Through a traveller's eyes: How Ladakh has transformed over the years - Hindustan Times
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Through a traveller's eyes: How Ladakh has transformed over the years

By | Edited by Anish Yande
Jun 08, 2024 08:15 AM IST

With Ladakhis giving both the BJP and the Congress a miss in the recent election, they seem determined to find a unique way to address their pressing problems

I first visited Ladakh shortly after the Kargil War ended in July 1999. I was on a biking trip with a group of bikers who had been coming here way before the place burst onto our TV screens through our first televised war in Kargil. I remember my first time being face-to-face with the jagged barrenness of Ladakh, it was like landing on an alien planet. Or a hill station in a dystopian future where all the trees had disappeared. It was surreal to find monasteries in the barren grey, purple, and green mountains, which stood out defiantly as if challenging all human effort and enterprise. What were they for? I wondered. What kind of a higher purpose lay in such severe monasticism?

A Buddhist monk looks out to a snow-covered mountain range from Thiksay Monastery some 22 Km (13 miles) from Leh in the Indian Union territory of Ladakh on April 19, 2024. BUDDHISM (Photo by Mohd Arhaan ARCHER / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
A Buddhist monk looks out to a snow-covered mountain range from Thiksay Monastery some 22 Km (13 miles) from Leh in the Indian Union territory of Ladakh on April 19, 2024. BUDDHISM (Photo by Mohd Arhaan ARCHER / AFP)(AFP)

On my successive trips, I began to get a clearer understanding of the region. Why Ladakhis preferred to chant and meditate in the face of howling winds, sandstorms, landslides and blizzards. In the valleys of this harsh and rugged expanse, there was a unique culture of frugality. Ladakh’s natural insulation from the rest of the world isn’t something that needs correction but needs safekeeping.

The lives of soldiers and monks in Ladakh

In many ways, Ladakh is India’s Siberia. On my first trip, we also visited Siachen where we heard horror stories from the soldiers stationed there. How the extreme cold at the watchposts caused gangrene and severe frostbites leading to amputations. These postings were like punishments, especially for soldiers from the warmer states. But the monks of Ladakh that we met looked happy and cheerful and involved in almost every aspect of life, except raising families. From five-year-olds to ancient sage-like ones — monks had their roles cut out in the monasteries including cooking, cleaning, lighting butter lamps and chanting prayers. Even in Ladakhi households, older grandparents helped out with daily chores, because life in the higher reaches was tough and no one could afford to sit idle.

In 2013, while shooting a documentary for Lok Sabha TV (now Sansad TV), I met the famed kung-fu nuns who had been part of a tree plantation drive in the previous year where they set a new Guinness World Record of planting 99,103 saplings in one day. Even then, they were planting more willow and poplar saplings because their good work didn’t just stop with accolades but carried on regardless. Much of this was owed to the current Gyalwang Drukpa — a Dalai Lama-like head of the Drukpa lineage — whose climate consciousness had been creating new paradigms of living in the region. At Ladakh’s oldest Hemis Monastery, Gyalwang Drukpa is venerated in a sharp professional photograph that could be a magazine cover. Opposite it hangs his sports bicycle. Earlier, lamas and holy men were remembered by their relics such as prayer wheels, rosaries and singing bowls but nowadays they seem to be getting replaced with modern gadgets.

Beyond Maggi: The delights of Ladakhi cuisine

If you’re on a road trip in Ladakh you may think that the favourite dish of travellers on the road is Maggi. The 2-minute Swiss noodle brand is a top choice here — sometimes the only choice available at roadside dhabas. The reason behind its ubiquitousness is that it is easy to cook at altitudes where low pressure and even lower temperatures make cooking a longish chore. But for seekers of good food, Ladakh is not without its own, very distinct cuisine. It ticks all the boxes for today’s clean-eaters. It has vegetables, barley, millet, cheese and honey — almost like the plant-based Blue Zone diets that make for longer lifespans.

Unfortunately, the things most unique about this northern tip of India are the ones that are least talked about. In Leh, our search for a Ladakhi restaurant was going to end without success until someone pointed out ‘De Khambir’, a place on the first floor of a building just off the main market’s no-traffic zone, where a white-and-red ‘I heart Leh’ sign sits proudly. It is a popular selfie point for tourists. At De Khambir, the proprietor, Dolma, recommended a buckwheat pancake called ‘tenten’, a vegetable stew with thumb-pressed pasta called ‘skyu’ and a brown pita pocket filled with salad vegetables called ‘khambir’ (a word we later found out was close to the Urdu ‘khamir’ which means leavened bread). This meal we paired with sea buckthorn and apricot juice, both fruits found in abundance in this dry and cold region that was once part of Tibet. Needless to say, we loved this quaint and healthy feast.

A unique history of eco-activism in Ladakh

In 2001, I met Swedish activist Helena Norberg-Hodge who had made Leh her home and spoke fluent Ladakhi. Helena set up the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh (WAL) in 1991, as an NGO to create a support system for Ladakh’s age-old practices of cultivation, wool-making, cooking and more carried out by women. Helena had come to Ladakh in 1975 with a documentary crew and was amazed by its self-sufficient and zero-waste lifestyle. She detailed her experiences in her book titled Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Helena’s exemplary work won her the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 1986. However today, WAL’s Leh office wears a deserted look. Much of her work has now been taken over by other eco-warriors.

Sonam Wangchuk is one of them, his 21-day hunger strike during the harsh spring this year is proof of that. As a border area, there is a tendency in New Delhi to look at Ladakh as just that but it is way more than that. It is a region of not just unique climactic conditions but is also filled with considerable biodiversity because of its location between two major biogeographical zones: the frozen Palearctic and the tropical Indo-Malayan. It also has a vast tribal population (over 97%). To give Ladakhis the autonomy they need to have in order to survive, their need for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is vital.

The issues facing today’s Leh

Today’s Leh is more up with the times. There are more hotels than my first visit — nearly 400 according to online booking sites. There are many more bikers from different corners of the globe. We saw a group whose jacket-backs read ‘Oman Riders’. Bikes of different makes are now also available for rent in Leh, which saves the trouble of riding all the way up from New Delhi or beyond.

Our cab driver told us how disappointed he was with Jamyang Namgyal, their last MP, whom the BJP didn’t give a ticket this time. He was angry because the party didn’t keep up its promises of Hill Council autonomy and legislative powers that the Ladakhis believed they would receive after the abrogation of Article 370. The BJP is also especially guilty of encouraging unchecked tourism in Ladakh, which risks upsetting the local ecological balance. Not many were surprised that the BJP lost to Mohammad Hanifa Jan—the independent candidate from Ladakh—who called his win a “referendum against the BJP” because the party polled only 23.58% of the vote share against his and Congress’ combined share of 75.74%.

Ladakh is like no other place in India. It is like a museum of natural history, language, culture and sustainability, which makes it incumbent upon us to keep it that way. But what is more visible is an attempt to shoehorn it into a cookie-cutter ‘Indian’ identity, especially with battalions of Indian army personnel setting up camps and watch posts throughout the year.

Soon after the Kargil War, LK Advani launched the Sindhu Darshan Festival in Leh. It was meant to celebrate the idea of India as a civilisation cradled by the Indus (Sindhu in Hindi), but what it ended up doing was introducing far too many people into the region without the necessary checks and balances. With the Lok Sabha verdict of 2024, one hopes there is some course correction coming soon.

Dhiraj Singh is the author of the novel ‘Master O. He is associate dean and director of Dadasaheb Phalke International Film School and department of Media and Communication at MIT World Peace University. He was formerly executive director, Lok Sabha Television

 

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