Photo Essay | Reminiscing Ladakh


Perhaps I was only 12-13 years at that time. Still distinctly remember, I used to keep on looking at a 6-page calendar that hung at our study room. It was a black and white calendar containing 12 images, that was for me an unfamiliar land. Those pictures contained sky, clouds, mountains, people, birds, and much more other stuff.

I used to get engrossed almost instantly in an unknown terrain following the path of childhood fantasy and imagination. Closing my eyes, I used to see the bits and pieces of this mysterious land which was practically impossible. I was told, the land is Ladakh- at the extreme North of India.

Fast forward today. it comes to my mind- how can the people take lives, destroy, and demolish just by fighting over an imaginary line —‘BORDER’. Everybody knows what I am talking about. The harmony of this composed, cool and peaceful nature had been troubled by the smoke of ammunitions and sound of heavy boots of soldiers for ages.

Wherever I went, through the nook and corner of Ladakh, time and again a fundamental question came to my mind, almost every now and then. Probably everybody will agree that a mere touch of this picturesque Ladakh is supposed to wipe out even the tiniest morsels of rivalry from anyone’s mind. But alas, the blood drips there.

The camera is innocent. It does not capture the complexities. Ladakh in pictures still looks fabulous. Maybe because nature is simple, and inadvertently so. It is the human mind that is tainted and complex. This photo essay is a tribute to this- that nature does not change.

Human beings have been running after Ladakh from ages for the overwhelming beauty offered by nature, blessings of Lord Buddha, and a touch of Tibetan culture. The message for peace as campaigned by the Buddha is echoed from the Monastery to Monastery, in the sky and air, on the flora and fauna, above and beyond mountain peaks, everywhere…  “Om Mani Padme Hum…”  (“Depending on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha…”).

I started capturing images (in 2012), also started speaking to the locals and monks, studying their history-geography-culture-religion in my own way, which actually helped me understand this land in a better perspective. Whatever I learned and collected these many years, I wanted to share with the larger community; practically, in other words, I wanted to share my joy and feeling of happiness. This is precisely how I conceived the idea of creating this book (content is extracted from a book I wrote recollecting my Ladakh collection of images). I feel, more than ever, now is the time to reminisce Ladakh. You never know when the bane international turmoil strangles the last remaining charms. If the border is so important, I fear losing history, culture to it.

‘La’ means mountain pass, ‘Dakh’ denotes country… in other words, Ladakh is a country of mountain passes. Ladakh does not have any significant peaks in its possession, nevertheless, it is covered by numerous mountain passes. One of these passes Khardungla (18380 Ft) has snatched the crown of the highest motorable pass of the world.

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Ladakhis believe in superstitions and ghosts. It is said that in the ancient ages, entire Ladakh was under deep water. The legend goes: approximately in 1100 BC, Pundit Mahashuddhacharya Naropa from Kashmir made this inaccessible land habitable after his long religious austerity. By virtue of his prayer, it was said, the water level came down gradually, and the mountain ranges started raising their heads. This land subsequently became the grooming field of two tribal groups – Dard and Tibetans. In 2019, the population of Ladakh was just more than 2.79 lakhs according to Unique Identification Aadhar India, out of which many old tribal groups are seen.        

The people of Ladakh are very hard working like any other individuals in hilly areas. They are very simple in nature, the vices of modern age do not have any impact on the minds of these round-faced, flattened nose innocent people. It goes without saying that these smiling-faced people have more similarities with Tibetans rather than Indians or the other races of the Middle East. 

History says, once upon a time Ladakh was the capital of Tibet. This capital was established by the last emperor of Tibet- Langadharma. In the first century, Ladakh was included in the empire of Khushuna. Baltistan and Aksai Chin were also included in Ladakh. The then Baltistan is now under Pakistan and Aksai Chin is a part of China today.   

Ladakh, being the crown-holder of diverse commercial activities throughout many centuries, had adopted the culture of various countries of the Middle East. Out of those nations, undoubtedly Tibet had influenced Ladakh to a great extent. The Tibetan culture got mixed with various local rituals, customs of other countries. Buddhism came to Ladakh from Kashmir; Kashmir was a Buddhist majority region at that point in time.

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As a matter of fact, Buddhism was spread to Tibet in the second century from Kashmir via Ladakh. Right from this era, Ladakh was considered to be one of the most important centres to cultivate Buddhism. When the adjacent places of Ladakh like Kargil, Baltistan, Afghanistan etc. were gradually turning towards the Islamic religion, only Tibet remained as the most faithful friend of Ladakh, in terms of exchange of Buddhist culture.

Undoubtedly, Ladakh is a significantly vast region but it has only two Indian Districts – Leh and Kargil. (On August 2019, the Parliament of India passed an act by which Ladakh will become a union territory on 31 October 2019). Leh is a Buddhist-infested land while in Kargil, Muslims of the Shia community are majorly seen. There live a few Christian families as well. Christianity came to Ladakh along with the Moravian Missionaries. The people of Ladakh mainly speak Ladakhi – this language was actually originated from Tibet.

In the North and South, Ladakh is covered by two wrappers made of two most famous and large mountain ranges — the Himalayas and the Karakoram. The Karakoram spreads towards the North and in the South, the great Himalaya stretches its arm from far-away Bhutan, as if hugging Ladakh with the warmth of affection. The diversified beauty of Ladakh is inexplicable. Dazzling snow-capped mountain ranges in one hand and on the other hand there remain spectacular abstract sculptures on the bare mountain surface. You would find the cold desert in seclusion with silver sand dunes while lush greeneries are also waiting for you at some other parts of the land.  

In recent times the valley has been burning. Tensions have risen. It has always been like this – tensions rise in Ladakh. Perhaps the international juncture where it is located is to be blamed. Nonetheless, the beauty has remained. Therefore, Ladakh, without its turmoil, sans the pain of its natives, is “a thing of beauty.” And hopefully, it stays so, without the pain of the natives.

© Deb Lahiri, 2020 | Facebook | Instagram

This is the first post of an ongoing series under the banner of “Beyond The Lens, from the desk of Deb Lahiri.” The Author is a self-made photographer whose work has been featured in a number of pro-photography outlets including National Geographic.

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