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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Learning to live, Ladakhi style (ive)

INDIA | Monday, 14 September 2009 | Views [5814] | Comments [7]

My Ama-le in front of her stove and the display of the family's pots going back generations -- the marks of the traditional Ladakhi kitchen

My Ama-le in front of her stove and the display of the family's pots going back generations -- the marks of the traditional Ladakhi kitchen

Miral was in Kolkata during August, swimming in a true underbelly of humanity. While there, she also saw the deep personal transformation that can emerge from engaging such dire circumstances. As some spiritualists remind us, the beautiful lotus flower can only grow from mud and slime at the bottom of the lake. But after spending my August in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, I can't help but also see the mucky misery of giant cities like Kolkata as an extreme example of what can happen when too many people are either forced or convinced (often a combination of both) to live in too small a place with too few reasonable jobs, and then become too focused on trying to get ahead of everyone else. It is the result of urbanization, the result of modernization. This view has come after I spent the same the month living in a Ladakhi world that is, compared to Kolkata, in a much earlier stage of decay – or modernization – call it what you will.


Ladakh is a region in the Western Himalaya. In the modern era, facing choices such as succumbing to Chinese oppression or joining the nation of Pakistan, it made the obvious choice of aligning with the semi-democracy of India, where it is now part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K, for short). But Ladakh is not what we imagine when we think of India. Except for some areas closer to Kashmir that are Islamic, the culture in most of Ladakh is basically Tibetan. Now that the Chinese have spent the last fifty years steadily succeeding in murderously “liberating,” re-shaping, raping the resources of, destroying the religious culture of, and “modernizing” the nation of Tibet, Ladakh is one of the few remaining places on Earth where one can find an 'untainted' example of the Tibetan way of life. Or so it may seem...


I lived in the lower part of the village of Likir, about a two hour bus ride through the Himalaya from the region's capital city, Leh. I was taken in for the month by the Larjay family. Tsang Namgyal (who I called aba-le, a term of respect for a father or someone of fatherly age) and Chuskit Dolma (ama-le), a couple in their sixties, provided for me all I needed. A rotating array of family members was also housed with us. Regulars in the house were Tsewang Morup, the 30-ish son of aba-le and ama-le, along with his wife, Phunchok Dolma, and their two children, Tsewang Stanzin (4) and Stanzin Wangtak (2). The two-year-old, “Wangtak,” was in the house the entire month, even when his parents and older brother were away in Leh. When I first arrived, Tsering Dalker (wife of aba-le and ama-le's son Phunchak Tsering) was also in the home with her newborn son, Sonam Phunchak, but she left after about one week to be with her original family elsewhere in the village. And for the last week or so of my month-long visit, aba-le and ama-le's daughter, Rigzen Angmo, returned from university. To a person, they were simple, direct, and kind. Kindness, especially, seems to be part of the Ladakhi make-up.


Like their Tibetan brethren, the Ladakhi people are devoutly Buddhist. After studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism for many years, I felt an instantaneous bond with the land and its people. Stupas, which are large, white physical monuments shaped to honor the teachings of the Buddha, dot the landscape. Mani walls, Mani wheels, and prayer flags, all methods believed to release Buddhist blessings to the world, are also everywhere. The people experience the Dalai Lama as their spiritual guide – the man who is the religious and temporal leader of Tibet, but is more importantly the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has perfected a nonviolent response to the oppression of his people. A Buddhist monastic system, much like Tibet's, thrives: many Ladakhi villages have an active gompa (monastery), with many families still sending at least one of their infant children off to a monastic life.  And even though the Ladakhis practice a more magical form of Buddhism than do most Western Buddhists – reciting sacred mantras, for example, rather than sitting in meditation – they seem to have an ease with life, an equanimious response to whatever arises, that feels to observers like me to be a unique result of the Buddhist way.


Until the 1970s, Ladakh was essentially disconnected from the rest of the world, allowing their rich culture to take firm hold. Ladakhis are traditionally farmers, even though Ladakh is in a Himalayan rain shadow and is as arid as any desert. They have mastered the art of capitalizing on glacial rivers. Every village is built around a river, and has an indescribably complex system of irrigation channels that bring the river water to the fields and homes. The channels that distribute the precious water are opened and closed, using rocks and mud, in a perfected pattern that the Ladakhis seem to have memorized. The result is rolling fields of alfalfa, barley, and wheat, thriving vegetable gardens, and orchards of apricot and, sometimes, apple trees (really, mini-apricots and mini-apples by our standards, but some of the tastiest you will ever eat!). Their diet consists mainly of products made from wheat and barley flour (usually in the form of baked bread, steamed bread, or various forms of pasta) and the vegetables they grow; they have traditionally been self-sustained when it comes to food. So although only thorn-bushes with Seabuck Thorn Berries (which do make a delicious juice!) are indigenous to the area, Ladakhi villages are long, lush green agricultural oases amidst the moonscape. The village I lived in, Likir, is a prototype.


How the Ladakhis divided the land in their villages is a mystery that is beyond me. But they have carved out idyllic fields, sometimes terraced, often protected from animals with rugged stonewalls and dried thorns – all eerily reminiscent of the Andean village of Vicos, Peru, that we visited earlier in our journey. Makes one wonder if mountain peoples simply come to the same conclusions about how to live, if it is a remnant of the peoples who crossed the land bridge into North and South America – or if there was cross-continental communication of some form even centuries ago (as some anthropologists have hypothesized). But the explanation seems to matter little when the light, swirling breezes catch the fields of barley and cause a mesmerizing dance seemingly choreographed by a knowing universe. These fields are simply mindstopping in their beauty.


The traditional “farm houses” are mansion-sized by modern standards – perhaps necessary to have enough space to stay sane during the long, harsh winters. They are made of mud-brick, which may sometimes be exposed, but is usually covered in a white stucco-like finish. The window and door-trim are beautifully carved wood, usually painted deep maroon or black. And the interior rooms are large – the biggest being the kitchen which also serves as the living room, where most of daily life happens. Every kitchen in Ladakh includes a wall-sized, glassed cabinet, displaying all of the family's traditional plates and cooking pots, usually handed down from generation to generation. In front of each cabinet is a large metal stove, ornately decorated with Buddhist symbols, like the endless knot symbolizing the infinite interconnection of all life. During the winter chill, the stove warms the entire kitchen as food cooks or the endless supply of tea is prepared (either “milk tea” [like Indian chai masala], sweet black tea, or the traditional salty-tasting butter tea, which I actually acquired a taste for!). So it is not surprising that the warm kitchen has become the hub of life – lined on at least one wall with carpeted platforms for seating and ornately carved, low-to-the-ground tables – it is the traditional gathering place. Everything from family conversations, prayer and mantra recitation, food preparation, to singing and dancing seems to occur in the kitchen.


And the pace of life is very soothing by Western standards. I was in Likir during part of the harvest season – one of the busiest and hardest working times of the year. We harvested alfalfa with a hand sickle (lots and lots and lots of alfalfa!) to feed the livestock through the winter, pulled up mustard to be dried into oil, and picked apricots to be sold at market. The days of harvest are long – but broken up by plentiful rest. On a hard-core harvest day, work in the fields may begin at 6am, after the first few cups of tea are consumed. After a few hours of work, we return to the house for breakfast and tea. By about 10am, work begins again, with a 30 to 45 minute tea break at noon (often right out in the fields) as the hot sun begins to take its toll. The tea breaks offer physical rest, rehydration (the Ladakhis drink almost no water – its all tea all the time), and a psychological lift through lively conversation. After returning to work, lunch is served at about 2pm, either back in the house or as a picnic out in the fields, depending on how far from home the work is occurring. About an hour-long siesta is taken after lunch. Another two or so hours out in the field, and there is another long tea break. Then there is a final push of work until sundown. A common late day task is carrying the harvested crops to various locations for drying – the most tiring of which is the alfalfa, which is dried on the roof and requires climbing several ladders with heavy loads tied to your back. Dinner is served at about 9 or 10pm, and then everyone immediately heads to bed. So, these days are long, but the rhythm seems very natural – and they are helped along by the communal singing and humming that happens in the field throughout the work, Add in that the hard-core harvest days require a few weeks each year – and that there are literally six months each year when no work, beyond household chores, is necessary, and you begin to understand how and why the people are so content and psychologically spacious. Can you imagine a job in the States offering six months annual leave??? And can you imagine how happy you would be if you had that job???


As if the regular tea breaks are not enough to keep one fully caffeinated throughout the day, any time a visitor appears at or anywhere in the general vicinity of a home, whatever is being done is dropped and that person is invited in for tea. It made for a lot more tea than most of us Westerners wanted. Need to mention something to Ali next door? Expect twenty minutes of tea. Meet at Juan's house to set off on a day of trekking? Expect twenty minutes of tea. Wave to a neighbor on return from a walk around town? Expect twenty minutes of tea. On the one hand, tea is a bit like the Ladakhi version of Peruvian coca – it keeps up the energy level for the days of hard work in the fields. But more than that, stopping for tea reflects the high value placed on community and relationships. Tea is an excuse to find out how the other person is doing – to get caught up on their life and the well-being of other family members and friends. It is the mechanism through which news – sometimes important and sometimes just gossip – flies around the village at lightening speed. The people are deeply connected. Even across towns. We would stop in another village for a meal while trekking and when we explained we were doing one-month homestays in Likir, the immediate question was which family we each were with. And when we provided names, the result was a knowing smile or a question about how someone in the home was doing or a request for information about someone in the home. It seemed like every Ladakhi knew every other Ladakhi – and intimately.


And after it all, the things I have learned most during my time in Likir come out sounding like clichés when I try to write about them. “It is nourishing to have daily contact with the earth;” “It is good to slow down and live life more in time with natural rhythms;” “It is more fulfilling to live a life aimed at developing relationships than one aimed at material gain.” But the difference is that these lessons have been experiential – that by actually living in these ways for the month, the benefits are directly felt and have sunk into my bones in a way from which it is difficult to simply go back to 'the old way.' It's like to difference between physicists and realized Buddhists. Physicists know full well that the universe is made up of a tiny percentage of matter and a huge percentage of energy – that nothing in the perceived world has much substance – but it probably doesn't impact their daily approach to life. On the other hand, Buddhist masters who sit with and contemplate and directly feel that their essence and the essence of all phenomena are ungraspable, have it saturate the lenses through which they see the world so that attachments to certainty and solidity dissolve. I can't claim that a month of living the Ladakhi way has brought such deep and unshakable change any more than sitting the month long meditation retreat I completed brought me enlightenment – but both produced a feeling in me that I won't soon forget.


Unfortunately, I have also seen what is probably the beginning of the end of this way of life in Ladakh. Modernity is arriving. And fast. Ever since the doors of tourism were opened in the 1970s and, at about the same time, the Indian government brought in electricity, life in Ladakh has been rapidly changing. Especially in the capital “city” of Leh, which serves as a testament to what the future will bring the villages. With all of its beautiful ancient gompas and stupas, Leh is over-run with foreign products in plastic wrappers that are too often discarded in the ways organic materials always have – simply dropped. These products are now also arriving to the villages to meet the demand created by television, which pumps in images of Indian and Western luxuries and lifestyle. (After nights of watching television with my host family, I still have no idea how they digest it and what they make of it – but they seem to love it – from Bollywood movies to cooking channels.) The streets of Leh are choked with car exhaust and constant car horns prevent any sense of peace – and some cars are now being driven in the villages. And despite the erosion of Leh, Ladakhis by the droves are leaving their mansion-sized farmhouses in the village to live in the slums of Leh because they have been educated for “modern jobs” (which are unavailable) and not for farming. They have been convinced by the powers of development that salaried employment, and not farming, provides the best route to happiness. Influenced by modern media, many of the youth see farming as backward and primitive.


In my host-family, for example, the aba-le (father) and ama-le (mother) are likely to be the last generation of farmers – one of their sons is a driver, another son is in the military and stationed in another region of India, and their daughter is at university in Jammu. One daughter-in-law is actively involved in farming the land, but the others rarely go out to the fields. Maybe after aba-le and ama-le pass, someone will use the Likir farmhouse as a summer getaway from Leh – maybe. But the farm seems unlikely to continue – at least in its current form as a means of self-sustenance. The same story is repeating itself all over Ladakh. And a centuries old way of life will probably be gone within a few generations.


So what to make of this? You can't force the Ladakhis to maintain their traditional way of life. You can't restrict their opportunities to access the modern world. What of the Ladakhis who genuinely have no interest in farming – and dream of being doctors or firemen or entrepreneurs? Who am I to romanticize their farming lifestyle and feel that they should forego all of the modern conveniences I have become accustomed to? No, Ladakh and its people should have the right to “modernize” if they wish – but I deeply wish it could be a more thoughtful, careful process. One fueled by education – opportunities for Ladakhis to know the advantages – and the disadvantages – of modernization, as it has been experienced in other modernizing and modernized areas. Yes, they may be able to access all of the gadgets and junk foods they see on TV – but for it, they are likely to gain the high-speed, stress-making, unspiritual, relationship-diminishing, earth-disconnectedness that pervades the West. If they realized that, then maybe they would make better decisions about the extent to which and the ways in which they want to modernize. But for now, other than a few NGOs, like the one I worked with this month, there are few voices countering the mainstream media and Westernized school system. Few locals aware of the perils – and few Westerners making efforts to teach them about our increasingly degrading and destructive way of life. And so, Leh may never become Kolkata – for there is only one Kolkata – but I do fear, Leh will be another Cuzco – with a McDonalds and a NorthFace store – maybe a Wal-Mart someday – and self-focused people competing with one another for these products, and for jobs and for money – and another beautiful culture replaced by the American Dream.




Hey ivan_miral,

We liked your blog and decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too!

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Sep 28, 2009 12:11 PM


Hi Ivan and Miral,
I read your India story in the hopes of reading something about Mom and Dad. No such luck!!!! But I loved getting a Ladakhi education.
I think your journey is incredible and i am in awe of this experience.
Hope your time with the folks is very special and i can't wait to hear about it.

  Sheila Karron Oct 7, 2009 9:33 AM


Hi Ivan, Miral, Carol and Steve,

Hope you are all happy, safe and healthy and enjoying your reunion. Can't wait to read all about your new adventures. We miss you. Please enjoy every minute of your special time together.

Love, Sue and Tony

  Sue Esposito Oct 9, 2009 8:09 AM


Hi Ivan, Miral,
Hope you enjoyed your visit with mom and dad!!
As usual another amazing story about another amazing
people and culture. I feel like you're giving a wonderful education to anyone who reads your blog- especially me!!
Love to you both and can't wait to see you when you get back to the US of A!!

  hildi Oct 18, 2009 6:12 AM


Hi Ivan and Miral,

Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your travels in India, especially each of your own volunteer experiences in one same country but two worlds apart.

Been heavily devouring travel writings online ever since I got home from Ladakh a month ago. This site address was presented to me through my google search. I was in Ladakh for a short volunteering stint.

I find myself wanting to go back, or somewhere, or anywhere at all, to do more, to see more. Your stories, (and especially Miral's thoughts at Kolkata), comfort me and somehow touches my life, though we are strangers, and I just want to say a small thank you for sharing.


  Rachel Feb 13, 2011 4:57 PM


HEY it is an amazing blog and I lika it and guess what im coming ladakh for holidays
isn't it cool

  KANISHKA SINGH Jan 29, 2014 8:04 PM


Incredible and a deep thinking poured blog....hope to see more in future...

  Atal Raj Mishra May 27, 2016 7:33 AM

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