memorial stones for army officers and common villagers who died in these fights  . What a sad fate for a region so enchanting ! That  in fact was one sentiment I carried with me throughout the trip.

But I would be blind if I fail to see the bravery of the people here. Despite harsh weather and fragile topography , I do not remember one impolite or dishonest person. People were friendly , smiling and looked happy. Even while mentioning the cloud burst of last year which swept away hundreds of people, my car driver Dorjee smiled and added that “ We have re-built it now .It is over .” I am sure it is this never-say-die spirit that kept this place alive for centuries.   
I came back from Ladakh promising myself that I will go back there. Alone. For a travel with myself – sans all baggage , all programs, all maps  and all thoughts of daily life .

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