Shadows In The Kingdom Of Light

Shadows In The Kingdom Of Light – Ladakh and social change

Paul Kingsnorth

The tiny Himalayan land of Ladakh is a unique example of how devastating modern development can be, and of how local alternatives can forge a different way forward.

The monk is angry but, being a monk, he is trying not to show it. Shaven-headed, the sun-wizened old man is dressed in the maroon robes of the Dugpa Buddhist order. He is standing in the monastery courtyard looking down at a group of four English tourists. One is chewing gum, another is swigging from a can of Pepsi. On all sides of the courtyard sit hundreds like them, all gathered at this mountain pilgrimage site for the most important festival of the monastic year.

‘We’ve got a ticket!’ says the gum-chewing girl. She waves a small yellow slip of paper in the monk’s face.

‘Please,’ says the monk, patiently, for the third time, ‘please, you cannot sit here. This space reserved for monks only. Please, you move.’

He obviously hasn’t got the message, so the girl repeats herself. ‘WE’VE GOT A TICKET,’ she says. ‘We got this space hours ago. We paid TWENTY RUPEES.’ She waves the yellow stub again. ‘We’ve got the best view,’ she says, to general agreement. ‘We don’t want to move.’

Twenty rupees is approximately 30 pence. The girl and her companions have paid this princely sum to witness the annual masked dances celebrating the birth of Padmasambhava, legendary founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The dances are one of the most sacred religious festivals of the year in the tiny hill-kingdom of Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. She and her friends will have travelled for hours to reach the 17th century Hemis monastery, the oldest in Ladakh, which hangs like an alpine plant to the side of an unassailable mountain.

Now she has parked herself in the corner of the courtyard reserved for monks, and she’s damned if she’s going to move. She is matched in her determination by most of the other tourists, who scuttle about like termites, obstructing the monks as they circle the arena in their ritual costumes, to the sound of conch trumpets and drums. Like the girl and her friends, they have come to see the show, and no one is going to stop them. They’re not sure what the show is about, but they know the photos will be good.

The fat man sits back in his chair and lights another cigarette, his second in five minutes. A lizard blinks down at him from the flaking wall of his government office.

‘This is torture,’ he says. Outside, bored officials sit on the collapsing wooden stairs in the sun, or chase each other along the balcony for something to do.

‘Here in the agriculture department,’ says the fat man, ‘there is work for 100 people, yet there are 200 of us employed. Torture. I am a TRAINED MAN, sir. I train in Delhi, for three years, and then they send me here.’ He looks around, disgustedly. To be sent to the Ladakh Department of Agriculture is the Indian government official’s equivalent of Siberian exile.

‘My job is to teach Ladakhi farmers about new technology. We have some wonderful things now: power tillers, many fertilisers, high-yielding seeds. So I come here and I sit in this office and nobody calls me. Nobody asks me anything. These farmers, they don’t want to know. They have two acres each and a dzo and they don’t want to change. I don’t understand them.’ He sighs.

‘More tea?’ he says.

Twenty miles away, in a grove of trees at the edge of a village in the Indus valley, a group of women farmers, dressed in traditional costume, sit in a circle, listening to the village headman speak. They are all members of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh who aim to preserve the best of their small-scale, ecological farming traditions in the face of an avalanche of change sweeping in from the outside world. It is people like them who stop the smoking man in the agriculture department from getting on with his job.

‘What you are doing is vital for Ladakh,’ says the headman. ‘It is important that women teach our future generations what education really is. Now our children go to school, and learn to read and write. But there is education also in farming, nurturing, spinning, running a family. Our children must understand this, so that they can support themselves and not end up at the mercy of outsiders.’ Everyone nods in agreement. A group of curious children who have gathered on the other side of a stone wall to see what’s going on, decide to go and play football instead.

Tourist brochures describe Ladakh in the usual cliches. ‘Kingdom of light’, ‘land of endless discovery’, and perhaps the most well-worn of all, ‘land of contrasts’. In this, though, they are right, for this ancient mountain kingdom, which only opened up to the outside world a few decades ago, is undergoing a process of tumultuous change as forces bigger than anything it has experienced roll in and threaten to sweep away the past. But Ladakh is also home to a unique network of people and organisations who, between them, are battling to turn the tide in their direction — and who are beginning, slowly, to succeed.


Ladakh is a high-altitude desert, sandwiched between the mountain ranges of the Karakoram and the Himalayas in the far north of India. Culturally and religiously much of the region is part of neighbouring Tibet; it is often referred to as ‘Little Tibet’. Politically, it is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, with which it has an increasingly uneasy relationship. Its population is divided almost evenly between Buddhists, in the east, and Muslims, in the west (see box p 38).

What makes Ladakh so special is — or was — its economic independence. Though Ladakh has been invaded by outsiders from the Sikh emperors to the British, its local farming economy has always remained in the hands of its people. Even today, with trans-Himalayan roads linking it to mainland India and daily flights to the capital, Leh, from Delhi, Ladakh remains virtually cut off from the outside world for more than half the year by heavy snows. This has meant that, though it has been a trading centre for centuries (Leh was one of the crossroads on the silk road from China), it has, until recently, needed to rely on itself. Its isolation allowed it to develop a remarkable rural economy, based on small-scale farming, which enabled its people to make a living out of their high and hostile landscape.


Over the last three decades, though, things have changed fast. Until the 1960s, the region was virtually ignored by the rest of the world, and the rest of India. All that changed when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, going on to launch an attack on Ladakh in 1962. The Indian government flooded the region with soldiers, who, because of the continuing Chinese and, more recently, Pakistani border conflicts, have never left. In the mid-60s, Ladakh’s isolation was broken once and for all with the construction of a trans-Himalayan road linking it to the subcontinent.

Then things really began to change. The Indian government pursued an energetic policy of drawing Ladakh in to the Indian economy. In 1974, it opened the region up to foreign tourism. The army, the tourists and the Indian government have combined to subject Ladakh to the biggest change that it has probably ever seen. And today, as India throws its own economy open to the global market, that change is gathering speed. Globalisation, tourism and politics are combining to produce a cocktail of communal tension, environmental destruction, social disintegration and economic breakdown that threaten to engulf this once stable and peaceful region.


What has happened to Ladakhi farming since the region was opened up is symbolic of its wider experience. The Ladakhi economy has always been primarily agricultural. In itself this is remarkable, as Ladakh’s landscape is supremely hostile. Under snow for more than half the year, dusty and dry for much of the rest, it is a place of climatic extremes and unforgiving soils. At altitudes of between 10,000 and 14,000 feet, where Ladakh’s villages are situated, the growing season is only a few months long every year. Animals are scarce, and water is in short supply.

But over the centuries, the Ladakhis developed a farming system uniquely adapted to a unique environment. Farming is small-scale; traditionally, each family owns a few acres of land, and their whitewashed mud houses are grouped together in villages whose size varies according to the availability of water. The land is irrigated by a system of channels which funnel water from the melted ice and snow of the mountains. The principal crop is barley, the mainstay of traditional Ladakhi food. In the valleys there are orchards, and up on the high pastures, where not even barley will grow, people husband yaks, cows or sheep. Draft animals, especially the ubiquitous dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow, play a central part in the farming economy.

In order to get the best from this harsh landscape, systems of cooperative labour sharing have developed; Ladakh’s traditional farmers have always known that to survive they need to work together. But for many years now, the fate of Ladakhi farming has been largely out of their hands. The state government of Jammu and Kashmir, following the example of the national government in Delhi, has been working to ‘modernise’ Ladakhi agriculture for decades. The results have been dire.


The way they went about achieving their aim is an interesting example of how policy can be deliberately set up to replace a local economy with one dependent on the outside world. First, a food grain distribution programme was set up by the government, under which vast quantities of subsidised rice, flour and wheat were trucked across the Himalayas and sold for virtually nothing to the Ladakhis. Rice had previously been a luxury in the Ladakhi diet, but now that it was so cheap, it quickly became a staple. Within a few years, Ladakh became virtually reliant on rice and wheat from the outside. There was less need to farm, and so less farming was done. Large-scale infrastructure projects built by the Indian government — including, crucially, road links — helped consolidate the new economy and create an urban alternative to farming. The combination of subsidised food and the new infrastructure accelerated a mass migration of menfolk from the farms into Leh, the capital, to service the burgeoning tourist industr y and the new urban economy.

With the food grain distribution programme having the desired effect, the Ladakh Department of Agriculture was able to persuade farmers that their only means of survival was export-led development. College-trained experts were brought in from Delhi to oversee the introduction of high-yield seed, chemical fertilisers and machines to replace the communal labour system which was breaking down as people left the farms. Traditional crops, bred over centuries to fit in with the local climate and soils began disappearing, replaced by crops grown for export. Chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, previously unknown, rocketed. What looked like an inevitable trend began to take bold.

But the trend was not as inevitable as the government seemed to think.


Helena Norberg-Hodge, the Swedish linguist and environmentalist, probably knows more about traditional Ladakh, and how it has changed in the face of such pressures, than any other outsider. She first arrived in the region in 1975, to study the language, but soon became more interested in what development and economic globalisation were doing to this ancient land. She has since become one of the most passionate, and controversial, advocates of the Ladakhi people as they struggle to adjust to modernisation; her book on Ladakh, Ancient Futures, has been translated into 32 languages.

The changes wrought on the Ladakhis over the last few decades, she says now, ‘brought them a great sense of cultural inferiority. The combination of economic and psychological pressures led to a dramatic loss of self-esteem amongst people who had previously been very emotionally healthy. A sense of shame developed about their traditions and their way of life.’

What has happened in Ladakh, she says, exemplifies what has happened to local economies and communities around the world: ‘It highlights the conflict between what I’d call the ‘real economy’ of water, soil and natural resources, and a centralised highly subsidised artificial economy that pulls people into a system over which they have no control.’

As an outsider, Norberg-Hodge came to see that what was being presented to the Ladakhis as inevitable and evolutionary was, instead, a Western-driven imperative towards a very specific economic model. This belief led her into a 25-year project to inform and arm the people of Ladakh, and enable them to confront the coming of a new way of life on their own terms. It has been a project with results. Her institute, the UK-based International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), has founded a number of local organisations that aim to open up both sides of the development story to its people.

One of the best-known is the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). Its pioneering work has included promoting organic agriculture, local handicraft production, small-scale solar technologies and general ecological awareness amongst Ladakhis; work which was recognised in 1986 when LEDeG won the Right Livelihood Award — the ‘alternative Nobel prize’. Norberg-Hodge was also instrumental in the founding of the Womens’ Alliance, in 1990 — which began with just 70 members and now has over 4000, scattered across more than 80 villages — and the Amchi Association, which promotes traditional Ladakhi medicine. ISEC also runs projects which aim to bring together Ladakhis and Westerners, to, as she puts it, ‘open everyone’s eyes to the real impacts of development and globalisation.’ ‘These include ‘reality tours’ in which Ladakhis visit the West to see for themselves both sides of the modern world; a tourist education programme which reaches 3000 visitors a year; and a farm project, under which Western voluntee rs work on Ladakhi farms.

Together, these organisations, and others, most of which are all now run by local people, have planted the seeds of a genuinely alternative future for Ladakh; seeds which are now beginning, shyly but persistently, to flower.


To understand the impact all this is having on Ladakh’s development, take a trip to the office of its chief agriculture officer, hidden in a dusty maze of run-down government offices on the edge of the world’s highest polo ground in Leh. Mr Tsewang Dorje is a kindly, well-meaning and confused man. A Ladakhi himself, he is in charge of the region’s agricultural policy, and he has a tough job to do. It’s difficult to believe he enjoys it.

His first recourse, when asked about the future of Ladakhi agriculture, is to take the government line. Ladakh is backward, and must be modernised. Ladakhis, he says, have ‘lost interest’ in traditional agriculture. Leh is now full of shops selling trainers, televisions, consumer goods. People have motorbikes and jeeps and transistor radios. The old ways are breaking down, and his job is to help ease the transition. ‘It was a very good system,’ he says, of traditional Ladakhi agriculture, ‘but it’s gone. The world has changed. We need to export now, to survive.’

With that in mind, Mr Dorje wants the Ladakhis to replace their barley fields with vegetable cash crops, and their dzo with power-tillers. ‘It is a very inefficient animal, this dzo,’ he says. ‘You need to keep it and feed it all year, but you use it to till at most for just 10 days. With power tillers, productivity will go up. Then people will be able to keep Jersey cows instead, which produce much milk.’ But power tillers rely on outside input for fuel and parts. Jersey cows are not adapted to high altitudes. And as for productivity – studies have shown that Ladakhi traditional agriculture is among the most productive in the world.

‘Yes, well,’ says Mr Dorje, ‘we can compromise. Let me read you this.’ He pulls a scrap of paper out of the top drawer of his desk. It is covered in pencil scrawls and is, apparently, Ladakh’s new agricultural policy, drawn up by Mr Dorje and Ladakh’s Hill Council (see box p36) just a few weeks previously. He reads out its nine points, which talk of importing new crop varieties, diversifying and mechanisation. But they also talk of preserving small farms, promoting organic food and protecting the livelihoods of small farmers. Isn’t there a contradiction?

‘No, no,’ he says, ‘you see, we can … we can do both. Small farmers can produce for export. They can build greenhouses and … they can …’ He stops, and thinks. Then, after a minute, he says, very quietly, ‘eventually … yes, we will have to go back.’ Go back? This doesn’t sound like government policy. He leans over the desk, cautiously. ‘We will have to go back,’ he says, again. ‘We have no other avenues. We cannot rely on the outside – the market and the tourists. We need to support ourselves. We know this, but until people realise…’ Then he says a most remarkable thing. ‘This is what the NGOs have taught us,’ he says.


Mr Dorje’s epiphany is just one example of how the conventional model of development is being challenged, successfully, even in the minds of those responsible for implementing it. But none of the NGOs in Ladakh are under any illusions as to the scale of the challenge they still face. A walk around Leh shows how far things still have to go. As with so many of the world’s beautiful places, tourism has become one of Ladakh’s greatest problems, as well as a source of benefits. Central Leh is awash with Coke stands, ‘German Bakeries,’ trekking agencies, T-shirt shops and unshaven men shuffling around on street corners muttering ‘you want good smoke?’ More than half of Ladakh’s tourist shops are run by non-Ladakhis, and few of them sell anything made in the region. Dreadlocked backpackers roar around the unpaved roads on hired motorbikes or sit in cafes complaining about the price of guest houses.

And Leh continues to grow. More and more impoverished farmers, their livelihoods destroyed or destabilised, drift in to Leh to try and make their fortune from tourists and the urban economy. They end up in run-down government housing colonies on the edge of town; a vacational underclass. Leh’s population, largely due to the pull of tourist dollars, has doubled since 1975.

This causes problems all of its own, for Leh has no infrastructure to support this growth; as a result, the state of the capital is a pressing problem. Non-degradable rubbish litters the streets and blows into the streams, which are polluted with detergent from the laundries which have sprung up to service the tourists. Traditionally, virtually everything in Ladakh was made from natural materials and reused or recycled. Today, rubbish bins have sprung up around Leh, but there is nowhere to empty them; litter is dumped on a mountainside on the edge of the town. Water is another problem. Traditional Ladakhi compost toilets used no water, and rural Ladakhis knew that such a scarce resource must be used carefully. No such considerations inform the tourists or the new generation of young urban Ladakhis who emulate them. Today, compost toilets are being replaced with Western-style flush systems, despite the fact that Ladakh has no sewers. The new toilets, along with the increasing numbers of baths and showers, are seriously depleting the amount of water available in Leh, as gallons of precious fresh water are flushed into unreliable cesspits which regularly leak into the rivers and pollute the water table. As a result, much of Leh’s drinking water is now trucked in across the mountains in government tankers.

But here, too, change is coming. The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, headed by the energetic Dolma Tsering, is having a remarkable impact. It is a grouping of Buddhist farming women, who exist to promote and protect Ladakh’s rural culture, and to instil in Ladakhi women the self confidence they need to see modernisation on their own terms. Its work in Leh has been pioneering too; it was largely due to the work of the Women’s Alliance that a ban on plastic bags was introduced in the capital in 1998. The Alliance organises litter-picks in Leh every year, and works to educate people about the dangers of pollution and consumerism, Dolma Tsering believes they must go further. ‘Development has brought some benefits for wealthy, educated women,’ she says, ‘but for much of our culture, mainly it has brought problems. But things are slowly changing. Year after year, there are more people understanding the problems, and taking part in what we do.’


What much of this comes down to is education; something that Sonam Wangchuk knows very well. Wangchuk is the founder and director of SEGMOL – the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh – whose purpose is, as he puts it, ‘to strengthen Ladakh is through education.’ Wangchuk, in common with most of the other activists and community leaders in Ladakh, believes that education is the key to the future; only when it is its run in a distinctively Ladakhi way, he says, will Ladakh’s people appreciate the value of who they really are.

‘The Indian education system, which was based on the British colonial system, has done terrible things to Ladakhis,’ he says. ‘It helped convince people here that they were backward and primitive, that their language was worthless, that their traditions were bad.’ SEGMOL is trying, says Wangchuk, ‘to create a balanced view of the West,’ so that students are not lulled by the siren song of global consumerism. ‘Ladakh will change,’ says Wangchuk. ‘In 20 years, who knows what it will be like? But we must remain Ladakhis still – culturally, economically, in our hearts – and not some imitation of what we think the rest of the world is like. Education is the key to regaining our sense of who we are.’


Ladakh carries many expectations on its fragile shoulders. ‘Little Tibet’ has been romanticised by Western travellers for centuries. According to the anthropologist Ravina Aggarwal, ‘most visitors to Ladakh carry with them this romantic notion of an idyllic land, eclipsed from time and space’. [1] This can lead to controversy, as campaigners and NGOs, particularly those from outside Ladakh, are accused of wanting to airbrush out aspects of its past and present that don’t fit with what they want to see.

So, say critics, we hear much about how development has brought new health problems to Ladakh (incidences of obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease and various cancers are increasing as diets and lifestyles change) but less about the fact that, according to some researchers, traditional Ladakh has one of the highest rates of hypertension in the world, possibly caused by traditional salt tea. [2] Similarly, much can be heard from campaigners about the wonders of Ladakh’s co-operative farming culture, but little about the caste system which has made the original tribal people of the region, the Mons and Bedas, in the opinion of one academic, ‘the most despised people in Ladakhi society.’ [3]

There is undoubtedly some truth in this; there is no doubt that, for an outsider, Ladakh is an easy place to romanticise. NorbergHodge, as a Westerner, has been the butt of such criticism for years. She is clear about her response.

‘In fact,’ she says, ‘it is the consumer culture that is being romanticised, and this is a global problem. Campaigners here are not saying that traditional Ladakh was perfect and shouldn’t change. But it’s important that everyone gets a realistic picture of what’s happening in the West.’

Furthermore, she says, ‘one of the lessons that any foreigner working here learns is don’t try and come in and tell the Ladakhis what to do. Don’t presume to know enough about their culture to be able to say “oh, it’s so wonderful, don’t change”. They know you don’t know enough, so it will ring hollow. What you can do is speak from your own experience of what is happening in the West, and how it could happen here, and give them much needed information that will help them make their own decisions.’


Whatever happens to Ladakh, its people are beginning to see that they can shape their future themselves, to their own agenda. Dolma Tsering, who has witnessed, and participated in, the massive changes that her land has seen over the last three decades, is optimistic about the future. She can see, she says, the perspectives of her fellow Ladakhis changing as time goes by; and for the better.

‘For a while,’ she says, ‘we in Ladakh lost respect for ourselves and for our culture. But now we know we have no reason to feel inferior. Now we feel more confident about who we are. In fact, we know now that the world can learn a lot from us. It is important that our young people understand that. There is much that Ladakh can teach the world.’

Paul Kingsnorth is deputy editor of The Ecologist.

(1.) Ravina Aggarwal, ‘From Utopia to Heterotopia – towards an anthropology of Ladakh’, in Recent Research on Ladakh, Shri Jainendra Press, Delhi, 1993

(2.) Tsering Norboo and Tsering Morup, ‘Culture, Health and Illness in Ladakh,’ in ibid

(3.) Ali Mohmad Rather, ‘Discrimination in Ladakhi Society’, in op cit 3


Until recently, Ladakh was run by the Jammu and Kashmir state government. In 1995, though, following years of pressure from local people, Ladakh was granted a degree of political autonomy. It now has its own ‘Autonomous Hill Development Council’ which is responsible for the development of Ladakh, including agriculture, education and cultural policy. Opinions are divided on its effectiveness. Its director, Thupstan Chhewang, a previous director of LEDeG, admits that progress is slower than he would like. ‘When we set up, people wanted change overnight,’ he says. ‘But this is not possible. Still, change is happening, and our priority is to ensure that the work we do is genuinely supported by the people.’ Others are more cynical, saying that the Hill Council is too hamstrung by the state government to oversee real change in Ladakh. The Ladakh Buddhist Association, and others, are lobbying for Ladakh to become a fully independent Union Territory. In this they appear to have growing popular support.

CLASH OF THE TITANS: Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Ladakh

Ladakh is divided into two districts: the Leh district, in the east, which is predominantly Buddhist, and the Kargil district in the west, which is predominantly Muslim. In recent years, politics and the pressures of development, including intensified competition over jobs and scarce resources in the modern sector, have led to growing communal tensions. Before the setting up of the Hill Council (see box p 36) Ladakh was administered directly by the Muslim-dominated state government of Jammu and Kashmir, which led Ladakh’s Buddhists to complain of discrimination against them. Now that the Buddhist-dominated Hill Council runs the affairs of Leh District, some of the area’s Muslims feel hard done by. Tensions have been inflamed by competition for jobs and tourist dollars, and by the politics of some religious leaders. When communal tensions spilled over into street violence in 1989, for example, the Ladakh Buddhist Association called for a cultural boycott of Muslims. More recently, this July, a tactless comment about the Koran by a leading light in the Buddhist Association led to the retaliatory murder of three Buddhist monks, and the imposition of a military curfew on Leh. The head of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, Tsering Samphal, insists that relations between Buddhists and Muslims are ‘very good, generally’. Ladakh’s leading Muslim scholar, Abdul Ghani Sheikh, agrees that, at the everyday level, Muslims and Buddhists coexist happily. But he also warns that unless ‘the politicians stop inciting the people’ in the name of religion, tensions could get worse.

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