Ladakh, Little Tibet of India. Radical changes of environment and social standards

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Text and photos by M.Palladino(Modus Vivendi nr.50 December 2003)


A Valley in the centre of Himalaya.
Leh is the capital of a vast western region of Tibet - currently within the farthest reaches of the Indian republic - which takes its name from two contiguous areas, Ladakh and Zanskar (name of the river), whose civilization has developed over the centuries along the course of the high Indus and of its tributaries, which have carved a multitude of fertile valleys here at incredible heights. You get to the capital on roads going from Srinagar, if not choosing for the airplane, leaving by bus from Manali (Himachal Pradesh).
This road opened to tourism in 1989, it takes two days of journey through surreal lunar landscapes, along five hundred kilometres over glacial basins and crossing mountain passes of over five thousand meters. The arrival is a vision that stuns: an immense stony river bed surrounded by the emerald green of a valley which is surrounded by the peaks among the highest in the world, always embedded in a bright September sky. The barren land, almost a desert of sand, which accompanies the traveller for hundreds of miles, stops suddenly, but leaves you the vivid feeling that all this grace is a gift in a precarious balance.


The traffic of trucks loaded with goods of all kinds and always crossing on the edge of some precipice is impressive. There is some heroic effort in the everyday life of these carriers, most of whom of Punjabi origins, but also a great responsibility for the current invasion of objects which invade the streets of Ladakh, only to make more comfortable the stay of foreign tourists and more "modern" the life of the locals. But it is not new. The presence of the Indian Army, which oversees the borders of the neighbouring states of Pakistan and China – they are always ready to grab a few kilometres of territory as they have done in the past – is back to the 60’s and has transformed the habits of the locals. It is estimated that since 1988 India spends almost a million dollars a day for this useless war of borders. The contribution of the Indian army is still vital, not only to maintain open the many mountain roads (often no more than a path on the ground), but also to refuel the transports, the heating and the electricity generators.

Votive Flags
The Road of Pashmina.
This land was until the last century an important crossroad of trade routes between eastern Tibet, India and Central Asia. The fame of his Pashmina, a processed wool mixed with silk, which reached the courts in all of Asia, is due precisely to this privileged location halfway between Kashmir, Tibet and China (and the ancient Turkmenistan). The very existence of Leh can be traced back easily to the construction of an outpost on the Indus, in one of the most fertile valleys, where you can control the caravan routes.
The state of relative isolation, and viewed with a modern viewpoint, the fragile order in which the populations of the valleys live, therefore, doesn’t concern the transit or the presence of foreigners in the territory but rather the sphere of the economy and social organization, that remained almost unchanged over the centuries and passed unharmed through the Islamic domination of the Mughals and various maharajah of Kashmir, who maintained effective control over the region until a few years after Indian independence in 1947. The diversity of ethnic groups that make up even the today community (Khampa nomads, Sino-Tibetan, the sedentary Mon, Drukpa and of Indo-European origins) suggests a great mixture. The same route Manali-Leh is a kind of ethnographic path through the gradual fusion of two cultures, Indian and Lamaist, that settled in the fourteenth century with the arrival of Tibetan pilgrims.
A Fragile Ecosystem.
However, this has always been a fragile society, with an economic structure based on the monastic system, as it did in Medieval Europe. The rules of behaviour encoded in religious precepts, expressed strong obligations, such as that one of the sons at least has to take the votes or the not rare form of polyandry, which means that the one of the brothers was allowed to live in the same house with the same wife, but not to acquire its own, to regroup the inherited property without dispersing it. An habit, this, that even the restrictions of Indian law have not completely eliminated.
These rules, if well considered, tended to counteract the extreme scarcity of environmental resources, which are available in time of only 4-5 months of the year and concentrate in the narrow space of the valleys, but they have forged an identity in the local culture which is very mild and not surprisingly shows awareness of their precarious position in the ecosystem. The compassionate vision of man and nature expressed by Buddhism here, in a part of the world where every aspect of daily life is still governed by this philosophy, more than anywhere shows its deep generative roots.
The visit to the many Gompa (monastery), located along the rivers and sometimes perched on inaccessible walls, does not suggest anything more about this vision, compared to the observation of the practices of everyday life. Because every village here is a shrine dedicated to the generative force of life, and is diffused within buildings that are subject to a daily spiritual practice, as long as votive stone walls, loads of mantras carved in stone that the devotees leave to their fate, or as the Chorten, sometimes just a few stones placed in a pyramid, indicating the passage of a pilgrim; or such as the buildings in the shape of a Stupa erected on a square base, and large enough to accommodate - according to tradition - the relics of some historical Buddha. People go there to purify objects and to pray. And next to each alley at least one line of water runs, whose gurgling is coupled by the ringing of bells and the rustling of colourful flags, also hanging by the prayers of the faithful as high as possible on the roofs of houses or on the remote mountain passes.
Awareness of the Limits
If analysed under the most purely economic sight, this society based on barter and poorly developed could even be considered primitive. In Ladakh every family enjoyed his land and its animals and what makes a living, with no need to hoard or sell in exchange for services or store goods today considered indispensable. Just think that the measure of the extent of the camps was traditionally expressed in hours or days of work and not in units of spatial measurement, which instead recall a Western mentality of land possession. The same agricultural work, that our eyes can only look as extremely tiring, was instead carried out according to collective strategies of mutual aid without financial consideration. Where appropriate, if a family was back with the harvest, neighbours rushed to help, without asking anything in return. And this could only happen in a society where the individual needs were not only perfectly compatible with (and dependent on) the general ones but also universally felt as such. No one rejoiced the misfortunes of others, because sooner or later they would have also suffered for this in their lives.
The society Ladakhi did not know, if not sporadically, violence and animosity among its members, for the simple fact that these could not make any sense. We would not fall into the abused myth of the noble savage or the myth of lost paradises, which the recent ethnology has criticized enough, but let’s consider the rapidity of change and the violence. Today, the songs and the chatter during the work in the fields have been replaced by murmurs of another language, the one of labourers from Nepal and Bihar (poor eastern region of India) who spend the season here for a few rupees a day and allow the Ladakhi owners to pay for their children’s education, for the costs of a modern life. And not only the school education (which is somewhat abstruse from the reality of this place), but also for expensive industrial accessories, mass movies, cars, etc.. The new global financial dependence is tearing apart the social of the past, because in fact has changed the cultural horizons of the younger generations, who do not identify anymore in the traditions and even feel sometimes ashamed of their origins.
Within two or three decades, this little Tibet has undergone a revolution, but it is difficult for a Western visitor to get aware of how extraordinary it is to have here the small comfort that he is accustomed to, those that have dramatically humanized the environment and at the same time dehumanized the society of Ladakh. Traditional systems of food production and energy were placed in a cycle, said in today's words, was completely environmentally friendly. But these systems are now lost, and in any case inadequate to address the current needs of a population nearly tripled, and nostalgia does not help to save what's left of it. So it is the president of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (abbreviated: LEDeG) - an ecology centre founded in 1983 by a visionary linguist, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who had lived in Ladakh for many years and had foreseen as first from western view, the danger inherent in the changes taking place - to suggest this reading: "Our founder had a too romantic and anachronistic idea, he says, with the wisdom of his master's degree in sociology from the University of Bombay. As it is, the efforts of LEDeG today are focusing mainly on education, enhancing the recovery of traditions through school workshops, and the development of new green technologies, some of which complement those traditions with completely new developments. One of the flagships of the group is the so-called solar oven, a simple system of glass on a black background that exploits of the enormous potential energy of the sun.
Valle di Nubra, vista dalla cima di un monastero diroccato a 2 giorni di cammino dall'ultimo villaggio. Nel moastero vive un solo monaco eremita
The Illusions of Modern Technology
Modernity, however, always has a cost and leads to a different lifestyle. One consideration that I have experienced in many interviews is the idea that Western people do all through the machines, even production of fruit, and men have only to spend money - this is what they see in the movies and in the behaviour of tourists during summer! The reality is that with modern life only stress is growing, a concept almost unknown among these people. Conversely, you also have less time to stay together. Modern work in fact knows no stops or special pauses. In the past, during the long winter of inactivity, they celebrated their major festivities. Today, however, celebrations have been moved at the end of the summer, in the period of greatest presence of tourists.
New technologies are also increasing the gap between rich and poor. If in the past 95% of the population had exactly the same things, the remaining 5%, the poorest, were simply the Lamaist monks. Completely unknown were problems such as unemployment, with all its consequences. But this is not just one of many possible examples, a small historical demonstration of how the export of our technology, with its economic and cultural system, not only proves to be harmful to the environment but sometimes even less convenient than the traditional ones. With a simple example, we will better understand the concept. If before a yak (or its local hybrid), perfectly adapted to live beyond the twenty thousand feet, feeding with the mountain pastures and “stored” energy otherwise impossible to exploit, and thus provided milk, meat, but also blankets, dung for fuel, physical labour, etc.., and all at no cost; now American cows are preferred, because, according to a specialized vision, they give much more milk (only the females of course), but these can not survive freely at these altitudes during the winter, so have to be kept in warm stables and to be fed with special food - a product of the fields not spontaneous pastures. They need medicines. They also are not as strong to work and generally require a lot of care. But who would use yak’s dung anymore to keep home warm when it's so “cheap” to buy that oil that tankers carry from the south each day (with the result that the valleys are full of rusty cans)?
It is also clear that if a tractor takes half an hour to do the work that an animal makes in half a day the choice is forced. Today a farmer has available fertilizers and pesticides and can increase production, with absolutely disastrous effects on health (recent scandal is due to the presence of dangerous amounts of pesticides in soft drinks popular in India, all in the hands of multinationals). It'd be important to growth a new generation who on the basis of scholar studies has another vision, less traditional maybe, but a bridge between the environment and local culture, who knows how to work towards a more modern sustainable society. Some also, usually the younger ones, believe that the cultural changes caused by the new economy are only superficial and that "the important things, like family and religion, have not changed." But it is not. The radical transformation of the local economy always involves a radical rethinking of collective and individual strategies. If we to apply to human culture a concept dear to ecologists, if a massive extinction occurs then the loss can be repaired fairly quickly, but under these circumstances the number of species in itself is unimportant, if the characters are not sufficiently distinct from each other so that they can be placed in a separate genre. A population who is who is an economic and cultural appendix of a global system which does not give anything if not waste, while retaining some of its own traditional characteristics, if we do not want to call it extinct, we can call it another testimony to the relentless loss of diversity.

©2003-2012 Marco Palladino – All rights reserved
©2003 Modus Vivendi – All rights reserved

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