Did you know Kargil was once known as Purig? Just like how hordes of tourists traverse its highways today, the region then was a hub for travellers and wanderers too—some of whom stopped by for commerce at this important trading post on the Silk Route. The place also boasts a rich heritage and culture, and happens to be home to plenty of tribes. In the 1980s, the region even started to attract environmentalists and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Embellished with pristine valleys, snow-capped peaks, glacial lakes and ancient Buddhist rock reliefs, there is little that stops Kargil from being a jewel in Ladakh’s crown.
The district is Muslim dominated (77 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 census), but not many know that there are a few ancient Buddhist relics here that may even predate Tibetan Buddhism. Among these are the three rock-carved statues of the Maitreya Buddha (or the Buddha who will be born in the future). Very few such relics remain in the world, especially after the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.
When I visited Kargil for an internship project, I had to see them for myself. The task would require me to crisscross the district as the sculptures are situated in three different places—Khartse Khar, Mulbekh and Apati.
My first destination was Khartse Khar, a quaint village near Sankoo town (40 kilometres from Kargil) in the Suru valley. Excited and filled with both purpose and wanderlust, I put on my down jacket, wore my fleece gloves, and rode off on my Royal Enfield Classic 350.
The mighty Suru River, astonishingly green despite being at an elevation of above 3,000 metres, kept me company. The road here was unlike any I had ever taken and a lone, faithful RE kept me going in sub-zero temperatures. It turned out to be a challenging but refreshing endeavour. A bit later, I passed Sankoo and took the dirt road leading to Khartse Khar (nothing like impromptu off-roading fun).
I nearly left the statue behind when a bunch of children from a nearby school ran to me shouting, “Chamba, chamba”. I realised, they were referring to the Buddha. They volunteered to take me to the spot and soon had me ascend a winding path fringed by a fast-flowing stream. They stopped halfway up the route and pointed to their right; there stood the spectacle, gleaming in the sun and staring down the valley.
The seven-metre-tall figure of Maitreya Buddha was sculpted from a greyish-yellow rock. Needless to say, it was quite the masterpiece. The holes around it suggested that scaffolding had been used to reach the face and carve out the finer details. The Buddha formed an Abhaya-mudra (gesture of fearlessness) with his right hand, while the left hand carried a kamandal (pot to carry water). I noticed a rudraksha mala (prayer beads) tied around the wrist and the arm, as well as the janeu (sacred thread) and the karadhani (waist chain), also made out of rudraksha. Although knotted, the statue’s hair fell over his shoulders, and that added to the majesty.
The next weekend, I continued my exploration by heading to the Mulbekh Chamba. The petite town of Mulbekh was located off the iconic Kargil–Leh highway, NH1, and my RE and I faced far more traffic than our last excursion. Still, the experience was enriched by the smooth roads and hairpin bends paired with the beautiful panoramas of the Ladakh-scape.
The Maitreya Buddha at Mulbekh happened to be the area’s claim to fame. The sculpture was just by the highway and had a small gompa at its feet. Unlike the one at Khartse Khar, this one was familiar to locals and travellers alike. The madding crowd, with their vehicles parked at nearby stores and cafés, made that quite evident. I learned that Mulbekh was a significant pit-stop between Leh and Kargil.
The nine-metre-tall Mulbekh Chamba is said to date back to the eighth century CE, when the Kushan period was underway. The gompa, however, was built only in 1975. The many armed Buddha sculpture carried a bunch of leaves in one hand, a string of beads in another, a kamandal in a third, and pointed towards the earth with a fourth. This depiction strikingly resembled the one at Khartse Khar. Both Maitreya Buddha representations I had witnessed till now reflected a similar style (possibly the Gandhara style of Buddhist visual art).
Another week passed, and it was finally time to conclude my Buddha expedition. In similar poise, I left for Apati village, located off the Batalik road (22 kilometres from Kargil). Though this was the nearest statue to Kargil town, it took me an hour to reach due to tricky road conditions. Once in the village, the dwellers gave me the directions and I followed a cobbled pathway.
The Apati Chamba was the shortest of the Kargil statues. It was also comparatively less ornate and had a distinct weather-beaten look. But it still adorned a rudraksha necklace and carried the kamandal.
While the resemblance between the three statues reveals that they most probably belong to the same period, it is also an insight into Ladakh's tryst with Buddhism—which made its way from India all the way to central Asia before even reaching Tibet, where it remains quite prominent.
Kargil is about 216kms/5hrs from Leh airport and 225kms/6hrs from Srinagar airport. Shared taxis connect both places to the district. While you will easily get one from the airport at Leh, visit the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) at Residency Road to take one from Srinagar. Note: the last of the day’s taxis leave at noon.
WHERE TO STAY
- Hotel ‘The Kargil’ (from `5,300, taxes extra; hotelthekargil. com), in the heart of the town, offers decent rooms.
- The Highland Mountain Resort & Spa (from `1,800; thehighlandkargil.com) is about 2.5kms from Kargil town, right on the banks of Suru River.
- Hotel Zero Miles (from `500) is located in the Main Market.
WHERE TO EAT
Roots Travel Café (+91- 9419887776; rootsladakh.com) near the Jamia Masjid, is a cosy haunt that happens to be a great place to read, play board games, use the wifi, enjoy vistas, relish hot snacks and drink delicious chai, coffee and shakes. Do check out the pancakes and the apricot shake here. Cafe-de- Riverside (+91-8802482422) is a few kilometers off Kargil town, towards the Suru valley. A quaint place by the Suru riverside, the food is just as good as the ambience. You can also take a stroll through the old bazaar of Kargil to savour finger-licking street food and local delicacies.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
When not visiting the Maitreya Buddha statues, I checked out a couple of other interesting places: Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian & Kargil Trade Artifacts (kargilmuseum.org) had a spectacular collection of historical finds from the ancient Silk Route that passed through the Kargil region. Unlock Hundarman: Museum of Memories, located 11kms from Kargil, on the Line of Control (LoC), housed paraphernalia left behind by the inhabitants of a village during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.