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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Ladakh Diaries Part 3 : Leh

We stayed at the Mizka Homestay in Leh, a small, simple place, an old house extended to accommodate guests. It is located on one of the inner roads off the market, so was peaceful and quiet. There were 4 rooms on the first floor, for guests. One of these is actually a kitchen which doubles up as a guest room when there are extra visitors. All the rooms were occupied, since this was the peak tourist season, but we met only one other guest, a Brazilian from Copenhagen on a long tour of South-East Asia.

Our room at the Mizka Homestay

What I loved was the seating arrangement in the common/ dining area, which had these low seats, reminding me of the low palagas we sit on, in south India.

The dining room at the homestay

It was also interesting to learn that rice was the staple for most people in the region.  I have no notes of the food we ate, in my diary… not surprising, since I barely notice what I eat, and am not very happy to experiment. But I do remember that we asked our hostess to cook anything vegetarian she usually cooked. She made us a variety of dishes, all of which we relished!

On our first morning in Leh, Shankar and I went off exploring, to the market. At the time, we were hugely into collecting and sending postcards, so most of my diary entries are about buying postcards and sending them off at the post office. Heading to a café run by our host, we finally found some Wi-Fi. Access to WhatsApp messages brought along the information that a friend of Shankar’s in the army was posted in Leh, and off we went to meet him! That led to lunch at the Officers’ Mess, and long conversations too personal to write about. He also took us to the Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to the Indian Army’s history and achievements in the region, including a short history of Ladakh.

Conversations with long lost friends tend to make one lose track of time, but we finally said our goodbyes and headed back to our homestay, only to lose our way among the by-lanes! We wandered around for almost an hour before finding our way back!

Our sightseeing of Leh began with a visit to the Leh Palace. The Leh Palace towers over the city, and is a massive, nine-storeyed structure built in stone, around 1600 CE by King Senge Namgyal, of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh. The royal family lived here till the 19th century, when they fled after the Dogra invasion. The outside of the palace is still impressive, while little remains of the decorations on the inside.

View of Leh city from the Palace

Also nearby, at the base of the Palace are the older fortifications, and the Namgyal Stupa, as well as other monasteries. Our plan was to visit all of them, but the day had already been a long one, and we were tired, with no energy to walk any more. We therefore gave them a miss and headed instead to the Shanti Stupa.

The Shanti Stupa is a picturesque stupa built atop a hillock by a Japanese Buddhist monk in 1991, with the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama. However, the main attraction of the stupa is the panoramic view it offers of the city of Leh.

View from the Shanti Stupa

Namgyal Tsemo (top left) and Leh Palace (bottom right)
as seen from the Shanti Stupa

Leh Palace (back view), seen from Shanti Stupa

Namgyal Tsemo, as seen from Shanti Stupa
Panoramic view of Shanti Stupa

If I planned a trip to Leh today, I would keep so much more time for the palace, the fort and the monasteries; I would also keep aside time to simply explore the city, walking along the lanes, looking at the houses. However, at the time I planned the trip, I was more worried about how I would react to the altitude, and thus kept activities to a minimum.

Our second day at Leh was dedicated to palaces and monasteries – Stok, Hemis, Thiksey and Shey. The four of them are special enough to warrant a post to themselves, so let me move on.

By the time we left Shey palace, I couldn’t wait to get back to our room, have a hot bath, and fall into bed. But the day wasn’t over yet. Shankar’s friend arrived, with friends in tow, and all of us headed to the Sound and Light show at the Zorawar fort.

Zorawar Singh was the wazir of the Raja of Jammu, who captured Ladakh and made it possible for the region to be eventually brought under the Indian Union. At the Leh palace, we had heard from our guide, the stories of his sack of Leh, of exiling the king to Stok, and his campaign to Tibet which eventually led to his death. Ladakhis look on Zorawar Singh as the cruel warrior who de-throned the rightful king, with help from the Muslims of Kargil, who deserved his death at the hands of the Tibetans, far from home.

At the fort, we heard the other side of the story – of the brilliant tactician and commander, who led his forces through the harsh land, to victory, over and over again. We heard of his quelling the rebellion in Ladakh thrice, of building the fort as a symbol of his victory. The show specifically mentions Zorawar Singh building the fort in the style of central and north India, completely unlike traditional Ladakhi architecture. It reminded me of one of the talks on monumentality at Jnanapravaha Mumbai, and I realized that this was, in a way, a means to attain monumentality – by choosing to build in an alien style, to act as a constant reminder of his victory his presence, to the locals, as a deterrent to further rebellions.

Once again, this highlighted the importance of hearing a story from both sides.

And thus ended our sightseeing of Leh. More of its Buddhist monasteries in the next post.

 Earlier posts in series -

Coming up -

  • Ladakh Diaries Part 4: Monasteries and Palaces in Leh - Stok, Hemis, Thiksey and Shey


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