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  • Writer's picturePriya Krishnan Das

Ladakh Sketch Journal- 8 to 20 April 2022

Welcome to my Ladakh travel sketch journal. I have documented my entire trip through watercolour sketches so it is a visual journal. My trip was for 12 days and I completed an entire sketchbook in nine days and had to start a new one thereafter.

The Himalayas beckon!

I was hoping to sketch a plane on the 1st page, but at the Pune airport it's not visible from the waiting area. But people glued to their phones makes for a good warm up.

Sketched this at 2 am India time at the Delhi Airport. The tails of the parked planes look like shark fins.

I am anyways grumpy when I don't get a window seat and today I was furious that after having paid extra for a window seat, my seat didn't have a window anyways I decided to make the best of it. I had some consolation that I had chosen the west side of the plane because on the east, the sun almost blinds you and you cannot enjoy the aerial view. I was right. Most people on the right side crowded on the west with their cameras. I started rapidly sketching but couldn't take a proper photo with the background and the sketch was also in a sleep deprived state. Some more pictures of the aerial view. So magnificent our mountain ranges are! Swipe to see the mighty Himalayan range.

I was drawn to sketch this cafe and the adjacent structures at the Leh market. The buildings are a muted colour matching with the cold desert that Ladakh is, with bright pops of colours in flags and name boards.

The Leh Post Office.

I love how post offices across India try to incorporate traditional elements of architecture. In Leh it translates to intricately carved wood beams and bright red windows.

Thumbnails from the moving bus. Of barren, rugged almost lunar landscapes, weathered and fashioned by the wind and sun.

I was at a small village and while I was sketching, this little boy who had seen me sketching earlier came up to me and handed me a bar of chocolate how adorable! He had purchased the bar from a shop nearby. So as a token of thanks I wanted to sketch him too. While I completed the 1st sketch he told me about his school and asked me which class I was in. He is in class 1. He was surprised that I couldn't tell him which class I am in.

He wanted to pose for a sketch with an imaginary black bird in his hand. Since I directly sketch with a pen, his feet got cut off. He asked me why I did not draw his feet with his footwear properly. Too strict for a 6 year old. his name is Nima Namgyal and Nima means the sun in Ladakhi language. For the earlier sketch he insisted i draw the sun because that's him.

A village on the other side of the Indus river. I was sketching this when the little boy Nima Namgyal met me (check the previous post). I had to draw the sun. He wanted me to draw the rays of the sun too but I didn't :-)

My homestay host said that this Buddhist structure is of great significance. There are only 2 such structures called Chorten with 5 domes in entire Ladakh. There is a belief that when people die, at the gates of heaven, the God of death asks if one has gone around this structure with 5 domes. And if not, they are promptly dispatched to hell :-)

Salted butter tea.

These colourful flasks with dragon designs are ubiquitous in most mountain villages I have visited. They come in various sizes holding upto 3 to 4 litres of liquid. In the mountains, people make large quantities of tea in the morning and fill up these flasks and keep having them throughout the day. This is salted butter tea, made with milk, butter, salt and a different kind of tea leaf. It's rich and creamy and you can taste the butter in it too. This high calorie beverage is essential for cold, mountain life.

My Ladakh trip was planned mainly keeping in mind the blossoming of the Apricot trees. Some villages along the Indus river such as the one I am in, turn into a fairyland with Apricot trees blushing with white flowers with a hint of pink. But this year summer has arrived early and just a day before I arrived there was a storm which blew away whatever white flowers remained. But I found this one single tree in the village with its white flowers intact and here it is. Drawing flowers is surely not my strong point but at least this memory will be etched in my mind forever.

At Achinathang, I was at the house of a noted Ladakhi historian, Sonam Phuntsog. He has published several books on Ladakhi culture and also has been invited to other countries to present his paper. He is quite aged now and is hard of hearing so we couldn't converse as much as I would have liked to. The homestay however, left much to be desired so I stayed there for 24 hours and moved to the next village on my itinerary earlier than planned.

Thumbnail sketches of the Indus river from Achinathang to Garkon, on a bumpy bus ride.

The next village I explored was Garkon, of the Brokpa tribe. It was such a beautiful immersion in culture, festivity and nature. I was at @payupaguesthouse run by Tashi Lundup and his wife Diskit. The couple are very passionate about preserving Brokpa culture and traditions and they have converted their 500 yrs old ancestral house into a museum.

I met a very interesting person in Garkon. He is the folk singer of the village, Sonam Wangyal, and was a storehouse of information about Brokpa culture and history. I will compile and post that information separately. One thing he said was interesting. It was one of his relatives who had gone to graze his cattle on the border who discovered the infiltration of Pakistani terrorists on the border and informed the Indian Army, which eventually led to the Kargil war in 1999.

The Brokpa Tribe

When Alexander, the Macedonian King, invaded India in 326 BC, there were three soldiers, brothers, who stayed back. Their names were Galo, Melo, Dhulo. They stayed back originally in the Gilgit Baltistan region and then wanted to move to a greener areas. One of the brothers shot an arrow and it fell in Dah where a spring came up (Dah means arrow). And so Dah became the 1st settlement of the Brokpas and then eventually, the descendants of the 3 brothers inhabited the areas of Hanu, Garkon, Darchik and another 2-3 villages, one of which is in Pakistan now. The Brokpas were animists and worshiped Nature but now they have embraced Buddhism and also keep their animist traditions alive. Polyandry was common until a few generations also. They speak a language called Dard or Shina and their language has no script. Thy speak Ladakhi fluently but the Ladakhis cannot understand their language. They marry only within their community although that is also fast changing with their children going to other cities to study and work and marrying outside the community. Both men and women wear a headgear with flowers on it. I will be posting in detail about that too.

Two young Brokpa girls. They look like walking floral bouquets. So amazing. I noticed that the Brokpa attire is a celebration of all things sourced from earth. There is silver, pearls, coral, flowers, turquoise, sea shells, goat leather, coins, seeds, wool, etc. 14th April was the Apricot blossom festival and villagers had come in their traditional attire. It was a bonus for me. It was a riot of colour and a feast for the eyes. There was dance and music too and I sketched in a frenzy to capture as much as I could.

The bright orange flower, Monthu-tho, is very important for the Brokpas. They value it even more than gold or silver. Whenever there is a dispute between people, this flower is offered as truce and to symbolize peace. During all the happy occasions like weddings or birth of a child, all the community members wear this flower as part of their headgear. This flower grows in a shrub in the fields in September. This is the headgear worn by Brokpa women.

Brokpa footwear and pants worn by women.

The shoes are called 'Aala Peela'. Peela means shoes in their language. The bottom part is made of goat leather and the upper part of wool. So colorful! I am considering joining the Brokpa tribe for their sheer love for bright colours

The pant is worn underneath the kaftan or Kurta and is made of wool with rich embroidery in bright colours. It was quite heavy to hold.

I wanted to do another portrait of a Brokpa woman and the mother of my homestay owner sweetly agreed to pose for me. The Brokpa women wear their hair in 14 plaits. 4 on each side and 6 behind. This lady told me when she was young, they had to comb their hair everyday and plait it. They never cut their hair. But now things have changed. She said earlier, rajma (kidney beans) and corn and other seeds were used as part of their attire. The silver used to come from Skardu, now in Pakistan. The traders would exchange salt in exchange for silver.

Brokpa girls from the back. They wear a cape made of goat skin and until two generations ago, girls weren't allowed to go outside or be seen by men without the goat skin.

Brokpa musicians on percussion and wind instruments. The Brokpa songs are all about Nature, about Apricot blossoms, the river, the mountains. They share a close connection to nature like most people in the villages.

The wind instrument is called Surna, the tabla like instrument is called Daman, the sticks are called Danshing and the single percussion instrument is Bhoonsh.

This is a 500 yrs old Ladakhi house belonging to the family of Tashi Lundup, @payupaguesthouse which has now been converted into a museum. This was restored 150 yrs ago in its current state. It is a 4 storied structure. The ground floor called the 'Bhu' was used for keeping goats and sheep. The 1st floor is called Kattsa, used during winters where the entire family gathered. Leading to the Kattsa is another large room, where the handprints of Guru Padma Sambhava are kept on a Sabdak, an ancient symbolic rock, which represents the local deity. The food after being prepared is first offered to the deity and then partaken. There are small cells for storing butter and hold household items.

The 2nd floor is called Sbyarkhang, used in summer. The 3rd floor is a prayer room called Chokthang. 4th floor is the terrace. Swipe to see some items I sketched inside the museum.

At Garkon, I felt fortunate to sit by the Sindhu/Indus river, from which our country Bharat gets its anglicized name India, and sketch this beautiful scene, with the sound of the gurgling river water and the musical notes of the Whistling Thrush. The sun cast a molten golden glow on the waters on the horizon. So beautiful! I wanted to go and touch the water and fill up my water brushes too, but I already had a swollen ankle and thought that navigating more of these boulders would cause more strain. There will be another time I am sure.

Panoramic view of the Garkon village from the Betepa Guest house rooftop. This is a newly done up guest house owned by Phunchok Namgyal, a Brokpa member.

He showed me around the guest house and it is quite nicely done keeping in mind the comforts of the urban traveler. You may contact him on 8493062573 if you wish to stay there. I also this wonderful panoramic view of the Indus flowing and terraced fields of Garkon and I couldn't help sketching it.

After being heartbroken at not having seen apricot blossoms in the earlier 2 villages (and shedding some tears over it) I was in for a delightful surprise the moment I arrived in Temisgam/Tingmosgang. The village was dotted with these blushing pink tinted, white apricot trees. The earth laughs in flowers and I felt the laughter through joy rippling through my body and like a harp playing in my own heart. I sketched this in the morning, sitting in the sun and thawing my frozen body.

The view of the 9- storied Leh Palace from hotel. The palace was constructed in 1600 by the then King, Sengge Namgyal.

I got a (paid) window seat on my return flight from Leh to Delhi so here's another better sketch of the majestic Himalayan mountain ranges.

I completed one entire sketchbook plus a few pages from a 2nd one during my 12 days trip to Ladakh. I will post a video tour of the sketchbook soon.

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