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Buddhism in Ladakh: Everyday, Everywhere

July 29, 2010

by Charukesi Ramadurai
The WIP (India)
July 28, 2010

Buddhists in Ladakh are often seen spinning a
prayer wheel, a practice believed to bring wisdom
and good karma or merit. All photographs © Charukesi Ramadurai.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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