The Great Wide Open: A Trek in Ladakh

Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.

The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina  goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.

Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.

This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.

We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?

The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.

Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri,  all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley.  Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang.  It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.

Tantric Buddhist Dance in a palm-leaf Manuscript

In the Himalayan regions, there exist many kinds of popular Buddhist dance forms, usually performed during festivals or harvests. Some of these, like the one at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh or the ‘Lama Dances’ of Sikkim are known the world over. Specifically, they are forms of tantric dances, performative manifestations of the highly ritualised Vajrayana Buddhism.

Many lesser known forms of Tantric Buddhist dances exist, none more so than those recorded by the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu valley. Their’s is an unique culture: the Newars are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition of Bihar, Bengal and Kashmir, complete with an artistically complex system of Vajrayanic modes of worship whereby  tantric Vajracharya priests officiate over community rituals as well as devotional and life-cycle ceremonies.

As is evident with Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana lays great emphasis on the creativeness of religious ritual, incorporating vividly visual sadhanas or meditational techniques, as well as the use of theatrical gestures and the ritual art creation of mandalas and thangkas (‘paubha’ in Newari; ‘pata’ in Sanskrit). This mastery of religious art ties in perfectly with the Newars’  continued excellence in the plastic, decorative and performative arts, with master craftsmen producing stunning works of sculpture and painting for at least a thousand years now.

Professional artists, many of whom also double up as religious specialists, have, as a rule, assiduously maintained a corpus of sketchbooks, filled with line-drawings of models, annotated instructions, as well as their religious and spiritual interpretations.

Many of the historical ones have been collected and published, and recently I came across some stunning sketches of tantric Buddhist dances from the 18th century, in the scholar Gudrun Bühnemann’s book Buddhist Iconography and Ritual in Paintings and Line Drawings from Nepal.

These sketches were made on palm-leaf manuscripts, and they portray the Parikramavidhi, the ritual dance around a site to purify it before the construction of a mandala. Highly influential in Nepal, the Parikramavidhi was a detailed ritual manual written by a Newari Vajrayana monk named Kuladatta sometime in the 13th century, as a part of his book, the Kriyasamgraha-panjika, in which he outlines the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a older texts like the famous Mayajalatantra and the renowned Bengali tantric monk Abhayakaragupta’s ritual compendium, Vajravali, written in the early 12th century CE.

Making full use of forms from the Indian classical dance tradition of the Natyashastras, the sketchbook visually shows the various mudras (gestures), abhinayas (stances) which are to be performed with prescribed mantras, by the officiating monks/priests. Dressed in full ritual regalia, they are to assume the roles of various tantric deities, Bodhisattvas and directional guardians in order to purify the space.

Works of art like this manuscript, helps us get a deeper sense of the vibrant cultural and artistic lives of a people. So the next time you visit Patan, and see the wonderful Newari viharas like the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (popularly known as the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of that monastery or the various three-dimentional mandalas in its courtyard, many hundred years ago, Buddhist tantric adepts had probably performed a beautiful dance like this, to consecrate the site. The  performance must have been as arresting a sight as the Cham dance of Hemis.

Here are some panels from this beautiful manuscript.

In this panel, we see eight of forty-two stances or abhinayas to be performed by the principal master (Mulacharya) of the ritual. These are:

9. Vajraghantabhinaya in the Kurmapada stance facing east (of the mandala), evoking the Buddha Vajrasattva.

10. Vajrotkarsanabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing south, evoking the Buddha Akshobhya.

11. Vajravilasabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing west, evoking the deity Vajrakarman.

12. Garvadvayabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing north, evoking the deity Krodhalasya.

13. Bhramarijalabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing the centre, evoking the Buddha Vairochana.

14. Simhapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Yamantaka.

15. Simhavijrambhitapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Takkiraja.

16. Vajrasphotabhinaya in the Samapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Vajrasphota.

Each of these stances are adapted from the Natyashastra, where they are specified as standing postures for male performers.

Here’s another panel showing one abhinaya performed by an assisting adept, and seven abhinayas that evoke seven goddesses of ritual puja offerings, performed by the Mulacharya, while sitting in the yogic lotus posture, or padmasana.

65. Abhayabhinaya performed by the officiating adept in the north of the mandala.

66. Vajralasyabhinaya, evoking the goddess of beauty, Vajralasya.

67. Vajramalabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the garland, Vajramala.

68. Vajragitabhinaya, evoking the goddess of song, Vajragita.

69. Vajranrityabhinaya, evoking the goddess of dance, Vajranritya.

70. Vajradhupabhinaya, evoking the goddess of incense, Vajradhupa.

71. Vajrapuspabhinaya, evoking the goddess of flowers, Vajrapuspa.

72. Vajradipabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the lamp, Vajradipa.

Many such  examples of the beautiful artistic traditions of the Newars exist. It’s a pity these aren’t better known.

Finally, these dance forms remain a vital part of Newar cultural life, as can be seen in this recent video of the dancer Raj Sakya performing the tantric text Manjusri-Nama-Samgiti in a Buddhist courtyard in Patan.