|Our Really Big Adventure|
Leh - Ladakh
| For nine months of
the year, Ladakh is virtually cut off from the outside world. Situated in
a high altitude desert, surrounded by almost impenetrable snow-capped mountains,
the high passes do not open until mid-June, and the road link with the world
becomes impassable again in September. Outside the short summer season,
goods and visitors can only arrive by air.
Ladakhs inaccessibility and harsh environment ensured its unique character was preserved for centuries, but its position at the crossroads of Asia meant it would never be completely isolated from the rest of the world. In Roman times, Leh was an important trading post feeding into the Silk Road, and later fell victim to 16th century marauders, eyes greedily set on the local pashmina trade. In the 1950s, China annexed part of the region even building a road to facilitate the occupation while India wasnt looking. Not intending to make the same mistake twice, Indias military presence in the area now seems to dwarf the local population.
The same urge for isolation that led Irish monks to the Skelligs has filled the valleys around Leh with beautiful, brightly colourful monasteries. Monks are still drawn to these harsh areas, and Ladakhs monasteries are thriving. A keen visitor could spend a month in the region and visit a different monastery every day. We thought two would be enough. The monasteries were spectacular, but it was their situations that really impressed. Thikse is perched precariously on a rocky hilltop, while Hemis surveys a valley with a dramatic backdrop of sandstone cliffs.
In restricting ourselves to two monasteries, we had reckoned without the palace temples. The royal palace at Shey may have been abandoned in the 16th century (a consequence of the aforementioned pashmina wars), but its temple continues to serve the local population. Girls bearing offerings had come to pray as we visited, their pot of chutney by no means the poorest gift. People leave what they can afford fruit, nuts, a few sweets, a jar of cooking oil. Each supplicant has their preferred shrine within the temple, whether the huge gold Buddha, the portrait of a local holy man or the postcard of the Dalai Lama.
The Buddhist tradition dominates the landscape, but surprisingly the region is almost 50% Muslim. There has always been a strong Muslim community in the area, but tensions in nearby Kashmir have swelled the population with recent immigrants. On the surface, relations seem cordial, but we were puzzled by the BJP slogans and wondered how the nationalist Hindu party managed to appeal to the local population. Some delicate enquiries supported our initial suspicions the BJP targets the Buddhist community here with an anti-Muslim message. Relations had been difficult, we learned, and the communities tended not to patronise each others businesses. There were even suggestions that a campaign encouraging vegetarianism among the Buddhist community was really intended to reduce the lucrative cross-community meat trade the Buddhist Ladakhis love their meat, but forbidden to slaughter they depend on the local Halal butchers for their supply. Whatever the truth of this particular theory, it was clear that this remote region had not escaped the communal problems so horrifyingly prevalent elsewhere in India.
Ladakh only opened up to tourists in 1974, but
some argue that the impact has already done immeasurable damage to Ladakhi
society. It is hard to say whether the blame lies with tourism, with demographic
changes in the population or with the inevitable absorption of modern
ideas, but many fear that the younger generation has less interest in
preserving the traditional way of life. A number of organisations are
working to instil pride in the Ladakhi identity and traditions and preserve
the uniqueness of the region before it is too late. The modern world cannot
be kept out, and nor should it be, but perhaps such measures mean that
change can be absorbed while Ladakh retains its distinctive character.