Standing amidst the countless chortens or stupas that are 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 Epic of king Gesar or Kesar as Ladakhis refer to the legendary Tibetan hero sent by the Gods to defeat 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 1000 year old ballad.
Located about 14 kms from Leh, Shey ,situated at a height of 11000 feet is now 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 specially brought from Nepal by Gyal Katun,the king’s mother to create this deity here . “As they had married locally, they were not allowed entry 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 fill 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 10th century when Nyima Gon , established his empire here and built probably a few chortens in Shey.
It is ironic, said the lama I was chatting with ,that Tibet itself was in a turmoil after Nyima Gon’s grandfather, king Lang Darma was murdered by a seer for apparently persecuting Buddhists .
The flags flutter in the breeze while the 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 16th 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 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 .
Published in my column, Inside Story in the Metro Plus, The Hindu