Monday, October 29, 2001

On the roof of India

Ladakh Diary

Nandini Sundar

Himal magazine, October 2001

Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, is just 90 minutes by air from Delhi, but physically and topographically it seems more than a world away. The flight to Leh crosses slender green valleys separated by miles and miles of uninhabitable brown desert mountains. It almost seems as if human life has sprung up autonomously in the valleys, each isolated from the other, for migrations across such terrain seem daunting even to the modern imagination. Yet, tea came from China, and polo from Baltistan. Buddhism went to Tibet and returned, elaborated and transformed, while Western Ladakh borrowed Islam from Central Asia. Caravans of cosmopolitan traders crossed from Central Asia to China, travelling for days and months, through narrow precipitous passes and braving the dangers of night and snow.

How tedious travel must have been, I thought. Yet, when we got off the plane and started driving through the mountains, I realised I would never again be able to think of brown as a boring colour. Each range, each hill is of a different shade—flecked with dark purple, striated by wandering winds, bare rock adorned with little bunches of bright flowers that seem to assert some fine point about survival. Gigantic sand dunes have been planed into smooth patterns, and bleak mountains have been cast up violently by the collision of continental plates. Amidst all these windswept forms are the roads maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, with their cheerful yellow signboards every hundred yards, which bear such cryptic legends like, “Himank cares, where Eagles dare”, “Yes, U R Right. It is Himank at your service” and “Don’t be a Gamma in the land of Lama”, this last being a warning against rash driving.

But for these signs though, it is easy enough to forget the human sweat that goes into the domestication of this overpowering landscape. At Khardung-la, the highest motorable road in the world, where travelers dare not linger because of the lack of oxygen and the cold that gets to your heart, we met a small brown man from Calcutta, his snub-nose barely peeping out from his parka. He had been in Ladakh for the last 10 months, working on maintaining the pass. The majority of the workers here come from Bihar, brought by contractors on year-long stints.

Secular seminarists

I was a gatecrasher in a van-load of people travelling from Leh to Nubra valley to attend a small seminar “National Integration”, as part of a “Baudh Mahots at the village of Diskit. The Jammu and Kash Tourism Department had invited my journalist husband to attend, along with a bunch of other pee from Delhi and Bombay. The invitation had noted the need to discuss national integration was nowh keener than in the extremities of the nation. But by time the idea reached the extremity in question, like a game of Chinese whispers, it had been completely transformed.

At breakfast the next morning, we met a portly man, Diwan, who announced that he was the head the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s International Coordination Division and that both the Baudh Mahots and the seminar were the VHP’s idea (fortunate however, the Kashmir state government insisted drawing up the list of participants). If only one billion Hindus and two billion Buddhists across the world could unite, he said dreamily, how easy it would be “defeat” the rest of the three billion Muslims a Christians. So for a start, the VHP had decided to mobilise the Hindus and Buddhists of India. They had persuaded the Ministry of Tourism in New Delhi, then conveniently headed by an RSS man, Ananth Kumar, to organise Baudh Mahotsavs in Ladakh, Arunachal, Himachal and West Bengal—wherever there were Buddhist populations. The last in the series is to be a grand mahotsav at Sarnath in February 2002.

But what had originally been envisaged as a day-long talking shop was converted by the local tourism officials into a public event, with dance troupes from different villages. They figured that if they had important “national” visitors, the public should get to hear their words of wisdom. But being even wiser themselves, they alloted 10 minutes of time to each speaker so that the dances could be interspersed in between. Even worse for the VHP organisers, the seminarists—journalists, a JNU professor, a Bombay college principal, a couple of trade union activists, a maulana and a filmmaker—all turned out to be rabid secularists who spoke vociferously against the idea of equating India with the notion of “one religion, one culture”. Out there in this extremity, between the Buddhist women from Diskit dancing with gentle waves of their hands and the Muslim men from Turtuk, whose song had all the Lamas in splits, the whole idea of Hindutva would have seemed farfetched and ridiculous anyway. The only concession to the VHP’S vision was the daily dose of North Indian food that was served, despite our loudly expressed desire for stew, thukpa and momos.

The Sangh’s other grand idea—the Sindhu Darshan festival which was first held at a site near Leh, in the middle of the Kargil war in 1999—is remembered by local inhabitants chiefly because regular flights got disrupted by VIP traffic to such an extent that even soldier’s bodies could not be sent home promptly. Young men in a small bakery in Diskit complained that the Sindhu Darshan business was all a ploy to drive out foreign visitors by increasing the number of domestic tourists, which was bad for the local economy.

Although Buddhist-Muslim tensions are evident, and are fanned both by the VHP and the ruling National Conference party, the conflicts are really more about local resources and autonomy from Srinagar, than religion. The conflict over resources surfaces even in seemingly patriotic circumstances. “At first,” said the owner of our guesthouse in Diskit, “we were happy when the Indian army captured five villages from Pakistan. But when these villages started getting all the block development funds, we became resentful.” Konchong Dorji, who attended a special school in Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) exclusively for children from border areas and then dropped out from Delhi University’s Dayal Singh College because he had to help with the family farm, said he had worked as a porter for three months during ‘Kargil’. And he was not alone—each household in the village had contributed a porter during the war. Yet, all the army’s attention was concentrated on developing villages like Turtuk, where 24 suspected militants had been arrested during the Kargil war.

On the other hand, General Arjun Ray, whose idea it was to involve the army in development work, argued that it was precisely those alienated villages, which needed to be wooed. Another army officer added that while patriotism may have had something to do with the population’s willingness to help, the INR 80 per ‘attendance’ paid by the army had much to do with it as well. During the Kargil operations, some porters it seems had made lakhs.

The Army is present everywhere in Ladakh, and not just because of General Ray’s Operation Sadbha­vna. At Nimmu in the Leh valley, we chanced upon two sheepish sardars in army fatigues unloading, from a truck, bags of sugar for sale. Locals say sleeping bags meant for Siachen costing INR 30,000 could once be bought here for one-third that price. On highways, traffic often becomes one way because of army convoys. In some households, the relationship with the army is intimate. One charming old man in Hunder village with a passion for Rani Mukherjee posters, has a son and a son-in-law in the army. His other son is, of course, studying to be a lama and had gone to the Tibetan settlement in Mangalore, way down south in Karnataka.

If General Ray, Commander of the 14th Corps, had his way, the intimacy would be of a higher order. Although Muslims are nearly half the population of Ladakh, they were barely represented in the army before General Ray increased Muslim recruitment to the Ladakh Scouts from 8 percent to 30 percent, and began convincing his staff that there was no such thing as Islamic fundamentalism. Among other things, the army now runs 16 Sadbhavna schools, vocational training centres and health care camps. Having managed to keep militancy out of Ladakh, the general is passionately convinced that this approach is the only solution for the Kashmir Valley too. He told us that the army spends INR 30 million in Siachen every day, while his entire operation had cost only 15 million for the year, and that merely money would not do the trick, “there has to be care and compassion too”.

Lipstick and love marriages

Besides the olive green of the army, monastries are the other dominating presence. The major monasteries have annual festivals, mostly during the winter months when there is little else to do. For the last 10 years, however, the Tourism Department has been organising a “Nubra” festival in September. This year it will be held on a much smaller scale or perhaps not at all, because not only has the department got roped into the Baudh Mahotsav, but also a bus carrying young men from Nubra en route to the Hemis festival crashed down a mountain side, killing all the passengers.

The Baudh Mahotsav in Diskit started, as all such festivals in Ladakh do, with performances in the monastery. After the monks, rich in their maroon robes and yellow scarves, had finished chanting in the hail, facing each other in long sonorous rows, they descended to the courtyard below. Two of them stood in one corner blowing into long trumpets that rested on a wooden stand in front of them, marking the beginning and end of each dance. In one particularly impressive dance, 10 men clad in dark blue robes, blue hats and skulls enacted the story of the monk who had defeated an unjust king by performing a dance in front of him. At the end of the performance, he takes out the bow and arrow concealed in his long sleeves and shoots the king. He then escapes on a dark horse, and as they cross the flyer, the monk flings off his dark robes, while the horse’s paint comes off and becomes white. Children laughed delightedly as ‘another masked dancer, accompanied by two small masked imps, flung sugar rice at them, and two British journalists squabbled as they blocked each other’s camera angle. I also get incidental lessons in local culture. A group of young girls, wearing lipstick and salwar kaineezes, assure me that the days of poiyandry are over, and love marriages are now all the rage in Ladakh.

Once back in Leh we did the usual tourist routes— the monasteries at Hen-us, Thikse and Shey one day, and Alchi, Basgo and Lamayuru the next. Both routes run along the Indus, which is most uninspiring at this time of the year—like grey dishwater or milky tea, depending on the angle. But the monasteries more than made up. Hemis, like the others, is poised at the top of a hill. A long flight of stairs leads from the wooded terrain below up to the monastery. A large open courtyard with two tall flagpoles, now completely empty, frames a mountain in the distance, the wind sings, and the large Buddha in the hall inside is kept company by a monk silently beating a drum. In the open-air restaurant below, a scrawny French man, who is a sound technician back home, served at the tables in exchange for spiritual salvation.

Thikse, by contrast, hummed cheerfully with construction activity and lama industry. At a room off the courtyard, three or four monks stitch silk covers for the holy books kept in the old library at the very top of the gompa. A 14-yeal-old novice, Sonam Angmo, who came all the way from Zanskar to join the Thikse monastery, told me that his day begins at 5.30 am with prayer and breakfast. He attends regular classes, learning subjects like English, Maths and Science. After lunch, they read prayer books, followed by tea and more prayer. By 6.30 they are free to read whatever they want. There is no television, of course, and home visits are allowed once a year. The small ones, who may start as young as seven, are kept with an older monk till they grow into their own. At Thikse, the lamas, most of whom are locals, live in rooms scattered across the hill below the gompa. The head lama is a Member of Parliament. But as our irreverent old drivers, Salamat Au and Sharafat Au, put it, their creased faces grinning from ear to ear, his holiness was not enough to win him votes, and he had to spend money to win elections like everyone else. The monastery gets its money from donations, and from selling grass to the army from the lands it owns.

While Thikse may have more money, Shey, the abandoned palace of the Ladakh kings, has the best views and some of the best frescoes. An aged monk who looks no less than a hundred opens the doors to a 12-metre high blue haired Buddha. Down below, the plush green beetle-velvet fields merge abruptly into desert, and a woman and her son load a small donkey with grass.

The next morning we set off early for Lamayuru— past spectacular wine-red gorges and crater-ridden mud coloured mountains, appropriately signposted “Moonland”. Lamayuru itself perches precariously at the top of a hill, riddled with caves where monks meditate. A hotel in the village plays cheerful Ladakhi music, which lingers in our mind till we return to Leh. The most delightful of all the monasteries, and one of the oldest, is the low-lying Alchi, with a cluster of chortens, and five small whitewashed temples with wooden doors. The frescoes—multiple images of the Buddha—have preserved their rich blues and reds. Next door, from within the monastery tea garden, the aroma of fermenting apricots wafts up. Although guesthouses surround the place and there is no village visible nearby, it does not as yet feel like a tourist trap. Alchi is a place to linger, to regain one’s soul, to lie back in spiritual and mildly alcoholic bliss.

Apple strudel and maths tuition

For a town out in the middle of the Karakoram ranges, where the air is thin and the winters desolately cold, Leh is amazingly cosmopolitan. Although cars traverse Leh’s narrow streets, this is really a city for walking. And if you get lost, you can always ask one of the many pink-cheeked school children on their way to or from school or maths tuition, that tyranny which yokes children across the Subcontinent. The city has several ‘German bakeries’ mostly run by Nepalis, serving delicious cheesecakes and apple strudel. Many of the restaurants serving Tibetan food have waiters from Goa or Bombay—some mournfully biding their time till they can go home. But there’s good money to be made in Leh—an old man shining shoes at the corner claimed he makes INR 10-15,000 per month and even a lakh in a good season. Ram Singh the cobbler has brought three sons and their wives over from Ganganagai in Rajasthan, and they all repair shoes. He has not been home to see his wife for three years but, he said, he could always fly back if there is an emergency.

Many of the shopkeepers are from Kashmir, selling pashmina shawls and Kashmiri carpets. One young Kashiniri said he spends the summer in Ladakh and the winter in Madras, and visits his native valley in between. That is when the security forces harass him and ask where he has been all this time. The gem trade— amber, turquoise, silver and pearls—is controlled largely by Tibetans, who number approximately 10,000 in Leh. If there is any resentment by the locals, it is generally well concealed. Every gompa has a photo of the Dalai Lama, often placed within the palm of the Buddha or given some other pride of place, and he is clearly a revered figure.

Here, in Ladakh the rest of India is referred to as “Down”. On the flight back, I make grandiose plans, frame research projects that will involve spending years in Ladakh, and vow to read whatever 1 can on Ladakhi Buddhism. But like all such projects, they vanish the moment I touch ‘Down.'