LADAKH, bordering on Sinkiang and extending even further north than Tibet, forms the eastern half of the wedge that peninsular India thrusts into the heart of central Asia. From earliest times great caravans of trade, tides of culture and sometimes waves of conquest passed through Ladakh and its capital, Leh, as part of a more or less continuous intercourse between India and Central Asia. It was by this route, through what is now the State of Jammu and Kashmir, that Buddhism travelled to China from India via Sinkiang, becoming the universal religion in the entire region in between, and as far as the shores of the Caspian in the west. As late as the seventh century, when the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang passed through Central Asia, he noted the dominance of Buddhism and Indian culture there. At that time, these regions which are now so remote were the crossroads of the civilized world.
With Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498, the centers of power shifted to the maritime countries of Europe and trade found new and cheaper routes across the oceans. Central Asia lost its importance, strategic and commercial. Then the great mountain barriers also closed in, and although a thin trickle of travel and trade continued in the traditional manner the local societies lapsed into serene isolation and became totally stagnant.
And so in Ladakh, while all its people know and worship the Buddha whose message probably came to them in the time of the Indian Emperor Asoka (circa 273-232 B.C.), they generally do not know today about Mahatma Gandhi. His photograph hangs in Hemis, an ancient and famous monastery 24 miles from Leh, to the right of the golden image of the Buddha. It had been presented to the monastery by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, when he went there a few years ago. But when I asked the Lamas whose photograph it was, they did not know; and on being told it
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