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April 3, 1997


Postcards from the Edge, 2

Ladakh, the last Shangri-la

Vaihayasi P Daniel

Leh town is a jumble of meandering uphill roads. The buildings are quaint and cute. Bearded goats and hefty dzos and yaks roam the streets at will. Ladakhis swaddled in black, velvet gonchas with brilliant electric coloured sashes or dusky maroon lama robes briskly tread up and down the slopes going about day to day chores. The vegetables being sold by hardy Ladakhi women -- sporting their typical top hat, the pirek -- look almost artificially fresh. The Tibetan markets that hawk sundry handicrafts -- like miniature prayer wheels, bone statues of placid Chinese men, silver laughing Buddhas, oxidised metal junk jewellery, woollens dominate the town. Prices are competitive. And the Tibetans enjoy a heated bargain session.


Food is a delightful surprise. A mixed gastronomic bag. Interesting species abound everywhere. Chinese noodles, Szechwan rice, though widely prevalent, is not a la Shanghai.

Restaurant Mentokling, under the shadow of Leh palace, served up some tourist specials in their open air alcoves. Hommus from the Middle East, but again the Leh version. Garlic cheese... good. Mint fresh salad.... great Ladakhi vegetables are so fresh and sweet especially the peas and carrots. And apricot pie... little more like apricot aam papri (Indian style jam) on a rubbery chapatti!

But Ladakhi food preferences were a different cup of tea altogether. Yes, especially the tea. Tea leaves are brewed lightly with salt, milk and butter, and is a soup rather than a beverage. And the omnipresent chung is a headier variety of beverage readily available! Any man on the road, walking home in figure eights, had surely hit the barrel of chung too hard... a sort of barley beer.

Tea-time with a traditional village Ladakhi is spent in the warmest, air-tight alcove of the home, and the lush Tibetan rugs that cover every square inch have no match for anything found in a show piece Bombay flat. The family's sideboard was a antique piece that would easily fetch over a lakh in a big city antique bazar!

Her Majesty's Tale

She was indulgent enough to give us an audience at a rather short notice. Tea with the queen at the palace at 10.00 am, was the missive. But at 11 o'clock she was not yet ready, her aide and curator informed us (her palace is a museum too, that provides her with a little bit of pocket money).

A gracious woman she was; a regal monarch in spite of her height of five feet. Rani Parvati Devi Deskit Wangmo is the queen mother of Ladakh. She sat erect on the rich Tibetan carpet at Stok palace, elegantly sipping tea and answering the flood of questions directed at her with a calm grace. Attired in sober widow weeds, soft lines carved her smooth 58-year-old face that was peaked by raven black hair. No turquoise head piece for her, as is customary of the married Ladakh woman.

The lady seemed as gentle and proud as a deer. But how deceptive can appearances be. The Gyalmo (queen) is legendary in Ladakh for her fiery past.

She rode into Ladakh on horseback from Manali almost 45 years ago to wed the Ladakhi king, Kunsang Namgyal. But the life took an unfortunate twist. Her royal husband turned out to be an alcoholic and it was not just the tame chung for him but hard liquor. At the age of 42 his life gave out and a chorten (prayer memorial) stands in his memory beyond the palace portals. The queen and her kingly brood were left to cope with his kingdom.

But there was a slight practical hitch. The binding social laws of Ladakh declare that when a woman marries into a home she married her man and all his brothers too. But Parvati Devi was not ready to heed this. She cut off her brother-in-law from the family wealth, letting him have an allowance of Rs 500 a month. But then she hadn't reckoned with her brother-in-law's determination. He wasn't ready to let go. So he fought back with some vigour, taking the matter to court. And out of court settlement recently has landed him with a better part of the royal property. The only consolation for the queen mother is perhaps the fact that her brother-in-law, now turned lama, still cannot set foot into the Stok palace.


Gompas, chung and thankas is the formula of Ladakh... Monasteries, beer and art; a rather heady and life giving formula. Happiness bounces off the stark and amazing plateau like warm rays. Nippy cold and located at the rarefied height of 3554 metres -- cut off from the rest of the world by natural barriers -- telephone, telex, college, bus, electricity and newspapers are endangered species. But there is not much that makes the hardy Ladakh spirit twist into a grimace. There is something very symbolic in the tiny fluorescent green patches along the Indus., the isolated posts of civilisation that dot the cold desert mountainscape. Few and far apart the concentrated, tantalising colour contains that same value-for-money-joy that mirrors off a rugged Ladakhi face. There are problems... and there are problems... but all the good the Lord Buddha has showered on this Himalayan kingdom is engraved on their contented hearts.

As darkness descends on the Moonland -- called thus because of its rocky lunar terrain -- the mountains are shot with a golden sunset light that shines off rock and snow with heavenly brilliance...Om Mani Padme Hum...Thou God with the jewel-rose garland in one hand and the lotus flower in other, bless my life, soul and spirit...murmur the monks, whisper the winds and the glacier filled brooks... Ladakh.

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