Kingdom of Ice: Ladakh & Zanskar 30

The Himalayan region of Ladakh and Zanskar is home to a network of trekking routes through the eastern half of Indian Kashmir in what used to be the Kingdom of Ladakh, one of those places which somehow manages to achieve the perfect fusion of nature, history and culture. Exploring monasteries, or gompas, and stupas nestled among snow-capped peaks, alpine deserts, glaciers, rivers, lakes and canyons, this is the story of my tour through the mystical highlights of Ladakh and Zanskar, an eclectic, mythical and almost frontier-ish mountain landscape just inside far north India's border with China, which somehow manages to fuse snow, desert and Tibetan Buddhism into one of the world's true magical kingdoms.

Zojila Mountain Pass

Mar 3 2014

Tibetan Buddhism arrived in Ladakh and Zanskar from the other side of the Himalayas in the second century AD, and having left the Kashmiri city of Srinagar after an Air India flight from Delhi my best friend and I arrived in Ladakh in the same way, over the mountain pass of Zojila. All it takes to go from the dusty charm and Islam of Srinagar to the snow-dusted Buddhism of Ladakh and Zanskar is a trek over Zojila Pass and the journey took us from one world to another. Once you arrive in Ladakh, the place seems more Tibetan than Tibet. No two of the region's Buddhist gompas (the tibetan word for monastery) are the same and among the ice and snow of the Western Himalayas each one has its own fascinating tale to reveal. Image Date: 07/17/2012

Lamayuru's "Moonland"

Mar 4 2014

From Zojila, we headed down into the Suru Valley, past the town of Kargil, over Fotu La Pass and eastward along the Leh-Srinagar Highway to Lamayuru. As the road begins winding its way up to Lamayuru, the surrounding terrain begins taking on the form of a set from a Hollywood sci-fi movie. This is Lamayuru's 'Moonland', a naturally eroded and surreal lunar landscape honeycombed with orange and yellow craters in the foothills of Fotu La Pass. Image Credit: Flickr - Vyacheslav Argenberg Image Date: 09/14/2007

Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh

Mar 5 2014

Just under ten miles east of Fotula Pass, Lamayuru Gompa dates back to the tenth century and is known as the 'Eternal Monastery'. Local legend tells of the valley around Lamayuru once being a huge lake which was home to a race of mythical serpents known as Naga. An Indian scholar named Arahat Madhyantika arrived in the tenth century, drove his walking staff into the ground and drained the lake to give Lamayuru its unique moonscape. Today, Lamayuru's gompa complex is home to around 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks. Image Date: 02/16/2011

Mani Stones, Lamayuru Gompa

Mar 6 2014

While not as well preserved as Ladakh's other Buddhist gompas, and lacking their sheer amount of cultural treasure, one of the genuine highlights of Lamayuru Gompa can be found on 'Meditation Hill', just behind the main monastery building. The sides and summit of Meditation Hill are strewn with hundreds of 'Mani', stone or rock tablets inscribed with Tibetan Buddhist prayers and mantras. From Lamayuru, we took the Prikiti La pass, famously touted as the gateway to the Zanskar Valley, as we headed south towards Zangla and Padum. Image Date: 10/03/2014

Tibetan Buddhist Woodblock Scripture, Lamayuru Gompa

Mar 7 2014

Today, Lamayuru's gompa complex is home to around seventy monks and they can still be seen reading and studying scripture of the Drikung Kagyu school of Buddhism. The library, which also functions as a prayer hall for the monks, is thought to be the oldest in Ladakh. Image Date: 03/03/1978

Drang Drung Glacier, Pensi La Pass

Mar 9 2014

After leaving Lamayuru we took the Prikiti La pass, famously touted as the gateway to the Zanskar Valley and headed south towards Ladakh's famous Chadar hiking trail. Southwest of Lamayuru, the frozen river of Drang Drung is Ladakh's third largest glacier. 07/16/2015

Frozen Waterfall on Chadar Trek, Zanskar River

Mar 11 2014

Between November and March each year the Zanskar river freezes over and the vast majority of the surrounding mountain villages become snow-bound and almost inaccessible. Consequently, the usually fast-flowing river becomes a crystal pathway of solid ice known as the Chadar Treak, connecting the villages of the Zanskar Valley to the village of Chilling and the road to Leh, Ladakh's only city. As the river freezes so do its waterfalls, becoming cascades of shimmering ice on the walls of the Zanskar River valley's canyon and this is Ladakh at arguably its most photogenic. Image Date: 02/17/2014

Stupas and Buddhist Prayer Flags, Skio

Mar 14 2014

The tiny villages of Skio and Chilling sit towards the end of the Zanskar River valley and is also two of the main stopping points along the Chadar Trek before you arrive on the Leh Highway. Image Date: 10/08/2012

Goldsmith in Chilling

Mar 15 2014

Chilling is famous throughout Kashmir as a community of artisans, metalworkers and goldsmiths. These craftsmen can trace their lineage back to the Nepalese metalworkers who began arriving in Ladakh in the seventeenth century to build the gigantic copper and gold-plated Buddha statues which can still be seen throughout the region. Today, the metalworkers and artisans of Chilling still produce metal items such as cutlery, tea and chang pots and Buddha statues for use both domestically and in Ladakh's gompas. Image Credit: Robin Bousthead Image Date: 05/26/2011

Indus-Zanskar River Confluence

Mar 16 2014

After leaving Chilling and following the Zanskar River, along the frozen ice of the Chadar Trek in winter or along the canyon path in spring and summer, you arrive at the point where the emerald green of the Zanskar River meets the azure blue of the Indus. From here, you can either head east to the city of Leh or northwest back towards Lamayuru and Kargil. We chose the latter, opting to explore the Tibetan Buddhist gompas of Alchi and Likir. Image Date: 10/26/2013

Alchi Gompa

Mar 18 2014

On the banks of the Indus River, Alchi Gompa is unique among the Tibetan monasteries of Ladakh in that it is the only one to have been built at ground level, as opposed to its counterparts in the region which are all elevated and built on top of hills or on the sides of mountains. The monastery dates back to the tenth century when it was built under the supervision of Rinchen Zangpo, a famous translator of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan, who had received orders from King Yeshe of Tibet to spread the word of Buddhism throughout northern India. Image Credit: Flickr - Steve Hicks Image Date: 07/12/2007

Gold Prayer Wheels, Alchi Gompa

Mar 19 2014

As with all of Ladakh's monasteries, Buddhist prayer wheels or mani wheels, known as 'mani-chos-'khor', can be seen at Alchi Gompa. The prayer wheels at Alchi Gompa are gold plated and set into a wooden frame which runs in a continuous line all the way along the outer walls of the monastery. The prayer wheels are also inscribed with the a Sanskrit Buddhist mantra 'Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ', with 'Om' meaning sacred or holy, 'mai' translating to jewel, 'padme' meaning lotus flower and 'hum' representing the concept of enlightenment. Image Date: 07/14/2010

Buddhist and Hindu Art, Alchi Gompa

Mar 20 2014

Inside Alchi Gompa, another unique feature is the elaborate and immaculately rendered art which adorns the walls of the monastery's Manjushri Temple. The paintings are some of the oldest in Ladakh and whereas the art found in Ladakh's other gompas is strictly Buddhist, the artwork at Alchi Gompa represents both the Buddhist and Hindu kings of ancient Kashmir. In the middle of the shrine room also sits a statue of Tara, a female Bodhisattva who represents liberation and virtue. Image Date: 06/06/2013

Likir Gompa

Mar 22 2014

Just over thirty miles west of Leh, Likir Gompa was founded in 1065 by Lhachen Gyalpo, the fifth king of Ladakh. At the right time of year, usually at the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the snow-capped Himalayan peak rising up behind the monastery seems as if it's been dusted with icing sugar. After the modest and tranquil Lamayuru and Alchi gompas, arriving at Likir Gompa was the first time that we caught a glimpse of how explosively rich and colourful Ladakh's Tibetan Buddhist heritage, culture and history can be. Image Date: 07/05/2015

Maitreya Statue, Likir Gompa

Mar 23 2014

Epitomising Likir Gompa's status as one of Ladakh's most vibrant and rich monasteries, a 75 feet-tall, gold-plated statue of Maitreya, an incarnation of the Buddha representing the future, sits on a colourful platform on the rooftop courtyard. Elsewhere in the monastery, the white, brown and saffron-colorued buildings act as home to Likir's residing monks, a repository for Buddhist manuscripts as well as assembly and ritual halls known as 'Dukhangs'. Image Date: 07/05/2015

Original 'Mani-chos-'khor' Prayer Wheels, Likir Gompa

Mar 24 2014

For all of the vibrant and colourful Buddhist iconography inside the monastery Likir Gompa still holds on to modest and understated beginnings. Almost the polar opposite of the lavish golden 'mani-chos-'khor' prayer wheels in Ladakh's other monasteries, some of the prayer wheels in Likir Gompa's exterior courtyard are left as they were centuries ago, complete with their original Buddhist 'Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ' mantra engravings. Image Date: 01/29/1996

Khardungla Mountain Pass

Mar 26 2014

When we arrived in Leh we immediately headed north along the road and through Khardungla, a mountain pass which links Leh to the Shyok and Nubra valleys, home to the Siachen Glacier and hailed as the highest motorway on earth. In Leh we had picked up an ILP, or 'Inner Line Permit', which travellers and tourists require to cross the mountain pass. After crossing Khardungla we headed east towards the Nubra Valley and the village of Diskit. Image Date: 07/09/2009

Diskit Gompa

Mar 28 2014

The Buddhist gompa in the village of Diskit is Ladakh's largest Tibetan monastery and experts also believe it to be the region's oldest. Sitting at nearly 3200 metres above sea level and directly overlooking the Skyok River, Diskit Gompa was built in the fourteenth century and a set of stone steps leads directly up to the monastery's main prayer hall. Image Date: 06/30/2013

Buddhist Mural at Diskit Gompa

Mar 29 2014

The murals and frescoes at Diskit Gompa were restored in 2009 and as a result, the Buddhist artwork on display at the monastery is some of Ladakh's best. One of Diskit Gompa's main prayer halls features a mural depicting Buddhism's 'Four Heavenly Kings', who also represent the four cardinal directions. From left to right in the mural Virūḍhaka wields a sword, Dhṛtarāṣṭra plays a stringed musical instrument known as a 'pipa', Vaiśravaṇa holds a candle and Virūpākṣa is handling a snake. Image Date: 12/05/2009

Shey Gompa

Mar 30 2014

On the Leh-Manali Road, Shey Palace and Shey Gompa were built in 1655 by a king of Ladakh named Deldan Namgyal. The village of Shey was the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh until the sixteenth century, when the royal family moved to Leh and legend also has it that an artificial lake was constructed just below the palace during Shey's time as the region's capital. Image Date: 04/30/2013

Three-Storey Gold Buddha Statue, Shey Gompa

Mar 31 2014

Directly next to the palace, Shey Gompa is home to a gold-plated statue of Buddha himself. Crafted by the Nepalese goldsmiths of Chilling as well as by copper casters in Leh, the statue sits in the middle of the gompa and covers all three of its floors - the Buddha's head and shoulders are on the third floor, his chest stomach on the second floor and his legs and feet can be seen crossed in the lotus position on the ground floor. Image Date: 08/20/2013

Long Ta Buddhist Prayer Flags, Stok Kangri

Apr 2 2014

At over twenty thousand feet, Stok Kangri is the highest peak in central Ladakh's Stok Mountain Range. The peak is part of Hemis National Park, India's largest protected area which encompasses a total of 4400 square kilometres, and Stok Kangri is also home to a glacier. Multicoloured Buddhist prayer flags, known as Long Ta, mark the northern and southern points of the glacier and local legend has it that the prayers and sutras inscribed on these flags are carried on their way by the cold winds which whistles through the peaks and passes. Image Date: 02/28/2014

Thiksey Gompa

Apr 4 2014

Dating back to the mid-fifteenth century and spread over twelve storeys, Thiksey Gompa is arguably the most lavish of all of Ladakh's monasteries. This becomes clear even as you stand outside the main entrance with the exterior view of the gompa showcasing flashes of virtually everything imaginable about Tibetan Buddhism, including mani stones, gold-tipped stupas, prayer and sutra flags. Thiksey Gompa is even colloquially known as 'Ladakh's Potala', after the fifth Dalai Lama's world famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Image Credit: Flickr - Anoop Image Date: 05/23/2007

Young Monks at Morning Puja, Thiksey Gompa

Apr 5 2014

Thiksey Gompa is home to monks of the Gelug-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and if you can get up early enough, one of the real highlights of any trip to Ladakh is witnessing the morning puja ritual of the monastery's monks. The puja begins at 7am as mantras and sutras are chanted among the ringing of ritual bells. During the morning puja one of Thiksey's younger monks is assigned breakfast duties and prepares butter tea, known as Po Cha, and a Tibetan-style porridge made from barley and wheat flour and called Tsampa. Image Date: 03/28/2012

Murals at Thiksey Gompa

Apr 6 2014

Thiksey Gompa is home to some of the region's most extensive and beautifully painted murals and frescoes. As with almost all of Ladakh's monasteries, the fact that the murals are as old as the buildings themselves means that restoration has been carried out in recent years and some gompas have been restored by professional Indian, Chinese and Tibetan artists. At Thiksey Gompa however, as well as others, the monks take matters into their own hands and touch up the murals of the Bodhisattvas themselves. Image Date: 08/12/2006

Buddhist Sand Mandala, Thiksey Gompa

Apr 7 2014

A mandala is a geometric pattern representing the layers of the cosmos and the universe which plays a central role in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain iconography. In addition to being painted in murals on temple walls all over the Indian subcontinent and the Far East, mandala are also created on temple floors using natural materials such as rice flour and coloured powder. The Tibetan Buddhist monks of Ladakh intricately craft their mandala from multicoloured sand and at Thiksey Gompa they replicate the Yamantaka Mandala, sculpting the pattern using paintbrushes and by lightly blowing the sand through wooden pan pipe-like instruments. Image Date: 09/19/2003

Chemrey Gompa

Apr 9 2014

Originally built in 1664 as a memorial to King Sengge Namgyal, Chemrey Gompa is roughly forty kilometres southeast of Leh in the Changla Valley and marked the last stop on our tour of Ladakh's Buddhist monasteries. Chemrey Gompa sits on a rocky mound surrounded by terraced fields and the pathway up to main entrance is clustered with mani prayer stones as well as white miniature Tibetan Buddhist stupas known as 'chortens'. Image Date: 08/30/2007

Buddhist Scripture at Chemrey Gompa

Apr 11 2014

Chemrey Gompa has long been one of Ladakh's most important centres of Tibetan Buddhist learning and while the region's other monasteries can claim to have larger and more extensive libraries, few can match the auspiciousness of what can be seen at Chemrey. Shielded from the elements and wrapped in saffron-coloured cloth, twenty nine individual volumes of Buddhist holy scripture are stored in the gompa's Du-Khang assembly hall. Each volume is given its own labelled place on the bookshelf and all twenty nine feature silver pages with the holy Sanskrit text engraved in gold. Image Credit: Flickr - Snotch Image Date: 09/15/2007

The Angchok Festival, Chemrey Gompa

Apr 12 2014

Every year, one of Ladakh's most popular festivals takes place at Chemrey Gompa as the Angchok festival is held at the monastery on the 28th and 29th days of the Tibetan lunar calendar, usually during November. The two day event sees local villagers as well as Buddhist monks from Chemrey Gompa coming together as folk dancers dress up in vibrantly-coloured costumes to re-enact eight specific events from the life Padmasambhava, an eighth century Buddhist guru also known as 'The Lotus Born' and who also built Samye Gompa, Tibet's very first Buddhist monastery. Image Date: 09/04/2011

Pangong Tso Lake, Ladakh

Apr 14 2014

At nearly fifteen thousand feet above sea level, Kashmir's largest lake, Pangong Tso, is one of those sights which is genuinely worth making exceptions for and after getting up at 4am, we took a four hour minbus trip from Leh to see it. Pangong Tso spans 700 square kilometres and its name means 'High Grassland Lake' in Tibetan. Despite its saltwater, the lake freezes completely during Ladakh's winters and the day before leaving northern India's ancient Buddhist kingdom of snow and ice, Pangong Tso was our last stop before flying back down to Delhi. Image Date: 07/14/2010

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