Ladakh (Buddhist Pilgrimages )

Ladakh The history of Ladakh has been a rich and eventful one, proving considerably traceable all the way till the very beginning. Ladakh has also been particularly gifted in the sense of aesthetic appeal; it lies in the Indus Valley, the splendour of the Himalayas and their mystic reverence surrounding it on all sides. The population of Ladakh is largely made up of Buddhists and Muslims, the majority too close to call in terms of the number of patrons on either side, and so the division is often left at a neat 50-50 ratio. The cultural value residing within the land known as Ladakh is hard to estimate precisely, immense and turbulent as it has evolved to become. Tangible proof still in the state to provide testimony to this fact includes monasteries, literature, folk tales, and festivals to mark the celebration of every event one could possibly imagine celebrating, and then a few.

Ladakh is located in the northern most state in the country of India, which is Jammu and Kashmir. Since most of the region is located above 11000 feet, the winters get extremely cold and dry, the coldest in the entire country in fact, while the summers may be called mild, although they require adequate protective measures just as much. The best time to visit Ladakh would be during the months of June and September, when the weather is most complementary to touristic exploration and activity. The languages spoken in Ladakh include regional dialects such as Ladakhi and Shamskat, both of which are very similar to the Tibetan language, along with English.

The land that surrounds Ladakh perhaps may shed some light on its turbulent history and the events that transpired in it. Its neighbour to the east, Tibet, has now been a controversial and disputed land for a few decades now, but its history is no less chaotic than its present. Towards the north of Ladakh lies the Xinjiang province of China, another area marked by and to some extent resultant of conflict in the past, and to some extent, even today. Towards the northwest of Ladakh is Pakistan, a direct consequence of conflict, and shaped by violence thenceforth. Kashmir lies to the west of Ladakh, and the Smiti Valley, part of the mighty Himalayas lies to its south. Despite its remoteness, the location of Ladakh has always been a fateful one, lying en route to many essential trade routes since its early days. The first European visitors to the land were Portuguese Saints Francesco de Avezioli, and John de Oliviera, priests of Christianity, who arrived here in the 1630s. Since the first efforts at documenting the history of the land in a modern context were made by colonial historians, there were many terms and liberties adopted and taken with the process that have made retracing the original truths very hard and almost impossible. It is generally believed that as Buddhism started growing in the 3rd century BCE, it started travelling through the country, and by the end of the third century, as the popularity of the faith moved to the neighbouring countries, it simultaneously started to secede from the graces of the masses within the country.

By the seventh century, when it was almost extinct in India, the faith and its patronage could be observed to have made another eastward sweep, or perhaps more accurately, an eastward leap, moving into the main lands of China and Tibet. At the same time, local populations near this area had been displaced by Tibetan Tuba kings, and as a result, with the Buddhist philosophy gaining frenzy on one side, the displaced folk eventually ended up migrating westward, overthrowing the area that is Ladakh and its neighbouring areas, inflicting almost as much damage as that which they were in the course of fleeing from when they reached Ladakh. Under king Detsen, in or around 791, the first Buddhist monastic order was established in Ladakh. Gautama Padmasambhava, the second Buddha, travelled extensively through the Himalayas in what would today be the territories of Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and more, and was responsible to a great extent for the firm establishment of Buddhism in these regions. Perhaps the best proof of the presence of a major Buddhist sect in Ladakh are the rock reliefs found here, with carvings of the Buddha and other architecture intrinsic of the sites where Buddhism truly made a mark. These have been dated back to the 8th century, and hence, have been linked to the King Lalitaditya, who had briefly managed to unite the Ladakh area and had in fact gone as far as to sanction the best artisans and workers from the subcontinent to help erect glorious Buddhist monasteries. Sadly, though, what could have proven to be a gold mine in terms of the history and development of Buddhism was, simultaneously, along with the building efforts, being destroyed. The most influential political or military force in Central Asia at the time was the Tibetans who were currently raiding lands in all directions. Ladakh too, among many other lands, fell prey to the said raids, and since the Tibetans were still at least a century away from taking note of Buddhism, on a large enough scale for it to amount to a consequential change, anyway, the efforts being undertaken in and around Ladakh for the erection of great Buddhist monuments were all laid to waste by the raiding tyrants.

After this, Buddhism continued to decline in the region. Tyranny was followed by unfavourable rulers, and these persecuted the Buddhist faith and its followers far and wide, central Tibet being the epicentre of the discrimination. This resulted in large scale destruction of Buddhist art and architecture, and the general air around the region was obviously very hostile to the Buddhist practice. As a result, the great Indian teachers who had helped it gain popularity and perspective in this area no longer came this way. It appears, there was still an abundance of literature and information on the Buddhist faith, but no teachers to interpret these for the disciples who tried, in vain and clueless, to piece together the meanings of these texts.

Around the 900s, there lived a king by the name of Yeshe Od, who again took great measures to revive and restore the popularity of the Buddhist faith in the region. He invited the foremost teachers from the subcontinent to “purify the Dharma”, which he felt had been polluted by the course of history and its generals. Under his sanction, there were built a total of perhaps 108 monasteries in the plateau, and it just so happened that this event coincided with the increased hostility expressed by the Muslim rulers pressing in on them causing massive numbers of Buddhist refugees to flock to the region. This fact undeniably contributed immensely to the prudent and much more substantial revival of Buddhism.

The Buddhist faith and practice stayed and flourished over the next several centuries. In 1834, upon being invaded by Hindu Dogras, Ladakh became a tributary of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

How To Reach || Major Attractions || Nearby Place
Shey Gonpa and Palace || Thinksey Gonpa || Thinksey Gonpa || Matho monastery || Lamayuru monastery

Tourist Attraction in Ladakh
Once in Ladakh, it is easy for one to glean from the general tranquillity of the environment that it is a land where Buddhism has been around since what may as well be forever. There are a lot of places that may catch one’s fancy, there are a total of 37 monasteries among innumerable other places of interest that never fail to impress, of course, some of these may be subject to an individual’s inclination. Some of these include:

Shey Gonpa and Palace: the palace was built by King Delden, the first legitimate king of Ladakh, in 1655. From the palace structure that survives, one can see the remains of hundreds of stupas built around the site over the years. There sits inside the palace a statue of Gautama Buddha that is almost four storeys tall and made of copper guilt, built under the patronage of the king. The Shey Gonpa and Palace are located approximately 17 km to the south of Ladakh.

Thinksey Gonpa: located in central Ladakh, this is a monastery that features a twelve storey building complex, a nunnery, and the most recent addition, a Maitreya temple installed in 1970. The complex houses many Buddhist artefacts that may be of tourist interest, such as statues, stupas, and Thangka paintings. The temple boasts a forty nine feet statue of the Buddha.

Matho monastery: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery built around five hundred years ago by the Saskya Monastic Establishment. The monastery also plays host to the Matho Nagrang Festival, an annual celebration that takes place in March. Located in the prime of the Indus valley, this monastery proves great to seekers of knowledge about the faith and its philosophies.

Lamayuru monastery: one of the oldest monasteries still surviving in Ladakh, the Lamayuru monastery sits at an altitude of 3,510 m, since the 11th century. It is said to have been built on the site of a lake which withdrew of its own accord and solely to facilitate the building of this monastery. There are many legends linked to the monastery, and one can also find an exquisite collection of paintings, Thangkas, and other Buddhist artefacts.

Nearby Place:
Kashmir: around 400 km away, Kashmir is the home of many magnificent sights and spectacular landscape. One can find the famous Mughal Gardens here. Kashmir is also one of the sites of great reverence to the Buddhist faith, having played a vital yet turbulent role during the formative history of the philosophy.

Kaushambhi: situated roughly 1600 km away, Kaushambhi is a place where the lord Gautama Buddha spent several years of his life, and where he delivered several sermons. There is also an Ashokan Pillar built by the emperor to commemorate the reverence of the site.

Vaishali: Vaishali is a place where the Buddha spent a lot of his time throughout the course of his life. He spent the first five years of his life outside of princely luxury here, and continued to frequent it throughout his life. It also happens to be the place where he announced his impending departure from his human form, within a window of three months. Here one can find the best preserved specimen of the many Ashokan Pillars built throughout the country during the emperor’s reign, and the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, the tallest one of its kind. Vaishali is located roughly 1000 km away from Ladakh.

How to Reach Ladakh

Airways - the closest airport would beat Leh, which roughly at a distance of 7km from the city main. From here, one has the option of cabs and buses for the rest of the way. Other options in terms of airports include the Jammu airport and the Srinagar airport, both lying at an approximate distance of about 400 km. There are taxi, bus, and minivan options available for touristic commute from here as well.

Railways - given the geography of the landscape, it is understandable that the nearest railway station is located approximately 740 km away, in Jammu, namely, the Jammu Tawri station.

Roadways - the roadways are maintained by the J and L SRTC, and are fairly reliable, weather conditions always proving to be a variable. June through December there is generally plenty of traffic flow without any restriction, with plenty of tourists choosing road travel from Srinagar or Delhi to Ladakh, but sometimes the roads have to be closed due to landslides or other unfavourable conditions. The distance between Delhi and Ladakh by road is roughly 1000 km. Also, once in Ladakh, the cheapest way to travel by road is buses, which have fixed schedules, but there is also the option of private taxis.

Buddhist Tourist Pilgrimage in India

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