The Known Unknown

Beyond the popular but now routine Ladakh, lies an infinitely absorbing stretch of the land that offers culture and life little known to the regular traveller the Zanskar region
Livestock graze near glassy waters
Livestock graze near glassy waters

What are the chances of meeting a YouTube sensation in a three-house village deep in the remote Zanskar Valley in Ladakh Pretty low, you would say. She sings, and she writes lyrics too. Stanzin Garskit is a vivacious young lady, a graduate of Hindustani music from Miranda House, Delhi. She is at home cheerfully rolling out aloo parathas along with Stanzin Dolma, her mother, in their kitchen. She is bustling around, handing us our blankets as we are about to turn in. Her family is hosting us, a weary ragtag bunch of &lsquoJeepers&rsquo. We are on an expedition to the barely seen parts of Ladakh, with the Zanskar region being the most significant part of our itinerary.

Wander Beyond Boundaries, which facilitates extreme off-roading adventures, is co-owned by Nidhi Salgame and Col Satty Malik SM (retd.). Nidhi is a driving record holder &mdash the first Indian to drive solo to Siberia, to the coldest inhabited place on earth. Satty is a decorated officer of the Indian Army and has handled many challenging assignments in Kashmir, northeast India and Congo. 

I have a love-hate relationship with them. I love travelling with them Ladakh was my fourth expedition with them in just over two years. I hate it when they tell me, rather unceremoniously, to wake up at 3.30 am and commence the drive at 4.30 am. After each trip, I resolve not to travel with them, and each time when they announce a new expedition, I succumb. So here I was, signing up to an extreme 1,200 kilometres, 13-day self-drive expedition across rarely visited west and south Ladakh areas. You can quickly drive by Byama village along the Indus Valley road, unaware of its significance. It is your average, nondescript hamlet, but for two notable features. It lies in the heart of India&rsquos apricot cultivation area of the Batalik sector. More interestingly, the residents are said to be pure Aryans. Some believe they are the descendants of the mighty Alexander the Great&rsquos soldiers, the great conqueror who abandoned the thoughts of conquering India and retreated. The soldiers scattered some traced their path eastwards along the mighty Indus river. The truth about the origins of Brokpas, as they are called, is obscured in the mists of time. But one can readily see that these people do not look like Ladakhis, who typically have Tibetan-Mongoloid features. The Brokpas are sharp-featured, very fair, long-nosed, with beautiful green or blue eyes. They occupy some five to seven villages in the Batalik area.  

Skidzum Lundup, a Brokpa, runs her hotel Aryan Residency in the Byama village with a light touch. She smiles with her eyes. She has spent all her life in the area the Brokpas marry within the community to keep their lineage pure. She indulgently watches as we nearly strip the apricot tree in the hotel compound bare of ripe apricots. I had never had fresh apricots before. 

A festive atmosphere prevails at the polo ground at Drass. A throng of polo crazy villagers from nearby villages wait in anticipation. A traditional polo match is about to begin. A two- member band playing daman (a percussion instrument) and surna (a wind instrument) is whipping up a frenzy. The horse riders enter the ground, and the game is on. The asshups (horses) seem hugely enthusiastic, though to my eyes a bit rough-mannered Possibly because a polo match is being held in Drass after a long time due to covid. Polo sticks clobber the kopoli (ball) from one end to the other. The frenzied music continues. A goal is announced by the musicians there are no referees in traditional polo. No rules either, as polo promoter Amin explains to us before the game. You expect tired players to take rest during recess, but they would have none of it. They break into a nutay, dance in their local Shina language. 

I was having a cup of tea on the lawns of the Hotel D&rsquoMeadows, Drass. I asked a local whether the peak I saw close by was Tiger Hill &mdash the scene of a fierce battle between India and Pakistan where Capt. Vikram Batra attained martyrdom. He confirms, &ldquoYes. That is indeed the Tiger Hill.&rdquo He added, &ldquoWe, the locals, worked hard to support the Indian Army. I, along with some friends, would ferry kerosene oil up the hill.&rdquo Then, very poignantly, he added, &ldquoWe would descend the hill carrying bodies of our fallen jawans.&rdquo 

Sankoo, 40km south of Kargil en route to Suru Valley, is a small town which one would pass by without thinking twice about it. If you do decide to take a very short detour to Karchey Khar, a majestic Maitreya Buddha carved on a hillside awaits you. One basic signpost announces this seventh-century marvel. Nine meters tall, remarkably well preserved, but it seems to attract hardly any tourists. Buddhist prayer flags flutter around. Perhaps some devotees had come earlier. 

A drive along the Suru River through the picturesque Suru Valley leads us to Rangdum village, nearly at the end of the valley. The village with a population of barely a couple of hundred residents stands in a green bowl surrounded by mountains painted in multiple colours hence the name Rangdum. 

Rangdum is not physically a part of Zanskar Valley, but culturally very Zanskar. Zanskar is a large area in Ladakh abutting the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. It was a Buddhist kingdom earlier, with its capital at Padum. It had a tumultuous history with neighbouring Ladakh kingdom and then&nbspa coalition of kingdoms now in Himachal Pradesh ransacking it. In more recent times, wars with Pakistan and China have impacted the region. 

The hearty breakfast at our homestay is soul pleasing. A sattu (barley powder) concoction in salted tea brewed out of Kashmiri tea leaves, Yak butter and salt is passed around. Dastukh (a khichdi of sorts prepared with rice, yak cheese, milk and stewed greens) follows, lovingly served in a spotless hormukh (bowl). Our hostess keeps topping up our hormukhs urging us to eat well for our journey further deep into the Zanskar region. 

Village women in bright costumes, crowned by a perak (Ladakhi women&rsquos cape-like headgear studded with turquoise stones), have assembled in a large clearing on the village outskirts. They entertain us with local songs and dances. Rangdum Gompa (Buddhist Monastery) built around two hundred years ago, sits atop a hill close to Rangdum village. When made, it stuck over a glacier which had subsequently melted away. The Gompa is quiet when we reach there. There are the usual statues, prayer material inside, and of course, Buddhist religious texts, wrapped in cloth, stacked neatly on shelves lining the walls of the sanctum sanctorum. 

A request to the sole lama we encounter to show us one of the texts is cheerfully accepted. He begins reading the scripture written in Tibetan script and gets so engrossed in it that he does not notice our departure. Padum, the erstwhile capital of Zanskar kingdom, lies a hundred kilometres southeast of Rangdum. This tiny town is bustling with shoppers from around the Zanskar region and bikers from all over India seeking a shelter before they ride off on the difficult to the Shinko La pass further south or drive around the vicinity discovering for themselves the majestic &mdash but remote &mdash gompas dotting the region. 

My search for over a thousand-year-old Karsha Monastery through the vast spaces of the hinterland of Padum leads me to a happy discovery &mdash the smaller Pibiting Gompa, a satellite gompa of the big daddy at Karsha. There seems to be a festive atmosphere around the place. 

I am feeling a little lost when an old gentleman emerges and engages me in small talk. It seems he is a volunteer at the gompa. No lamas are around, and the gentleman informs me that they have gone to the Karsha Gompa. He also tells us that a few hours ago, an area in the gompa was consecrated. The gompa will build chortens (Buddhist shrines) and a stone platform in the area. He leads me inside the gompa and points to a pile of offerings stacked neatly along a wall. Religious texts wrapped in bright yellow cloth, religious figurines, agricultural equipment and curiously enough, a massive bow and many arrows. Karsha Gompa, like many other gompas, is formidably built along a mountainside. The approach to the top is deserted, with no one to ask for directions. Panting heavily, I crawl up the steep hillside. 

The monastery was built over one thousand years ago. The interior is stacked with memorabilia from over the centuries, religious icons and paintings, books, and interestingly the mummified remains of a lama. A poster informs visitors that, &ldquoInside the stupa are the mummified remains of venerable Lama Dode Rinchen Zangpo who achieved nirvana during 1400 AD.&rdquo There is&nbspa video crew shooting a travel guide. One of them helpfully flashes a torchlight through the glass window of the chorten revealing the mummified remains of the Lama sitting in an upright position. 

When I emerge, I spot Lama Tashi waiting for us in the monastery courtyard. He smiles when I ask him how he became a lama. He says he always wanted to become a lama, but his parents would not allow him. He ran away from home in a nearby village when he was thirteen and reached Karsha monastery, where he served for the past thirty-seven years. That makes him fifty years old. He said he teaches children training to become lamas. Not only religious texts, but other &ldquonormal&rdquo subjects too maths, science etc. 

I collect unique hardware while travelling. The lama&rsquos hat intrigues me, and I wonder if I could borrow his. Or better still, buy one for my collection. He laughs loudly, &ldquoNo, only lamas are entitled to wear this hat. This is not for you.&rdquo Before leaving I peek into his classroom, a large, sunlit hall. I spot thirty to forty children enjoying a break with pastries that someone had gifted them. At the goading of Lama Tashi, they offer me a bite. I am tempted, but I refuse this offer politely. Let the budding lamas have some moments of sensual pleasures, I say to myself. 

Our convoy stops for tea on the foothills of Gonbo Rangjon. This is just ten kilometres before the mighty 16,580 feet Shingo La, which is on the border of Zanskar and Lahaul Region of Himachal Pradesh. Gonbo in the local language means God, and rang jon means self-emerged. The lofty Gonbo Rangjon is a stand-alone mountain peak, majestic even in an area full of mountains. The Buddhists revere it. They consider it as mahakala (beyond death), a patron God of the region. 

At Purne village we are guided to a grassy clearing overlooking the confluence of the turquoise blue waters of Tsarap Chu and the muddy Lugnak rivers. Colourfully costumed women wearing garam topi (a typical cap worn by Zanskar women, made of yak felt) on their heads from the nearby villages await our team. There will be a cultural program before we depart from the village. Stanzin, who a moment ago was packing takeaway lunch for us clad in jeans and T-shirt, has changed into a royal blue sulma (a long flowing gown) and joins the women. Song and dance follows, some describing the beauty of the area. The concluding piece still lingers on in my mind, 

&ldquoTusrab soma sharsong, yargyas cheyang dukpa...&rdquo 

The new generation has come, and there is a lot of progress everywhere. Our beautiful Zanskar is also changing in different ways. Just promise that our ancient culture and education should not vanish with time but remain intact forever. I sip my drink on the hotel lawns in Leh in the evening upon our return from the expedition. I spy a shooting star, ubiquitous in Leh. I make a silent wish and pray that the beautiful and hospitable people of Zanskar get what they hope for, ample development of the region and preservation of the centuries-old culture and heritage. 

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