Indian Himalaya: Prayer Stones, Stupas, Ruins
Nature is not the only thing you encounter on a mountain trek in the Himalaya. The relics of ancient civilizations dot the landscape alongside the thriving traditions of people living there in the present.
Buddhist culture dominates the Himalaya of India, as it has for centuries. In the Ladakh region of Kashmir I took a few weeks in the Markha Valley, and then a few days to make the ascent of Stok Kangri (20,000 ft.).
It’s more, way more, than mountains and rivers and wildlife.
Stupas draw the eyes with their half-dome shapes and skyward spires. Sometimes they are clustered in a half a dozen or so, sometimes solitary. But these ceremonial monuments store relics and act as a focus for meditation. Most have weathered a hundred years or so, others a thousand. These give the visiting trekker a small glimpse into the culture that has existed in these highlands for thousands of years.
Atop some ridgelines, easily defended, are the remains of stone settlements. Some have crumbling walls, others still look sturdy. Most were occupied off and on throughout the passing centuries, and now crumble before the harsh winds and the constant daily temperature differential of the high altitudes. It’s hard to imagine eking living up this high in primitive conditions.
Here and there along the way are prayer stones, or mani stones. Carved on their flat, tablet surfaces are the runes for the mantra of Avalokiteshvara: Om mani padme hum. The act of carving these is itself considered a devotional act, often performed by Buddhist monks. They are piled along trails and roadways, their written prayers offered up to the spiritual realm. Some of these are weathered and ancient, othres have edges so sharp they must have been carved yesterday.
The Himalaya isn’t the only ranges dotted with relics and culture. The Inca trail in the Peruvian Andes, my first high-altitude trek, is packed with the remnants of ancient civilizations and the villages of the people who thrive there today. When looking for a walk in the mountains, you can choose a trail with experiences far beyond the glories of nature.