Ladakhs charm

Print edition : October 19, 2012

The book is enriched by nuggets of information about the place that do not come the way of the average tourist.

LADAKH, nestled in the Himalayas, is a region that we seem to know all about yet do not know much about. Its main town, Leh, and other touristy places around are famous. Beyond that we are in the dark about itperhaps because of the sheer vastness of this mountainous desert and its isolation from the rest of India. With an area of 45,110 square kilometres, Ladakh is massive by any scale. Much of it is rugged and not accessible by road despite all the development in recent times that has transformed parts of the region into tiny tourist islands with hotels, restaurants, crowded bazaars and automated teller machines (ATMs). Leave them behind and you are in communion with nature in all its ruggedness and beauty.

It is to this land of majesty and mystique that Romesh Bhattacharji transports us to in his well-researched book Ladakh: Changing, Yet Unchanged. He describes the book as a tribute to the land of mountains and passes. But it is not just a scholarly approach to the region; it is the result of laborious hours spent in libraries and monasteries. Since 1972, when he first visited the region, Bhattacharji has returned time and again to explore and traverse the land on a motorcycle or in a four-wheeler. And the passion with which he did it finds its reflection in the book. In his official capacity toohe served with the Customs Department in Ladakh and retired as Chief Commissionerhe was able to gather nuggets of information that do not come the way of many of us who visit the region as tourists.

This is no misty-eyed tale of the awesome beauty and colour of a mountainous desert. However rich the bounties of nature, one cannot but factor in the human population of the land. Bhattacharji has weaved in the politics, the social and economic changes, the communalism that has crept in, and the impact of the global economy on this remote district. The uncomfortable facts surrounding it cannot be avoided either.

For example, Bhattacharji refers to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government promoting, in the late 1990s, an annual extravaganza called the Sindhu Darshan festival to worship the Indus, or the Sindhu river. The festivitieswhich came in for considerable media criticism at that timewere dominated by Hindu ceremonies and seemed rather strange in a region inhabited by an 82 per cent Buddhist and 17 per cent Muslim population. The festival was projected as a celebration of the great Indian culture and dedicated to Indian Army soldiers who have sacrificed so much for Ladakh.

The crowds at the festival were mostly Army jawans and officers. In any case, they outnumbered the local population by almost 100 per cent. The Army presence is very perceptible as one travels through the region. The Sindhu Darshan festival is conducted even now, but with a more secular motive and increased involvement of the local population.

There are several nuggets in Bhattacharjis narrative that would interest even the lay person. Sample this:

The Chinese may be disliked (particularly by the Tibetan refugee community), but they have contributed to Ladakhs development. For instance, it is China that is helping Ladakh to set up a pashmina wool cording plant there.

Chinese goods are openly brought in by civilians. Much of the crockery, linen, jackets, blankets and quilts for sale are made in China.

Cross-border smuggling is carried out with the connivance of government organisations such as the Intelligence Bureau. Some of them are known, according to Bhattacharji, of sending groups of smugglers into China disguised as sources who are supposed to gather intelligence. These caravans of agents have often been apprehended by the Customs, but, more often than not, are let off. Such activity across the border has led to markets mushrooming near the catchment area and catering to the demand for smuggled goods.

But beyond the economic activity and the tourism industry, there is another reality. As the author puts it, Ladakh is not all bounty or beauty. The two million websites on the region hardly dwell on the harsher side but wax eloquent about the regions lakes, landscape and other details that would interest tourists. Many Ladakhis live in economic depravity but put on a brave face and even manage a smile. All it took the author was a 15-km ride out of Leh towards Kargil to witness first-hand entire villages living in penury. People here have obviously not benefited from the improved road connectivity or the introduction of modern methods of cultivation or the opening of banks that provide easy loans. The loans have helped some people to take up non-farming activities such as operating taxis and running guest houses.

Tourists riding camels in Nubra valley, Ladakh. The regions beauty stands tall above all the imperfections created by modern man.-CHANNI ANAND/AP

The regions beauty stands tall above all the imperfections created by modern manwhich is what makes any trip to any part of Ladakh an intensely inspirational and uplifting experience for Bhattacharji. He distils his emotions into his writings in a very poignant and honest manner, which gives the book a distinct flavour. His decades of experience provided the insights and inspiration to write the book.

Take this evocative passage: No photograph can ever prepare one for the magic in the sun and moonlight, endless but colourful sterility, spectacular topographical contrasts, clear streams and muddy waters, frozen lakes, narrow gorges, and vast deserts. Just when one may be getting tired of walking for hours, feeling parched and weary, there will be an unexpected encounter with a rippling brook and perhaps a clump of willows in a meadow that invites rest.

While certain sections of Ladakhi society have seen prosperitythanks to the inflow of domestic and foreign tourists and increased economic activitythere is much inequity. The gap between the Buddhist and Muslim sections of the population is widening by the day, creating disharmony between the two communities.

The seeds of communalism were sown way back in the 1930s when Kashmiri Pandits who converted to Buddhism formed the Ladakh Buddhist Association. But the flashpoint was the three-year boycott of Muslims in 1989 by the majority Buddhist community, which led to riots and deepened the divide. The author alleges that the entire move had the blessings of the BJP. In fact, so communal was the boycott that 338 Christians (0.29 per cent of the population) were also targeted.

Today the Muslims, according to Bhattacharji, feel insecure and are reluctant to invest in business. Fearing communal trouble in Ladakh in the future, most families who can afford it have invested in houses in Kargil. This in a place where there were inter-community marriages in the past! The communal cauldron is simmering although efforts are on to normalise the situation.

The author sees rays of hope amidst the clouds of gloom. Sports such as ice hockey are bringing the two communities together. Even women have managed to break into a sport that was initially seen as a male preserve. In Leh, digital feature films are being produced; love stories and action themes that they dwell on subtly convey the message of communal harmony. Bhattacharjis observation is that the films are getting better by the year, a very encouraging sign.

Manifestations of modernity have also come up the mountainous paths. The book talks about an entrepreneur who created a world record by drilling the highest water well in the world at an altitude of 16,700 feet (5,010 metres) at South Poloon on the way to the Khardunga Pass. Solar power panels dominate the skyline in Leh, which gets its water supply from borewells. Environmentalists have opposed the tapping of groundwater, but with the towns population almost doubling in the past 30 years, such exploration has become inevitable.

However, new Ladakh, with its proliferation of cellphones and direct-to-home (DTH) antennas, is not the one that Bhattacharji so fondly remembers. It was once a land where one could not see a bottle of Coke for months. In fact, there were stretches which seemed completely uninhabited. They still do, but the newly built roads mean much more vehicular movement. Perhaps, the author would like to rest his memories with the vivid colours of the lower reaches of Zojila towards Dras in June when nature is in all its glory with white, pink and yellow anemones and saxifrages, blue iris lilies and other fascinating flora that make one halt in ones tracks and gape in wonderment.

The book is one that can be read and revisited like the land it describes. There is history, geography, culture and, predominantly, the beauty and marvel of a part of India that needs to be discovered.

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