A trip to moonland

Deep in the heart of Ladakh sits the remote village of Lamayuru, with an ancient monastery set against a spectacular natural landscape. Team Shubh Yatra stops by for a prayer

Brown, purple, red, rust, black or icy white, and lost in the clouds… Set against a brilliant cerulean sky, Ladakh’s mountains resemble an artist’s palette, or characters from a fantastic tale. At every turn, the horizon-hugging mountains change shade, shape and stature, as the sky and the peaks seem caught up in a silent waltz: coming impossibly close and then moving apart, only to meet again in a crescendo! The rugged Himalayan landscape and barren ice peaks that touch the heart of heaven are calmed by fluttering prayer flags, monasteries on distant peaks and miniature pyramids of devotional messageinscribed stones. And just as you start getting used to this hypnotic rhythm around you, there emerges moonland, the most wondrous of Ladakh’s landscapes.

We have been looking for moonland since we started from Kargil hours ago. ‘‘Where is moonland?’’ we ask along the way. And the reply is, “just aroun that bend”! We catch our breath in anticipation. But in Lamayuru, one of the few villages dotting the cold desert of Ladakh, this is the local colloquial.

Situated midway between Kargil and Leh, this serene and slow-paced village is one of the most quaint spots to break the Kargil-Leh journey. Set amid the dramatic moonland landscape, which, as the name suggests, has a surface that resembles the moon’s, Lamayuru is a cluster of a few homes, a couple of rustic restaurants, one hotel and the serene Lamayuru monastery. Legend has it that the area was once at the bottom of a deep lake, and when the water receded, it left behind the lunar-like craters.

We spot the monastery from a distance. The group of white buildings is balanced on anthill like stilts and pitted against swathes of dark grey mountains, which change shades as tufts of clouds float above, creating shadow pools. We stop the car to watch the mesmerising play of sun and shade. And in one magical moment, as the clouds shift, the sun rays filter through, illuminating the monastery in a brilliant shade of gold, framed by the dramatic landscape. Asnature’s powerful play continues, I realise
that in this mystical land, faith is a necessity.

We drive halfway up the hill to the monastery and then start walking. Our plan is to spend a couple of hours here, have lunch and push on towards Leh. This village is a day’s trip from Leh but is never too crowded with tourists. Along our way, we spot monks huddled in the sun, which is strong but not warm enough in the bitter cold. It is June, yet the temperature here requires heavy woollens.

The monastery is located at an altitude of 3,510 m, after all – which is akin to being almost halfway up Mt Everest! Once we reach the monastery buildings, we duck inside, heads low, eyes squinting to make out the dark interiors. Their fuzzy warmth is reassuring, the familiar prayer flags, tinkling bells and cymbals assuaging the fear of the harsh and the unknown.

This beautiful ancient monastery is the mai seat of the Drikung Kagyu tradition in the lower part of Ladakh. There are more than 50 monasteries under the leadership of this great one, and approximately 300 monks are registered under its administration. We walk through the monastery, along the winding white-brick wall-lined pathway leading us from one building to another. Besides beautiful frescoes and ancient prayer wheels, the monastery also houses the meditation cave of Mahasiddha (Lama) Naropa, who came here in the 11th century. The monastery has been declared a monument of national importance under the Archaeological Survey of India by the Government of India. As we keep going further up, the small village of Lamayuru spreads out beneath us.

Ahead are the moonscapes. It is said that on a full moon night, the sight is so magical that visitors looking at it for too long may lose their mind! After a while, we turn back. As we scurry down the slope, turning the prayer wheels smoothened by centuries of devotion, we keep looking back for a view of the magical landscape. And every time we do so, the mountains seem a little higher and the legends stronger.

As we drive away, Lamayuru getting smaller and the peaks ahead, higher, I realise the incredibly humbling experience of being surrounded by mountains at such great heights, and being a silent spectator of nature’s private magic show!

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