Monday, January 13, 2014

Trespassing through stark acreage of Ladakh, exploring tradition & community

Frozen Pangong Lake (photo courtesy Arun Bhat)
 40 years ago, it would be an entirely different story to reach the rooftop of the world. Until late 60s Ladakh could only be reached through Indian Air Force Planes carried travelers by strapping them to benches and equipped with parachutes. The journey from Manali to Ladakh was heavenly – something you can’t express by mere words, even a staunch materialist can be turned into a poet just looking at the stark beauty of silence and aggressive mountains.

Reaching Leh after nearly two days journey was tough but inspiring, especially for people like me because the purpose of travel was to get some inspiration for writing and some solitude. I am not writing here for Leh travel or Ladakh beauty, but trying to showcase a different facet of this unambiguous land of lamas.


More Reading on Ladakh

Leh is pretty much a small town with lots of tourists, restaurants, hotels, schools, NGOs and many other things. The real beauty of Ladakh will surface when you go outside of this town. It is astounding that in this terrain, once known as the end of the habitable word, communities have managed not merely to survive, but to evolve a rich socio-economic and cultural history. Initial wonder gives way to awe, the harsh black rock-face – faces carved with snow, clouds and mountains mists deter any thought of conquests. 


Read More about Ladakh and Kashmir

Ladakh population is composed of distinct ethnic groups, predominately the Mons, Dards and the Tibetans. The Mons is a pastoral community from the south of the Himalayas who converted to Buddhism in the time of emperor Kanishka. In most villages, they are carpenters and blacksmiths, though they are now mainly village musicians who chant the great epic of the Ladakhi, the Kesar Saga.

The Dards are peasants of Indo-European stock settled in Dras. The Dards and Mons must have bartened their farm produce for animal products with the Tibetan Chang-pas, the nomads of chang Thang. From Ladakh to Yarkand and Turkestan, the intprepid merchants continued to cross-fertilize culture when along with their goods they transported customs and technology. The ties are apparent in the common dress and linguistic unity, food habits and pastimes. It is almost as if the world beyond the passes has survived because the south-west-north-east axis was designed by nature to isolate the mountain communities, yet foster in them a curiosity cosmopolitan outlook.


Read more about Ladakh Culture

Fleeing monks, antagonist princes, adventurers all found a way into these impregnable valleys, just as the purist mountaineer still prefers to find his – on foot. The contemporary wayfarer, traveling by road through the mountains around hairpin bends, can only dimly imagine the harrowing odyssey of travelers in the past. Today, the distance from Srinagar to Leh can be covered by road in two days at a comfortable pace, once the Border Roads Organization has cut through the walls of ice in mid-June. From the pains, the route over the Bra Lacka-la is well marked. It is the trail that the nomads from the Change Thang plateau followed to bring their Pashmina goats for the shawl markers of the Punjab. Historically, military campaigns have also used the Zanskar-Bara  Lacha – Chang Thang axis more frequently than the Zoji-la route.

Why Ladakh inspires travelers' imagination


Ladakh has always haunted the travelers’ imagination because of its sheer inaccessibility. Zealously guarded because of its strategic location, it was opened for tourism back in 1974.  It is no longer the valuable Pashmina wool or the rice, salt and tea of the old trade system that draws the traveler, but the composite world of Ladakh – the fascinating fusion of ancient religions, history and stormy political events, which were the result of the proselytizing role of Buddhism. Although Ladakh is a part of Jammu and Kashmir, it retains its independent character. This makes Ladakh unique – not its resemblance to Tibet, with which it was once identified, but with which ties have now become tenuous.


Read more about Ladakh wildlife


The Ladakhis as a people are naïve and spontaneous, as yet not undermined by the outsider. Their environment which defeats all those who are alien to it endows them with the capacity to retain their sturdy identity. The lonely tiers of the Lamayuru monastery appear to symbolize this spirit of endurance as do the defiant apple-green rivers that flow undeterred through narrow valleys. And the dun-colored plateau seems to have beaten back the snow-bound, sunless gullies to provide a haven to those for whom Ladakh is home.


A community in change


In a natural environment, which is by turns a hostile arctic desert and an oasis, water becomes the life-giving force, fundamental to the needs of development now visible in Ladakh. The pre-Buddhist peasant and wandering minstrel, who sang about the heroic vision of the Kesar Saga, would be amazed to see the changes that have been wrought into this world, which was then still young and free of man’s pressing need for more room and greater resources. Now the emerging pattern of emerald valleys attests to his impulse for expansion.

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