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Ladakh, whose capital is Leh, is officially part of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir.


  • Aug 23/09, "Flashbacks from Here and There: A Ladakh Journey -- Part One" by Nick and Gina Ellena.  (Abridged from their article in Travel Magazine) ~

Our bus rounded the shaded base of the hill and suddenly the monastery was revealed in brilliant sunlight. It was a dazzling sight. 

The huge monastery rose in tier after tier of bone-whitewalls on the side of the mountain in the Indus Valley of Ladakh in Northern India.

Several young school boys passed by shouting "Jooleh!" at us, the friendly Ladakh greeting that is delivered with a smile.

Gina was an instant hit with her phrase-book knowledge of Ladakhi. The children clustered, laughingly, around her. We left them behind waving to us when we started to climb to the monastery. We paused frequently for breath in the thinning atmosphere of 11,500 feet. Below us the Indus River plunged into the terrible Himalayan gorges.

A deep band of green and gold lined the river. It was harvest time. In the fields families stooped over barley, cutting it with sickles.  Their songs kept rhythm with their movements.

A hum of voices drifted down from the monastery.  The murmur grew louder as we approached the stone stairs at the main entrance.  A lama in a burgundy robe appeared at the top step. He waived for us to approach. We climbed, somewhat in awe, and
took off our shoes.  We followed the lama who, with clasped hands, led us inside. We entered a huge prayer hall, lit by two bright shafts of sunlight, which revealed massive carved red pillars that held up the ceiling.  A senior lama was passing around, distributing money that the lamas happily received.  It was payday at the monastery.

Ladakh, the land of lamas, who seek freedom from endless reincarnations, is set in an environment of raw and hostile beauty tucked into one of the most remote corners of the globe.

It is sometimes called Little Tibet because of the influence extended there by Tibetan Buddhism.   It is flanked by Pakistan to the west, China to the north, Tibet to the east and India and Kashmir to the south.  All around tower some of the highest mountains in the world.

The monasteries play an important part in the life of the country. Almost every village has
one, each with two head lamas -- one for spiritual and one for temporal affairs.

With the Muslim invasions of the Seventeenth Century, the influence of Allah was extended to Ladakh, and Buddhism and Islam have existed side by side.  With the treaty of Armitsar in 1846, Ladakh and Kashmir passed over to India.

Ladakh has seen conquerors come and go through the centuries. These upheavals have left few scars in a land that never dips below 8,000 feet and most of its scant population lives, toils and dies between the giddy elevations of 11,000 and 15,000 feet.

The seasonal cycle, limited almost exclusively to the pursuit of food, shelter and endless rounds of prayer, has gone on virtually unchanged amid the roaring technology of the 20th century.

(Part II on Sept. 6)

Nick Ellena, a retired reporter with the Enterprise-Record who covered Butte County government for decades, shares his memories of his world travels in this column.

How Ladakh was Saved

  • May 26/09, Sify (India), "An Ode to the Unsung Heroes of Ladakh" by Claude Arpi

    The 17-year-old Braveheart

    He was a 17-year-old who was enrolled as a Jemadar (Junior Commissioned Officer [cf. 2nd Lieutenant] in the Indian Army in 1948.  And he won his first Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) at that very age.  Ever heard of this hero?

    The late Chewang Rinchen, a Ladakhi from Nubra Valley, went on to rise to the rank of a Colonel by the time his long and glittering army career came to an end in 1984.

    Born in 1931, Chewang could have spent his entire life in the remote village of Sumur, at the confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers. But the visit of the Kalon (minister) of Leh [Ladakh's capital] changed the course of his life. The official spotted the spark in the 13-year boy and, after gaining the approval of his parents, decided to take him to the Ladakhi capital and educate him.

    It was here in Leh four years later that Chewang first encountered the Indian Army.

    On March 13, 1948, Col (then Captain) Prithi Chand and a few of his Lahauli companions lowered the Union Jack and hoisted the Indian tricolour shouting "Ki Ki So So Lha Gyalo" (`Victory to the Gods` in Ladakhi) and "Hindustan Zindabad."

    Captain Chand's 2nd Dogra Company had reached Leh before columns of raiders could make it to Ladakh in one of the most daring operations of the 1947-1948 war in Jammu and Kashmir.

    With 20 men, the Captain ... managed to cross the Zojila pass in winter.

    Everybody at the headquarters had branded the attempt "suicidal." But the headstrong Captain refused to pay heed to them and on March 9, he was in Leh. His heroism and leadership helped the Buddhist region avoid the fate of Skardu, which
    had been besieged for several months.

    The good Captain soon became the mentor of the young Rinchen, who twelve days later underwent a ten-day military training under Subedar Bhim Chand,  Chand`s second-in-command.

    Rinchen then recruited 28 of his friends from the Nubra Valley and thus the Nubra Volunteer Force (later, Nubra Guards) came into being.

    No question of surrender

    By now, the raiders from across the border were planning their attack on Leh.

    They could reach Leh through three different routes. The most unguarded was the one via the Shyok river and Rinchen's village.

    The 17-year-old Jemadar immediately left Leh with his men, and after a 10-day walk, which involved crossing the treacherous Khardung-la, the volunteers reached the banks of the Shyok river.

    Once there, the Nunnus, (as the jawans recruited in Nubra Valley were to be known) were put under the command of Rinchen`s trainer Subedar Bhim Chand. Soon after reaching their destination, they began repelling the intruders.

    The marauders, though, continued to threaten Leh even after the Dakota of Air Commodore Mehar Singh (a daredevil Air Force Officer) became the first plane to land in Leh on a makeshift airfield on 24 May 1948.

    General Thimayya, then a Major General commanding the Kashmir sector, was with Mehar Singh in the cockpit. The duo had demonstrated that it was possible to open an air bridge and bring reinforcements into the Buddhist kingdom.

    Despite Mehar Singh`s achievement, Leh was far from secure.

    By the end of June, there were only 20 regular jawans and 150 militiamen operating under Bhim Chand in Shyok valley. One day, all the forces were ordered to return to Leh to protect the Ladakhi capital. As for the Nubra Guard, they had to be disbanded and their arms and ammunitions withdrawn.

    The young Rinchen did not accept the Headquarters` order and rushed to Leh to meet Prithi Chand. He told the Captain with breezy assurance: "Sir, there is no question of surrendering myself or my weapons to the enemy. My fighting spirit will never die."

    Chand was convinced. He gave him 28 rifles and a Sten-gun* and sent Rinchen back to Nubra.

    The saviour of Ladakh

    For one month and 23 days, Rinchen and his Nunnus heroically defended the Shyok and Nubra valleys using tactics like shooting from different spots or lighting fires on many peaks to trick the enemy into believing that Indian troops were encircling the enemy.

    It worked and the raiders believed that they were facing a large contingent of the regular Indian Army.

    Rinchen was thus able to stop their advance [un]til the time reinforcements in the form of a Gorkha {Nepali] company could be sent.

    In 1984, a book published in Pakistan entitled Baltistan Par Ek Nazar mentioned: "If Commander Chewang Rinchen had not foiled these attacks, we would have overrun the whole of Nubra and then, crossing Khardung-la and occupying the airfield
    of Leh, we would have been the masters of the entire region of Ladakh."

    It was after this, on August 25, 1948, that Rinchen was enrolled in the Indian Army as a Jemadar. He was not yet 18.

    In November, 1948, he began to advance along the Shyok river toward Baltistan. Using unconventional tactics, he repelled the marauders supported by Pakistan.

    He captured peak after peak (such as Lama House, Tebedo and Takkar Hills), village after village (Skuru, Biagdangdo), hardly using his own ammunition.

    Instead, he used hand grenades and bayonets to attack the enemy, often collecting not only rifles and bullets from the fleeing Pakistani troops, but also the food necessary to sustain his Nunnus.

    On January 1, 1949, a ceasefire was ordered by the Indian Government. "It came like a bombshell. Given a few days, the raiders could have been thrown out of the entire Baltistan," it was noted.

    Rinchen had, however, earned his first MVC, which he received in September 1952 from Sheikh Abdullah, the then Prime Minister of Kashmir.

    The Gateway to Hell

    Twelve years later, in the summer of 1961, Rinchen was given another "impossible" task: to set up a post in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), near the Karakoram pass.

    The need arose after another terrible blunder by Nehru's government - the closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar that had facilitated the trade between the sub-continent and Central Asia.  The severing of the thousand-year-old cultural
    and trade link provided the People's Liberation Army (Chinese Army) with an opportunity to build a road on Indian territory with impunity.

    Realising its mistake, Delhi decided to set up a permanent presence near the base of the Karakoram Pass.  This was the job Chewang Rinchen had been entrusted with.

    It entailed a trek through 120 km of the most dangerous tracks on the planet beginning from the Nubra valley.

    There were two routes. The winter path was the easiest, crossing the Shyok river frozen for several months of the year, while the other went through the Saser pass (5326 m). Both routes converged at Murgo, not far from DBO.

    The area between Murgo and DBO, which Rinchen and his men had to cover from there on, was what you could term a plain at an altitude of 5000 m. It was called the "The Gateway to Hell" for its notoriously deceitful weather, its freezing temperature and deadly snow blizzards. Lucky were the caravans that went through unscathed.

    In August 1961, Rinchen and his Nunnus set off on their trek towards DBO.

    Rinchen`s biographer recalls: "As the winter had set in, the march proved to be extremely difficult. When the party reached Saser La [pass], it took rest at the base for two days before crossing the Saser La. However, Rinchen, along with [two of his men] climbed a virgin peak close by, at a height of approx 6,000 metres, without any equipment and oxygen cylinders. They reached the peak by noon and planted a Buddhist flag, "Tarchok" with the prayer "Om mane padme hum."  This was typical of the Nunnus, simultaneously Buddhist to the core, and fearless and daring.

    After crossing the pass, they proceeded towards DBO. Along the way, they came across skeletons of human beings and animals lying scattered all along the track. This was a normal sight on this route.

    On September 3, 1961, the party reached the Chip Chap river, not far from DBO. The next morning, when he woke up, Rinchen noticed the hoof marks of camels and horses as well as tyre marks left by a three-ton vehicle.

    He began to suspect that the Chinese were already occupying the Indian territory and decided to locate the Chinese post.

    After crawling through difficult terrain and a high pass, he reached a water point. The enemy wasn't far away.

    He climbed a small plateau, and with the help of his binoculars saw that hardly 500 metres away "the Chinese had established their headquarters in a double-storied fort, having two doors and many loop holes. About 300 Chinese were busy making bricks and loading and unloading three three-tonners."

    He immediately informed the Army Headquarters who relayed his discovery to Delhi. As usual, the bosses in Delhi could not believe that the Chinese could have penetrated this deep into the area.

    Fortunately, the presence of the fort was confirmed by two surveillance planes which took pictures. Delhi had to accept the hard facts and accept the importance of having the permanent post in DBO.

    A hero again

    In September 1965, at the height of the India-Pakistan war, Rinchen, often compared to an ibex, was given another impossible task.

    The Chinese were threatening to attack DBO to support their Pakistani friends. He was ordered to travel from the Nubra Valley to DBO through another unusual route.

    Instead of taking the normal 15 days, Rinchen, leading his troops (including his commanding officer), made it in four days. His commanding officer remembers: "On the fourth day, the 25th September 1965, we were in our battle positions at the tri-junction."

    The Army Headquarters was astonished when they received the information that the force had already reached DBO. That was Chewang Rinchen!

    Six years later, in the 1971 India-Pakistan war, Rinchen and the Nunnus covered themselves in glory once again.

    They continued the unfinished task of 1948, reoccupying the large village of Turtok and advancing further towards Baltistan using "ibex" tactics: climbing through the most difficult path in order to take the enemy by surprise and from a higher position. It helped that Rinchen used hand grenades and bayonets to attack the enemy, sparing the ammunition.

    Unfortunately, once again a ceasefire was declared on September 17, 1971 and Rinchen and his men could not reach Kapalu, the Siachen base camp on the Pakistan side. If only he had been able to continue his operations for a few more days, he would have regained Kapalu and one would have never heard of the Siachen glacier conflict.

    The devout Buddhist nevertheless earned a second MVC during the 10-day operation.

    Claude Arpi, the writer of this ode, is an expert on the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He was born in Angouleme, France.  After graduating from Bordeaux University in 1974, he decided to live in India and settled in the South where he is still staying with his Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author of numerous English and French books including The Fate of Tibet, La Politique Francaise de Nehru: 1947-1954, Born in Sin: the Panchsheel Agreement and India and Her Neighbourhood.  He writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations.

*Sten gun: next generation machine gun after the Thompson.  First used by Canadian forces in WWI at Dieppe.

"The scholars do not agree on the etymology of the word Ladakh. For some, it is the 'Land of the Passes' (la); for others, it is the 'Land of the Lamas.' Whatever the correct interpretation, it is, for both reasons, certainly one of the most peaceful places on earth.

But, recently, foreign embassies in India decided otherwise; they issued a circular forbidding their nationals to visit the area which was suddenly tagged as 'the most dangerous place in the world,' though the ground reality said otherwise.

Visiting Leh last week, I had the chance to experience the celebrated peace and hospitality of the region (especially with all the tourists

A recurrent mistake made by diplomats as well as political commentators is to equate Kashmir with the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is vaster (areawise and politically) than the valley.

As rightly pointed by Dr Karan Singh, the erstwhile Sadar-i-Ryasat and heir apparent to his father Hari Singh, the last maharaja of Kashmir: 'A common mistake is to use the word Kashmir as a shorthand for the multi-regional J&K state and then to proceed politically on this basis.  This approach is the root of many problems.'

Though the Kashmir valley constantly draws the attention of the world media and the chancelleries in Delhi, it is geographically a very small portion of the state. In 1947, the area of the state was about 222, 000 sq km. Today, about 79,000 sq km of that area is occupied by Pakistan, 5, 300 sq km were generously 'ceded' to China by General Ay[o]ub Khan in 1963 and 37, 000 sq km were grabbed by China in the early 1950s when Beijing decided to built a road linking occupied Tibet to Sinkiang.

At the time of Kashmir's accession to India in October 1947, political and economic power was offered to Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference government in Srinagar despite the fact that Ladakh covered 70 per cent of the area under India's administration. Dominated by the successive Kashmiri governments for the past 50 years, Ladakh has practically been deprived of any say in its development.

It is interesting to return to the period immediately succeeding the maharaja's signature on the Instruments of Accession, when raiders from the North West Frontier Province (the same region where, today, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers seem to have taken refuge) began pouring into the valley, looting and burning villages in their way and abducting and raping the women, whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. It is only their greed that delayed them long enough to allow the Indian army to save Srinagar and repulse the raiders beyond Baramulla. During these first months after Independence, Jinnah and his colleagues' motto was:  'Let us liberate our Muslim brothers from the yoke of the Dogras (which term was later replaced by Indians).' The raiders entered the valley under this pretext.

But the Pakistanis leaders' greed had no limit. Their 'two nations' theory, according to which the Muslim dominated areas of the subcontinent were to become part of Pakistan and the Hindus, Sikhs and others were to remain with India, was thrown into the wind when Karachi decided to 'liberate' their Buddhist brothers in Ladakh. The motivation for Operation Sledge, which aimed to take over the vast Ladakh plateau, was not ideological: the treasures of the Buddhist gompas (monasteries) were a great lure for finance-starved Pakistan.

In February 1948, when the brigade commander in Srinagar (Brigadier 'Bogey' Sen) got wind of these plans (the raiders were to comprise of more than 800 of tribal Pathans mixed with a few Gilgit Scouts), he was in a fix. The formidable Zoji-la pass was an uncrossable barrier between the valley and Ladakh and there was no way to airlift reinforcements to Leh. Wheels other than the dharma chakras were unknown in Ladakh.

It was then that Captain Prithvi Chand, a young Buddhist officer from Lahaul, the Himalayan region beyond Manali and the Rotang Pass, offered his services; he told the brigadier he was ready to cross Zoji-la in winter with a small caravan of men and mules carrying arms and ammunitions. Though Buddhists and believers in ahimsa, these men were ready to risk their lives and fight their way through the weather, the altitude and the raiders to defend their co-religionists in Ladakh.  Nobody thought the mission feasible, but there was no other solution.

So without the knowledge of army headquarters -- which was reluctant to permit such a risky operation -- the young captain crossed the pass with about 60 volunteers and reached safely Leh to prepare a surprise for the raiders.

It was first of a long saga of heroic acts by the young officers of these mountainous regions who, since then, have bravely defended Indian territory. One should mention Colonel Chewwang Rinchen, who was twice awarded the Mahavir Chakra -- first for having stopped the advance of raiders in the Nubra Valley in June 1948 and the second for the bravery he displayed in the Turtuk sector in December 1971.

More recently, Major Sonam Wangchuk (another Buddhist soldier to be awarded the MVC) and his Ladakh Scouts recaptured some of the crucial peaks occupied by Pakistan during the Kargil war in 1999. One still has the image of Wangchuk, praying to the Dalai Lama, the incarnated Bodhisattva of Compassion, to give him the strength to save his nation, India.

These Buddhist heroes had to first fight their own non-violent Buddhist principles before they could take on the invaders; they knew the survival of their dharma was at stake. They had heard tales of the fall of Gilgit, where the scouts led by Major Brown, a British officer, had revolted against the Dogra garrison and invited Pakistan to take over the administration. In the days that followed, Hindus and Sikhs were given a few minutes to decide if they wanted to adopt the Islamic faith or die.

Immediately after the Accession, the Ladakhis took the stand that their future was linked with India, though culturally, racially and linguistically they were closer to Tibet, the source of their inspiration and religion.

Ladakh finally became a part of India when General Thimmaya won the most extraordinary battle of modern warfare, taking his tanks to the top of Zoji-la to the utter surprise and disbelief of the raiders who immediately fled.

Though these heroes had rescued more than half of the maharaja's territory, the Ladakhis were still very unhappy. They had saved their dharma, but were getting entangled in the Kashmir problem. They had no interest in Sheikh Abdullah's political games which were aimed at getting the valley an independent status. (In December 1947, the Sheikh even asked Hari Singh to continue to be maharaja of Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur while he would be the ruler of an independent Islamic republic.  The fate of Ladakh, Baltistan, Gilgit was not mentioned in the Sheikh's proposal.)

In May 1949, the first delegation of the Young Men's Buddhist Association of Ladakh led by Kalon Chhewang Rigzin met Nehru in Delhi and presented him a memorandum: 'We seek the bosom of that gracious Mother India to receive more nutriment for growth to our full stature in every way. She has given us what we prize above all things -- our religion and culture.'

It is interesting to note that Abdullah was fighting for a separate flag for the state, even as the Ladakhis glowed with pride on seeing the Asoka wheel on the Indian flag. Ladakh saw in it the symbol of 'goodwill for all humanity and her concern for her cultural children.' They prayed to Nehru: 'Will the Great Mother refuse to take into her arms one of her weakest and most forlorn and depressed children -- a child whom filial love impels to respond to the call?'

Unfortunately, India's leaders, beginning with the Kashmiri Pandit, Nehru, did not respond to Ladakh's appeal. An eyewitness to this first meeting told me Nehru smiled and explained he was sympathetic with their views but 'Kashmir was now an international problem and India could not afford to take any hasty actions which could spoil the good Indian case in the UN.'

Of course, 53 years later, the reference to the good case seems laughable, but the attitude of most Indian leaders continues to remain unchanged. 'We cannot afford to antagonise Srinagar' remains the motto.

We can see today where this policy of appeasement has led us!

This is the shocking contrast -- on one side, some self-styled leaders refused to go through the recognised democratic system of elections and daily asked for more autonomy from the Indian state and, on the other side, the peaceful people Ladakh begging for more integration with India. In Leh, one understands the frustration of the ordinary Ladakhi who asks: "But what have they [the Kashmiris] done to deserve so much attention and advantages?"

In 1989, faced with Delhi's decade-long apathy and the 'larger issue of Kashmir', the Ladakhis had no alternative but to resort to an 'agitation,' an concept alien to Buddhism. When Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the head Lama of Ladakh and long-time minister in Srinagar (he recently retired as India's ambassador to Mongolia), began to defend the interests of Ladakh in the early fifties, he probably knew about the fate of the Jammu agitation and the tragic end of its leader Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who had dared to object to the Sheikh; Mookerjee, who believed India should have 'one flag, one constitution, one President,' lost his life in the process.

As a Buddhist teacher, Bakula did not choose the path of confrontation; he tried to get more autonomy for his region by working with the system.  But this method also failed.

A greater autonomy and closer links with India were not granted till the Ladakh Buddhist Association organised their non-violent movement in 1989, soon after the elections were rigged in the state and Pakistan began its proxy war in the valley. Due to the 'insurgency,' the region wanting to join Pakistan was pampered and appeased with more and more incentives, while Ladakh, crying to be one with India, was told to wait because their demand for Union territory status could not be granted at this point of time.

One of the main hurdles was the existence of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution: the concurrence of the state assembly where the valley has the majority is required for any change, however minor.

When I recently interviewed Ladakhi leaders in Leh, most of them, including the chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Thupstan Chhewang felt Article 370 should be abrogated. The autonomy they demand is not an autonomy from India, but an autonomy from Srinagar with whom they do not share common problems and aspirations. Many of my informants consider 1947 not as the independence of Ladakh but its enslavement to the leaders of the Kashmir valley.

This went to such an extent that, in 1952, when Sheikh Abdullah presented the state's budget to the constituent assembly, he forgot Ladakh. When Bakula protested in a strongly worded speech, Abdullah asked his speech to be expunged from the records under the pretext that it was in English and not in Urdu.

After many frustrating decades, Ladakh was finally offered an Autonomous Hill Development Council as a compromise in 1995. Though the chairman and his executives councillors (ministers) have vast executive powers on paper, they often face a frustrating situation with Srinagar, which is not really interested in their problems and has the ability to block the system.

This strange situation is compounded by the fact that the Hill Council
has been elected on the ticket of the Congress party, which is against
the trifurcation of the state and not presently in power at the Centre.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the aspirations of the Ladakhis can be fulfilled in the near future. Though they will be returning four MLAs in the forthcoming assembly election in the state, it is doubtful if the situation of the most strategic region of India will substantially improve.

Some people in Leh have pinned their hope on the younger Abdullah (Omar), feeling he will be more sympathetic to their plight because of his modern education and outlook. But, ultimately, the situation of the three regions can change only when each side is able to decide about its own needs and development priorities. For the ordinary Ladakhi, it is difficult to understand why the Centre, while continually appeasing the valley, has refused to allow the population of Ladakh and Jammu choose their own destiny and come closer to India.

The abrogation of Article 370 should certainly be the first step towards the integration of these regions. One flag and one Constitution is enough for the Ladakhis.

Some other actions could help reduce the frustration of the gentle people of Ladakh. One is the opening of an all-weather road from Spiti valley to Leh via Tsomiriri lake. Today, the two main highways are closed for more than seven months in a year. The opening of the old trade and pilgrimage route to Kailash in Tibet will also help; this would render Leh only three days away from Mansarovar and boost the local economy.

The creation of a local party that could ally directly with the Centre and lend force to the demands of the Ladakhis could also go a long towards helping their voice to be heard in Delhi. It should not be too difficult since the new deputy prime minister, L K Advani, recently rediscovered his roots on the banks of the Sindhu (Indus) river flowing through Ladakh.

But it is imperative not to forget Ladakh's special location: it is the only region in India facing two enemies -- the Chinese 'Liberation Army' on the high plateau of Aksai Chin and Linzinthang in the north, with Tibet in the west and Pakistan in the east. The region is also the scene of battle for the strategic Siachen glacier, which connects the old caravan route to Kashgar through the Karakoram pass.

And one should also not forget that, in times of difficulty, the Ladakhis have always cast their lot with India."



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