The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you,
Not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.
My dear Aakash:
I am standing underneath a thousand prayer flags and an infinite brilliant deep blue sky. Tsemo Monastery never gets old for me. Today the wind is very strong, kicking up tall columns of dust and messing with my hair. I have climbed five hundred and fifty steep un-even “stairs” that have been cut along the side of the barren mountain to reach the main temple, where the six hundred year old colossal gold statue of Maitreya, The Future Buddha resides. This brick red Chamba Lhakhang (Maitreya Temple) was built by King Tragspa Bumde around 1430 AD. Apart from the Buddha, the monastery houses many ancient manuscripts and beautiful frescoes which depict stories from the life of the Buddha.
Winded and out of breath, I am now resting on a sun-bleached crumbling wall with elaborate wooden balconies, watching thousands of prayer flags dance to the tunes of the wind. There is silence all around me. This balcony is the highest point of the fort, and it used to be a part of the former Dard Fortress, which dates all the way back to the 5th century. From up here, I can see the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, the young bustling city of Leh in the valley below, the gently flowing Indus River in the distance, and the snowcapped peaks of Stok Kangri Range. As I look at the beautiful landscape around me, I travel back to the time when we first met each other here.
On June 16, 2012, the wind brought me your scent. I climbed the entire set of stairs to reach the mountain top, where the two of us were destined to meet. We helped each other scramble over loose boulders and strategically placed wobbly wooden ladders to reach the highest point of the fort. Once we got there, the spectacular view of the mountains and the valleys left us wide-eyed and breathless. Ladakh—The Land of High Passes—laid open before our eyes. It seemed as if we had ascended a medieval stone fortress, towering above the center of Ladakh. This is the highest point I had ever climbed in my life and the most isolated.
It was from here that King Tashi Namgyal (1520–1540) managed to repel most of the Central Asian raiders, and built the Namgyal Tsemo fort on top of the Namgyal Peak in Leh. He also built the Tsemo Goenkhang (protector temple) here after his victory over an invading army from Yarkand (a region in Xinjiang Province, on the southern Silk Road) in 1532. At one point in history, the monastery served as the royal residence of the Namgyal dynasty, which still survives today in the Stok Palace.
The tough climb had exhausted both of us. We shared a bottle of water that I carried and sat on the edge of the balcony, a cantilevered wooden framed passage that had its every inch covered with prayer flags. It was built for the purpose of paridakshana (circumambulation) for pilgrims and devotees. The yellow, red, and green, pieces of fabric handwritten with innumerable mantras and inscriptions, soared up high against the crystal blue sky and then came right back down to sweep us away from our feet. They, along with the mountains and the sky, were the only witnesses to our presence.
Ek pighale neelam sa behta ye sama, Neeli neeli si khamoshiyan
(The moment flows like molten sapphire with a deep silence all around.)
The setting sun’s oblique rays fell on the distant snow covered peaks and made them glow bright orange. And then, the sound of Azaan (the call to worship) reached us from the Jama Mosque in the heart of the Leh market below. Constructed during 1666-1667 A.D. as per an agreement between the ruler of Ladakh, Deldan Namgyal, and the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the mosque became a symbolic seal for the political and military protection that the Mughal Empire provided to the people of Ladakh.
The muezzin’s ancient rich voice echoed and spoke with the heavens. It was a call meant for each of us to leave whatever we are busy doing and focus on the divine. Our hands found each other’s and we allowed ourselves to be drowned with the sound.
Far below, lay the dusty sprawling city of Leh, which we had both found rigid and wanting. In 1974, after things quietened down between Pakistan, India, and China, the Indian Government decided to open Ladakh for overland travel. Since then, Leh (the regional capital) has seen a steady boom in tourism. Every year there are more tourists (Indians and westerners) and more cars. Slowly the town is growing beyond recognition. The number of restaurants, stalls and shops—Tibetan refugees selling prayer wheels and turquoise and coral jewellery alongside savvy Kashmiri merchants offering pashminas: “fixed price, no bargaining” are increasing at an alarming rate. North of the city, fields which used to be full of barley are now bustling with building work as hotels, guesthouses and travel agencies spring up.
At times, it is hard for me to believe that this region served as the crossroads of the ancient trade routes from South Asia and that until the end of the 19th century, mule trains carrying shawls and spices made the journey from Amritsar through Ladakh to Yarkand in China.
But from up here on the monastery, it was a completely different perspective. The city looked so peaceful and pure and full of unbounded joy, where previously it had been so closed with walls that hid so much. We looked at the hungry growing city in silence for as long as I can remember. And then … we drew our breaths together and kissed each other deeply and soaked into each other’s fragrance. Our hearts and souls united and lost all boundaries. A gentle wind blew over us, whispering something to the prayer flags and rustling our hairs.
Naa kahin hain zameen,
Naa kahin asmaan
Sarsarati huyi tehniyaan, paatiyan
Jo keh rahi hai ki bus ek tum ho yahan
(The earth and the sky have no boundaries, The whispering leaves on the branches whispered your existence to me.)
And I whispered back, “I love you” to the sky, to the mountains, and to all the prayer flags that were dancing around me. My heart swelled with gratitude, and scattered the wind.
I do not know what love is, nor do I know the meaning of existence, nor have any answers to life’s riddles. But here, among these mountains, sitting underneath a spotless blue sky, for just one moment, I feel that there is no need to ask any questions.
Some say that love is a strange mysterious beauty that dwells only as a fleeting fragrance. What you and I share cannot continue once we leave this mountain. Do whatever you need to do to be happy in this life. I will always carry within me our beautiful memories and our souls will remain united, like the prayer flags that are always united with the wind—changing, fleeting, dancing, eternal.
My Soul, the first time I saw you, my soul heard something from your Soul.
When my heart drank water from your fountain
It drowned within you, and the torrents snatched me away.
And I knew someday, I shall find my soul again within you
Sharmila Pal spends her time between Seattle and Ladakh with her organisation Wheels Across India where she actively organises and leads low-impact, non-touristy backpacking trips. In her free time, she tutors students in science, math and english and continues writing travel memoirs.
For the past four years, she has been backpacking and traveling through Ladakh, Rajasthan and South India. Her journey through India took her to many remote regions, and allowed her to experience some very beautiful and emotionally powerful moments with nature and people. These experiences are etched deeply in my mind. Through these letters she hopes to inspire people to travel and explore.