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INSIDE STORY

The Shey odyssey

LAKSHMI SHARATH

The riveting tale of Ladakhi kings

PHOTOS: LAKSHMI SHARATH

RESONATING WITH STORIES Shey

Standing amidst the countless chortens or stupas scattered around Shey, I heard a foreign tourist narrate a story to her reluctant daughter, who was refusing to climb up the steps leading to the ruined palace of the Ladakhi kings.

And, that's where I heard about the story of King Gesar or Kesar, as Ladakhis refer to the legendary Tibetan hero sent by the Gods to defeat the demons.

The mythical gLing ruled by Kesar could possibly be Shey, the capital of the ancient Ladakh kingdom. Even today, there are a few artistes around Ladakh and Tibet who can sing their own versions of the 1,000-year-old ballad.

Located about 14 km from Leh, Shey, situated at a height of 11,000 ft, is a small village on the banks of the Indus. Tourists flock by here to see the ancient fortifications, palace and the monastery that houses an imposing idol of Sakyamuni, the form of Buddha worshipped by the Sakya clan of saints. Glittering in copper and gilded gold, this is one of the largest statues in Ladakh, built by the king Senggee Namgyal. The Lama here tells us that four craftsmen were brought from Nepal by Gyal Katun, the King's mother, to create this deity. “As they had married locally, they were not allowed into Nepal, and so even today, their descendants live in a small village called Chiling,” he says.


The Sun is merciless and I collect my breath after having climbed the hillock where the monastery is housed. A row of prayer wheels, mani walls and chortens fills the landscape as I look down. Several dynasties have ruled Shey, besides the mythical hero Kesar and his descendants.

However historically, Ladakh came under Tibetan rule around the 10 {+t} {+h} Century, when Nyima Gon established his empire here and built a few chortens in Shey. It is ironic, said the Lama, that Tibet itself was in a turmoil after Nyima Gon's grandfather, Ling Lang Darma was murdered by a seer for apparently persecuting Buddhists.

The flags flutter in the breeze while shutterbugs are busy taking pictures of the valley below. I am told the monastery here was built much later by the Namgyal rulers. The Lama tells me that somewhere in the middle of the 16 {+t} {+h} Century, Ladakh was a divided kingdom ruled from both Shey and Basgo.

The King from Basgo, Bhagan, deposed the Shey ruler and titled himself Namgyal or Victorious. It was during this dynasty's reign that power slowly shifted from Shey to Leh, with a palace being built in Leh. And, like any erstwhile capital town, Shey slowly lost its strategic significance. “When the Nangyals finally lost power to the Kashmir kings and to the Mughals, Shey was abandoned.”

There was a ring of finality in his tone. I see the tourists rotating the prayer wheel as they climb up. Shey is now just another must see in their sightseeing list.

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