By Sarah Jacobs
It was one of those regular holiday ideas that turned into one of the most fascinating discoveries of my life. High in the Tibetan plateau region in the northernmost part of India, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is the rugged and awe- inspiriing Ladakh. Little did I know when we began the road trip from Srinagar, the capital of the state, that I was embarking on a journey for whichI I was anything but prepared.
The majestic Himalayas stretched its imperious snow-capped head as we looked down at the indigo coloured river Indus, tumbling down the valley. As we travelled through the willow and maple forests of the vale of Kashmir, the demography switched as dramatically as did the look of the ranges. Soon, the lush green valley was left behind and we climbed on to the highest motorable road in the world. The road trip, said to be the easiest means to acclimatize to the the low oxygen levels and the chilling winds from Tibet, did not prepare us for the spell binding view ahead.
Jagged mountains completely bare of vegetation, dust- track roads more suited for those cut out for adventure and the shock absorbers of our SUV in a state of limbo – we had indeed arrived in Ladakh – The Land of the Lamas. The Ladakh valley, which is home to some of the most fascinating Buddhist landmarks and a favourite with scholars oftheological studies, is also the home to some of the rarest breeds of animals (such as the snow leopard and the himalayan goat) in the world.
As we crossed a village, many friendly faces appeared by the road side but just one hailed us down. Wondering what the man wanted to say, we stopped a little short and he raced up to us with a bagful of stones. He asked for a lift. We could’nt have refused as he looked a little pensive and distraught.
As we once again raced down the road, we began talking. We were surprised to learn that the man hailed from the village ahead and had come down to the village in the lower reaches to buy some incense sticks. Befuddled, we prodded him to share a little about his life. A master’s degree in Mass Communication from a prestigious institution in Delhi explained why he spoke with such great eloquence. So, what’s with the incense and the stones, we asked him unabashedly. He said, he’d rather show what they were meant for.
A little ahead he asked us to stop close to a clearing that had some strange piles of stones arranged rather precariously and painstakingly. He said these were ‘chortens’. They were built as a penence for a guilt that you may bear in yopur heart. Buddhists have followed this culture for centuries believing that its only through a simple but heartfelt redemption that takes away our burden of guilt and sorrow. He was there to build a chorten in the memory of his grandmother whom he couldn’t meet before she died of an illness. This was his apology to herand a simple tribute to her memory.
Lamo Dorjee, this rather simple but enigmatic man, welcomed us to his home and we followed .Warm yak milk, tea and oven baked bread, kept in simple earthen pots were placed in front of us. So, what was he going to do with his education, we asked.”Teach” – he wanted to give to his village what he could not get easily and that which had taken him away from the people he loved.
As we travelled up the road to Leh, bright glittering lights were visible. What shone brighter was the warmth we felt in our hearts about how love and commitment are at home in all world cultures. There could not have been a better way of getting introduced to the real Ladakhi culture.