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The Globe and Mail

See India's eye-popping land of sky and spirits

The Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir is so much more than a cold desert beyond the Himalayas. It is a land of raw, uncluttered beauty, at once sublime and fragile. A photo excerpt from the book An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh

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Leh, the capital, is a multilayered city. On one plane, it accommodates more pizza parlours, bakeries and rooftop restaurants than you can imagine. On the other, old monks silently pass you with a prayer wheel in hand, and the 17th-century Leh Palace appears infinitesimal against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

Sugato Mukherjee

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Under an endless sky, the Zanskar Road took us to Rangdum from Leh through the green pastures of Suru Valley. The terrain turned rugged as we forged deeper. In a remote corner of the valley lies the tiny settlement of Rangdum and its monastery, which dates back at least 200 years.

Sugato Mukherjee

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A visit to the main prayer hall is a plunge into a Technicolour past – monks chant prayers in long red robes and vibrant yellow hangings ornament the interiors. Time seems to stand still as we watch a Buddhist monk and a Tibetan witchdoctor praying to the gods.

Sugato Mukherjee

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The early morning chill was palpable as we cruised past the sleepy outskirts of Leh. We went uphill, and the ochre mountainsides turned to a deep burgundy. After descending into a valley, we find Tso Moriri, a 20-kilometre stretch of brilliant, brackish waters encircled by sandy hills and two of Ladakh’s highest peaks.

Sugato Mukherjee

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This is the land of the Changpas, a nomadic pastoralist tribe who practically live off their herds; the earth in these high-altitude plateaus was not made for farming. They follow ancient traditions, practise Tibetan Buddhism and will welcome guests with piping hot butter tea (often with a trace of pashmina hair).

Sugato Mukherjee

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Near Korzok village, about 215 kilometres southeast of Leh, another rider slowly came toward us. He was Namgay Yangzom, a herdsman tending to sheep. His wizened face looked worried: A few lambs had gone missing, and his belief is that sheep are sacred creatures bestowed by the gods of the valley

Sugato Mukherjee

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Lamayuru is an ancient settlement in western Ladakh, about 120 km west of Leh. As we approached the town, we understood why Lamayuru is better known as Moonland. The landscape is astounding – the schists and fold mountains are twisted into fantastical shapes by wind erosion.

Sugato Mukherjee

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Nestled amidst the bizarre moonscape of Lamayuru stands an ancient monastery. Legend has it that the land was once buried under a great lake and a Buddhist saint, Naropa, meditated here for many years. He convinced the guardian spirits to drain the water away, and then founded a settlement.

Sugato Mukherjee

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Leh’s streets are lively in the morning, with women in traditional Ladakhi attire selling dried apricots, almonds, vegetables and jewellery. There are lots of places to stay, from cozy downtown retreats to high-end hotels overlooking barley fields, and food from around the world, including pizza, lasagna, Tibetan dishes and Kashmiri curries

Sugato Mukherjee

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