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Shanti Stupa

shanti - peace
stupa - a dome-shaped building erected as a Buddhist shrine

While Leh itself is idyllic, it can get positively bustling in peak season. The market gets full of tourists and vendors in colorful garbs and a thousand trinket shops come to life. Everyone wants to take a little bit of ladakh back with them in the form of fridge magnets, prayer drums, tiny figurines and warm shawls and stoles. One place that remains immune to this inspite of being in the middle of the town is the Shanti Stupa.

Don't get me wrong, it does get quite crowded; especially on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Most of the crowd throngs to the main deck and the huge statue of buddha. Selfies, groupfies and loud conversation abound. People are scared of silence it seems. No matter the serenity and majesty of what surrounds them, they seem to have a deep urge to keep talking endlessly and loudly, almost as if to overpower the oppressive silence. But the chants and prayers over the loudspeakers at shanti stupa seem to ward off the cackle of the crowds and maintain a serene atmosphere.

I have been to Shanti Stupa 6-7 times but only once have I gone to the main deck. My favorite spot lies beyond the cafe down a flight of stairs on the other side of the hill. Few people ever show up here and the spot affords a fantastic view of the Leh city below you, Namgyal Tsemo gompa in front, the Leh Golf Course and the mountains beyond a little bit towards the right and Stok Kangri and the adjoining peaks due right. If you reach here by about 5:30pm (in summer) you'll likely have the spot to yourself. Setup your tripod and camera and buckle up for a fantastic show of light and shadows over the next 2-3 hours.

Around 5:30pm, the sun is above the main deck that you can see right behind you. Over the next 2 hours, it makes its gradual journey to the horizon and beyond. One would think that this results in one sunset at the end of this journey. One would be wrong. There seem to be several waves of golden light that wash over the city and hit the Gompa in front of you bathing it in a soft golden glow. But the real magic happens on the hills beyond the Gompa. Several layers of these hills get illuminated in different colors like a continuous light show; not one pattern alike another.

On the right hand side the sunlight illuminates 5 massive peaks. Perpetually snowcapped, these peaks graduate into bare brown rugged slopes towards the bottom. The semi-soft golden light meets these slopes at a right angle forming numerous criss-cross patterns of light and shadow. Depending on your luck you might see clouds playing along the top of the peaks. Huge, fluffy, cumulus clouds painted golden on one side and grey on the other. Everytime I look at clouds I'm reminded of that life-changing dialog from "The girl with the pearl earring".

Vermeer : Look Griet, the clouds, what color are they?

Griet : White... no, they are yellow and blue and grey...

Vermeer (smiling) : Now you understand

Most of our education (both formal and informal) involves someone telling us the ideal state of things. And we go through life expecting things to fit our definition of ideal, and we get disappointed at best and enraged at worst when we find that this isn't so. We think of ourselves as victims of a mediocre and non-confirming world. "If only..." we say to ourselves and feel positively noble for tolerating such a faulty world. But just like clouds aren't white and houses across most of the world don't look like what we've seen in textbooks, nothing is really ideal. There's power in understanding & accepting this and in looking at the world as it is. This is not nihilism. There's hope and attempt to change what's not working. But the definition of "not working" is derived from real human experience rather than idealogy.

But I digress. It's time for the sun to set. The last wave of light is deep gold with a hint of orange. Something now blocks the light from reaching the Gompa, but it bathes the last of the hills in the background making it look absolutely unreal. On the right it casts a pink glow on the snowcapped mountains and the clouds above. You've got to be quick in capturing these shots, for in a moment, the spell is broken.

The conversation in the cafe behind gets louder and you are transported back to reality. Peckish and a bit cold you wrap up for the evening. A honey-ginger-tea and some fritters at the cafe wouldn't be entrirely unwelcome.

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