Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gompa madness

Leh was the capital of the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh before it was annexed by Kashmiri kings in the 1840's. The region is littered with ruined forts and gompas (monasteries), some over 1,000 years old and the people remain predominantly Buddhist. Leh itself is a quiet little town - at least it is now at the end of the season. As we walk around there are plenty of shops, restaurants and hotels that have already closed for the year. Winding lanes take us away from the centre and past dry-stone walls, traditional houses and dry fields already harvested. The leaves on the plane and willow trees are golden, starting to fall, and the huge sky is a vivid blue. It's warm in the sunshine and a bit nippy in the evenings - perfect for us.
The town sits at 3500 metres so we are feeling the altitude a bit and spend a few days visiting gompas and old palaces in the Indus valley. It's not long before we're in a stupa stupour. The monasteries are invariably perched defensively on a hill with long flights of stairs winding between the monks' houses before you finally reach the temple at the top. We are rewarded with good views but sometimes locked doors too!
There are plenty of monks and quite a few nuns on the streets of Leh. Maroon robes are offset with bright orange tank tops, red woollen beanies, matching fleeces, and occasionally wrap-around sunglasses or fake red Crocs. At the gompas themselves there seems to be little activity outside of prayer times. Young novices mucking about. An old monk repeating his mantra and clicking his rosary. Some local villagers doing repairs. Sleeping dogs. The silence would drive me nuts.

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