India’s northernmost and sixth-largest state, Jammu and Kashmir (usually shortened to J&K), is one of its most mountainous and staggeringly beautiful. It also encapsulates the cultural and religious diversity of the Subcontinent by falling into three distinct regions. The southwestern end of its thick bracket-shaped expanse is the Hindu-majority area around the winter capital of Jammu. Directly to the north across the first range of the Himalayas is the almost exclusively Muslim Kashmir, as infamous for its ongoing political woes as it is renowned for its enchanting beauty. Finally, to the northeast, hugging the disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, the remote and rugged region of Ladakh, which occupies nearly seventy percent of the state according to its de facto borders, is populated mostly by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jammu is the state’s largest city and the traditional stepping-stone into the region, worthy of a stopover in its own right for its imposing fort and admirable collection of temples. Most foreigners, however, head immediately for the summer capital of Srinagar, lynchpin of the famed Kashmir Valley, which also offers the green hills and meadows of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Unless you fly direct to the enchanting capital of Ladakh, Leh, the decision of when to visit Ladakh is largely made for you: the passes into the region are only open between late June and late October, when the sun is at its strongest and the weather, at least during the day, pleasantly warm. From November onwards, temperatures drop fast, often plummeting to minus 40oC between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is along the frozen surface of the river. Leh is surrounded by numerous villages dominated by venerable monasteries such as Tikse and Hemis or, further west, Lamayuru. The latter provides a good stopover en route to Kargil, halfway along the Srinagar–Leh road and the jumping-off point for the isolated Zanskar Valley. Other sparsely populated but exquisite areas worth the bumpy detours involved in reaching them from Leh include the icy lakes of Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, as well as the almost surreal Nubra Valley, with its sand dunes and wandering camels.
The region that comprises the current state of J&K has been a cultural, religious and political crossroads for millennia. There is archeological evidence that the area around Jammu, whose name appears in the Mahabharata, was part of the Harappan civilization, based in the Indus Valley, one of the oldest in the world. Remains of other powerful kingdoms, such as those of the Mauryas and Guptas, have also been found near the city, although the foundation of Jammu itself is credited to the Raja Jambu Lochan in the late fourteenth century. It later fell under the control of the Sikhs but after their defeat by the British in 1846, became part of the Hindu Dogra dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of its people still identify themselves as Dogras and speak the Dogri dialect.
Kashmir, meanwhile, had become an important centre of Buddhism and, subsequently, Hinduism during the first half of the first millennium AD and these faiths co-existed side by side regardless of the region’s rulers for the best part of a thousand years. In 1349, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir and it continued to be controlled by followers of Islam from Mughals to Afghans until it was taken over by the Sikhs and followed the same historical path as Jammu from the 1840s until Independence. Its problems since 1948 (see The Kashmir conflict) have still not been resolved but under the guidance of its youngest ever chief minister, Omar Abdullah, (elected in January 2009), there is increased confidence of positive developments among Kashmiris.
The first inhabitants of Ladakh are thought to have been a mixture of nomadic herdsmen from the Tibetan plateau and a small contingent of early Buddhist refugees from northern India called the Mons, joined in the fourth or fifth century by the Indo-Aryan Dards, who introduced irrigation and settled agriculture. The first independent kingdom in the region was established in the ninth century by the maverick nobleman Nyima Gon, at around the same time as Buddhism was first disseminated by the wandering sage-apostles such as Padmasambhava (alias Guru Rinpoche). This was followed by the Second Spreading, among whose key proselytizers was the “Great Translator” Rinchen Zangpo.
Around the fourteenth century, Ladakh passed through a dark age before being reunified by Tashi Namgyal (ruled 1555–70), who established a new capital and palace at Leh. This power eventually succumbed to the mightier Mughals, when Aurangzeb demanded more tribute, ordered the construction of a mosque in Leh and forced the Ladakhi king to convert to Islam. Trade links with Tibet resumed in the eighteenth century, but Ladakh never regained its former status. Plagued by feuds and assassinations, the kingdom teetered into terminal decline, and was an easy target for the Dogra general Zorawar Singh, who annexed it for the maharaja of Kashmir in 1834.
Ladakh became a part of J&K in independent India in 1948, following the first of the three Indo-Pak wars fought in the region. Tensions over the disputed line of control still flare up sporadically (see The Kashmir conflict). When you consider the proximity of China, another old foe who annexed a large chunk of Ladakh in 1962, it’s easy to see why this is India’s most sensitive border zone. There is also a degree of internal friction. Long dissatisfied with the state government based in Srinagar, the Ladakhis finally saw the establishment of their region as the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in September 1995, localizing – in theory – government control. A group of Ladakhi Buddhist and Muslim parties formed the unified Ladakh Union Territory Front in 2002 to push for separation from J&K and gain Union Territory recognition from Delhi. Despite local success in state elections, the Congress-led state government has repeatedly blocked moves to set up Union Territory status.