Ladakh: Little Tibet at the Roof of the World
High in the Himalayas of northern India, tucked between Pakistan, Tibet and China, lies Ladakh, sometimes called Little Tibet at the Roof of the World. Once a bustling stop on the Silk Road, Ladakh sits at the nexus of land, trade and, yes, wars that rose and fell for centuries, continuing to present day. Yet somehow, while falling, or perhaps because of falling under the rule of one potentate, one king, one state after another, for nearly a thousand years, the people of Ladakh developed and maintained a peaceful, prosperous culture, one that wasted nothing and that knew no lack.
According to their chronicler, Helena Norberg-Hodge, in her book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, even their medical care system, while unlike our modern medicine, proved effective, affording them long, happy lives.
Ladakh lies in what is now the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Due to its near inaccessibility, few visitors in modern times approached the region until about mid-last-century, when new roads and an airport made travel more attractive. What once took weeks of arduous overland travel now takes a flight from Delhi to Leh, the Ladakh capital.
Before this relatively recent accessibility, the people of Ladakh, as a society, knew almost no violence, despite factions warring through the centuries to control the region’s rugged high-mountain roadways and passes. Living peaceably in small villages, they exploited neither one another nor the land. Producing no more than they needed, they used and reused absolutely everything, wanted for nothing, and enjoyed a vibrant trade with their neighbors. As they cared for their land, so they cared for their water.
From high in the mountains, they channeled glacial melt-water through two long, ancient, carefully maintained aquaducts to their high desert valleys. They needed two streams: One for drinking water and irrigating crops and another for washing clothing, for they understood how important it is not to contaminate their drinking supply. Back in the 70s, when she first visited Ladakh, Norberg-Hodge learned about this the hard way, when she inadvertently attempted to wash some clothing in the drinking water stream. A horrified child gently but firmly advised her of her error.
Can you imagine how simple our lives might be if we took such care of our water supply? The Ladakhi approached every facet of their lives with acute logic and awareness.
Highly efficient in controlling their population and not overburdening the land, for example, they built beautiful multi-story homes that stand for centuries, farmed crops well adapted to the short growing season and husbanded animals for food, warmth, labor and companionship.
Best of all, they partied for weeks at a time during the harshest winter months long after the planting and harvesting are done, when there is little else to do, the days are short and the temperatures well below freezing. Wouldn’t you rather spend the winter partying than going to work and coming home in the dark, seeing daylight only from office windows and a brief lunch-time outing?
Westernization brings poverty and loss
In the last few decades, since the 70s, better roads and closer airports brought more tourists, eager to experience the unique beauty of both the people and the land. The Indian military came too, seeking to secure the boundary between Northern India and Pakistan. With the military and tourists came Western encroachment, “improvements” and modernizations.
Big Ag convinced many farmers to convert their land—which had supported them so well for nearly a millennium—to exotic, monoculture crops. Not suited to the extreme temperatures and with no resistance to local pestilence, the crops failed. To bolster the crops, Big Ag sold herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer to the farmers. Their ancient food cycle disrupted and disappearing, the farmers worked harder than ever, going into debt and suffering losses.
Meanwhile, enticed by “high-paying” jobs and the excitement of city life, the young moved away from the villages, took jobs in Leh, Ladakh’s capital. There they found housing in hastily built cinder block apartment buildings, so foreign to the beauty of their two-story lime-washed homes back home, lit with warm fires and candle light, surrounded by gardens and fertile fields. Living in the city required money for heating the cold buildings, electricity to light the bulb hanging from the ceiling, power the radios and television sets they bought, and fuel for vehicles.
The more the village emigrees earned, the more they spent. Telephones, sun glasses, Barbie dolls and Rambo figures sprouted at roadside stands, calling for cash. Must-haves. Cleared land, sprouting gas stations and more ugly apartment buildings replaced the serenity of a landscape tended carefully for centuries to provide sustenance and nourishment, both physical and spiritual. Garbage and waste piled up. The city transplants, no longer content, no longer delighting in each day, grew restless, impatient. Western diseases appeared, taking their toll on their bodies. And crime. Our ways brought a sense of want, of need. Need begat greed, violence and loss of respect for the ancient ways.
When we introduced our “modern,” “better” lifestyle, we westerners nearly destroyed this ancient culture.
The good news: All is not lost
Thankfully, some saw the deterioration of their culture in time to take steps to redeem it. A few of the city children went home again and began working with their elders to repair and reclaim what was lost. Today, many individuals work daily to preserve and renew a way of life that served them well for centuries. I pray they succeed, for if they can restore their culture, there is every hope that we can build as beautiful a life for ourselves. Perhaps the rest of the world will choose to follow.
Read the book, build the dream
I encourage you to go to your local library and check out Norberg-Hodge’s book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, or follow the link and read it free online. It may well inspire you as it has me. If you wish to purchase, I encourage you to buy—or order—from your local, independent book seller, if you’re lucky enough still to have one in your town. Perhaps in it you will find, as I still do, a vision of not only a better world, but a good world.
Previous: A better way