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The soul of Ladakh

On the borders of Pakistan and China, north of India, this region of Tibetan Buddhism is sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Kunlun.  At an average altitude of 12 000 feet, it enjoys a fascinating and unscathed beauty and is peopled by friendly folks, full of warmth and wisdom. Every summer, the « roof of the world » is invaded by "yellow hairs », hordes of hikers and bikers eager to experience the rhythm of the Ladhaki.

It is a simple and sacred existence, unchanged for millennia until its fateful opening to the outside world in 1974. For the nine following months, the roof of the world recovers its status as one the most remote place on earth, untouched by the hustle and bustle of people. Khardung-La is the highest vehicle accessible pass in the world, towering at 18 379 feet above sea level. For thirty kilometres one’s life is threatened by over-aged Indian trucks blasting down the mountains at breakneck speed, gigantic snowdrifts and dizzying abysses.

But exploring Ladakh is also coming across colourful and fascinating festivals complete with oracles in a state of trance after a month of meditation. Gochak, at the very last moon of winter, is a unique ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims, two days in a row, prostrate themselves, face down on the laterite, hands wide opened in a fiery and deep prayer to Buddha. A traditional society, resisting western way of life. In most villages, locals continue to consult the hamchi, the traditional doctor who heals villagers with his concoctions of Himalayan seeds, crushed rocks, musk of deer or newborn excrement. Improbable encounters with, at the border of Pakistan, the Aryans, the last descendants of Alexander the Great. Last but not least, in Stakna, on a tiger nose shaped hill, a seven years old chubby and hieratic Little Buddha who has just become the Rinpoche, Supreme Buddhist authority, of seven monasteries, ruling over hundred monks.

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Leh capital of Ladakh, 30 000 inhabitants, is the largest city in Ladakh, perched beween 3 500 and 7 000 m above sea level in the Indus Valley. From the old royal palace, one dominates the heart of the city, more and more marked by tourism, at least during the summer season.

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In Leh in February during two days, during the procession of gochak, the faithful walk 18 km and prostrate every two or three steps. Spread out on the ground, they protect their knees with a thick apron. At the end of the ritual (about twenty hours!): The promise to reach the ataraxie.

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This is the new Tibetan year. Annual Buddhist procession that blesses every form of life on the planet. The Buddhists devote themselves to prayers, strictly avoiding the consumption of flesh and alcohol.

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The low-pitched sound of songs mingle with the limpid voices of the women who close the march. The mantras are repeated indefinitely in a serene and gentle trance.

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Along the way, huge pots of rice and butter tea smoke, ready to satisfy the pilgrims. Indeed, the entire city and its inhabitants are with their priors.

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In this inhospitable and arid land of the State of Jammu and Cashmere, people do not have much but give a lot. At the end of winter, after eight months of bitter cold and heavy snow, water and food are scarce. But in every single house, people are welcoming the visitor with "chai", streaming milk tea and "balep korkhun", crispy bread cooked on a skillet.

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Village of Phyang, monk to become.

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At an altitude of 3,600 meters, these schoolgirls play at the foot of one of the high places of Ladakh’s spirituality: the Thiksey Monastery, founded in the 15th century on a rocky hill just east of Leh, could be a replica of the Potala, symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, in Lhasa.

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india, ladakh, religion, buddhism, gotchak, new year, himalaya

Monastery of Matho. Two monks playing on a dungchen.

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In the morning, the monks meet for a puja, a Buddhist ritual of offering in which they sing, recite sacred texts ... like here at the monastery of Phyang, one of the oldest Tibetan monasteries in Ladakh, not far from the capital Leh .

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Prayers in the Monastery in the village of Mulbek.

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Monk or shaman? The monk tosses the buttercake into the fire to ward off evil spirits. Here, Buddhism mingles with ancient shamanic practices.

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In the village of Yangthang, this man enjoys a panoramic view of the Himalayan peaks. Suitable for reading sacred texts.

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These two women in festive clothes return home after the oracle ceremony. Animist practices are still very present in Buddhist Ladakh.

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Sacred Round. All day long, during the sacred month of March, these women walk around a stupa (a Buddhist monument) on the heights of the village of Gya, with their rosary and prayer wheel, reciting incantations.

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It is rare to be able to photograph oracles, as here in Gya. During this ritual marked by animism, the monks, in a trance, deliver their predictions.

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A bride in turquoise. This couple poses in their kitchen, in Hemis Shukpachan village. For the photo, both dressed their wedding outfit worn on the day of their wedding. For the ceremonies, Ladakhi women wear on their heads this adornment of rather large size set with turquoise (in the foreground). The girls receive it from their mother at their wedding.

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Village Hemis Shukpachan, detail of wedding ornaments and any kind of ceremony.

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Refinement is the smallest detail of this traditional outfit « goncha », worn by a Hemis Shukpachan merchant: a silver ornament adorned with turquoises and a purple woolen robe lined with silk.

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Portrait of a ladakhi woman wearing the ceremony ornament under a hat.

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Dha Village, 20 kilometers from the Pakistan border. Country of the Dardes-Aryans of Dah (Brogpa). They define themselves as Aryans, direct descendants of Alexander the Great and first inhabitants of Ladakh twenty centuries ago. The poverty of the houses contrasts with the pomp of traditional dress.

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"We marry only between members of the ethnic group". Our customs, like the refusal to consume any product of the cow, does not encourage us to crossbreeding. Our breed remains 99.5% pure.

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"We marry only between members of the ethnic group. Our customs, like the refusal to consume any product of the cow, does not encourage us to crossbreeding. Our breed remains 99.5% pure.

india, ladakh, religion, buddhism, gotchak, new year, himalaya

Part of their community lives around Gilgit, Pakistan, but there are about 3,000 in Ladakh, divided into eight villages.

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Each year, on the 14th and 15th days of the Tibetan calendar (beginning of March), the spectators flock from all Ladakh to attend the Tibetan dances and sacred songs of the lamas of the monastery of Matho, and admire their brilliant costumes.

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At this festival, which attracts thousands of spectators, they wear masks usually exhibited at the Matho Museum, which also houses valuable thangkas (religious paintings on silk).

india, ladakh, religion, buddhism, gotchak, new year, himalaya

india, ladakh, religion, buddhism, gotchak, new year, himalaya

The hamchi (traditional physician) prescribes a powder of molluscs, caterpillars and silver dust to this nun. "We can heal 90% of diseases, concludes the hamchi. But we don’t use surgery and we need to adjust to some illnesses which were barely known in Ladakh twenty years ago such as stress, cancer, diabetes. These diseases have been imported by Westerners and Indians".

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The ladakhi doctor's kit. In the upper right, the leather pouch, where he preserves the various natural powders (made from plants, crushed precious stones…), which he uses to concoct medicines. Below, a dosage spoon.

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All medicines are made from natural products: Himalayan plants, plundered rocks, powder of precious metals ... sometimes up to 25 ingredients melted together that the amchi prepares himself.

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The big Buddha Maitreya at Likir monastery, next to Saspol city, is 20 meters high. It is filled with scrolls of Buddhist prayers and religious texts.

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Monastery of Stakna. The youngest Rinpoche (litteraly the precious) spiritual leader and a person recognized as the reincarnation of a master, former Rinpotche, dead nine years ago at the age of 75. The monks discovered him at a young age in Himacha at the age of 3, today he is 7.

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Young people dream of being a guide or official, not of becoming a shepherd... here after a sledge ride.

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This shepherd encountered on the shores of a frozen lake near Gya, carries dried yak dung, very useful as fuel or to reinforce the insulation of the houses.

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For several weeks, these yak keepers live isolated in the mountains of Kyam. Next to the pot for butter tea, a barley cake: the base of food in Ladakh.

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Kyam region. Nomadic herders, herdsmen of yaks. They have long assured the daily life of families, providing them with milk, meat, wool and hides.

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Village of Phyang. Ice stupa of 16 million m3. Pyramid of ice, some of which can reach more than 30 m. True artificial glaciers, which allow more easily the storage of rainwater and rivers without the need for a reservoir or tank, by just deviating the water flows, in order to fight against desertification.

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A region under surveillance. Bordering China and Pakistan, the Ladakh region is highly sensitive to the Indian state. Here the army is everywhere, and the military bases mark the landscape.

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Monastery of Matho.

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