Among the more visible expressions of Buddhism in Ladakh are the chess
pawn shaped Chortens at the entrance to villages and monasteries. These
are the Tibetan equivalent of the Indian Stupa- large hemispherical burial
mounds cum devotional objects, prominent in Buddhist ritual since the 3rd
Made of mud, stone and now also concrete, many Chortens were erected as acts of piety by Ladakhi nobles, and like their southern cousins, they are imbued with mystical powers and symbolic significance: the tall tapering spire, normally divided into thirteen sections, represents the soul's progression towards nirvana, while the sun cradled by the crescent moon at the top stands for the unity of opposites, and the oneness of existence and the universe.
Some contain sacred manuscripts that, like the chortens, wither and decay in time, illustrating the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. Those enshrined in monasteries, however, generally made of solid silver and encrusted with semi precious stones, contain the ashes or relics of revered 'Rinpoches' (incarnate Lamas).
Always pass a Chorten in a clockwise direction: the ritual of circumambulation mimics the passage of the planets through the heavens, and is believed to ward off evil spirits. The largest array is to be found in the desert east of Shey, the former capital, but look out for the giant, brightly painted specimen between the bus station and Leh bazaar whose red spire stands out against the snowy Stok Kangri mountains to the south.
The Mani Wall
A short way downhill from the big Chorten, near the radio station, stands an even more monumental symbol of devotion. The 500-metre Mani Wall, erected by King Deldan Namgyal in 1635, is one of several at important religious sites around Ladakh. Ranging from a couple of metres to over a kilometre in length, the walls are made of hundreds of thousands of stones, each inscribed with prayers or sacred mantras - usually the invocation Om Mani Padme Hum: "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus". It goes without saying that such stones should never be removed.
A visitor to Ladakh rarely has a chance to see a Buddhist
wedding performance according to the old customs and ceremonies. Today too
much foreign influence is likely to have crept in; European clothing is
slowly replacing the traditional dress.
The celebration begins in the morning at the house of the bride. The all male party celebrated with Chang, which, according to custom, one must take in three consecutive draughts. As a special sign the host improved the 'Chang' by adding butter. A celebration meal is served in the afternoon, but again only men partook.
The bride remains in her mother's kitchen, symbolically indicating where her place is! Clothed in a wedding gown with a silver embroidered cape, decorated with old family jewellery, the bride is overwhelmed with lucky white ribbons and given gifts of money by her relatives and friends. While the men sing and the mother laments, the bride then goes to the family of the bridegroom, where she is met, in front of the house, by Lamas.
Now the celebration proper begins. In a long ceremony, in which the bride must first of all refuse the food which is offered to her, the bride is led from her father or a friend of the family, to her husband, with whom she then symbolically partakes of a meal. She is then shown the house, with particular emphasis on the kitchen. By sunrise the ceremony is concluded, but not the celebration, which is a social occasion for the families with musicians, food and much, much Chang.
Near to the palaces at Stok, Shey and Leh one may notice a
large number of Chortens, the old 'pleasure gardens' of the kings of
Ladakh. If one goes into the side valley, to the north east of Leh, on
whose eastern slopes the road to the
valley begins, one may find a Lare stone where a curious funeral
practice was once conducted. The bodies of the dead were hacked to pieces
and ground up with stones then left to be devoured by vultures. This
practice was also followed in Tibet and is still followed in the Mustang
region of Nepal.
Today the site of dismemberment is used for cremations. After a ceremony in the house of the dead person the corpse is tied up in a covered Sedan chair. Accompanied by Lamas the procession makes its way into the side valley near Leh. A few hundred metres northwest of the Chortens the procession halts and the chair is placed in a walled oven. This is really only a vertical tube with fire hole underneath. The fire is started with many prayers and during the long ceremony oil is frequently thrown into the oven until the cremation is complete. The ashes are scattered into a holy river or in the case of a person of high standing, placed in a Chorten.
The beacon highway leads from Leh into the Nubra valley over a pass at 5,606 metres - making it probably the highest road in the world. 'You can have dialogue with god' according to the road builder's sign! Only in September and October is the road open, at other times ice covers the road on the northern side of the Nubra valley. For foreigners the road is closed year round since the Nubra valley is in the restricted area and can only be visited with special permission.
Choglamsar is the main training place for Buddhist monks in
Ladakh. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet the school of Buddhist
philosophy school, on the right hand side of the road from Leh to Hemis,
has become an important centre for the study of Tibetan literature and
history and of Buddhist philosophy in its pure form. Many westerners,
interested in Buddhist learning and meditation, have also studied here.
Choglamsar has an extensive syllabus and its library is worth seeing, even
for the casual visitor.
In 1977 the old bridge at Sonam Ling was replaced with a new one able to take heavy vehicles. There are Mani stones in the village of Palam, which has a mixed Buddhist and Muslim population. The Hemis Stangna-Palam road is very rough and there are some river crossings to be made but there is a regular bus connection.