A Photo-Guide to Ladakh
Leh is an anomaly. It is abustling town with modern conveniences. An airport, ATMs, pizzas and pita bread, all in a spectacular valley 11,562 feet (3,524m) above sea level. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, today it is the capital of Leh district, and the largest settlement (both in terms of area and population) in Ladakh. The Leh district spans an area of 45,110 square kilometres, and is the second largest district in India, next only to Kutch (Gujarat).
Leh Town is a place like no other, with narrow streets that wind up and down hills, across streams, and back in time. The city is dominated by the Royal Palace that towers over the sprawl of modern as well as traditional wood and mud-brick houses.
There are many shops that sell necessities as well as a variety of trinkets and souvenirs, at a bargain. There are centres that teach meditation, cafes, and restaurants – one of which even shows movies on an outdoor screen. Leh provides locals, backpackers and tourists with facilities to stock up on supplies, communicate with the rest of the world by email and phone, and even a few creature comforts (like running water, and cold beer), before heading back out into the barren landscapes of the surrounding regions.
Leh was an important point in the caravanroutes along the Indus valley, Kashmir, Tibet, and China. Salt, grain, Pashmina (cashmere wool), Charas (cannabis resin), Indigo, Silk yarn, and Benaras Brocade were amongst the most highly traded goods. There are indications that the Chinese used this route through Ladakh to trade with India as early as the 1st-3rd centuries A.D. The Ladakh Kingdom was formed with Shey as its capital in the 10th Century by a Tibetan Prince who had conquered Western Tibet.
Today, the Leh Valley is a vital station for the Indian Army, and the Border Roads Organization as a head quarters to patrol the nearby borders, and constantly maintain the highways.Roads from Srinagar and Manali connect Leh to the outside world.
Shanti Stupa sits atop a hill highabove Leh and can be accessed by car, or a challenging hike up a stair path. It was built by Japanese Buddhists to promote world peace, and contains relics of The Buddha that were enshrined by H.H. the Dalai Lama. It is a breathtaking place that provides an epic view of the entire city of Leh, the Indus Valley, and the beautiful mountains of the Stok range. Sunset is like magic, and offers a chance to view nature’s spectacle at its finest.
Leh Palace is a nine storey structure that was built by King Sengge Namgyal between 1631 and 1642. The upper floors housed the Royals, while stables and store rooms were located on the lower floors. The interiors are filled with dark, narrow corridors that are connected to rooms filled with rubble – these are fun to explore, often leading to windows that offer wonderful glimpses of the city and the Indus Valley. The 15th century Gompa above the palace contains a massive three storey image of the Buddha Sakyamuni. Chapels around the Gompa and Palace contain medieval statues of exquisite beauty, including one particularly remarkable statue of the thousand armed Avalokiteshwara (Buddha of Compassion). The Palace was abandoned in the mid 19th Century when Kashmiri forces besieged the palace, forcing the Royal Family to flee to Stok, where their descendants still reside. Depending on who you ask, you will either hear that the architecture of the Leh Palace is derived from the Potala, or that it inspired the design of the Potala. While it is uncertain which design came first, it is certain that both buildings were being constructed around the same time. Old Leh is made up of several narrow winding lanes that form a maze amongst crumbling mud-brick homes. This area starts behind the Jama Masjid, one of three mosques in Leh. Built by the Buddhist rulers in exchange for assistance from the Muslim rulers of Kashmir, the mosque represents a combination of Tibetan and Islamic architecture. Old Leh is a fascinating area filled with interesting people, chat with the tailor or the owner of a dry goods shop, and learn about how their parents and grandparents traded with Lhasa, Tashkent, and beyond. Explore the local markets, and find the Polo Ground where matches are held between local teams every Tuesday and Saturday.
Leh is a bustling little town reminiscent of the time of the Silk route, shades of brown mountains merge with seamless blue sky interrupted only by gashes of white snow. The pride of the Indus valley, Leh town, is an incredible network of mud-brick homes built around many rivulets.
With a camera in hand, one can easily get lost in the many narrow lanes and alleys of Leh. Meandering paths will lead you away from the town center, through dirt-roads that are too narrow for four-wheel traffic, to the slowly developing residential quarters.
The light and shade caused by passing clouds plays magic on the hills that surround Leh. Make sure you hit Shanti Stupa perched above Leh at sunset for one of the most dramatic views of Leh valley. Take along your tripod and shutter release cable so you can stop down your lens to f22 or f32 and shoot with a low shutter speed in the waning light. An interesting exercise is to fix your camera and tripod in one position and take photographs at regular intervals, capturing the light slowly leaving the valley in a time-lapse.
The Shanti Stupa platform is also a great place to try your hand at HDR photography, as the rays of the sun disappear behind nearby mountains and leave the Leh valley in shadow and the Stok range in bright gold. Set the composition and lock down all the movements of your tripod. Pick a high aperture so as to get a high depth of field which will render everything in sharp focus. Look through the menu on your camera and find auto-exposure bracketing and set it to +2 to -2 and turn on the bracketed exposure mode. Using your shutter release cable fire off the three bracketed exposures which you can process with either Photomatix,Photoshop or several other software.
Lamayuru Monastery is built into rock, and precariously perched on cliffs that have suffered dramatic wind erosion. It is situated in Kargil district, just after the Fotu La pass along the Srinagar-Leh highway at a height of 11,515ft (3,510m). Founded in the 11th century, Lamayuru belongs to the Nyingma sect (Red Hat), and is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh. According to legend, the valley lay submerged by a large clear lake at the time of the Buddha. The renowned scholar-saint Mahasiddhacharya Naropa sat in meditation and made a crack form in the hillside along the banks of the lake – causing it to drain. The scholar found a dead tiger on the lake bed, and built the first temple in the area on the spot where the tiger lay. On the highest level of the monastery, there is a chorten said to house relics of the tiger. One of Lamayuru’s biggest secrets is a nondescript door in the prayer hall, which when opened (by asking a present monk or lama) reveals a cave that was said to be the site where Naropa meditated in the 11th century.
Thikse Monastery is dramatically poised atop a hill above Thikse and greatly resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The massive 12 storey Gelugpa (yellow order) monastery was constructed in the mid-15th century, and remains the largest in central Ladakh. Of particular interest is the stunning two storey 15m statue of the Maitreya Buddha (future Buddha) that was installed to commemorate a visit by H.H. the Dalai Lama in 1970. Daily prayers that feature the chanting of Buddhist Sutras are held in the mornings in the large central prayer hall, and are a humbling experience. At the entrance to the assembly hall is a mural that depicts the Tibetan calendar and The Wheel of Life.The wheel is an icon that is found in all monasteries. It features insignias of a snake, bird, and a pig which signify greed, desire, and ignorance – reminding visitors of what must be overcome in order to achieve enlightenment. The prayer hall contains numerous handwritten and painted sacred texts. Behind the hall, is the small inner sanctum which contains statues of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas (enlightened individuals who have chosen to be reborn), and Manjushri.There are beautiful shrines on the upper level, like one to Tara, which also provide wonderful views of the Indus valley.
Hemis Monastery existed before the 11th century but was re-established, and expanded by the Ladakhi King Sengge Namgyal (who also built Leh Palace) in the late 17th century. Hemis is deeply connected with the Scholar-Saint Naropa who met his tantric master at Hemis, and is depicted in the monastery as the Abbot of Nalanda University. Hemis escaped the ransacking that Nalanda and other monasteries experienced at the hands of invading Turks and Afghans primarily because of its secluded location. Its sprawling complex, hidden amongst the sharp turns of the valley, gave it a natural protection that allowed it to retain its treasures, making it the richest monastery in Ladakh. Naropa is considered to be the founding father of the esoteric Kagyu sect (Black Hat), and so Hemis is considered the main seat of the Kagyu lineage in Ladakh. The monastery belongs to the Drukpa sub-sect within the Kagyu Lineage, and is the seat of Gyalwa Drukpa who heads the sect (as opposed to the Karmapa who heads other Kagyu sub-sects). Every year Hemis organizes a large festival that is devoted to Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava – the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Apart from the spectacular mask dances, the biggest draw at the festival is a massive tangkha that is unveiled once every twelve years.
Alchi is a charming town set amongst apricot groves along the Indus River. Chortens as you enter the town, indicate the spot where according to legend, a tree grew from the walking stick that Rinchen Zangpo left standing as he meditated nearby. There is a small bazaar selling Ladakhi and Tibetan artifacts, as well as a restaurant with some of the best fresh apricot juice (seasonal) in Ladakh. A short walk around the outside perimeter of the monastery, leads to a dramatic view point and down to a sandy beach by the Indus. The artwork at Alchi is believed to be the oldest surviving in Ladakh, and among the oldest in Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
The many monasteries of Ladakh and the life that surrounds them is of great inspiration to photographers from the world over. From architectural splendor to dimly lit prayer halls, each monastery has its own attraction. Most monasteries in Ladakh will not allow the use of flash indoors, please be respectful and adhere to these rules.
To counteract the low light conditions inside these monasteries it is always best to bring along a tripod. When photographing the many intricate statues one can always set a slow exposure and use a flashlight to illuminate the scene. This technique is also known as light-painting. When using a flashlight ensure that you continue to move the beam rapidly while the camera is exposing – this will help you create an evenly lit shot. You could also experiment with the direction of your light source and use it to highlight particular areas of your composition.
Robed monks, both young and old are an integral part of the Ladakh experience. Most monks will let you make photographs as long as you are not disturbing them; their powers of concentration being far superior to that of a layman, these monks typically ignore your presence and go about their daily tasks. When given the opportunity, do not hesitate to point your camera in their direction. If it is the middle of the afternoon,remember to step away from the open-air courtyards and into the shade for evenly lit portraits. A few smiles and some innocent questions can quite often win over a curious young monk, position him at different places of the monastery and work with the available light to create environmental portraits that convey a sense of space.
Located at a whopping 14,720 feet (4845m) above sea level, the majestic Pangong Tso(Ladakhi for lake) is a vast salt water body that is nestled in the bosom of the Himalayas. Many hours can be spent gazing upon its crystal clear waters, which seem to be ever changing in hues. Various shades of blue, green, and even purple, seem to dance about as if in a perfectly choreographed ballet. The lake is gigantic, with one-third in India, and the remainder in Tibet – and under Chinese control. At its widest point, it is 5 Km broad, and is approximately 134 Km long. With a surface area of 700 Sq. Km. the lake forms a large basin in India before snaking across distant mountains and into the larger Tibetan basin. During winter, the surface of Pangong lake is completely frozen, despite its salinity. The terrain is very similar to the rest of Ladakh, and is fairly barren. The brackish water of the lake is absent of any micro-vegetation, and thus its waters are clear and sparkle brilliantly Some shrubs, and perennial grasses dogrow along the shores and marsh lands around the lake. Efforts are also being made to introduce trees into the area. Though guide-books and scientists report that the salt waters do not sustain aquatic life – apart from a few species of small crustaceans – the abundance of aquatic birds spotted by locals and visitors suggest otherwise. Pangong plays host, and acts as a vital breeding ground for a diverse selection of aquatic birds and migratory birds such as the Bar Headed Geese, and Brahmini Ducks. The area surrounding the lake is home to many Marmots, and the rare Kiang – or Tibetan wild ass.
Apart from the substantial military presence, the area is sparsely inhabited by humans. Livestock rearing is the primary occupation for the few who do live here. Yaks, donkeys, and pashmina goats are the major domesticated species in the area. The villagers – like everywhere else in Ladakh – are extremely friendly and will not hesitate to welcome you into their homes for a cup of butter tea. A good way to spend a few hours in the afternoon is among the villagers and their adorable pashmina goats. Boats are not permitted on the lake unless you are taken by the Army – which is near impossible. Swimming is permitted for those with exceptional bravery. Be warned: the temperature of the lake can be highly unpredictable, and depends on the weather in the surrounding mountains. If you do decide to take the plunge, make sure it’s a sunny day and that it hasn’t snowed the day before. There is no harm in experiencing the lake dry – as most visitors do –specially at night where the sky is saturated with stars.
Pangong lies in a highly sensitive geographic location, across the large, unresolved and disputed border between China and India. The Line of Actual Control – whose precise location still remains a matter of subjectivity – passes through the lake. A portion of the lake in China, about 20 Km east of the LAC is claimed by India. Neither the western, nor eastern ends of the lake are in disputed territory.
The region was a battleground in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and was for a brief time controlled entirely by Chinese troops who had advanced as far as Tangste and Chushul. Following their universal cease-fire, the Chinese withdrew to the present lines, occupying Trishul peak (visible towards the eastern edge of the lake) which was once Indian territory. The locals seem entertained by the idea that the Chinese are constantly watching them through binoculars, perched along lookouts in the distant mountains. The border at Pangong is still a delicate point along the Line of Actual Control – hence permits are required to visit the region.Incursions by Chinese foot and boat patrols are common.
Pangong Lake is every photographers’ dream. With or without your camera, you can watch the changing hues of the lake all day long. For the landscape photographer, the meandering banks of the lake offer plentiful options. Your best bet is to get into a car once the light begins to soften, and search for a vantage point or subject that interests you.
Pangong is also a haven for Himalayan birds. Spend the afternoon on the banks of the lake and you are sure to catch several different species. If you are carrying a telephoto it is a great time to practice tracking shots. Wait patiently until you spot a bird that is making repeated sweeps to the same area of the lake (as is often the case), and follow the flight path with your lens as you snap off frames the entire time. Try to capture a frame that catches the bird clearly against a motion blurred background. It is best if you are able to frame the bird against a darker background like the hills, to highlight the motion.
Once darkness has settled, the skies above Pangong turn to a sea of shimmering diamonds. The lack of large human civilization for hundreds of kilometres leaves the night sky unpolluted both in terms of air quality and ambient light. Set up your tripod away from any stray light sources in your campsite and try your hand at night photography. The position and size of the moon will determine your exposure. If you have a powerful flashlight, the doors to the world of light painting open for you.
Nubra Valley is a large, flat and wide region located about 150 Km. north of Leh. Located right in the middle of the Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges, the valley is home to the Shyok River – one of the largest draining the Karakoram, and a major tributary to the Indus. Local historians believe that the valley’s original name was Ldumra – the valley of flowers, which is not hard to believe given how gentle and romantic it is. Its current name draws from the Nubra River that intersects with the larger Shyok in the heart of the expansive valley. On first glance, the valley seems very similar to the rest of Ladakh, dry and barren – but as you get closer, you see many shades of green that prove otherwise. The rich deposits and irrigation provided by the rivers and their many streams make this A-Grade farm land by Ladakhi standards. The villages are surrounded by tranquil fields where wheat, barley, peas, and mustard (for oil) are cultivated. There are also a variety of fruits and nuts grown here such as apple, walnut, apricot, sea buckthorn berry, and even a few almond trees. The majority of the population is Buddhist and speaks Ladakhi, with a small population of Shia and Sunni Muslims. The western region of the valley borders Baltistan (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), consequently, there are Balti communities that live in these areas. The people of Nubra are warm and friendly.
Nubra is known for its happiness and prosperity. The songs from Nubra are known all over Ladakh and are considered to be amongst the most romantic. The valley is trifurcated by the river into three regions, and is dotted with small villages, monasteries, ancient ruins, and army installations. Leading down from Khardung la, the central valley diverges a little after the town of Khalsar near the confluence of the Nubra and Shyok rivers. To the northeast, along the Nubra lie Sumur and Panamik. Deskit, Hunder, and the Balti town of Turtuk are along the banks of the Shyok on the other side.
DISKIT, the administrative center of the Nubra sub-division is nestled amongst apricot plantations and the edge of the desert. It is a small town with all the basic facilities including some comfortable hotels. It is a hub of activity, with small shops, army offices, and a large school. The town is dominated by the huge 14th Century Monastery which is the oldest and largest in the valley. Dedicated to Tsong Khapa – the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, this Gelugpa (yellow order) monastery played an important role in the politics of the medieval feudal system that once existed here. It houses the remains of a respected 14th century lama from Nubra who returned from Tibet after serving as regent to the First Dalai Lama at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tibet. The monastery has been a very sacred place for a very long time. Diskit is connected to Mongol mythology. It is believed that an evil anti-Buddhist demon once lived here and was slain near the monastery grounds but is said to have been resurrected many times since. A temple inside the monastery is said to house the wrinkled head and hand of the demon. The impressive The impressive 106 foot statue of the Buddha Maitreya (also known as Jampa) sits atop a hill adjacent to the Shyok river. Funded by local donations, it was guilded with 8 Kg of gold. It took 4 years to complete and was innaugurated by H.H. the Dalai Lama on July 24th 2010. The statue was built for three main purposes, the protection of Diskit village, prevention of further war with Pakistan, and to promote world peace.
HUNDER is the last point on the Shyok side where visitors can go, the road continues onwards into Balti territory and the Indian Army’s Siachen basecamp. There is a monastery at Hunder, as well as numerous small shrines, chortens, and mani walls that are located along the rocky mountain slopes. This section of the valley is very different from the greenery of the Nubra side. The road between Diskit and Hunder is lined with massive white sand dunes that glisten in the sun, reminding you that you are in a high altitude desert. The Bactrian camels found here – known for their double hump – were once used to travel the Silk Road into China and Central Asia, today they are entirely domesticated by the locals and bred at a center in Diskit. Take a camel ride up and down the dunes, and pretend for a while that you are lost in time, but remember the camel’s temperament and reputation for spitting.
BEYOND HUNDER are the Balti villages of Turtuk, Tyakshi, Thang, and Chalunka, which are relatively new additions to Indian Territory (see the box: The Highest Battlefield in the World). The village of Baigdandu is said to be exceptionally beautiful, and is known for its inhabitants who with their fair skin, light hair, and sparkling blue eyes appear in stark contrast with the Ladakhis or Baltis. Local lore claims they are a Greek tribe who came looking for the tomb of Jesus and ended up settling here. It is more likely that they first came here with Alexander the Great on his foray into the Indus valley. Access to this area is very limited and has only been opened to tourists in 2011.
SUMUR is located at a height of 10,157 feet (3096m) and is 28 Km. from Panamik. It is a picturesque village that sits along the edge of the Nubra River amongst apricot trees and lush fields of barley. It is the largest village in Nubra, and is very prosperous. Walk through the narrow and winding paths in the villages and admire the beautiful terraced fields. Chat with the friendly villagers and ask them to sing a song for you. The Nubra River is directly fed from the Siachen Glacier and is called Siachen Naala by the locals). The river banks make for a leisurely and beautiful walk – explore the many rivulets and small strips of land in between. It is best you take your shoes off (leave them on a bank away from the water) and tread carefully as the soil here is very loose and wet – similar to quicksand though not as menacing. You might get stuck and a little dirty but can always clean up in the river. Sumur is the only other village (other than Deskit) that organizes a major annual festival with camel races, Ibex and Peacock dances, archery competitions, and even a flower exhibition. There is a 150 year old monastery nearby that has a wonderful collection of tangkhas and recently restored frescoes.
BEYOND SUMUR lies the village of Panamik, an ancient town famous for being the last Indian settlement before Tibet. There are ancient granaries that were once integral to the grain-trade, but have now been modified by the Indian Army to store their own rations. The hot springs here, that were said to be healing, are now dirty and decrepid. The highly restricted road beyond Panamik continues to the Siachen Basecamp, and the Sasser and Karakoram passes which lead into Tibet and Xinjiang Province.
After several days of stark brown landscapes, the lush-green of Nubra valley is a welcome relief for the weary eyes. The area is dominated by twin rivers, and their gentle flow is mirrored in the attitude of the local people. Walk through the meandering lanes of the many villages of Nubra valley and you are sure to be welcomed by warm smiles and shouts of Juleh!
For the portait photographer, Nubra valley offers some incredible time-weathered faces. Please be patient with your subjects, take time to have a quick chat before taking any photos. In the absence of a common language, it is always good to smile warmly and gesture for permission. Sharing a preview image sometimes helps gain trust, but can quickly turn your photo shoot into a community event. Once you have built a rapport with your subject, do not hesitate to take things to the next level. Ask your subject to step into the light or away, position him against a background that appeals to you.
One can stare at the magical sand dunes of Hunder for hours, mezmerized by the shifting sands. At sunrise and sunset, the angular rays of the sun bring to life this stretch of desert, with the dance of light and shade. Sand dunes are like a blank canvas when looking through the viewfinder. Small changes in position, even shuffling a few inches can drastically change your composition. Spend time working with symmetry, perspective and flowing lines. If you find yourself in Hunder on a moonlit night, try and convince your driver to take you to the sand dunes with your camera.