- GENERAL INFORMATION
LADAKH , which means “ Land of High Passes “ is at the extreme northern end of India, in an area known as Trans Himalayan region. Dominated by the Zanskar, Ladakh and Stok ranges, this marks the boundary between the Western Himalayas and the vast Tibetan Plateau.
The Karakoram Range, which boasts the second highest mountain in the world ( K2) forms the Northern border. The majestic snow caped Himalayas ,including Nun (23400ft/ 7125m) and Kun ( 23,250 ft / 7087m) that are the highest peaks in the Kashmir Himalayas form the Southern border . The Tibetan Plateau stretches out to the East with the Kashmir valley lying on the Western border.
Even the “low” lands in the valleys of the region are all at around 10,000ft/ 3050m altitude !!
Traversing at these heights, the pristine, snow clad peaks do not appear to tower over you as they do in the other parts of the Himalayas as you are at almost half their height already even though in a valley !!
The sheer expanse of the landscape, the same incredibly blue skies that typify Central Asia , the crystalline atmosphere and the sheer dignity of the environment brings to mind a Master artist at work and is a humbling experience for us mere mortals.
What sets the region apart is that there is very little rainfall , under 100mm annually which is what the Sahara Desert receives. In fact Ladakh is classified as Mountain desert.
Ladakh is isolated from the sub subcontinent’s general climatic pattern by virtue of the mountain ranges that encircle it . Humidity is always low and the avg rainfall is under 10cm annually.
Heavy winter snowfall and a bright strong sun in the summer is what the Ladakhis pray for, as snowmelt off the glaciers is the main source of water for irrigation.
Summer temperatures rarely exceed 25 degrees in Leh but the rarified atmosphere considerably enhances the sun’s intensity. From May, the days are warm and pleasant but nights, even in Leh can get quite cold.
- LADAKH DURING WINTER
The scenes that Ladakh offers during summers and winters are at two ends of the spectrum, and they simply cannot be compared. The mud-brown mountains, blue lakes, rivers and the colourful vegetation that one might savour during summer are buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow during winter. The highlands of Ladakh go through an amazing transformation as the temperature begins dipping in the cold days of the winter. The earth appears in a bridal white, with endless expanse of soft snow dominating the landscape. In peak winters the temperature in Ladakh goes down to – 30 Degree Celsius in Leh and Kargil and – 50 Degree Celsius in Dras. Temperatures remain in minus for almost 3 months from December to the month of February. But on clear sunny days it can become very hot and one can get sun burnt. It is possible to tread through these extreme weathers with a good, high quality cover of warmth from head to toe.
With its predominantly black and white landscape, snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, rivers and tree skeletons alongside winding roads, Ladakh in winter becomes a photographer’s canvas The famous Pangong Lake freezes completely, on which you can happily walk over. The rivers too are now flowing hidden under a thick cover of ice in which trapped air bubbles form beautiful patterns. A fascinating world of ice opens up to you near the streams, where drops of water trickle down from hanging bunch of icicles. For a photography enthusiast and mountain lover, opportunities are unlimited.
During winter, all roads that connect Ladakh to the rest of the country are blocked due to heavy snowfall. All activities reduce to a bare minimum at this time of the year and a strange sense of solitude and silence takes over the entire region, as people spend most of their time indoors to keep warm from the vicious cold outside. Even the locals seem to have disappeared as many of them have gone on pilgrimages to various religious cities in and outside India. For those that remain it is the time to renew friendships, prepare for weddings, and celebrate. Old Town, being the former residence of the royal family, was where many festivals and events took place. These ranged from small community gatherings to more complex ones, involving elaborate religious ceremonies, , music and dance performances, sport competitions like archery, polo, Ice Hockey etc.
- AGRICULTURE & ECONOMY
The cropping season lasts from May to September, with double cropping only in a few areas.The principal cereal crops are Barley and Wheat .Cultivation is generally restricted to areas around streams and rivers.
The Baltis are particularly well known for their expertise in cutting irrigation channels, even through hard granite , to channelise the summer snow melt to the fields. They plant Poplar or willow trees along the banks to protect these channels.
It is remarkable that the average one-hectare of carefully tended land holding has not been allowed to fragment over generations as it has in other parts of the country. A strict system of inheritance is followed where the eldest son gets the land; the second son usually becomes a monk with any others going into service or trade. While traditional overland trade declined substantially, Tourism and spending by the large number of military personnel stationed here, has contributed to the growing local economy.
- FLORA & FAUNA
A total of 225 species of birds have been recorded in Ladakh. The most prominent being the Brown headed Gull, Hoopoe, Black necked crane, the Golden eagle, francolins, many species of Robins and redstarts.
The commonly found though rarely sighted animals in Ladakh are the Bharal (blue sheep), the Asiatic Ibex, the Ladakhi Urial ( a type of mountain sheep) , the Tibetan Wild Ass (kiang) , the Tibetan Sand fox, hares besides the Marmots and the Snow Leopard.
The Poplar and willow are the most commonly seen trees lining the roads in Ladakh. They are used not only in construction of houses (for providing Insulation) but also in making the lovely artifacts found in the market.
- RIVERS IN LADAKH
The Indus is the most important river in Ladakh, originating in the Mansarovar Lake in Tibet. It enters the Himalayan range in south east Ladakh. The overall length of the river is 1,980 miles or 3,180 km.
The Zanskar River is a north-flowing tributary of the Indus. The Zanskar has two main branches. First of these, the Doda, which flows south-eastwards towards Padum. The second branch is formed by Kargyag river and Tsarap river known as the Lungnak or Tsarap river. The Lungnak river unites with the Doda river to form the main Zanskar river. This river then takes a north-eastern course through the dramatic Zanskar Gorge until it joins the Indus near Nimmu in Ladakh.
The Suru River is a tributary of the Indus River and flows in the Kargil District. It originates in the Penzila River near the Drang Drung Glacier of Zanskar area.
The Dras River is a branch of the Suru River. The source of the river lies at the Machoi glacier, which is close to the Zojila Pass
The Nubra River is a branch of the Shyok River. It runs across the Nubra area.
This river runs across the northern areas of Ladakh and some parts of Pakistan for approximately 340 miles or 550 km. It is a major branch of the Indus River. The source of the Shyok River is the Rimo glacier.
Almost the entire population followed the Buddhist faith till the 16th century. At this stage the influence of the Kashmiri Muslim rulers made its presence felt and a large chunk of the population living in and around the Kargil region converted to Islam.
Ladakh is divided into 2 districts for administrative reasons: Leh and Kargil.
While in Leh 90% of the population is Buddhist, in the Kargil district 90% is Muslim.
- THE DALAI LAMA
The institution of the Dalai Lama is regarded as one equivalent to the Political Head of State of the Tibetan people as well as the Spiritual Leader of the Gelugpa Buddhists.
He is considered to be one of a succession of 14 maifestations, through reincarnation, of the Boddisattava “ Avalokiteshwara “ . This Buddha is considered to be the patron deity of Tibet.
Dalai is Mongolian for Ocean , while lama is Tibetan for teacher and the title is translated as “ Great Ocean of Wisdom “
The current Dalai Lama was enthroned in Lhasa in 1940 at the tender age of 5. The nationalist government of China fell to the Communist led by Mao Tse Tung while he was still a teenager. In 1950 the Chinese invaded Tibet. Fearing for his life and the future of Buddhism the Lama escaped and sought asylum in India. He was followed by 80,000 of his followers, Tibetan refugees who were welcomed here and later settled in various parts of the country.
The Dalai Lama was provided land in Dharamsala (H.P) and this is the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. His Holiness was the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1989.
An important difference noticed in the Ladakhi Buddhist society is that lamas are not solely confined to priesthood but also work as teachers, doctors and astrologers. Nearly every family has a member who chooses to be a Lama.
Boys enter monasteries at the age of four and don their red robes which they wear through their lives.
- MONASTERY (GOMPAS)
The Gompa or “solitary place” is a building where monks can isolate themselves from the world to further their meditative process. Gompas are therefore built in remote locations.
According to the scriptural couplet, the Gompa should be built with its back to a hill face and the front facing a water body.The approach to a Gompa is lined with rows of fluttering prayer flags, gleaming white Chortens and Mani walls.
People choose Mani stone preferably unusual and beautiful ones and etch them in Graceful calligraphy with mantras – the most common being “Om Mane Padme Hume “(Hail the jewel in the Lotus)
The stones are piled on each other and local belief holds that picking and carrying away one of these offerings of prayer brings bad Luck.Depending on the time of the day, the Gompa can be bee hive of activity but the overall aura is one of peace and tranquility.
In ancient times, Chortens (Tibetan for Stupa) were built as relic holders but are now mainly built in honour of the Living Buddha or Boddhisattavas.
Chortens are shaped to symbolize the five elements of nature: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether- which is the medium that the body converts to after Death.
The rectangular base represents the earth, the next somewhat circular one being water, the conical section symbolizes fire, topped by a crescent representing Air, with the Oval right at the top being Ether.
- PRAYER FLAGS
The flags are often white in colour representing purity of thought and are supposed to carry the prayer of the faithful on the wings of wind.
Made of strips of cloth in Oblong, rectangular or triangular shape with Holy inscriptions and lucky signs printed on them, these prayer flags are of 4 types.
Those for luck are long, narrow and oblong shaped Victory banners and have a substantial amount of text on them. Whereas others bear the symbol of the
Dorje (Thunderbolt). The ‘Wind Horse “flags depict a Horse with a Jewel on its back.
Prayer Wheels have Holy Mantras inscribed on them and rotating them brings a feeling of peace and tranquility besides good luck.
- EIGHT AUSPICIOUS SIGNS OF BUDDHISM
Right-coiled White Conch
The white conch which coils to the right symbolizes the deep, far-reaching and melodious sound of the Dharma teachings, which being appropriate to different natures, predispositions and aspirations of disciples, awakens them from the deep slumber of ignorance and urges them to accomplish their own and others’ welfare.
The precious umbrella symbolizes the wholesome activity of preserving beings from illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth in this life and all kinds of temporary and enduring sufferings of the three lower realms, and the realms of men and gods in future lives. It also represents the enjoyment of a feast of benefit under its cool shade.
The victory banner symbolizes the victory of the activities of one’s own and others body, speech and mind over obstacles and negativities. It also stands for the complete victory of the Buddhist Doctrine over all harmful and destructive forces.
Golden Fish Pair
The golden fish symbolizes the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water.
The golden wheel symbolizes the auspiciousness of the turning of the precious wheel of Buddha’s doctrine, both in its teachings and realizations, in all realms and at all times, enabling beings to experience the joy of wholesome deeds and liberation.
The auspicious drawing symbolizes the mutual dependence of religious doctrine and secular affairs. Similarly, it represents the union of wisdom and method, the inseparability of emptiness and dependent arising at the time of path, and finally, at the time of enlightenment, the complete union of wisdom and great compassion.
The lotus flower symbolizes the complete purification of the defilements of the body, speech and mind, and the full blossoming of wholesome deeds in blissful liberation.
Vase of Treasure
The treasure vase symbolizes an endless reign of long life, wealth and prosperity and all the benefits of this world and liberation.
- BORDER ROADS ORGANISATION
The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) maintains roads that serve the borders areas of India. It is staffed with a combination of Border Roads Engineering Service officers,Administrative officers, Medical Officers and Hindi Officers from the General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF)
It undertakes projects in India and friendly countries. These projects typically include developing roads, bridges, and airfields in hostile environments shunned by private enterprises, whether due to security concerns related to hostilities, or because of environmental challenges.
Himank is a project of the (BRO) in Ladakh that started in August 1985.Himank is responsible for the construction and maintenance of roads and related infrastructure the region. Himank’s work ensures access to sensitive military areas including the world’s highest battle-ground at the Siachen Glacier and Pangong Tso Lake whose waters span the de facto India-China border. Nicknamed “The Mountain Tamers”, Himank’s personnel battling tough terrain and extreme climatic conditions and are constrained in most areas to work within a short working season of four months as roads get blocked by heavy snow and extreme cold temperatures. Between 1987 and 2002 at least 124 Himank personnel were killed while on duty in Ladakh including five officers.
Project Vijayak has now taken over the Road Construction work in Ladakh.
It is working under the Aegis of Project Beacon which looks after the maintenance of the Srinagar – Sonamarg- Drass – Kargil stretch.