by Charukesi Ramadurai
- India -
High in the north Indian state of Kashmir sits Ladakh, held by many as the last bastion of Himalayan Buddhism. Since Tibet is out of bounds for most tourists, Ladakh now attracts travelers and spiritual seekers who come for glimpses of a traditional Buddhist way of life; even seasoned travelers go so far as to describe it as the last Shangri La.
It is true that Kashmir is a war-torn region, however, the turmoil does not touch Ladakh, a good 280 miles from the capital city of Srinagar. Nor are there any foreign invaders intent upon destroying Buddhism to establish their own faith.
Today, the (perceived) threat to Ladakhi Buddhism is from a different kind of invasion - globalization - brought by travelers and their notions of modernity that invariably spread along with them. And with this comes concerns about the erosion of a faith and way of life that is centuries old.
• Such large prayer wheels, known locally as mani wheels are seen at the entrance of all Buddhist temples and monasteries. These wheels have the primary Buddhist mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" engraved on them and rotating them is considered the equivalent of reciting the prayers. At right, young monks in training break out into a prayer song during morning prayers at the Thiksey monastery, one of the largest of the Gelugkpa sect.
All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
Ladakh derives its meaning from La-Dags or “land of high passes”. As early as 1 A.D. Ladkah was an important trading post on the ancient silk route, hosting traders from both the West and East. Buddhism is said to have come into Western Ladakh via Kashmir in the 2nd century A.D. during the reign of the Kushan dynasty and spread later in the 8th century A.D. from Tibet. Soon, there was a well-established Buddhist kingdom in Leh, Ladakh, extending all the way to Lhasa, Tibet, some 850 miles away.
• Prayers and rituals are an integral part of monastic life – at left, a group of senior monks are in prayer early in the morning at the Thiksey monastery. At right is the 15-meter-high statue at the Thiksey monastery of Maitreya,
held to be the future Buddha. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
The first monastery in Ladakh was set up by Indian pilgrim Mahasiddha Naropa in the 10th century at Lamayuru, where it still sits unperturbed in the desolate moonscape scenery surrounding it.
• The Lamayuru monastery is one of the oldest in Ladakh and sits in solitary splendor amidst the moonscape scenery of West Ladakh in the Kargil district. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
Today, over 50% of Ladakh is Buddhist; only the small, self-contained Brokpa tribe in Ladakh practice Bonism (a faith pre-dating Buddhism in Ladakh) while Islam is followed by most in Western Ladakh.
• A chorten or stupa (top) in Ladakh is a holy structure with three parts – a square bottom, a circular center and a conical top. Stupas are usually seen on the paths approaching a monastery or the area around them and are believed to ward off evil spirits. The inner walls of monasteries are covered with paintings of the Buddha (bottom), the Bodhisattvas (incarnations of Buddha) and other good and evil icons of Buddhism – these murals are usually rich in vivid color and detail, managing to survive the assault of time. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
Different sects flourished under the Buddhist kings until the Gelugkpa (Yellow Hat) order, introduced by the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa in the 14th century, became the dominant path. Towards the 16th century, Ladakh fell to the Muslim invaders from the West but Buddhism nonetheless managed to survive and eventually thrive through these battles. It further flourished under the Namgyal dynasty established by Singge Namgyal in the late 16th century. And although the Drukpa (Red Hat) order gained prominence under the Namgyal kings, Ladhaki Buddhists still venerate the Dalai Lama of Tibet (of the Gelugkpa order) as their spiritual leader.
• A mandala is a symbolic representation of the Universe according to Buddhist iconography. Here at Phyong monastery, four monks are at work on a mandala, as part of their training since it is believed to aid in meditation and concentration. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
However, in my travels in Ladakh, I see no signs that validate concerns of a disappearing way of life; traditional Buddhist customs are very much an integral part of daily life. Though the trappings of modernity are visible everywhere, especially in Leh - mobile phones, internet cafes and young men in jeans - all across Ladakh, in the markets, villages and remote areas, people walk about in traditional costumes with prayer wheels in hand and smiles on their faces.
• The temple complex at Alchi (left) is one of the oldest in Ladakh and home to some of the finest paintings in the Indian (Kashmiri) style – the frescoes and murals on the inside walls of the main monastery are believed to be over 1,000 years old. Apart from prayer wheels, rosaries made of 108 beads (japamala) are also seen in the hands of Buddhists (right) who use it as counting aids as they recite mantras (prayers) in the course of other work. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai. •
Up here, the high altitude lakes blow biting cold winds throughout the year. Monasteries and stupas serve as living museums of the faith, with their rich collection of frescoes and murals, prayer artifacts, texts and idols.
Up here, Ladkahi Buddhism is alive and thriving.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India. She has a degree in Social Research Methods and is particularly interested in exploring alternative research methods and in research aimed at socioeconomic development.
After years of working as a market and social researcher, she discovered a new passion in photography. She now juggles research with travel, writing and photography. Her articles and photographs have appeared in several newspapers and magazines in India including Hindustan Times, Mint, Himal, Windows & Aisles, India Today Travel Plus and Forbes India.