Ladakh is a kaleidoscope of nature’s extremes – high mountain peaks to cold desert sand dunes, sub-zero temperatures to scorching sun – all interspersed with barren mountains in myriad shades of brown. The beauty of this remote land is so overwhelming that many a traveller is at a loss for words when asked to describe what is often-called the ‘Last Shangri-La’.
Also affectionately dubbed ‘Little Tibet’ because of its cultural and geographical proximity to Tibet, Buddhisttinged Ladakh is India’s most remote and sparsely populated region. Indeed, wedged between Tibet and Kashmir, this austerely beautiful land,
with Leh and Kargil as its district headquarters, is unique - in India, and in the world. Ladakh is also daunting, no doubt. Its minimum elevation is 2,900 m and its highest regions ascend up to 7,500 m higher even than Mount Everest’s base camp.This
ethereal, humbling moonscape is bounded by the Kunlun mountain range on the north and the Great Himalayas to the south. It is often said that here, ‘the earth meets the sky’. Spread across 86,904 sq kms Ladakh is flanked by Xinjiang to the north, Tibet to the east, the Kashmir valley to the west and Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh to the south. Ladakh’s icy lifeline is the Indus river, described as ‘the central thread in the Ladakhi mosaic’ (Michael Gebicki). The Indus, 3,180 kms long, originates in the Tibetan plateau, flows north west through Ladakh (where it separates the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges before turning south to flow through Pakistan. The other major river here is a tributary of the Indus called Zanskar, which nourishes the arid, inhospitable Zanskar valley. In winters, a 105-km stretch of the frozen Zanskar river becomes a challenging and beautiful adventure called the Chadar Trek.
The history of Ladakh is shrouded in myth. Indeed, there is no ‘written’ history of the region until after the 8th century; and yet, Ladakh was known across continents from the most ancient times. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC), for example, called this land of sun-kissed mountains and sparkling rivers a ‘country of gold-digging ants’ – perhaps a reference to the Tibetan marmots that were known for digging gold out of the earth. Historical sources suggest that, besides the Dards of Drass (Kargil district) the earliest inhabitants of Ladakh were Changpas, nomadic yak herders. Other important and ancient tribes include the Brokpas (of Kargil) and the Mons, said to be descendants of early settlers from Himachal Pradesh. Interestingly, the Brokpas continue to follow Bon, the original, animist religion of the land while most other tribes are Buddhist. Several historians suggest that Ladakh was part of the Kushan Empire in the 2nd century AD. In the 9th century, the local Buddhist kings, predecessors of the well-known Namgyals, established a kingdom extending all the way from Kashmir to Tibet, guarded by fortresses and vast gompas. During this period, Ladakhi culture and traditions were heavily influenced by their Tibetan neighbours. In 1470, King Lhachen Bhagan of Basgo, a distant cousin of the then ruling king of Ladakh, founded
the powerful Namgyal dynasty, whose descendants live even today in Stok PalaceIn the 16th century, Namgyal rule was interrupted by Ali Mir of Baltistan, who invaded Ladakh but never ruled the region, until Singge Namgyal (1570–1642) regained
the throne and built his capital in Leh. In 1846, Ladakh was invaded once again by the Dogra Rajas of Jammu. In 1993, Ladakh was granted the status of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.
(Source: Buddhist Trail in Ladakh)