SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Ladakh ... two worlds

JOURNEYS

A reminder of life's beauty.

A reminder of life's beauty.  

A CROWDED jeep steadily traverses the landscape of Ladakh. I am bouncing wildly in the far back seat. Bollywood songs are blaring. Hour by hour and day by day we crisscrossed the Indus river valley into barren sand dunes, through purple lined gorges and eerie white moonscapes to climb up the veins of the snow-laced mountain shoulders into the white fur collars of the Himalayas. Military check points with bored soldiers create a game of connect-the-dots. Road signs with admonishing slogans like "Better to be Mr late than late Mr" and "Whiskey is Risky" are constant amusement. On a 10-day visit to the Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir, three friends and I negotiated the intersection of culture, politics and change in the lap of a spectacular and stark landscape

Seeped in ancient rituals and tradition, Tibetan Buddhism forms the fabric of Ladakhi culture; numerous stupas, monasteries and temples beckon the traveller to explore the beauty and the sacred, which they embody. In the renowned Lamayuru Monastery, heady from breathing the wafting incense, I sat for a moment on the smooth, worn wooden floor and gazed at the white peaked mountains peering in the window over the Buddha's left hand. A prayer ritual had begun and several maroon-robed monks including two no more than nine or 10 years of age, began to chant in steady deep tones, banging a gong and ringing a bell at particular intervals. It was a rooted moment of profound peace and calm awareness of the interconnectivity that has shaped my own bursting vitality.

For more than a thousand years people have been praying, meditating, chanting and living in the temples and monasteries in river valleys and perched on high rocky outcroppings. Small white Buddhist stupas form clusters around villages and dot the desolate mountainsides. However, difficult and complex understanding the nuances the faith may be to the foreign eye, its manifestation in the Ladakhi people through their warmth, generosity, honesty and peaceful manner are immediately discernible.

Squeezed between the Kashmir Valley, China and the Line of Control (LoC), Ladakh, by matter of geographical circumstance, is strategically very important for the Indian Government. The 1999 Kargil confrontation with Pakistan happened in Ladakh; the world's highest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier (more than 21,000 feet), is in Ladakh. The world's highest motorable pass, Khardungla, (18, 350 feet) is kept open 365 days a year, at enormous cost to life and money, so that supplies can be delivered to the troops posted on the Glacier. There are four permit and passport checks crossing the Khardungla Pass and six en route to Pyongong Lake on the border with China. Present during the final days of the recent Lok Sabha elections, we were immensely curious to learn how Ladakhis feel about living in such a heavily militarised zone and how they perceive local politics to be affected by complex external forces. Luckily for us, the owner of our guesthouse in Leh was a former member of the state Parliament and the Founder-President of the newly formed independent party striving for the separation of Ladakh from the rest of Jammu and Kashmir. He told us that global issues such as the "War on Terrorism" and regional issues such as the enduring Indo-Pak conflict have many direct and indirect effects on Ladakh's economy, culture and governance. He strongly believes that as a small population of largely rural Buddhists, the Ladakhis are largely marginalised in both State and country politics and subject to policies that take little cognisance of their local needs. Adamantly opposed to this "external ruling" he was spearheading the effort to make Ladakh a union territory so that the people might have some degree of control over their own governance. While travelling gleefully about the region it was difficult to fathom the obscure yet real relationships between events such as the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the way Ladakhis earn their living and negotiate daily life.

Two days later, we were standing on a ridge above the 1,000-year-old Lamayuru monastery, absorbing the stunning landscape of gorges, moonscape and craggy snowcapped peaks when two heavy-bellied Indian Air Force helicopters roared by overhead and an army convoy of trucks snaked slowly over the difficult mountain terrain. It was incredibly surreal to realise that I was pinned between two extremely opposing worlds. Beneath the rubric of "security" and the need to protect territorial boundaries, was an enormous, historically rooted power game of masculine conquest and domination — its board game, the Ladakhi homeland, people and culture.

Leaving the militarised zones behind us, we visited a famous temple, Alchi, in a small village nestled between the gushing clear green Indus river and a steep sweeping purple-washed ridge of scree. Tired and sore from bouncing for hour upon hour on rough roads across the barren landscape, I relished the green of freshly germinated barley fields and blossoming apricot orchards. The sun set behind the ridge leaving a spectrum of deepening light to settle around us in the cool air among the tumbling sound of the glassy water. Returning to our guesthouse we paused our chatter by a crumbling stone wall to stare with utter awe as the full moon rose from a bed of soft lacy clouds in the roundest most radiant silver ivory I have ever seen.

The next morning, the brilliant blue sky and streaming sun wakened me early from our shared trundle bed of packed cotton. Pulsing with the excitement of dawn, I dressed in fleece, and devoured a cup of steaming chai before skipping down to the river's edge. How does one describe the flow, the colour, and the richness of such clean, rushing glacial water? A sacred pulse of nourishing life that will, and has for millennia, quenched the thirst of people from Tibet to Karachi. A few hours later after a long dizzying climb up a goat path, we sat together over a simple feast of tea and piping hot ground-wheat Ladakhi bread spread with butter and local apricot jam. The sun began to shed its sleepy soft rays to mark our fair cheeks with high mountain glare. Sitting there, reminiscent of similar mornings with fresh raspberries and cream on my farm in the United States, I wondered why I persist in abandoning these simple, overwhelming pleasures and reminders of life's beauty for the complicated, chaotic stresses of cities such as Delhi or Washington?

Several years ago, when visiting India was a small seed in my mind I read a book called Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Never did I believe that I would actually find myself immersed in the same "ancient" culture that she so poignantly described. It was fascinating to reflect back on the thoughts, projections and ideas I had then in relation to the perspective I have now, after living in India for nearly two years.

Though a bit romantic in its portrayal, I found her desire to find strands of profundity in the simple joys of life, to find meaning and importance in subsistence living extremely admirable and worthwhile. Watching tourists such as ourselves begin to pour in for the summer season bringing our high tech gear, money and glitzy accents of an urban fast life, it was hard not to resent the changes that seem inevitably to be following in the form of MTV consumerist culture. Knowing the nefarious ways that such patterns have affected my own culture I wonder how Ladakhis will negotiate them?

As I myself struggle to find peace and beauty, to experience and share joy in all that I encounter while swimming through the daily stimulus of such a complicated and oft miserable world, it is my hope that the peaks and people of Ladakh will linger in my consciousness and remind me of what I value most.

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