One Road, Two Cultures – In Ladakh, North India

  • By Nanda Haensel

  • Travel /11 October 2017

  • By Nanda Haensel

Once off-limits, Ladakh welcomed its first tourists in 1994. Located in a remote region in North India, Ladakh consists of high-altitude deserts and windswept moors. Beneath its peaceful appearance and landscape lies an air of politically-charged tension; along its eastern edge runs India's border with China while to the West is the Line of control, where the decades-old Kashmir dispute with Pakistan continues to play out.

It is here that I find the most intact Tantric Buddhist society left on earth, as well as a few untouched Muslim villages along the way. Along the highest motorable road in the world between the Indus and Nubra valleys, I realise I’m in the middle of something extraordinary. 


When not in the monasteries, Monks walk across the Grand Bazaar Road, in Leh – Ladakh’s capital and largest town.


In the past, Leh was an important stop over on trade routes along the Indus Valley between Tibet, India and China. The Grand Bazaar – its main road – still has the ancient ambience of the Silk Road, with locals trading all sorts of goods.


Authentic Tibetan construction from the 16th century such as that of the Leh Palace, overlooking the Himalayas, can be seen everywhere.


Buddhists in Ladakh are firm believers of the influence of the spirits on their everyday lives. Astrologers and oracles play the key role of mediators between the world of humans and that of the spirits.


The traditional headdress is a symbol of economic status, composed of a strap of leather studded with semi-precious stones.


Men and women spend their days working in the fields in Thiksey countryside, in Leh valley.

Photo: Thiksey Maitreya

Inaccessible and almost off-limits to travellers in the past two decades, Ladakh’s geography protected it from ravages of the Chinese cultural revolution. It is here that one can experience the most intact Tantric Buddhist culture left on earth.


Each morning, robed Tibetan monks "wake" the Thiksey valley up with horns made of conch shells.


Traditions that go beyond generations in the morning prayers at Thiksey Monastery.


A young monk-in-training at Thiskey Monastery prepares to serve butter tea during prayers.


Khardung La – world’s highest motorable pass – at 5,600 meters altitude marks the boundary between the Indus and Nubra valleys.


The roads cut through the rugged terrain in a zigzag manner, leading from one place to another amidst its dramatic mountains and valleys.


In empty Nubra valley - North of Leh - Diskit monastery is perched precariously on a mountain spur much like the famous Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan.


Monks gather in the prayer hall of Diskit monastery after the main ceremony.


The centuries-old buildings of Diskit Monastery are raw and crumbling and falling in on themselves.


The wilderness of Shyok valley instill a sense of calm and serenity.


The Ladakhi women in the Shyok valley remain inextricably tied to ancient rural traditions.


The presence of military forces at the Line of Control serve as a firm reminder of the dispute between India and Pakistan. 


The residents of Chang ma village have learned to live with the harsh terrain and conditions. 


Divided by a border, Turtuk village is located a few kilometres from the “Line of Control” between India and Pakistan.


Turtuk is a Muslim village, in a Buddhist region, within a majority-Hindu country. 


Hard manual labour is just part and parcel of everyday life to women in remote Turtuk village.


The culture, language and clothing change quite drastically as we cross over into the muslim town of Turtuk. It was under Pakistan’s control until 1971, when India took over this strategic area. Many locals have their relatives living across the Line of Control, just like this man in the photo

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Photographs by Max Haensel