About Ladakh
Ladakh is a high altitude mountainous region bounded by the Karakoram Range from the north and the Great Himalayas in the south. It is a land that abounds in awesome physical features set in an enormous and spectacular environment. Often described as ‘Moonland’ on account of the unique lunar landscape, Ladakh was an independent mountain kingdom for close to a millennium. Leh, the royal capital, was a major crossroads of Asia and a stopping point on the ancient migration routes of the trans-Himalayas, connecting Central Asia with the Indian sub-continent. From here, the old caravan routes led westward through Kashmir to the Silk roads, northward across the Karakorum Pass to Central Asia, eastward across the Chang-thang highlands to Tibet and China, and southward through present-day Himachal Pradesh to the plains of India.

Many migrants have traveled through the region, some settling on the way, giving a distinctive characteristic to its population - from the west, early Dard settlers and later-day invaders from Baltistan; from the east, Tibetan settlers, invaders and rulers; from the north, traders from Yarkand; and much later, Dogra conquerors from Jammu in the south.

The people who settled here established Ladakh’s centuries-old religious and cultural heritage: the shamanistic Bon-po with roots across the Tien Shen to Southern Siberia’s Attai mountains, and later, Buddhists from Kashmir some five centuries before Buddhism reached Tibet. The 16th century saw the introduction of Islam to the region and 19th century Moravian missionaries brought Christianity.

For centuries, Silk Road caravans and devoted pilgrims passed through this crossroads, endowing the region with a convergence of religious and artistic traditions, which find expression in its monuments, monasteries, festivals, cultural traditions and in the lifestyle of the people. Shielded by the high mountain ramparts, Ladakh remains an unspoiled enclave of Tibetan Buddhism to date.

During the course of its history as an independent kingdom, Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between India and Central Asia. For centuries it was traversed by caravans carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyestuffs, narcotics etc. On this long route, Leh was the midway stop, and developed into a bustling entrepot, its bazaars thronging with merchants from distant countries. In 1834 AD, Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh and gain control of this strategic region in the heart of Asia. As a result of this conquest, Ladakh was incorporated, together with neighbouring Baltistan, into the newly created Kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, the partition of India saw Baltistan becoming part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir.

Land of Festivals: In Ladakh, cultural traditions and ancestral customs are kept alive and vibrant through various festivals and celebrations, both religious and secular. Here, every occasion - marriage, birth, farming and harvesting, even the flowering of plants is celebrated with great fanfare, marked with feasting, dancing and singing of folk songs that form part of its rich culture. In summer, most villages hold archery festivals and thanksgiving events, while winter is the period in which most of the religious festivals and social and cultural events are held.

The festivals held in the monasteries are the ones with which Ladakh is famously associated. Almost all the major Buddhist monasteries hold annual festivals, mostly in winter. These take the form of dance-dramas performed by Lamas, attired in colourful robes and wearing fearsome masks. The most famous festival is that of Hemis which is held in early summer and is dedicated to Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Vjarayana Buddhism. Every 12th years, a huge Thangka of the saint is ritually exhibited during this festival. Other monasteries, which have summer festivals, are Lamayuru, Phyang, Tak-thok and Karsha in Zanskar. The monasteries of Spituk, Stok, Thikse, Chemrey and Matho have their festivals in winter between November and March. Likir and Deskit (Nubra) hold their annual festivals coinciding with Leh Dosmochhe which is held in late February and is one of two New Year festivals, the other being Losar, which falls around the time of the winter solstice.

The core event of the monastic festival is a ritual dance-drama known as ‘Chhams. These are choreographed by the mystic dance master or Chham-spon strictly as per the guidelines described in the dance books (Chhams-yig). The chhams is performed mainly as ritual offerings to the tutelary deities of the monastery and its guardian divinities by selected lamas of the concerned monastery, who are trained as per the codified rituals. They wear elaborate brocade robes and masks representing various divinities. As the ‘Chhams’ approaches its end on the last day of the festival, the climactic scene is enacted in which a grotesque human figure made from dough, is ritually cut into pieces and scattered in the four cardinal directions. This figure symbolizes the embodiment of the three cardinal evils in the human soul viz. ignorance, jealousy and hatred.

The monastic festivals also provide the local people an opportunity for socializing, trading and entertainment. On this occasion, makeshift markets spring up overnight near the monastery to which people throng. For the more devoted villagers, however, the event is essentially a pilgrimage to the monastery and its various temples, for it is during this period only that they can see all the images and figures, which are otherwise kept veiled.

Monuments: The Indus valley from Upshi down to Khalatse is dotted with all the major sites connected with the former kingdom's dynastic history, starting with Leh, the capital since the early 17th century.

About 12 kilometers up the Indus is Shey Palace, the most ancient capital, with its palace and temples. Down river is Basgo Castle , right on the road, and Tingmosgang, a short distance up a side-valley, both served as royal capitals when the Old Kingdom was temporarily divided into two parts in the 15th century. Both these places have the remains of forts and temples dating from the period of their brief glory. Just across the river from Leh is Stok, the village which was granted to the deposed royal family in lieu of the Leh throne. Stok Palace, where the royal family now lives, houses a museum of artifacts associated with the Namgyal dynasty.

Monasteries: There are about 35 Buddhist monasteries or Gompas spread across the entire region. The central area of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Gompas. Of the 13 major monasteries situated on or near the Indus, the oldest is that of Lamayuru, which is believed to have been a sacred site for the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. The monasteries of Phyang, Hemis and Chemrey were all founded under the direct patronage of members of the ruling Namgyal dynasty. Hemis monastery, together with that of Hanle was established at the instance of King Singge Namgyal, while his widow founded Chemrey as a posthumous act of merit for him. Stakna, dating from a slightly earlier period, was endowed by the Namgyal Kings at various times. All these belong to the Red Hat (Kargyu-pa) sect of Tibetan Monastic Order.

The reformist Gelugs-pa, or Yellow-Hat sect, is well represented in central Ladakh in the monsteries of Thiksey, Likir and Ri-dzong besides that of Spituk, and its branch monsteries at Stok, Sabu and Sankar. Ri-dzong, situated up a side-valley from Uley-Tokpo, was founded just about a century and half ago by a devout layman-turned-lama, with the purpose of following the strict monastic rules of the Gelugs-pa sect.

Tak-thok and Matho Gompas represent the smaller but much older Nying-ma-pa and Saskya-pa monastic sects respectively. Tak-thok, situated at the foot of the Chang-la pass, incorporates one of the many caves in the Himalayas where the Indian Buddhist apostle Padmasambhava is said to have rested and meditated on his journey to Tibet. Matho Gompa is famous for its festival of the oracles(Matho Nakrang), which is held usually in March.

Among Ladakh's monastic foundations Alchi holds pride of the place as a repository of a millennium old art heritage. Known as Chos-kor, or religious enclave, it comprises five temples, the richest in paintings and images being the Du-khang (assembly hall) and the three-storey Sum-tsek. The murals dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, pre-date the Tibetan style of painting seen in all the other Gompas of the region. Some of them are presumed to be among the sole survivors of the Buddhist style prevailing in Kashmir during the first millennium AD.

The Ladakh monasteries are repositories of exquisite murals, gilded statues, religious icons, carvings, scrolls etc. built up through the ages. They remain alive with the devotions of monks, young and old. Here it is possible to receive a lama's blessing, consult an astrologer about your future, hear the wail of a horn echoing from the mountain walls, and witness a lifestyle passed down intact through the ages.

Note for visitors to monasteries: The monasteries are the fountainhead of Buddhist religion and culture of Ladakh. Visitors are advised to respect their sanctity and appreciate their heritage importance. Shoes may have to be removed before entering some of the temples, while ladies are not allowed to enter the Gon-Khang,Lhakhang  or the room dedicated to the guardian divinities. Smoking, loud action and improper dress may disturb the tranquil ambience characteristic of such places of worship and therefore unwelcome. Most of the region’s major monasteries are open throughout the day and a caretaker Lama is available to show visitors around. Some of the less visited establishments have special opening hours as in the case of the Namgyal Tsemo, Shey Palace etc. Check the timings in the Tourist Office before proceeding to these places.

Nubra Valley: North of Leh is the Nubra Valley (alt: 2800 mtrs.) nestling along the foothills of the Great Karakoram range and drained by the rivers Nubra and Shayok. The road to Nubra runs across Khardung-la (18,300 ft./5578 M), the highest motorable road in the world. Prominent places to visit here include the capital town of Deskit (118 kms) and, just across the rolling sand dunes, Hundar (125 kms.) which has a small population of double-humped Bactrian camels, a legacy from the Central Asian trade caravans that passed through the valley. North of Deskit, the road leads into the valley of the Nubra River where Sumur (115 kms.) with its picturesque hillside monastery of Samstaling is the main attraction. Further up the valley is Panamik (140 kms.) famous for the hot springs, used as a traditional spa by throngs of local people for curing various ailments to good effect.Turtuk is recently opened for foreigner and domestic  tourist  as well in last July 2010.It is unique Balti culture in Ladakh region.

Dah-Hanu: Down the Indus, between Khalatse and the Shayok-Indus confluence, live a people, known as Drok-pa, who are Buddhists by faith, but racially and culturally distinct from the rest of the Ladakhis. Two of the five villages inhabited by them, Dah and Biama are now open to foreign tourists. The approach to this area follows the Indus down from Khalatse, past the villages of Domkhar, Skurbuchan and Achinathang, along a fairly good road.

The Drok-pa constitutes a small community of Indo-Aryan tribals, who appear to have preserved their racial purity down the centuries. Their culture and religious practices are more like those of the pre-Buddhist animist religion of the Tibetan Plateau, known as Bon-chos. They have preserved the saga of their ancient traditions and way of life partly through the celebration of the triennial Bono-na festival, and partly through the songs and hymns. Their language is derived from archaic Shina, a language still spoken in Gilgit, and by the Shin immigrants now settled in Drass.

Pangong Lake: Pangong Lake, situated at an altitude of 14,500 ft (4,267m) is a long narrow basin of inland drainage, about 6 to 7 kilometers at its widest point, and over 130 kms long, bisected by the international border between India and China. It presents spectacular views of the Chang-chenmo range to the north. Spangmik and a scattering of other tiny villages along the lake's southern shore are the summer homes of a scanty population of nomadic Chang-pa herdsmen. They cultivate sparse crops of barley and peas in summer. But in winter they unfold their yak wool tents called rebo, and take the flocks of sheep and pashmina goats out to the distant pastures.

The approach to Pangong Lake is across the Chang-la pass (18,000 ft / 5,475 m) which is the third highest motorable pass of the world. Tangtse, just beyond the foot of the pass, with guest houses, camping sites and other transit amenities is a convenient halting point on this circuit.

Tso-Moriri Lake Circuit: The area traversed by the Manali-Leh road, containing lake Tsomo-riri and other lakes, is a desolate and extensive region known as Rupshu. It is a landscape quite unlike any other in Ladakh, or elsewhere in India. This area is now open for tourists for visiting along two specified tour circuits Tso-moriri is the most prominent lake of this region. The lakes are breeding grounds for numerous species of birds. Chief among them is the bar-headed goose, found in great numbers on the Tso-moriri, the great crested grebe, the Brahmini duck and the brown-headed gull.

The first tour circuit follows the Manali road over the Taglang-la upto Debring, a Changpa camping place. From here it turns eastward on a rough track along the twin lakes Startsapuk-Tso and the Tso-kar, crosses the Polokongka-la (about 16,500 ft /5,030 m) and descends to Puga valley at Sumdo , then over to the head of Lake Tso-moriri.

The other route into the area follows the the Indus to the village of Chumathang, where there is a hot spring. At Mahe, about 17 km further ahead, the road crosses from the north to the south bank of the river and then follows the Puga stream to join and follow the first circuit to Tsomo-riri via Sumdo.

Korzok, situated at 15,000 ft (4,572 m) with its dozen or so houses and its gompa, is the only permanent settlement in Rupshu, which is otherwise inhabited only by nomadic Chang-pa herdsmen, who live in yak wool tents (rebo) all the year round, moving between the pastures that exist in the region. The few barley-fields at Korzok must be among the highest cultivation in the world. The lakes of Rupsho are breeding grounds for numerous species of birds.

Adventure Tourism: Ladakh offers many challenging options for adventure tourism. Trekking is the main activity and is done during June through September. The 10-day Markha Valley trek is the most popular, while the 18-day trek from Hunuphata  to Darcha (HP) via the Zanskar Valley is the longest and involves crossing of several major mountain ranges including the Zanskar and the Great Himalaya. Many other trekking options are available to suite various time-frames and degree of challenge. The most challenging and unique of these is the week-long winter trek between Leh & Zanskar along the Chaddar formed as a result of the freezing of the Zanskar River.

River Rafting options are aplenty in Ladakh. The Indus is the most popular river for this activity. For the amateur tourist, the stretch of the Indus between Karu and Spituk offers half-day scenic floating amidst beautiful landscape and rural scenery. For white water expeditions, River Zanskar provides the ultimate challenge, comparable to the Colarado river flowing through the Grand Canyon.

Mountaineering is another activity for which Ladakh is very popular. The most popular peaks are those of the Nun-Kun (7135 mtrs.) massif situated in the Suru Valley (90-110 Kms. ex- Kargil). The base camps are easily accessible by road from Kargil. In the Leh, the nearest peaks are in the Stok Khangri massif (6150 mtrs.), which has 5 known peaks. Mountaineering in Ladakh calls for organized expeditions with proper clearance from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), New Delhi and branch office Zangsti Leh.

The Ladakh Environment: Ladakh has a fragile eco-system which sustains, besides the sparse population, some rare fauna and flora which are especially adapted to the peculiar environment. This is aptly described in the document brought out by the WWF (India) under the title “Saving a prized gift” which reads as under:

“For long years, the region had remained relatively isolated and untouched by developments in the world beyond. A unique genetic pool has evolved in the region, specially adapted to the harsh environment. The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 recognizes most of the species found in the region as endangered.”

Among Ladakh’s most important fauna are the: Bactrian Camel, Brown Bear, Ladakhi Urial, Lynx, Red Fox, Siberian Ibex, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Antelope, Tibetan Argali, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Wild Ass, Tibetan Wolf, Wild Dog, and the Wild Yak.

Climate : The Himalayan range bordering the south of Ladakh blocks the monsoon rains, resulting in a stark desert environment. Rainfall in Leh averages a scant 110 mm (4.3 in) per year. In central Ladakh, the lower elevations receive only a small amount of snowfall during the winter, but Zanskar and western Ladakh can receive heavy snows. The high passes are usually closed during the winter due to heavy snow, isolating the various valleys from each other and the rest of the world. Snow can fall in the higher elevations at any time during the year.

In the summer, the daytime temperature in Ladakh rises to a comfortable range in the mid 20’s degree Celsius (75-80 F), but the nighttime temperatures can be cool, particularly at the higher altitudes. In the winter the temperature rarely rises above freezing.