Ladakh is in the north of the Indian Himalayas, sandwiched between what is now Pakistan in the West and Chinese-ruled Tibet in the East. Included here without permission are two (big) maps swiped off the 'net, of the northern region of India (331 kb) and Ladakh Region (276 kb) in particular. The northern India map has the Manali-Leh highway route marked on it in red.
Language-The native language spoken is Ladhaki, derived from Tibetan. The beautiful Tibetan script is used for religious texts in the monasteries, but in secular life Hindi or European writing is used.The only Ladakhi word we managed to learn was "Juley" (pronounced "Joolay"). It is a useful, general-purpose word meaning hello, goodbye, thank you, ok, etc. English is also spoken, less widely outside Leh.
Religion-Unlike most of the rest of India, the predominant religion in Ladakh is Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhism. This is a form of Buddhism that has also incorporated elements into its mythology of Tantric mysticism and even Bon-Cho (the pantheistic shamanist religion extant in Ladakh prior to the introduction of Buddhism). Buddhism was first introduced to Ladakh nearly one thousand years ago at about the same time that Ladakh became an independent kingdom. During the tenth and eleventh centuries the Buddhist scholar and missionary Rinchen Zangpo, "The Great Translator", founded over a hundred monasteries in Ladakh, some of which are still in existence. Later, in the fourteenth century, when the Tibetan monk Tsong Khapa introduced the Gelupka order of the Dalai Lama to Ladakh, the Tibetan style of Buddhism became the major religion as it was supported by the Ladakhi Royal Family, and remains so today.
Culture-Although Leh was a major bazaar and stopping point on the famed Silk Road, Ladakh is a predominantly agricultural society. Ladakh is also called "Little Tibet", because culturally it has more in common with Tibet than the rest of India. Religion occupies a central part of life, much more so than in the West. Prayer wheels and Chortens (the local word for a stupa, the Buddhist devotional towers) are dotted everywhere. Many villages have a monastery nearby, usually built high up on a rocky outcrop or hill, and many members of society become Buddhist monks. People enjoy attending the religious festivals, and we saw many locals at events like the Leh Festival, even though this is a new festival introduced mainly to slightly extend the tourist season past its traditional beginning of September close.
Each Ladakhi family typically owns about 2-4 acres of land which is irrigated by snow meltwater through a complex network of irrigation ditches. Leh only receives 60 mm of rain per year, and the non-irrigated areas are completely arid. The farming all occurs in the four month-long hot summer, allowing a single barley crop to be grown which is used for bread, tsampa (roasted barley flour used to make dumplings and so on), animal fodder and chang (rough Tibetan beer; tastes rather like a weak scrumpy). The other eight months of the year are very cold, and the Manali-Leh Highway officially closes on 15th September. (Camps like Sarchu close at this time). Although this is rapidly changing due to the influence of tourism and soldiers stationed in Ladakh, traditionally the Ladakhis had a largely money-free economy, being completely self-sufficient from their agriculture. To maintain this state of affairs, land would not be divided up amongst children, with a second son typically becoming a Buddhist monk rather than a farmer, and even polyandry being practised to avoid having to split up a farm into pieces too small to support the extended family.
Its mountainous terrain and interesting culture make Ladakh a very photogenic place. Here are some photographs of Ladakh: