Strategically located on the Old Silk Route, the caravan town of Leh has over the centuries developed into a major entrepôt giving it a very cosmopolitan air. A walk through Leh almost feels like arriving back in time to a Central Asian capital, with a mixed racial composition of its inhabitants providing a cultural experience like no other.
Sometimes I wonder, why I want to revisit places even when I’ve spent lots of time exploring the same. This post is a summary of multiple visits to Leh; in the summer and in the winters.
A version of this article was published as the Cover Story in Air Vistara in-flight magazine, March 2017.
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In the 1920s and 1930s, Leh’s bustling tree-lined bazaar was one of the busiest markets on the Silk Route. In present times, Leh is a traveller friendly town that has all tricks up its sleeve, from curio shops selling antique things to new age rock performances during the celebration of the festivals.
The rarified air of 3400m in Leh makes the visitor light headed due to less oxygen and gives the visitor ample scope to slow travel the streets filled with red robed lamas. Pilgrims murmur ‘om mane padme hum’ and rotate the prayer wheels that are spread across Leh town. It has been called ‘The last Shangri La’ on many occasions and is popularly known as ‘Little Tibet.’
I’ve been quite lucky to be inadvertently at the right time of the festivals and went crazy clicking so many photographs of my first time at the masked dances!
Leh’s skyline is dominated by the nine storey Tibetan style Leh Palace & Castle Tsemo, while business continues as usual in the bazaars of the medieval looking streets. The summer brings a frenzy of polo competitions while the bone chilling winters have the kids playing ice hockey in the various ponds around Leh. It is indeed a land of extremes!
Ladakh celebrates a number of festivals. The mundane daily life is filled with folk-songs that are rich in symbolism and imagery. Ladakhis love their music and dance and are known to chug huge quantities of Chhang (barley beer) in celebrating their festivals.
Most local festivals and masked dances at monasteries take place in the winter months of January and February. Winters in Leh are very different from the bustling summer months, there are hardly any tourists, and most shops selling pashmina shawls are locked.
Some of the famous chaams (dance festivals) around Leh are at Matho Monastery (Feb to March), Spituk Monastery (mid-Jan), Thiksey Monastery(late Oct to mid-Nov) and Hemis Monastery (June-July). While the visitor may think of the dances as slow and monotonous, in reality there are small nuances and steps which apply a show of grace to the performance – and therein lies the beauty of attending a masked dance performance in Leh.
Among the major festivals celebrated in Leh are :
Losar (Also called the Ladakhi new year) : Celebrations in Leh are held at the Chokhang Vihara which is located on the recently cobbled ‘mall road’. Happy Losar placards are hung across Leh and it is a time for frenzied celebrations across Ladakh. Losar results in a mélange of events, with ancient rituals and traditional performances dominating the proceedings. The festival is celebrated for three-four days with much pomp and splendour.
Announcements are made during Losar celebrations in Leh declaring official new year holidays across Ladakh. A huge crowd gathers in the Choking Vihara to join in the festivities. There are slow dances with graceful movements, men and women wear different costumes representing the many regions of Ladakh. Everyone greets each other with presents and ‘khataks’ (scarf of white colour).
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There is an interesting anecdote regarding Losar. Historically, the Buddhist festival of Losar is celebrated at the end of February. But the Ladakhi Losar is celebrated in the end of December.
The story goes : ‘In the late 16th Century, King Jamyang Namgyal was to lead an expedition against Balti forces in winter. The royal astrologers and oracles advised him that any expedition into enemy territory before the New Year would be disastrous. Thus, to solve the problem amicably the King preponed the date of Losar celebrations by two months and the tradition continues even today!’
Dosmoche (Also known as the Leh winter festival) : In old times, the royalty of Leh would gather on the roof of Leh Palace to celebrate Dosmoche with songs, dance and music. Dosmoche festival is said to have been started by Ladakhi Kings on the pattern of the popular Mon-Lam meaning ‘Great Prayer’ ceremony of Lhasa. The rituals of Dosmoche are tantric in nature and are performed by monks of various monasteries while the masked dances are held in the courtyard of Leh Palace. Dosmoche is usually held in the second half of February.
Dosmoche heralds the end of winter in Ladakh and like always, Ladakhis love their chhang and dance. During this 2-3 day festival, people from all corners of Ladakh visit Leh to take part in the celebrations and games like tambola and lotteries are organised. They are dressed in traditional finery and Dosmoche gives them a chance to meet their far off relatives too.
The Ladakh Festival (Celebrated in September) is a popular event, held principally in Leh. It features archery contests, polo matches, traditional Ladakhi dances in local costumes, and showcases double humped bactrian camels from Nubra. The masked lama dances (Chaam dances) are quite an attraction too. There is a lot of colour and gaiety in the atmosphere, the festival also showcases the depth & incredible array of Ladakh’s centuries old culture. The Ladakh festival is designed to coincide with the tourist season and is a great opportunity for tourists to see Ladakh’s cultural fineries in the comfort of Leh.
Saga Dawa Festival : Celebration of the life of Buddha from his birth to attainment of nirvana, begins in May and continues for almost one month. Prayers are held in Leh and locals practise his teachings in the Buddhist heartland.
Going back in time – Local life in Leh
Apart from the festivals of Leh – a walk around the old part near the Jama Masjid is a wonderful idea to get acquainted with the culture and old world charm of this lovely town.
There is an entire lane filled with tea shops where locals congregate to have tea of various kinds, there’s Ladakhi butter tea, Kashmiri nun chai (pink tea with salt), normal tea and breads and bakes of various kinds. Take the left turn after the mall road ends and walk towards the polo ground to reach here.
Trade is an integral part of life in Leh and near the circular pavement outside the mall road is a lovely example of the same. Wrinkled old women and men sit with a range of local products and dry fruits to be sold. There are the said ‘Aryans’ from Dah Hanu with their elaborate headgear, while wizened old men from Yapola valley come to sell apricot oil. They are always happy to share stories with the travellers and its fun to interact with them! Plus, they give valuable local insight about little known places.
Food and cuisine tells a lot about the culture and traditions of a place. For centuries, Ladakh has been a self sufficient kingdom – they grow all that they consume and a surplus is always kept in case of emergencies. Local Ladakhi food can be tried in Wok Tibetan, a small eatery frequented by all Ladakhis for its tasty Tenthuk & Timokh (Traditional Ladakhi dishes).
Freshly baked bread is made in traditional wood-fired tandoori bakeries by the Kashmiri baker’s of Leh and is sold hot in the lane just behind Jama Masjid. There are many varieties of bread that is made and a conversation with these bread makers takes us back to the trade route of Central Asia. It is best savoured with tea, with generous butter being applied on the bread!
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During tourist season, there are traditional Ladakhi song & dance shows that may be organised by open garden restaurants and near monasteries.
Ladakh has been called the ‘crossroads of high Asia’ for its location on the trade routes which has imparted a different flavour to local life in Leh. Among various heritage attractions, an offbeat place that culture enthusiasts would love to visit is the four storey Central Asian Museum. It is located in the old part of Leh and showcases old artifacts of Baltistan, Tibet, Ladakh and Kashmir.
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It has a rich collection artefacts, manuscripts and pieces of heritage such as rock art, old coins, utensils from Yarkand and ancient manuscripts. Some of these treasures are said to be more than 400 years old.