LADAKH, northern India - A booming tourist industry is curiously churning in
Ladakh, India's stunningly beautiful Himalayan Shangri-La in the northern state
of Jammu and Kashmir. But 21st-century changes are leaving locals like Dorjay
torn between celebrating the area's increasing prosperity and worrying about
their austere Tibetan culture being drowned in Mammon's toys.
"People walked or rode horses when I came here over 50 years ago," Dorjay says
from within his tiny Tibetan Friends Corner restaurant off the main market
street in Leh, the capital of Ladakh province. "Now there are more cars than
people," he says as he shakes his head sadly.
Prem Paul, the middle-aged owner of Paul's Guest House, which
is home to long-stay visitors from Europe and the United States, grumbles that
even traditional food habits are dying. "We hardly ate rice when I was a boy,"
he says. "Barley was our staple diet." Tsampa or pah-pah, the
local simple but nutritious dish made out of barley flour, is now hardly found
outside monasteries in Ladakh.
Near Dorjay's restaurant, boy monks wearing baseball caps and rucksacks fiddle
with smart-phone handsets as they hustle down the main Leh street, which is
crowded with handicraft emporiums, trekking operators, Pashmina wool shawl
shops, Tibetan restaurants and Punjabi sweet stalls.
"There is so much development in Leh in the past two or three years," says
Phillipe Surjus, a French tourist who works in a VIP lounge at the Charles De
Gaulle Airport in Paris. He takes three weeks off every year from hosting the
likes of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Hollywood stars
in transit in Paris to come to the Himalayas.
Leh, surrounded by snow-clad Himalayan peaks, is both India's largest and
least-inhabited district - a 45,110 square kilometer area populated by a mere
117,000 people, according to the last census, taken a decade ago. Kargil, host
to the last India-Pakistan war in 1999, forms the second district of Ladakh.
The majority of the Ladakh population is of Tibetan origin, with Muslims
dominating the Kashmir area.
Ladakh, meaning "the land of high passes", borders Pakistan and China. The
Indian army presence is highly visible but far less intrusive than in the rest
of Kashmir. Unlike heavily armed soldiers in Srinagar, the capital of
Indian-administered Kashmir, I didn't see even one of the hundreds of army men
in Leh carrying weapons, not even a pistol.
Armies of marketing men, though, are invading Ladakh. Cars, cell phones, iPods,
satellite TV dishes and the Internet are even sneaking into villages in Ladakh,
this remote Himalayan land of over 1,000 monasteries and breathtaking
landscapes that some describe as lunar or even Martian.
Bleak, barren, bewitching Ladakh is not yet easily accessible from the rest of
India - perhaps Mother Nature's way of protecting it from the polluting hordes
of noisy, littering tourists from the plains.
Heavy snowfall cuts off the two high mountainous road links to Ladakh for most
of the year. Sparse air links from national capital New Delhi and the state
capital Srinagar are prohibitively expensive. A cartel of three airlines
brazenly sells one-way Delhi-Leh air tickets for US$250 to $300 for a 45-minute
flight. A three-hour Delhi-Bangkok international return ticket, in contrast,
can be found for $200.
It was courtesy of one such exploiting air bandit that I arrived in Leh. The
Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport at 3,256 meters (10,682 feet) above sea level
is one of the world's highest, prettiest and tiniest of airports. The flight
had taken off from New Delhi with, to my disbelief and horror, muddy, unwashed
windows, though the airline describes itself as India's "best".
Filthy aircraft windows and a miserly breakfast service, one that may have left
a sparrow hungry, fortunately didn't kill enjoying perhaps the most spectacular
of air voyages - about 30 minutes of flying above the vast, sweeping swathes of
the mighty greater Himalayas, over pristine white carpets of snow across lonely
mountain ranges, over still, silent peaks - many of which may never have ever
felt the touch of human feet.
My immediate destination was about 100 kilometers away from Leh, the ancient
Tingmosgang village. It was a journey into the unknown, with no fixed address
and no known person to call. But Ladakh turned out to be a living example of
the saying, "there aren't any strangers in the world … only friends we haven't
Panchole the taxi driver could have charged me 10 times more than the $36 he
did, for the three-hour car trip on the Srinagar-Leh highway was a priceless
experience, a prelude to a happy, beneficial three weeks in Ladakh. The stark,
ascetic mountainous landscape offered the strength of solitude to deeply
explore a few inner mindscapes - and unearth greater clarity to a question or
two clouding one's life.
The seemingly lifeless Ladakh terrain is largely a curious mix of iron grey,
black and purple hues sloping off into the background of spectacular snowy
peaks. Amidst this thrive a few hardy islands of apricot orchards, green
meadows and fields. The well-maintained Srinagar-Leh highway, courtesy of the
Indian army, runs alongside the gently gurgling Indus River, flowing on its
3,180 kilometer journey from Tibet, through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.
The road to Tingosgang was a memorable preview of the full journey I was to
take later to Srinagar - cutting through the greater Himalayas on one of the
highest altitude roads in the world, through the snow-covered Zozilla Pass and
walls of ice.
Destiny and Panchole the taxi driver took me to the 350-year-old Tserkermo
monastery in Tingmosgang village. This is a microcosm of the spartan lifestyle
of ancient Ladakh. The monks have no running tap water, no bathrooms or
toilets, no full-time electricity or even an electric heater.
Electricity comes on for about three hours in the evening. The sole water
source is an all-weather mountain spring. Its water stays cool in summer, and
as in other sacred places in the Himalayas, miraculously flows not just
unfrozen but warm in the bitterly cold winter.
This summer was unusually cold and rainy in Tingmosgang. I woke up one morning
to find a white carpet covering the horizon. When I realized joyously it was
snow, I promptly invested some time gleefully making snowballs in the peak of
the Indian summer.
Life isn't all glee for the Tserkarmo monks. They do their own cooking, washing
up and cleaning in the monastery. They sleep on mattresses on the floor.
"This is the kind of life we are used to," says Konchok Samten, a well-educated
young monk in his twenties who spoke fluent English.
Konchok Samten ("Konchok" refers to a lineage of teachers in the four main
schools of Tibetan Buddhism) had spent two years in Germany, in Giessen town
near Frankfurt. He says he couldn't wait to return to India. "The people there
live with so many luxuries that they don't even realize how much material
comforts they have," he says. "And yet they do not seem satisfied."
Samten became a novice monk at age eight, an age many of the local boys tell
their parents of their wish to become monks. Has he ever had to fight
temptation to return to a layperson's life? "Very often," he says. Some of his
friends have already given up being monks.
Samten's parents live in Tingmosgang village, one kilometer down the mountain
road, and like other villagers depend on agriculture for a living. Like many
other serenity-cloaked Ladakh villages, Tingmosgang is inhabited with
warm-hearted, compassionate people. "Jhooley!" they cheerfully greet
each other - "good day" in Ladakhi language. Rosy-cheeked women are modest in
dress and demeanor, with many of them so beautiful they leave Bollywood
heroines looking like gibbering monkeys in comparison.
I chose the road route to return to Mumbai, refusing to patronize the flying
bandits again. The three hours from Mumbai to Leh by air takes five days on the
return by road - from Leh to Srinagar to New Delhi to Mumbai, including a night
in a houseboat in a Srinagar lake. But the gradual journey from out of Ladakh
was itself an eye-opener to how beautifully different this Asian paradise is
from the rest of the world.
Onrushing time could both be a friend and enemy to Ladakh. The young chief
minister of Jammu and Kashmir, 41-year old Omar Abdullah, has this month
promised more connectivity to Ladakh from the rest of Kashmir.
The resulting economic development could bring in more money and material
comforts, but maybe at the cost of the peace and harmony that is now Ladakh's
greatest wealth. Hopefully the Ladakhi people will find the right balance as in
the Middle Path of the Buddha, whose meditative image fills the homes and
monasteries of Ladakh.