Words apart in the Himalayan desert

You’ll need a new vocabulary for the stunning Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh

Travel

14 Jun 2017

The once-closed Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh is changing fast, but it is no PR myth that the people have retained their traditional way of life to an astonishing degree — in the remoter valleys especially. The country is a high-altitude desert. I flew there from Delhi and needed a compulsory two days to acclimatise. Unlike in India, to which Ladakh is politically subservient, English is not widely spoken. My week spent in three Ladakhi villages was above all a useful corrective to my idiotic assumption that western industrial values are also universal values. Ladakh means ‘land of high passes’. Here is a useful glossary for travellers.

Amchi

Village herbalist and magician. A hereditary post. The first village house I stayed at was owned by an amchi. He was a silent, unapproachable man of about 50. He wore a tanned leather Stetson hat and had a tanned leather face.

Dzo

Apart from the women, the principle beast of burden in Ladakh. A cross between a yak and a cow. Not to be hurried. Placid. Content. Sets the tone for the country.

Gompa

A Buddhist monastery. Ladakh’s are ancient, monumental, famous, smelly and thriving. I visited all the principal ones. I seemed to spend the entire week climbing stone stairs, taking my shoes on and off, attending services and trying to decipher complicated Buddhist iconography and demonology. Exhausting. Confusing.

Gelugpa

A Buddhist denomination. One of four. Also known as the Yellow Hats. As opposed to the Red Hats. Stricter than the Red Hats. The Dalai Lama is a Yellow Hat.

Gurgur cha

Rancid butter tea, the Ladakhis’ favourite beverage. They slurp their tea in Ladakh. The sound of 70 Buddhist monks noisily enjoying their morning brew will never leave me. Tastes better than it ought to.

Indus River

The mighty, sacred Indus. Two thousand miles long. It rises in western Tibet and disgorges into the Arabian Sea. Two of the village houses I stayed at were situated right next to it. In Ladakh, the Indus is as wide as the Thames at Henley. Drifts of tennis-ball-shaped granite pebbles at the bends. Water glacial, glaucous in colour. Sometimes iridescent blue. The flood plain is a long winding verdant oasis of elm, willow, poplar and fruit trees. Home of the blind river dolphin.

Julee!

The friendly Ladakhi greeting. Repeated three, four or five times according to how glad one is to see them.

Juniper

A sacred plant burnt to keep away evil spirits. The
characteristic smell inside the monasteries is a combination of rancid butter, incense and smouldering juniper. The walls and ceilings are black with it.

Lhaba

Village shaman or oracle. I visited one at her home: a quiet, unassuming woman called Patma Lamo. She went outside and stuck her head in a pail of water and ran back into the room inhabited by a violently angry deity called Nyintangla, who made her belch, shriek and convulse alarmingly. It seemed odd that she would put herself through the ordeal of demon possession to appease the whim of a tourist. I rewarded her handsomely. At the frantic climax of her possession, the interpreter asked me if there was anything I would like to ask Nyintangla. A prophesy, perhaps? ‘No thanks,’ I said.

Mani walls

Ancient, long, low, whitewashed walls built on the outskirts of villages to keep evil spirits away. Pathetically ineffective in appearance, until one remembers that three nuclear powers — China, Pakistan and India — are facing off across Ladakh’s borders.

Naropa Photang

A famous nunnery. I attended a service in the chapel. Afterwards I asked the guide who all those men were. There were no men there, she said. They were all women.

Polyandry

An innocuous Ladakhi tradition, exciting great interest among anthropologists, and recently banned by the Indian government, though persisting in remoter districts, in which a Ladakhi woman can have more than one husband.

Stupa

Ubiquitous monumental chess piece, usually whitewashed, sometimes blue or yellow, the design of which is a symbolic representation of the tenets of Buddhism. Stupas are also reliquaries of the bones of Buddhist saints. Custom dictates one always negotiates a passage around them in a clockwise direction. There was one on the garden path of our village houses. A bloody nuisance.

Skalden

The name of our gentle and spiritual young guide. He had no discernible vices, but would occasionally accept a cigarette. Slurped his tea as though it were an Olympic sport.

Tibet

Ladakh is culturally Tibetan. It is also known as Little Tibet. Now that Tibet has bullet trains and communism, Ladakh is more Old Tibet than Tibet itself. The internet is slow and patchy, and confined largely to the capital, Leh. When I was there, there was no internet to be had in the entire kingdom. Which on its own is a good enough reason for going to Ladakh, I’d say.

One of the bedrooms at Shakti Ladakh Village Houses
One of the bedrooms at Shakti Ladakh Village Houses

Cazenove+loyd (cazloyd.com; 020 7384 2332) offers one night at the Lodhi New Delhi (inc. breakfast) and seven nights in Shakti Village Houses in Ladakh (all-inclusive) from £5,500 per person based on two sharing. Includes international and domestic flights with Jet Airways, private transfers and a personal guide in Ladakh.


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