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Why My Trip To Leh Was So Immensely Satisfying

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Leh. Source: Flickr.

Situated at an altitude of 11,000 feet in the middle of the Himalayas, Leh is both a peaceful and a dangerous place to be. It is a place for the disturbed soul to relax in the tranquility of Himalayan life and a place for the adventurous seeking to take a chance with life. Leh gets all kinds of visitors from mountaineers, mountain bikers, light trekkers, family tourists, spiritual and religious tourists, honeymooners etc. My trip to Leh lasted just over a week and I stumbled across many interesting characters on this vacation.

Leh is a retreat for the romantic. With its snow-capped mountains and sand covered valleys, it is a charming mountainous desert. Honeymooners and the adventurers can camp in the dunes of the Nubra Valley in colourful and ‘Bukhari’ warmed tents. While on the dunes, my family interacted with a newly-wed couple from New Delhi. The conversation soon escalated to the topic of marriage and they were surprised to find that my parents belonged to two different communities in India. Even though India is progressing towards the values of liberalism and embracing modernity, inter-community marriages are still considered a taboo in certain sections of society.

They told me that I am blessed to have such forward thinking parents as they had struggled to convince their parents to marry the partner of their choice because arranged marriages are still common in our society. Once the camping experience was complete, we moved to experience the spiritual side of Leh.

People take pictures of two monks play traditional bugle during the opening ceremony on the first day of two-day festival in Hemis Gompa, 45 km (28 miles) southeast of Leh July 10, 2011. The Hemis Gompa is the oldest and biggest monastery in Ladakh. The annual festival celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Lamaism (an off-shoot of Buddhism) in the eighth century. The two-day festival is marked by ritual dancing in which dancers wear masks representing deities and evil spirits. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli (INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR2OPFO
Inside a Gompa. Representation only. Credit: Reuters.

Leh with its Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is the ideal place to rediscover yourself. I remember interacting with a British traveller who had lodged at the hotel for over three months. While I never really found out what were the personal issues that brought him to Leh, I realised that the engaging with Buddhism and meditation had lessened the sadness that his eyes betrayed. Our interactions mostly took place during dinnertime where he approached me upon spotting my University of Nottingham sweatshirt in the crowd. The discussions ranged from my life in the UK to his life in India. He recommended visiting the monasteries in Sheh, Thiksey, Diskit and Likir.

Sitting in the Diskit Monastery, I felt a unique sense of calm take over me. We were waiting for the monk’s lunch break to end in order to enter the temples and see the beautiful murals and frescoes. Most monasteries have fine paintings on their walls depicting Buddhist mythology and tales from Buddha’s life. Once the doors opened, we went around the temple admiring the vivid paintings. Looking at the paintings, I could draw the connection between Hinduism and Buddhism. Both religions believe in the existence of four gates to earth. In Buddhism, a ‘Mandala‘ painting depicts these gates. They represent the four boundless emotions of kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. The monastery also runs a school for the young monks called Gompa.

A Gompa is a spiritual community and an educational institution. We were presented with the unique opportunity of gaining an insight into the functioning of a Gompa. We visited the dormitories of the young monks. Upon interacting with the young monks we learnt that they are sent to the Gompas by their families to receive training for becoming a Lama. They are taught the conventional school subjects along with teachings in Buddhism. They are ordained at a young age of eight to ten years and expected to lead an austere and simple life different to that of an ordinary follower of Buddhism. Celibacy is an important distinguishing factor between the monk and a lay follower of Buddhism.

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Pangong Tso. Source: Flickr.

Our next visit was to the breathtakingly beautiful Pangong Tso lake. It has been an attractive spot for shooting many Bollywood films. The lake is a three-hour drive from the Leh city and the roads are steep, narrow and dangerous. Many fatal accidents are reported every year on this route. It is located at an altitude of 4,250 meters and strong winds are experienced in this area. Our taxi driver was exceptionally courageous and skilled to drive us through tapering paths blocked by mountain rocks. I have utmost respect for the man because every time I peeked down from the car window, I would see a ‘Valley of Death’ that consumes hundreds of motorcyclists and car passengers every year.

Upon reaching the lakeside we ate food at the makeshift restaurants supported by tin sheets. There were many motorcyclists at the restaurant and a large Gujarati family busy ordering the children to eat the food available as they were being fussy. I ordered Kahwah tea, a unique blend of cinnamon, saffron, cardamom and Kashmiri roses. It is a popular local drink and is credited with making you feel relaxed and happy. For the main course, I ordered Chow mein that is markedly different from the one that originated in China. The Chow mein was customised to include many Indian masalas and was spicier than usual. The bikers struck up a conversation with my father upon seeing that he was from the military and enquired whether he was ever posted up in the mountains. My father replied in the affirmative and so began a detailed discussion of his adventures as an Army Officer stationed in Leh in the late 1980s.

When my father was stationed in Leh, their camp was based near the lake. They did not have concrete or wooden rooms to live in and camped in movable fibreglass establishments. There was no television or the internet to entertain them. In order to battle the winter depression, the troops usually took long walks around the valley that was untouched by civilisation. Their role was to guard the borders as a major part of the lake stretches into China. The soldiers were not allowed to bring their families to these camps and spent a chunk of their days battling loneliness and the extreme weather that hits minus twelve degrees Celsius. The only mode of heating available was a Bukhari (a stove that burns charcoal to generate heat).

Much has changed since those times in terms of entertainment due to the advent of cellphones, availability of television and 3G data in these areas but accommodation, heating and food remain a problem for these brave soldiers.

After lunch, we walked around the lake and marveled at this wonder of nature. The lake completely freezes in winters and was a famous spot for driving on the ice until a fatal accident occurred in which four officers died after falling in the frozen lake. On the return journey, we offered a ride to one of the motorcyclists back to Leh town, as he was experiencing breathing difficulties, a common problem due to lack of oxygen in high altitudes of the Himalayas. We learnt that he was an engineering student at the University of Chicago on a break before he started his job in the USA.

People play in an open area near Leh Palace in Leh June 16, 2007. The World Monuments Fund (WMF) reported on its website that the Buddhist dominated district of Ladakh is in the watch list of "100 Most Endangered Sites" across the world for 2008. The list intends to raise international attention to the challenges and threats that cultural heritage sites in Leh and adjoining areas face. REUTERS/Amit Gupta (INDIAN ADMINISTERED KASHMIR) - RTR1QX3F
Leh Palace. Credit: Reuters/Amit Gupta.

I asked him why he chose to ride to Leh on a motorbike. He told me that it was to have one last shot at adventure before he settles in his boring job as an engineer. He believed that riding a motorcycle up to the mountain is a remarkable experience as it gives you more time to explore and appreciate the unconventional sights that commercial tourists don’t know about. We dropped him off at his hotel and proceeded to rest at ours.

I visited the Leh Palace on my last day in Leh. The palace was abandoned in the 19th century when the Dogras attacked the Namgyal dynasty in Leh. Sitting atop a mountain, the palace offers a spectacular view of the Leh city and is a paradise for professional photographers. It also has a good museum, which displays jewellery, ceremonial dresses, ornaments and paintings from the Tibetan heritage. My last stop in Leh was the Tibetan Market. This vibrant market sells local handicrafts and jewellery. I purchased a copper Buddha as a memoir. Although it is not as ornate and colourful as the Bodhisattvas (Buddha statues) we saw at the various monasteries, it still fills my room with a positive vibe.

Many Ladakhis are moving to the plains and cities for better job opportunities. Most join the army or work in the tourism industry to earn a stable income in this region. Some return from their chaotic lives in the city to retire amidst the majestic and peaceful Himalayas. Reflecting on the experience, I would not pass an opportunity to visit this heavenly place again. It is the perfect escape from the noise and stress of the large metropolitan cities. You can breathe in the fresh air and see a star-studded sky at night; experiences that are now luxuries in heavily polluted cities like Delhi. Life moves at a leisurely pace here. But most of all, the people seem happy and content with what they have. I guess they fully comprehend and know how to bask in the splendour of nature. With its smoky ochre themed landscape, simple lifestyle, secluded location and welcoming people, Leh is the ideal place to relax and escape the complexities of life.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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