In May 2011, the India International Centre Quarterly published an article of mine in a special issue about the Jammu and Kashmir region in the very north of India and almost the dead centre of the Eurasian continent where India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and former Soviet Central Asia meet. It is one of the world’s highest regions, just to the west of Tibet, averaging 4000 metres in altitude and peaks going up above 7000 metres including K2, the world’s second-highest peak, at over 8000 metres, just to the west of Ladakh. It is also where some of the world’s religions meet and rub up against each other, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in confusion, and sometimes trying to find a peaceful way to live together : Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Maoist Communism. Yes, I do include Maoist Communism: it is religious in so far as it is dogmatic and if it is political and organised, well, so is the Roman Catholic Church! The following is the text that was accepted for publication. It was agreed that I could publish this in my own blog after I had waited at least six months for the commercially published version to be in the market, which I have now done. The only thing I have changed here that I have reverted to my original title. The title used by the IIC, ‘Celebrating Ladakh,’ is in my opinion a little narrower than the title ‘The Idea of Ladakh’, and also diverts the focus away from the fact that the article was intended as a polemic and an engagement to start a debate by others, not as merely a statement of appreciation. However, one must bow to the wishes of editors if one wishes to be published and reach a strategic audience (in this case, experts and political decision-makers!). INDIA AND THE IDEA OF LADAKH. In the very heart of Asia, just north of the Himalayas and at least 2000 kilometres from the sea in any direction, there is a chunk of land, nearly 100,000 square kilometres in area, bounded by high mountains, lifted thousands of metres above the teeming plains of India. This land is geographically the westernmost continuation of the Tibetan plateau, sharing all its geological characteristics and many of its cultural ones. However, Tibet has been devastated by Chinese occupation for over half a century and remains, despite Chinese propaganda to the contrary, an oppressed and colonised nation. Anyone talking of political freedom in Tibet is put in jail or killed, nor are outside observers allowed to talk freely with Tibetans to investigate Chinese claims hat they have made Tibet a better place than it was. China is many wonderful things but it is most emphatically not a democracy. This little polemic addresses the question of what the relevance of Ladakh might be to India, if any, beyond its strategic importance which is not under question.
In Ladakh, as in Tibet, the land appears under extensive military occupation and its culture and language have been ignored (as opposed to systematically oppressed). But Ladakh is part of a democracy, India, and enjoys the potential for the interests of its indigenous inhabitants to be increasingly recognised, as indeed is happening via the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. Therefore Ladakh, which seeks a greater voice in the management of its own affairs, has a complex relationship with India. On the one hand, it suffers from the effects of a huge Indian army occupation which impinges increasingly on its environment. On the other hand it depends entirely on India for its defence. China has claimed it since the 1960s and has not relinquished its claims. Ladakhis can see what has happened in Tibet and they know that without India’s commitment to its defence, it would be swallowed up by China as its eastern sector, Aksai Chin, was back in ’62. Ladakh, therefore, needs two things. One is guaranteed : India’s continued commitment to its defence, out of India’s own strategic self-interest. The other is not : the celebration and reinforcement of some of the key principles and practices of Ladakh’s traditional culture, both Muslim and Buddhist, as an important part of India’s own cultural heritage and in a unique way. Here there are more hills than people and nature appears to remain supreme. You can travel long distances without seeing a soul. Creatures of wide open spaces, the Himalayan chough, the swift, the wild ass and the yak, can all be found, often undisturbed, though increasingly challenged by hordes of tourists in summer. Rare birds such as the bar-headed goose and the black-necked crane seek its remote solitudes to rest on their migrations across the vastness of Asia. The golden eagle rests its wings on high thermals near mountain pinnacles. The snow leopard still lurks in the hills , the more mysterious for its near invisibility, staying as well clear of human hunters as it can. The world’s largest sheep roams here, perching on impossibly steep mountain flanks, and the world’s most prized wool comes from the chiru antelope, producing shahtoosh wool, the softest and rarest and most expensive in the world. These magnificent beasts are hunted virtually to extinction outside Ladakh. Bare, gnarled mountains carved by glaciers display giant flanks wounded by erosion. Their colours are the colours of sun-faded rainbows and of dreams. The air on a fine day is so clear you can see to a score of kilometres and it seems but a quarter of an hour’s walk away. The Indus river is thick with silt and mingles with the ice-blue waters of the Zangskar, carrying the melt from the 72 km long Siachen glacier in the Karakorams. Siachen is Asia’s largest glacier, loading ice-melt into the Indus that foams and sparkles for a thousand kilometres and turns warmer and lazier as it courses through the flat plains of the Western Punjab, down to the sea in crowded, oven-hot Karachi, two thousand kilometres to the south-west. But here, in Ladakh, is where it all begins. ‘In the beginning..’ the tale seems to go, and indeed, it feels just like that up there. Yet in fact, nearly thirty per cent of Ladakh is not wilderness at all, it is agricultural land : river valleys, wide and flat in parts, such as near Leh, steeper and narrower as you follow the river along the dusty military road upwards and eastwards, lined with poplar and laced with willow, fruit trees drooping with golden apricots, and fields waving with golden grain. The harmonious interplay of man and nature is a visible testimony to the good sense and restraint of traditional Ladakhi ecology, one that combines practical good sense in conservation with a spiritual awareness of the value of all things in the environment. A century and a half ago, the Plains Indians of what is now the northern United States and southern Canada had a similar wise restraint in their relationship with their environment in the great flatlands of Middle America and with the buffalo. Now we must look to places like Ladakh for examples of traditional conservative ecology as a guide to a better way of doing things. Can modern technology be combined with good principles of conservationist ecology? Why not? It is up to us to observe, reflect and make better choices, forge a new sustainable way of doing things. Among these are looking at old ways that work and marrying them with new technologies and tools. The whole of human history is about the ideas that move men to act. These ideas are conditioned by the economic and physical forces in which man is immersed but ideas, once produced, condition each other and are not merely reducible to by-products of environments. For example, it is often said that a hard country produces hard people. This is not strictly accurate; it would be more accurate to say that a hard country produces tough people. Perhaps in some parts of the world where conditions are very hard, people might make few allowances for each other and resort to the gun and the knife with relative ease as a way of resolving differences. Cultures of vendetta and endemic violence are notorious in some areas with relatively temperate climates such as Sicily and Southern Italy. One must look more to the evolution of human relations in history and the consequent interplay of ideas and motives to explain the temper of cultures and not simply to the environment. In Ladakh, under equally hard physical conditions, and only a few hundred kilometres away as the eagle flies from some of the world’s most notorious vendetta cultures, a poor peasant family may share its reserves of winter barley with wild birds that have stopped on their migrations. Violence is considered a sin and while of course it occurs, is never condoned let alone ratified, by the local culture. These cultural features have been extensively observed and in many cases also documented on video. It is impossible to maintain, observing these cultural differences under comparable physical conditions, that ideas do not affect behaviour in their own right. Helena Norberg-Hodge wrote authoritatively on Ladakh’s famously conservationist culture, back in 1986, showing how Ladakhis carved agricultural land out of rocky valleys and maintained livestock and water resources in strict harmony with the balance of nature in these areas. Ladakhi traditional culture and ecology shows very well how man, in relatively small numbers, can come to an intelligent accommodation of his needs with the environment. Ladakhis used simple, low-impact technology, but lived very well, and for eight months of the year they did not work, instead, celebrated their culture, in close proximity with their families and communities, which is how values are transmitted and reinforced down the generations. Who among us really dispute that this lifestyle is better than what we have, struggling and sweating every day to buy a better car, a bigger house, and a more lucrative job? Are we not broken away increasingly from our families and communities and the soil of our ancestors, the rootedness that keeps values alive through the generations? No sensible person would wish to make a fetish out of tradition, all civilisation advances through a dialectic of ideas examined vigoriously against each other; this is right and good. Therefore on what basis do we think today and choose our values, goals and objectives in life; what examples should we look at to find alternative principles for the organisation of human life? Can one do it well when fragmented away from one another by processes of social atomisation, by a culture of ultra-competitiveness rather than cooperation, by greed rather than restraint and forethought? Are these not the ills of the modern world? Is this not Ladakh’s value to us as India rapidly evolves and triumphs in a world which strips away our collective memory by the very processes by which it endows us with wealth and power? Must we forget who we were in order to prosper? It will not be long before learning from such examples will become a necessity for the rest of us, not merely an option or a luxury. Therefore we should be interested in Ladakh as a hard country which has been located for centuries in an area where conflicting cultures and states have warred, but which has nevertheless produced and nurtured ideas of human compassion derived directly from its Mahayana Buddhist heritage, and modes of ecology and conservation, as well as wise and reasonable ways of resolving conflicts. Conflict resolution, ecology and environment are all under pressure from political radicalisation in the area, mass tourism, unconsidered development, militarisation and the materialistic values of modern culture that places in essence, increased consumption and exploitation over human relations and ecological wisdom as the benchmark of the quality of life. How has Ladakh produced these ideas over time, what value do they have for Indians, why should we seek to meditate upon them, even celebrate them, and want to help Ladakhis retain a grip on their traditional culture in the midst of change? And how must we view the impact of India and Pakistan on the region, in particular, the massive impact of the Indian and Pakistani military presence? At what point in time will India and Pakistan cease to play a game of name and blame over the environmental effects of their military rivalry in the area and choose to recgnise their common environmental interests in the area as a priority over false irredentist claims? Is it possible to maintain creative links with something traditional in Ladakh alive and evolving successfully in a situation in which tourism and military occupation impacts so massively on the people and the land? Not enough people have heard of Ladakh, even inside India, let alone elsewhere. Many standard printed encyclopedias in the international domain found in libraries do not even list this area. Entries on Kashmir are usually found but sometimes without reference to Ladakh at all, even if mention might be made of certain geographical features relating to the area such as ‘the upper Indus Valley’ or ‘salt lakes.’. This is despite more than a generation of international and, mainly since about 1990, national, tourism. Ladakh’s obscurity in the international sphere is one thing, but it’s obscurity within India is another. Ladakh is, after all, politically Indian territory, inherited from the British Empire in India, from the acquisition of the Hindu-dynasty Kashmir state in 1947, fought over in 1962 in a highly publicised war with China, and massively militarised since then with a very large Indian army presence, effectively the northernmost zone of the long, militarised frontier with Pakistan as well as with China, which seized a portion of Ladakh during the 1962 war. The cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in Kashmir and North-western Ladakh is the longest continuous unresolved border conflict since the Second World War, longer even than the Korean border or the Israel-Palestine divide. It is also one of the most dangerous, involving two nuclear weapons countries, and if one includes China to the east, three nuclear weapons countries. There are probably not many people in the United States who have not heard of the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred home of the Sioux Nations. There are probably few over there who have not heard of Yellowstone National Park, the U.S.’s oldest and most famous dedicated wilderness. There are unlikely to be many whites in Australia who have not heard of Uluru or Kakadu National Park. So Ladakh’s obscurity to Indians must be partly a function of its marginality to Indian culture which therefore fails to impact on the various subtle layers of consciousness that makes up the national psyche. At first sight, the impression is that India’s attitude towards Ladakh is neocolonial, requiring the maintenance of the region within Indian control as an urgent matter of security against deadly enemies. This is, unfortunately, true, but a neocolonial policy is an insufficient response, which, indeed, the Indian goverment has been increasingly recognising. As India is also a democracy, the Ladakhi people, both Muslim and Buddhist, are acquiring more say in their affairs. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe the situation as “transitional”, but transitional to what? Are Indians and Ladakhis to be shaped by forces entirely outside their control, are they to be winners or losers in a game bigger than they are, or are they to take a part in organising the rules of the game and deciding on the practical steps to achieve the desired results? Is there, perhaps, a reason why we may wish to maintain an interest in the continued vigour of Ladakhi culture? Would it matter if this culture was swamped by the culture of other parts of India, and if the ecology, habits and manners of this relatively obscure people, the Buddhist Ladakhis, were to fade away altogether, so that Ladakhis became not much more than a regional variant of the Hindu or Muslim Indian of the flatlands further south? Are the key features of Ladakhi culture to ultimately become fashion items, external symbols of identity to be printed on tee-shirts or sold as plastic souvenirs to tourists, and nothing more? Indians are naturally interested in what makes up the national psyche: what do we Indians, whether India-based or overseas, believe in, what does ‘India’ really mean, what are our goals and objectives as a culture? Once the concept of ‘Indian’ progresses beyond the borders of the sub-continent to a wider construct and includes the Indian Diaspora. the process of self-discovery of the Indian becomes dynamic, creative, profound, transformational, inclusive and capable of absorbing new elements. Greater India, I suggest, is the key to a real Indian renaissance, not Hindutva or even a national identity reduced to passports and geographical borders, although in practical terms of course these are important. The government of India already recognised this fact and has made various practical adjustments to it in its regulations regarding overseas Indians. But culturally, we must explore the implications of this more complex and powerful view of Indianness and use it to strengthen the concept and through this, the culture of Indianness, beyond the waving of flags and the repetition of symbols and slogans. Without a maturing and a honing of this understanding through the dissemination of varying opinions about what is genuinely valuable in the overall Indian culture, life is reduced to a daily process of struggle and acquisition while reflective thought, as it were, becomes merely a set of unexamined beliefs and sentiments. In this, Ladakh, among other things, has a role to play and more than this, an intrinsic value. What are resources? Are all resources economic? That belief is increasingly a dangerous luxury and is under challenge from those reflect on man’s impact upon his environment. The distinguished Indian economist Amartya Sen has forged the concept of social capital onto the consciousness of modern economists. The idea of environmental capital is being increasingly taken seriously, and carbon trading is a relatively new concept that is being increasingly looked at internationally. India and Pakistan both need to examine the environmental impact of their military forces in the area, and draw China into discussions on this subject as environmental degradation will surely impact on all the countries in the region. There is an opportunity, given time and patience and continued discussion, for the present structure of conflict betwen these three nations over territory, to shift to cooperation led by common environmental interests, for example the Siachen glacier issue. Beset by conflicting science, as one might expect, if, neverthless, the doom-sayers turn out to be eventually right, then the death of Siachen could mean that Pakistan would face famine one day. The massive mountain complex involving the Great Himalaya, the Karakoram Range, the Kunlun Range further north east, the Pamirs further north-west, and the Hindu Kush further west form a huge spiral of high altitude systems of drainage, precipitation (or lack of it) and weather control. Has any major study been done to look into human impact problems created by militarisation on all sides? Until Ladakh’s obscurity ends, and educated Indians give up their inherited colonial view of Ladakh as an ‘outlandish’ region hard to reach, difficult to live in, and hard to culturally comprehend, and see that their environmental and indeed economic interests are closely connected with maintaining the stability of this fragile but extremely important climate, things are likely to get worse and the destruction of traditional Ladakhi ecology may impact far beyond the borders of Ladakh itself.
This is where Ladakh becomes a place of great importance, as central to the cultural and ecological issues facing India today as it is marginal geographically to the mainstream. Ladakh is one of the few places where it is possible to still see that old ways work. Ladakh – land and people – may look very different from the rest of India, but this should present no truly insuperable difficulty for the Indian mind which revels in paradox and traditionally has always sought to look below the surface of things. Indeed, it could be argued that for India to look for meaning in Ladakh is a deeply Indian thing to do. Areas that are relatively undisturbed by human interference, or where human ecology has worked closely with nature, are a source of endless fascination to the imaginations of peoples of all races and all times, ancient and modern. Today, because of the dangers of environmental degradation, we are required to look more closely at older ecologies to see what we can learn from them, even if they involve much smaller populations than the ones we must serve today. We live in an age where global warming and its implications have almost overtaken poverty, inequality, undemocratic government and population growth as the major problems requiring solutions in the world. While most countries agree that there are huge and complex problems relating to environmental management and non-renewable resource exploitation, few are prepared to discuss the issues honestly and make the necessary sacrifices. This itself shows clearly enough that the historic paradigm of competition and conflict is a luxury we can no longer afford: we must learn to work with nature rather than merely exploit it; humans must learn to cooperate more than compete. Most countries in the world recognise this, which is why they keep up the agenda of international conferences on the many issues of security and environment. It is clear that remote as Ladakh may be, it is nevertheless caught up in a welter of urgent issues, military, political, strategic, environmental and cultural, and that regional issues are linked to global issues. Why then, should India seek to defend this area for any other reason than the strategic and, at a stretch, the environmental concerns already on the table? Why should the world outside India and China, the two states that lay conflicting claims to the area, be at all concerned? Is there, perhaps, something else as well? Ladakh has been under Buddhist influence since the 2nd Century when Buddhism entered Ladakh via Kashmir. It has been a continuous centre of Buddhist culture now for one thousand nine hundred years – by far the longest of any place in Asia. Buddhism is itself a product of the Indian mind and constitutes one of its greatest manifestations. The struggle between Buddhism and Brahminism, the ultimate triumph of the latter, and the spread of Buddhism out of India into the furthermost reaches of Eastern and South Eastern Asia, is one of the great epic stories of India’s cultural expansion beyond its original borders. Brahminism, in its Hindutva manifestation, is continuing today a two thousand year old struggle to control and absorb all social and cultural elements not under its direction, or to expel anything that cannot be absorbed. Indians genuinely interested in the cultural health of the nation will see this process critically as reductionist, limiting, and ultimately, stultifying. The challenge is to re-examine history and seek out the experiments that sought to unify the country, the forces in inclusion. The Akbarian solution to government, for instance, attempting to resolve the religious divide under a secular state, a great experiment undermined by successor emperors that could not advance this further, a process that ultimately led, through the viccisitudes of British ‘divide and rule’ to the schism of 1947. This isn’t the whole answer but a genuine Indian renaissance will creatively for ideas and examples to generate a new paradigm of Indianness, delving back in time as well across space. When we look at Ladakh in this way, we do both. In China and Japan, the Buddhist traditions of India were transformed by the genius of these civilisations, and have made their own profound contributions to human civilisation. They remain available to the modern world, when one day we all get tired of pursuing more and more material wealth to the exclusion of other values and other conceptions of the purpose of human life, and re-examine the treasure trove of human heritage to see what else may be done with ourselves. In Ladakh, the traditional heritage remains closer to the content as well as the spirit of the Indian original, partly via its Tibetan Mahayana manifestation, partly via a long indigenous Ladakh evolution of Buddhist culture, going back via so many twists and turns to that obscure second century advent. Ladakh is split by modern Muslim-Buddhist tensions that have finally ruptured its long harmony and resulted in the administrative division of Kargil (Muslim) and Leh (Buddhist) districts. So our attention here is focused on what remains of the old paradigm of spiritual and ecological balance and harmony in the area, a reduced “Ladakh” : Leh District, its people, its culture and its landscape. As Norberg-Hodge observed, younger Ladakhis are reeling under the confusion of modernity, feeling a pressure to abandon traditional ecology and styles in favour of modern housing, modern food, modern clothes – and modern values. Yet surely the answer must be to weigh up the old with the new, to fill in the deficiencies of the old technology with the best practices of new technology, and to celebrate the best of the old traditions of religion, spirituality, family and community life, with a selective acquisition of the new. The mobile phone and the computer are not devils, they are thoroughly useful technologies for modern life is used in the right way. It is always the challenge of human life to assess the values we live by with the conditions in which we live. We need to evolve a continuous critique that underwites a syncretic view of technology and culture, the best of old and new, and make choices rather than be simply led by trends. We must not be intimidated by radical politicians, exploiting ignorance and desperation. This is as much a challenge for educated Indians as for Ladakhis. Ladakhis, exposed to the outside world, its scrutiny, its ridicule or its romanticisation, will naturally be confused by it all and feel the only recourse is to join the modernist trend, and be led along by the sheer weight and power of its protector, India. It is understandable that people faced with complex and confusing challenges bakc away from them and retreat into a rigid tradionalism that cannot ultimately be sustained, or throw in the towel and give up traditional culture and values as useless. This is not the answer for Indians or Ladakhis who must engage, have confidence, choose, experiment, explore, reflect, be aware, reject nothing without careful examination. It is up to India to examine its state of values and its spiritual centre, as it rapidly evolves, and to look to its oases of successful traditional culture for inspiration about what to retain from the old ways, and to adapt to the new. But once it is gone, there is nothing left to retain, for what is not observed is not experienced, and therefore is lost. Indians, therefore,need to recognise that they have an intimate interest in assisting the survival of traditional Ladakhi values and ecology, as much as Ladakhis have in obtaining the protection of India from hostile foreign powers. Ladakh is not an “outlandish” place to be gawped at and otherwise cordoned off by the Indian army. It is much more than that. It is an example of how to do it right. We in India need to learn and adapt from Ladakh, in our own different and generally more populous environments, the principles of sound technology with minimal environmental impact, and the value of a spiritual and community-based culture in which human values are prized a much as the need for material security and comfort. These things are self-evident to all of us, yet we are impelled by the pressures of modern life to ignore them in the pursuit of a superior material existence. What we are losing is the concept of balance and the role of spirituality, community and hospitality in the quality of life. We must look to places like Ladakh to see it, and to keep it close to ourselves as we move forward, and to help the Ladakhis themselves to remember and retain what is valuable in their own culture for, under pressure from the wider world, they cannot do it by themselves. The last time I visited Ladakh, in 1996, I stood alone one night on a small rock on the outskirts of Leh, watching the stars scattered like brilliant dust across a deep, vast and cloudless sky. Streets lights from Leh shone dimly on the dry, stony ground, clean and wide as far as the eye could see, till the high plains met the mountains. A cold wind, dry and sharp, grazed my lungs as I drew in a deep breath. There was silence, except for a hint of wind, until it was broken by the distant howling of a dog. I could see no one; it was as if I was alone, with my thoughts, and the hills had their black backs to me like capes, lost in meditation. An idea was perched on the edge of my mind, like a bird on a windowsill, ready to fly away the moment I moved towards it. I was trying to work out what was important in Ladakh, was it the landscape (was it really just a big theme park?), or the people (idealised, to fulfill some need in the modern soul for a myth of bygone harmony of man, nature and spirit that never really was?)… And then I had it. Ladakh, all of Ladakh was a temple. A giant temple built of stone and garlanded with mountain streams, bejewelled with lakes. Like an Indian temple, ordered and fragrant, a haven of peace and cleanliness, a giant meditation centre. All of traditional Ladakhi life was a form of meditation, right on the edge of the energetic chaos of modern India. We need this, even as “progress” has already moved India into becoming a formidable regional power and an economic powerhouse. We need these old things. They are not museum pieces, but a mosaic for meditation, lying hidden beneath the surface of discrete objects, waiting to be discovered and used to create a new, inclusive vision of India that unifies Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, animist, agnostic and atheist. The crumbling monasteries. The reliquary shrines. The carefully tended fields. The ruined palaces. The traditional homes. The river valleys. The high plains beyond the passes of the Ladakh range. The mountain lakes with their cold pebble shores and their nesting geese. The herds of yak and the bands of wild ass on the windswept high plains. Here the billions of loose stones scattered across the mountains and plains were prayers. The golden poplars and the tumbling mountain streams were odes to a better way of life. Buddhist compassion was in everything that seemed stern and unyielding. The mountains themselves were paths to heaven. Everything was pregnant with meaning. The old Ladakhis knew this, and so revered every stone, every gleaming drop of water. This was sacred land. Even more than Gangotri or Yamnotri, Amarnath, Kedarnath or Badrinath, Ladakh is our Black Hills. Our Uluru. Our Nara. Ladakh is not just a temple stuck on a piece of rock, or a single gushing mountain stream. It is a tiny Universe. Ladakh is our Mount Meru. There is nowhere else so situated in India, and with such a long developed traditional ecology with its essentials still to some extent in place. Ladakh is as a heavenly island, literally lifted by geological forces far above the tumult of where we are going, and through which we may still retain a link with our true past, but splendidly transformed by nearly two thousand years of cultural development into our banished son, the Tibetan Buddhist one. If we lose it, we lose an important life line to who we were and therefore any control over who we may become. ************************************************************ 5,024 words. Arjun Sen. The colour images were taken in 1996. The black and white images in 1978. By myself.