India: The Valley of Leh

October 2017

 

Acclimatisation to the high altitude still ongoing, we have had a good night’s rest, but today, on the 10th of Muharram according to the Islamic calendar, there’s the Shiite procession of Ashura planned for the morning. And that’s something we would not want to miss at all! So we gingerly made our way to the procession route. Man, are we in for a real treat, I couldn’t even catch this in Iran itself, the bastion of Shiism. Not bad for Leh, a place with only 15,000 Shiites. Here’s a primer on what the fuss is all about.

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A cool T-shirt to boot, that about sums up the Shiites’ mindset.

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The event starts, with kids chanting praises to Allah, Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali and Imam Hussain. All pretty benign stuff.

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Then the serious bit happens — self-immolation. They seem to use some sort of sharp hard objects to repeatedly hit the head to puncture the scalps, which produce copious amounts of blood. Pretty impressive stunt, but this dude soon collapses and is carried away to a first-aid station before an ambulance arrives to take him away. He has had a great day, I’m sure.

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The guy on the right decides to puncture his breasts, which I guess is legit too. Or maybe he borrowed some fresh blood from his buddy.

 

I wonder what is going through her head, while witnessing this bloody spectacle. 🙂

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After having enough of bleeding heads, we head for a fancy Tibetan eatery for lunch. No problem with the appetite at all.

 

Tibetan fare is pretty mild — ignore the rice, that’s Indian. The dumpling and the noodles are very much bland to our spicy taste. At least there’re no yak body parts, omnipresent when I travelled in Tibet.

 

We decide to do the usual tourist spots around Leh. Interestingly they are all atop hills overlooking the valley, and I’m a sucker for lookouts. The two famous ones are just above downtown Leh — the grey palace and the white temple. If you are game, you can set by foot for both places from here. We are smart, we are taking a van up.

 

We decide to do the palace first. It’s 11,500 feet above sea level, built in the mid-16th century. Typical of Tibetan palace and monastery designs, it’s built like steps stuck to the side of a piece of rock. The Potala Palace in Lhasa used the same design. In fact this palace was built as a smaller replica of Potala, by the founder of a major Ladakhi dynasty.

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This cross-section diagram shows how it’s done, split-level sort of style. The whole building was basically hewn and anchored into the rockface. That should take care of earthquakes, I guess.

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The interior of the palace is heavy in wood, the logs are poplars which grow all over the valley and along the Indus river. The slender ones are branches of the same poplars.

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The walls have some original ancient murals. The middle one shows the Eternal Knot, important in Buddhism symbolism to denote connectivity of everything in the universe, such man and the cosmos, the cycle of lives, etc.

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And the view from the palace is fantastic, needless to say. You can imagine the king observing his subjects doing their daily chores down below.

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Time to leave the palace to visit the temple above it. I notice a guy squatting awkwardly at the rockface, he seems to be making a phone call. Probably that’s the best position for maximum call quality.

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The Namgyal Tsemo Temple (or Monastery) was built by a 14th century Ladakhi king. The powerful Ladakhi kingdom used to stretch from Tibet all the way to Kashmir. It’s still a hard slog reaching the temple even from the car park where we were deposited.

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They seem to like this ochre colour, and the steps. Lotsa them, narrow steep ones. Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries love ochre and white, and the steps.

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I am surprised to find a lone monk living on the topmost floor of the ancient building. He has just a basin of water in his room. Later I’m told he actually comes back to town at sundown. Smart man.

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From the monastery one can see another Leh landmark across the valley — the Shanti Stupa, a recent construct. This valley of the Indus river was part of the famous Silk Road network, it connected Tibet to Pakistan, and on to Persia and the Arabian Sea. Leh is really a large oasis in the middle of the Ladakh desert.

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We leave the temple for Shanti Stupa via a back road, and in stark contrast to the verdant green valley on the other side, a truly barren desert. This is the general landscape of Ladakh — a cold barren rocky desert.

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This huge stupa was built in the late 1980s to symbolise Ladakh’s ethos of peace and tolerance. It was built by donations from the public all over the world, with immense support by the authorities. Now it is a major tourist site in Leh.

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For one thing it’s a great place as a lookout, especially at sunset when the sun is behind the platform overlooking the Leh valley.

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You can easily see small stupas on the other side of the valley. They are normally built along paths to a sacred site, such as a temple or a monastery.

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Indeed what a view this is. There’s the temple we have just visited right there atop a rocky mount to the left. After two days in Leh, we reckon our high altitude acclimatisation has gone well, and we are ready to travel out of the valley for higher altitudes.

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~ THE END ~

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