India: The Indus River Way in Ladakh

October 2017


Looking out of our Leh guesthouse bedroom window … “The mountains are calling!”

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The mighty Indus River, one of Asia’s longest at 3600km long, started life in the mountains of western Tibet. Fed by melting glaciers, it flows through Ladakh where it cuts deep spectacular gorges, with the Leh – Srinagar Highway attempting to follow it. Then it enters Pakistan to empty itself into the Arabian Sea. A portion of the old Silk Road must have followed this Indus River, thus making areas around the river full of ancient settlements, such as villages, monasteries, temples … and we are exploring some of those today.


Jagged mountains hint at a youngish geology, the peaks are not fully eroded yet.

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The better part of the Highway, with the faithful Indus next to it.

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A small tributary of the Indus, a bit of offroading for us too.

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The plan is to travel towards Srinagar, then make a U-turn at the 11th century Lamayuru Monastery, 120km west of Leh. Built atop a hill (I’ve not seen a Tibetan monastery not atop a hill yet, and I’ve seen many of them in Tibet and here), it overlooks a scenic fertile valley. From there it’s just another 320km to Srinagar — maybe next time …


The road looks nice for this portion of the Highway but it can easily change into broken asphalt and downright bare and rocky the next moment. Maintenance is the key issue, not easy when rockfalls happen all the time. In winter the conditions are horrendous and outright dangerous due to heavy snow.


As the Indus River approaches the Zanskar Valley it cuts a very deep gorge, which makes wonderful sights for travellers.


It’s the spot where the Indus spectacularly meets the Zanskar River. The turquoise colour of the rivers is typical of melted glacier water containing leached minerals.

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All country roads in Jammu and Kashmir are built and maintained by BRO or “Border Roads Organisation”, a unit under the Indian Army. That’s a true bro if you ever need one.


Indians love to make up their trucks, complete with the ubiquitous ‘BLOW HORN’ reminder. It means, if you are behind the truck, honk so that the driver knows where you are. The honking here is more like telling the big guy, hey I’m right behind you, so please don’t do anything stupid! Yeah, right. And I spot ‘ALL IS WELL’ there too — not another 3 Idiots fan!


As mentioned, the condition of this important highway changes rapidly from being great to okay to awfully bad. The drivers are generally good, considering the circumstances. Bus drivers, I’m not too sure, many horrible stories about bad fatal accidents.


Just before reaching Lamayuru, there’s an area with interesting geology, and in the typical Indian way, it has a great name to go by.

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Yeah, why not?


Soon the monastery of Lamayuru looms in sight, and yes, atop a hill. Imagine the poor monks of yore, who had to get water from the river in the valley. It’s the oldest monastery in Ladakh, and one of the largest with hundreds of monks in residence.


A monastery is a place for monks. These are Tibetan Buddhist monks, generally they wear maroon robes. But they normally wear an inner shirt and its colour denotes the sect they belong to. Tibetan Buddhism has four sects, according to the colours of their formal hats (yes, they have hats): yellow, red, black, white. Obviously these guys are red. The yellow sect has the most members, whose head is the indefatigable Dalai Lama.

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The monastery overlooks a fertile green valley. This is not the Indus, but a tributary.


Founded in the 11th century, these stupas are really old. A stupa is simply a place of worship built with a religious relic embedded inside it, normally something from a revered holy person.


And you are supposed to perform circumambulation around it too, in the clockwise direction, while spinning the numerous prayer wheels with the right hand.

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When you spot a row of small stupas like these, chances are they accompany a pilgrims’ route to a holy site, in this case to Alchi Monastery, another 1000-year-old construction. Pilgrims travelling the route would stop at the stupas for prayers, and circumambulate it.

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Wherever you find a stupa you have to circumambulate it clockwise (note that it’s anticlockwise for the Muslims at the Kaabah), even if you are driving.

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Back to Lamayuru, this is the main temple entrance. No inside photography allowed, but basically it is a dark place, with the altar in the middle, and incense burning everywhere. Above the altar, there are statues of Buddha and other deities, complemented by a portrait of the Dalai Lama (if it’s a yellow sect temple). Low tables flank the corridor to the altar, where monks sit cross-legged on soft cushions reciting their holy mantras. The walls are full of shelves packed with scrolls of holy writings. It’s quite a serene place really, unless you don’t like the incense odour.


After visiting the monastery, we retrace our path back towards Leh.


A truly stony gorge, rockfalls happen all the time, so we need to be on alert always.


Along the way we stop at this quaint village for lunch. That’s the Leh – Srinagar Highway right there, closed in winters, but at peak times you have smokey, noisy express buses and trucks jamming the little place up.


We pass by more stupas, some ancient ones …


… and some newer ones. I wonder what religious relics are embedded inside these things — something from revered monks and nuns.


About 60km west of Leh, we do a brief stop at this 1000-year-old monastery. Called Likir Monastery, it was built to accommodate 500 monks. The temple’s façade is beautifully done, a fine example of Tibetan Buddhism architecture, this one belonging to the yellow sect, headed by the Dalai Lama.


A beautiful, delicate door leads me to the stairs going to the main temple. There is nobody around, and I am all alone. It feels kind of funny.

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The main temple, with a fine façade, founded in the 11th century along a busy trade route between Leh and present-day Pakistan. It must have been a part of the ancient Silk Road too. Goods from China and Tibet, destined for Persia and the Arabian Sea ports, must have come along this way.

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The verandah facing the temple shows the major symbols of Buddhism — note the Eternal Knot we spotted in Leh Palace. I’m still alone, not a soul in sight at this monastery. Where are all the monks?


What an ornate window! Such emphasis on window decorations remind me of the Gothic Manueline-style windows of Portugal. Please google it up. 🙂


I am sure this is a really, really old door. Still not a single monk sighted.


Behind the temple, there’s a huge statue of the Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, who would appear when the world is ending, to right all wrongs. It shares a similar concept to Imam Mahdi in Islam.

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And yes, no monastery worth its salt would live without a valley of its own.

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On the other side of the valley, more stupas accompanying a sacred route to a sacred place somewhere. I haven’t bumped into a single monk yet, but we need to leave.


We make it in time back to Leh, just before sundown. We need a good rest tonight, since tomorrow we are crossing even higher mountain passes for more spectacular Ladakh hinterlands.




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