A month’s melange of memories at Ladakh


Buddha statue at Thikshey monastery. Click for more pics

Time is linear. But the perception of time rarely is.

It’s been exactly one month and one day since I landed here. I never knew one month and one day could fly past so fast.

It seems like yesterday that I landed here, groggily looking at the place after trading a night’s sleep for a window seat in the aircraft. And ever since, I’ve been busy accumulating memories and experiences.

When we first arrived, Leh was still nursing Winter’s hangover. Most shops in the city had their shutters down, and ennui seemed to muzzle any activity here. Over the past month, the city has emerged from its cocoon of sleep as it prepares itself for the coming tourist season. Pavements are lined by vendors selling trinkets to tourists. Displays with masks and local dresses have nudged out downed shutters. Many feet trod the streets now a days, quite of few of them of foreign origin. One now spots more outsiders than locals anywhere. Even the snow on the mountains has receded, seeming as if the mountains are slowly pulling white masks off their faces.

People ask me how the experience over the month has been. I wonder what I should talk about.

Unlike down (which is how the Ladakhis refer to the rest of India), time is not an opponent here. People do not struggle with time, trying to cram in activity into every moment awake and making each instant ready to burst at its seams. One can almost imagine people looking at not the clock, but the calendar, when asked for the time. There are activities to be performed, but people seem to enjoy a leisurely way to do so. It seems as if the populace has taken Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness to heart.

Most people here are Buddhists and have preserved their respect for the religion. One encounters a stupa every few feet on the road. and as per custom, every local dutifully takes pain to pass the stupa by the left, even if it means getting off the road and taking a small round around the stupa. Every village has a few ___, a metal cylinder of seven of more feet height on a vertical spindle that can be rotated, placed in an open concrete shelter, that is inscribed with their sacred chant ‘Om Ma Ne Pad Me Hum…’ and has small wood stubs at the bottom that one can hold and turn the __ around.

And of course, hard to miss anywhere in Leh are the strings of coloured flags that are tied across many structures, specially bridges, as an auspice, each inscribed with sacred chants.

The Dalai Lama is much revered here. People also express a sacred connection with the many Lamas that head the different monasteries or gompas as they are called here. The locals believe that a few important Lamas reincarnate after their demise. A year or two after a Lama has given up his mortal body, people await a kid who comes to the gompa and identifies the previous Lama’s items as his own. Identical items are brought for the kid to choose from, and people say that the true Lama incarnation is able to spot his items without fail. The kid is then ceremonially installed as the next Lama and the senior members of the gompa undertake his education, or as they say, reminding him of what he already knows.

A few days back, it was the birthday of the original Panchen Lama, claimed to have been abducted by the Chinese government. A peace march was organized at night. When I looked out from Shanti Stupa, the lights of the city seemed as if the city itself was on a candlelight vigil to receive the Lama.

Nowadays, the nights are most beautiful. I do not yet understand why, but the curvature of the sky is accentuated here, and the horizon seems to dip behind the mountains, as if it is winding its way to cover the down regions too. It seems as if a huge black cup has been placed overhead with tiny holes punched in randomly from where specks of light show through.

And now, there’s just a week left before we wind up here….one week more before we head towards down.

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.

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