Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“There are some who can live without wild things,and some who can not”…Aldo Leopold.
What a statement to sum up certain preferences in life, which are guided not so frequently by the call of the wild for a man to discover his true self .Almost all such preferences lie in the remote corners of the earth waiting to be unraveled by a diehard footloose individual . India the “Land of Wonders” as claimed by AL Basham the world famous indologist has hid within its recesses many such wonders ,each finer and better than the other. Ladakh the newest union territory of India famed for its cold desert ,Ibex, Bactrian camels, snow leopards, Azure blue skies and towering mountains for centuries has been bubbling with hot sulphur springs which dot its bleak landscape. Ladakh the quintessential “Roof of India” like Tibet its country cousin is bestowed with some of the most amazing hot sulphur springs in the Indian subcontinent unmatched in its vivacity and sheer wilderness. Hot water sulphur springs have been a favourite jaunt with the tourists world over. Some of the world famous hot springs laced with sulphur that comes to mind instantaneously are the Blue lagoon in Iceland and the Onsens in Japan . However nothing to beat the hot sulphur springs of Ladakh perched at an altitude which forces a tourist to brace up his/her physical prowess to match their splendour.
Located about 150 kms north of Leh near Nubra valley is the small village of Panamik . It is the final frontier village in close proximity to the Indo-Tibetan border as also to the highest battlefield of the world, the Siachen glacier. It is also the last point of human civilian contact with in the country. Perched at an altitude of 3183 mts/10503 ft , Panamik hot water sulphur springs are a welcome relief to both the tourists and soldiers of the Indian army who try to shed their fatigue of journey and war weariness in a warm soak over here. While there are other hot water sulphur springs in the country such as Mani Karan in Himachal and Bakreshwar in West Bengal, Panamik is renowned for being one of its only kind with a whole village known by its name and co-located along side the spring. Rest all other sulphur springs in India are stand alone bereft of any human population settlement named after the spring as such. Add to these mesmerizing views that you can see while taking a dip in the pools and you know why probably this is the first one you should check out. Although the entire region is blessed with a breathtaking view ,due to its proximity to Siachen glacier you can experience stunning views like no other place. Self was fortunate enough to take a dip in the sulphur springs of Panamik way back in 1995/96 posted at Siachen while in service. Tourist influx during those days was just a trickle as compared to the present times ,when Siachen has been opened up for the tourist traffic as part of tourism to partake in the bounties of nature .
The spring water of Panamik is enriched with high amounts of sulphur due to which it has got medicinal properties. A dip in the sulphur spring of Panamik is said to have a lot of therapeutic value which is why lot of locals and even tourists take a dip here despite the water being quite hot for staying inside it even for a few minutes. More about it later in the article. The hot water springs of Panamik consists of separate pools for men and women ,along with cabins for changing and taking a shower . A minimal entry fees of Rs 20/ per head is charged for hot water bathing complex . Apart from hot water springs Panamik also offers nearby lush green valley and snow clad peaks . A tourist can visit Samstanling monastery located nearby ,besides this Panamik has a base for 250 years old Ensa monastery famous for its Buddhist murals. The main attraction alongside these are the world famous Pashmina goats , twin humped Bactrian camels which are a legacy brought from Mongolia. As for shopping, Panamik has a raft of opportunities in the form of Pashmina shawls, Kashmir and Tibetan artifacts, woolen socks etc which are bought here like hot cakes by the tourists not to forget the horticulture produce like apples, apricots, almonds, and walnuts which are also quite popular here.
Though there are no hotels over here in Panamik,but rest houses and homestays are a rage with the tourists who lap up any given opportunity to make themselves comfortable in the local environment . All of these rest houses and homestays provide piped water from the sulphur springs . The best time for visiting Panamik is in the window of clear weather provided in July – September every year once the Khardungla pass opens up for road traffic. A tourist can reach Panamik by hiring a cab either from Leh or other major places from J&K . A permit is required to visit this place which can be easily obtained from the office of the district magistrate of Leh . Ladakh has another Sulphur spring up its sleeve which is 138 kms from Leh at a place called as Chumathang. A tourist will cross this innocuous looking place while driving from Leh to Tso Moriri lake if not careful with his observation. If a tourist expects some boisterous crowd over here frolicking in the sulphur spring ,then he is mistaken. Since one can surely miss this place if not observant as brought earlier, he/she has to be on the lookout for the hot bubbling water holes along the river Indus about 30 kms from Kiari a prominent landmark where Indian army has a sizeable presence. On good days of visibility, a tourist can spot these bubbling holes from quite a distance, but that’s about all of Chumathang sulphur springs. Chumathang village is not geared up for accommodation for the tourists unlike Panamik. Large body of tourists will find some small private guest houses which can hold a tourist’s attention for only short duration of few hours not more than that.
The third sulphur spring which Ladakh can boast of is bit far too tucked away in a remote corner near the Chang Chenmo river just short of the LAC .In the 1800s Maharaja Ranbir Singh of J&K at the request of his British counterparts had developed the trails and tracks leading to this place in order to improve business relations with Yarkand in Tibet. This place was a favourite jaunt for British army officers for rest and recuperation as also for hunting expeditions in the 19 th and early 20th century. But nowadays with the recent Indo-Chinese standoff the place is a strict no go. In addition to the above mentioned sulphur springs in Ladakh region ,there are certain sulphur springs in the POK too which deserve a mention over here. The hot sulphur springs at Tatta pani and Tato field springs surrounded by the massif of Nanga parbat in POK are worth a visit by a tourist. An interesting aspect of sulphur springs in POK/Gilgit Baltistan has been the discovery of Thermophilic bacteria which have been found in abundance in the soil and volcanic habitat over here .These thermophilic bacteria have been very successful in their application of chemical feed stock, fuel production, bio conversion of wastes ,enzyme technology and single cell production to name a few. Coming to the most important aspect of health benefits of bathing in sulphur springs.
Sulphur is the most naturally occurring mineral and soaking in sulphur springs water can be traced back in history to Egyptian and Roman times. Sulphur springs are located throughout the world and have been long popular method of hydrotherapy . Though there have been no conclusive evidence of sulphur springs conferring medical benefits ,but various studies in Japan and Europe have proven that it has the potential of killing germs and viruses in and on the skin including Psoriasis ,dermatitis and fungal infections. Known as “Balneotherapy ,the term Balneo comes from Latin word for bath and means soaking in thermal/mineral waters or medical hydrology. Quite popular in France and US Balneotherapy is quite a rage with the locals of both the countries . Balneotherapy is considered a medical science outside of US and is an integrated part of Allopathic medical practices and preventive medicine . In India Balneotherapy has not all that picked up momentum may be due to lack of any worthwhile exposure to the rank and file of the country. It is worth mentioning here that Balneotherapy has not been recognized by the American medical association (AMA) as a tried and trusted line of treatment for the masses.
However the university of Maryland and medical center states that Balneotherapy or sulphur water treatment can cure several kinds of arthritis including osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis ,Psoriasis arthritis etc. People who took sulphur baths improved their overall strength, had less morning stiffness, better walking ability and less inflammation/ Swelling/pain in their joints particularly in the neck and back region. These water treatments also include the “Mud treatment” containing sulphur. The interest in non-pharmacological and alternative methods of treatment is growing the world over and there is a desire for non invasive and natural ways to treat certain medical issues. This is where sulphur water baths hold their forte strong for everyone to see. It is also important to understand that soaking in sulphur water or otherwise increases the hydrostatic pressure of an individual’s body i.e compacted pressure you feel when under water. This improves the blood circulation and can improve the nourishment to your vital organs . A sulphur soak can also aid with removing the toxins from our body similar to soaking in your bath tub using Epsom salts. But a word of caution here, for all those heading to the sulphur springs of Ladakh . Drinking water with high contents of sulphur can cause diarrhea and hence smaller children especially infants should be kept away from these springs . It is also given to understand that sulphur springs should be avoided by people with high blood pressure and by patients put on blood thinning medicines including pregnant women . Sulphur by itself is not toxic by nature, since a small quantity is always present in eggs and chicken but it is always advisable for a tourist heading to Ladakh to take medical advice before jumping into the pool of sulphur water. At the end of the day warnings, notices, health communiqués notwithstanding a tourist heading to Ladakh will find his itinerary incomplete if not having a visit to the sulphur springs on his list .
Col Satish Singh Lalotra