The vast expanse of the blue skies over the sprawling irregularly shaped majestic barren mountains with box-like monasteries clinging on to the edge of the cliffs, the beat of gongs, the rattle of drums, the roll of cymbals and blow of horns, together with unceasingly intense chanting of mantras by the red-robed monks with prayer beads or prayer wheels in hands and the fluttering colourful prayer flags, weave divinity and enigma into the environment. Yes, I am talking of Ladakh, the land of lamas and the land of gompas (Buddhist fortified monasteries). One could write a novel on Ladakh, the kaleidoscope of extremes, with some of the world’s highest passes, gorgeous lakes and white sand dunes in a cold desert. Even in terms of temperatures, instant jump from 30 degrees and scorching sun to subzero and snowfall, in summer, is a common phenomenon. Today let’s have a look at the places to visit in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, India’s Union Territory.
During the tourist season, Leh (11480 feet) is a city bustling with travel agents, tourists on the road, in the hotels, cafes, and souvenir shops. The Leh Bazar is famous for Tibetan artefacts and jewellery, silver trinkets, curio items of ornate brass or copper with studded precious turquoise and yak wool shawls and Kashmiri pashminas. Try Chhurpe (dried yak cheese), salty butter gurgur tea, delicious Tibetan dishes like thukpa, juicy momos or Ladakhi Pulau at the numerous cafes and restaurants. Chhang (fermented barley) must be tried in moderation. The people are simple and friendly, always smiling.
Ladakh is the ultimate enclave of Tantric Buddhism in India. The rustic gompas are the key attractions of Leh. The most important places to visit in Leh fall under the Leh-Hemis Circuit (within 50kms from Leh), which includes Shey, Stok, Thiksey, Stakna and Hemis. Besides this circuit, there are some other monasteries (Matho, Takthok and Chemrey)and interesting places to visit in Leh.
The village is dotted with green patches of the barley field, whitewashed mud houses with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ etched on stone walls, numerous chortens (small stupas) and prayer flags. The Shey Palace stands distinguished in this charming little village, boasting of its glory of being the erstwhile summer capital of Ladakh. The palace has a huge chorten with a spire made of pure gold and a three-storied monastery with a 39 feet tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha made of gilded copper which can be seen from all the levels. One can see the feet from the bottom level where offerings are made and butter lamps are lit, the torso from the mid-level and the head from the topmost level. Brave a small trek through the winding stony path, above the palace, to the ruined bastions of an old fortress and to the wide view of the mesmerising vastness around.
Just outside the palace, there is Dresthang Monastery famous for the age-old wall murals and a two-storey rock carved statue of seated Buddha.
In the Shey village, Sindhu Ghat, the bank of Indus River is a popular site. On Guru Purnima in July, Sidhu Pujan is celebrated with cultural performances and by worshipping the sacred river which originates from the holy Manas Sarovar Lake in Kailash. The adventure seekers should experience river rafting
At Shey, don’t miss Amir Khan or Rancho’s fun school, shown in the Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’, originally called the Druk Padma Karpo (Druk White Lotus) Institute, which gained popularity after the movie and has sprung as one of the significant places to visit in Leh. The school, as we see today, is rebuilt after being completely destroyed by the flash floods due to cloud burst in 2010.
The four-storey Stok Palace and Monastery are near Shey, across the river Indus, against the dramatic stok range. It is a hilltop gompa and marks the starting point of Stok Kangri trek. Stok Kangri (20194 feet) is the highest peak in the Ladakh range. Take your time and soak in the environment, while sipping on to hot smacking coffee at the small cafe outside the palace.
The 13th-century terraced styled gompa is similar to the Patola Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. In fact, Ladakh shares intense cultural and geographical proximity to Tibet. This thirteen storey monastery is among the best places to visit in Leh. The major attraction besides a panoramic view of the Indus Valley from the hilltop is the 49 feet tall, ornate bust of Maitreya Buddha. The golden face of Buddha with precious stone studded crown and jewellery, long earlobes, half-closed eyes and a half-smile is enigmatic. One can stay hours looking at it.
On the bank of Indus, perched on an isolated hill, on the way to Hemis from Thiksey, stands the fourteenth-century monastery, of Bhutanese origin. The view from the top provides a dreamy experience. The age-old statue of Avalokiteswara which was brought from Kamrup, Assam, some ancient sandalwood statues and a new 7 feet high silver chorten are the most valuable possessions of this gompa.
Hemis Monastery is the most popular place to visit in Leh and is famous for the Hemis Festival held in June for which people from all over the world visit the monastery. The Chham dance during the festival is extremely intriguing. It is a mystic mask dance performed by the monks dressed in shiny brocades. This colourful monastic dance depicts driving away from evil forces. This monastery which existed from before the 11th Century was rebuilt in 1672. It houses a museum exhibiting age-old metal sculptures, ancient thankas and scriptures. The life-size image of blue-haired Sakyamuni Buddha, Red Tara and the statue of Guru Padmasambhava is worth mentioning. This imposing fort gompa is the largest and the richest one in entire Ladakh.
Hall of Fame
This museum was constructed and is maintained by the Indian Army in memory of the brave Indian soldiers who laid their lives in the Indo-Pak wars and also to remind us of the harsh life of the jawans at Siachen to ensure our safety and security. It is located on the Leh-Kargil Highway, about 4km from the airport.
It is a sprawling; the eleventh century; nine-storey ancient palace, overlooking the city of Leh and is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Very close to the ancient Leh Palace stands this newly built monument, built by the Japanese in 1991. This monument on the hilltop (500 steps to climb up) has a graceful white and gold structure with an elegant dome, providing a perfectly serene location for observing sunset together with panoramic views of the Himalayas and the Karakoram. From the city of Leh, the Shanty Stupa is seen lit up at night, amidst the numerous twinkling stars in the sky.
See the magic when vehicles parked on neutral appear to move uphill, in defiance of gravity, on a downward gradient. This is Cyclopes Hill with its mystifying layout and surrounding slopes creating an optical illusion.
The confluence of the Indus(Sindh)-Zanskar Rivers at Nimmoo Village is mesmerising. The blue and the murky rivers meet, forming a heart shape at the confluence. The sun and shadow on the rocky terrains and the fluttering colourful prayer flags conjure magic together. This is a must among the places to visit in Leh.
How to reach Leh and other Travel Tips
Even though there are daily flights from the major cities of India to Leh (Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport), journey by road is suggested. Acclimatisation is essential to prevent mountain sickness due to extreme altitude and scarcity of oxygen. Moreover, the journey with breathtaking views across may make one feel, at times, that the journey is better than the destination.
All the monasteries charge an entry fee (Around Rs. 30 for Indians) and a separate entry fee for the museums. Dress in layers as the climate is unpredictable.
Both Srinagar-LehHighway (NH1 – 430kms) via Zozi la Pass and with a night halt at Kargil and Manali-Leh Highway (NH21-470kms) via Rohtang Pass and Sarchu remain open from mid-May to October end. Both the roads provide picturesque views and adventurous thrills. Cars and buses are available.
Julley (Namaste and goodbye in Ladakhi).
A versatile writer and travel freak, discovering the world in her own casual way. Loves to immerse into the core of Mother Nature and extract her inherent beauty.