Two Muslim women in traditional attire walk past a group of Buddhist monks dressed in maroon robes. Stupas, Buddhist religious monuments, line the streets at regular intervals. Tibetan prayer flags flap in the wind from rooftops above. The Om symbol rises into the sky from the peak of a Hindu temple. In Leh, India, it’s not just the sights that act as reminders of a spirit-centric population, but also the sounds. The call of the mu’adhin trumpets from the mosque five times a day, while elderly Buddhist men and women recite “Om Mani Padme Hum” as they stroll the streets holding prayer wheels that they spin round and round.
India is the birthplace of many of the world’s spiritual traditions—including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism—and religion is front and centre in the lives of many. The population of Ladakh, India’s northernmost region, is 52 percent Buddhist, 32 percent Muslim and 8 percent Hindu, with a scattering of Christians and others.
With religion’s power to incite hatred, start wars and heighten tensions, it’s rare for serious practitioners of different religions to get along so well with one another. Yet, Leh is one such place.
Certainly, most light sleepers in Leh may get annoyed at being woken by the sound of the mu’adhin call to prayer in the middle of the night, every night, especially since the sound has no meaning to anyone other than a Muslim. And to non-Buddhists, the many Buddhist festivals and ceremonies just create additional traffic and headaches. But in spite of annoyances like these, the tolerant people of Leh live in harmony.
There’s a great sense of peace in Ladakh, built on religious tolerance and respect for other cultures. The presence of several nearby monasteries helps maintain a solid foundation of spirituality for the people. The history of India supports the spiritual framework. With spirituality being central to so many, peace comes naturally to this society. There’s a great sense of trust among residents and travellers alike. Tourists have little need to worry about getting ripped off by shopkeepers. Crime is relatively rare in these parts.
It hasn’t always been so peaceful. The minority Muslim population once had control over the Buddhist majority. Since Ladakh was a semi-autonomous region in the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, Buddhists had the population but not the power. Tourism was introduced to this ancient mountain kingdom in 1978, and the pressures of globalization began to be felt. Tensions rose between Buddhists and Muslims in the 1980s, inciting a power struggle that led to protests, with verbal and even physical violence. A rare spectacle for this peaceful place. Eventually an agreement was formed, balancing power between the Buddhists and Muslims by giving each group control over its own region. Once again, peace prevailed in Ladakh.
People call Ladakh a boring place. In a land known worldwide to travellers seeking to trek through its mountainous landscape and to meditators seeking to sit in serene monasteries, it is that boringness that is so greatly treasured. The peace in Ladakh is built on contentment. It’s a spiritual treasure that the people are keen to preserve. With tourism to the region doubling from 70,000 in 2010 to 140,000 in 2011, the people who once sought tourists are now wondering how to prevent the summertime overpopulation from destabilizing their peaceful lives. Luckily for the many travellers in India who arrive here with frayed nerves, Ladakh provides a welcome respite where the peace is contagious.