The quantum of water was much higher in Ladakh millions of years ago till the rising Himalayas shut out the monsoon bearings winds. The generally barren landscape today seems, at first glance, incapable of supporting any biological life.


Mountains near Likir Monastery

The short summer, varying in its length based on altitude and other factors, generally extends for four to five months from May to September in Ladakh.

Mountain peak near Khardungla pass

The bright sun in this season causes the snow in the higher reaches to melt, sending trickles of water down the slopes, aggregating into cascades and, finally, coming together, along with the Punjab tributaries, as the mighty Indus.


A mountain Stream near Turtuk

Confluence of Zanskar (bottom) and Indus (top) rivers

The seasonally available water cuts grooves in this barren and bleak landscape to create tiny micro niches capable of supporting hardy plant life consisting of creepers and sparse bushes.

In the following image domestic sheep, precariously perched on the arid slopes, can be seen grazing, utilising the scarce resources of such seasonal highland pastures.

Following the animals into this bleak landscape were the Chang pa herders of the high altitude Changthang plateau to the east of Ladakh where they roam the winter months across the high pastures with their tents tending to their herds of sheep and goat.

Pangong Range, east of which stretches the Changthang plateau

But larger human presence required a more reliable source of food, which agriculture provided. Agriculture, itself is possible in the river valleys, where a single crop of barley, peas, mustard and pulses is normally grown during the short summer season.

Sakti village on the way to Chang la pass

It is only in the lower Indus valley, such as the Suru valley near Kargil that the warmer climate and the relatively longer summer permits cultivation of wheat, a two crop agricultural season as well as plantations of apricot.

Kargil town

On the other hand, in the high plateau near Tso Moriri in southeast Ladakh even the single crop may at times have to be harvested prematurely for animal feed to save the crop from the advancing winter frost.

Similarly, agriculture is also possible in the fan like deltas of the streams higher up in the side valleys as also on the elevated plateaus above the river bed such as those seen at Turtuk.

Setti village in Nubra valley

All agriculture in Ladakh has been enabled by a low technology but sophisticated irrigation system which harnesses the summer snow melt through an intricate network of channels to bring the water to the crops and the houses.

Agricultural fields of Turtuk

The Baltis have especially been sought after as engineers to harness water from several kilometers away through rock and mud lined channels following the contours of the landscape. Ingenuous mechanisms of field preparation, irrigation, weeding and usage of animal dung as manure have made some of the Ladakhi fields enormously productive.

Part of Leh town

Other than the two towns of Leh and Kargil, the rest of the 2.5 lakh population is spread out over large and small villages dependent on the carrying capacity of their respective agricultural fields.

The village of Diskit in Nubra valley

Almost every household has some heads of livestock consisting of cows, goat, sheep, donkey, yak and dzo, the last being a cross between a yak and a cow. These provide the wool, dairy products, meat as well as being draught animals for carrying loads across the uneven terrain as also for ploughing of the fields.

Ladakh, geographically, was at the cross roads of a flourishing barter trade network between the Punjab to the south, Kashmir to the West, Tibet to the east and to the north, across the Karakoram pass, Yarkand, which lay in the south east corner of the fabled Silk Route.

The barter was primarily of surplus agricultural produce exchanged for items not available locally such as salt and tea and of luxury goods including silk, pashmina wool, gems and narcotics. This trade had a significant contribution to the local economy by creating a market for draught animals, porters and hospitality services to the caravans moving across.

Camel calf with remnants of its winter coat

However, recent political developments have led to a closure of the trade routes across Pakistan occupied territories in 1947 and the Chinese occupied territories in the mid sixties. The economic loss has, however, been compensated, to an extent, by opening of Ladakh to domestic and international tourists from the mid seventies. Large presence of the Indian army personnel and the influx of tourists in the summer months have created new avenues of economic opportunities in the present day Ladakh.

An interesting episode of the trading links was the import of double humped Bactrian camels, which were used as draught animals in Central Asia. A small number survive today in the Nubra valley around the village of Hunder. Most of them run feral, living on the sand dunes and feeding on sea buckthorn bushes while some are employed by the locals for providing  joy rides to the tourists.

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