The Past, Present & Future of Ladakh

The Place

People tend to over romanticise traditional Ladakh. However, before modern medicines became commonly available, injuries and ailments could take painfully long to heal or even prove to be unnecessarily fatal. With barely adequate production capabilities, local communities would be severely challenged during the years of drought and other natural disasters.

 

AFR_2451.jpg

Still, the people were self-sufficient most of the time. Hectic work during the short summer agricultural season was followed by a long period of a relatively relaxed winter, typically providing scope for heightened family and community interactions. Their livelihood based on agriculture, livestock rearing and trade was in a state of harmony with their environment. There was no wastage and nothing was discarded that was not biodegradable. They had achieved a sustainable mode of life many centuries before that term gained a sense of urgency in modern environmental discourse.

 

AFR_2838.jpg

In more recent times, however, trucks are arriving from the Indian plains bringing in food grains that are made available to the local population at subsidised rates. There is also a large influx of tourists and defense personnel. These changes have led to the chaotic unplanned urban construction in the major settlements at a rapid pace, to cater to the summer rush.

 

AFR_2600.jpg

The new economic opportunities now locally available are taking the Ladhakis away from their former hard working, self-sufficient, cheerful and contended lives. It also creates an unsustainable stress on the local physical environment. To secure the future of Ladakh, informed choices would have to be made by the Ladhakis, rather than an unthinking wholesale adoption of the model of development through rapid urbanization that they are currently engaged in.

The Community

At the core of the Ladhaki way of life was the community. Discourse with the external agencies and influences, whether in the economic, political or the religious domain, was invariably at the level of the local community rather than the individual. Reaching out to the immediate neighbours for organizing family functions, construction of their houses and the management of the elaborate irrigation channels in a spirit of cooperation were the norms. Potential individual conflicts within the community were contained and resolved through the intervention of the community. Individual good was traditionally accepted to be subservient to the good of the community.

 

AFR_2574.jpg

Recent changes are, however, creating ruptures in the fabric of the hitherto harmonious social structure. Young men are increasingly moving to the urban hubs of tourist inflow drawn by the emerging economic opportunities there leaving behind the women folk and their children to take care of the fields and the livestock on their own. The end result is a disrupted family.

 

AFR_2819.jpg

In contact with the ‘outsiders’ in these urban environments the men are exposed to a monetized economy wherein the value of everything is measured by its price. They experience a consumerist culture that measures happiness by the quantum of expense incurred. The new culture celebrates individualism as opposed to their traditional collective aspirations.

 

AFR_2888.jpg

A large dose of self-confidence in their own long held value systems and the local ethos of cooperation would be required by the Ladhakis to adequately deal with such alien influences and avoid being swept off their feet. The time tested cooperative behavior is, perhaps, essential for ensuring a joyous survival in a harsh landscape.

 

The Religion

 

Anthropocentric or the human-centric worldview, taken for granted today, is a relatively new development in the history of human culture. The forces of nature overawed most ancient cultures. Traditional Ladakh too had a deep respect, tinged with an element of fear, for the ferocity of nature that is reflected in their ancient belief system – a belief in the spirits of the mountains, passes, lakes, sky and the earth.

 

Those spirits were considered to be potentially malevolent and, therefore, requiring appeasement usually through the medium of the shaman who could communicate with the diabolical spirits. The shaman was also the medicine man and an oracle. Animism, or the worship of nature, is fundamentally opposed to monotheism. There were simply too many natural forces to deal with, independent of each other.

 

 

AFR_2314.jpg

Buddhism was subsequently adopted by the Ladhakis not at the cost of, but in addition to, their traditional animist worldview. In the Ladhaki mindset, fear of nature got easily morphed into a compassion for all living beings under the influence of Buddhism. Gautam Buddha got elevated to the status of a God with gigantic statues commissioned in his honour.

However, the pantheistic traditional beliefs were not satisfied with Buddha as the sole deity and the numerous Bodhisattvas, or the long line of deities, who had attained Enlightenment but chose to stay on in the world to help others achieve salvation, came into being. Such a composite value system has been the common heritage of the entire region of Tibet and survives today, in a largely unchanged form, in Ladakh.

 

 

AFR_2473.jpg

The Purig region of Ladakh comprising of the Kargil district today, was a part of the general Ladhaki Buddhist culture till the conversion of the majority of its inhabitants to the Shia sect of Islam in the fifteenth century. Polo, a popular sport in Central Asia, was introduced into Ladakh through Kargil but the orthodox Muslims now frown upon its practice.

 

Shared environmental challenges require similar responses and the Ladhaki Muslims today are torn between the allegiance to the locally evolved traditional culture and the modern Muslim orthodoxies whose agenda is set by far off and culturally alien religious centres.

 

 

AFR_2513.jpg

Advertisements

Legend of the Honey’s Boys

 

For its programme called ‘Big Cat Diaries’ the BBC followed the trials and tribulations of three big cat mothers (a lioness, a female leopard and a female cheetah) bringing up their cubs on the wild savannahs of the Masai Mara Conservancy in Kenya. For an emotional engagement with their viewers, names were given to each of the big cat mothers by the filming crew, the female cheetah being named Honey.

 

She had four cubs in that litter, one female and three males. However, lions killed the female cub and only the three brothers remained who were around six months old at the time of the filming of that episode. Lions are known to attack and to kill leopards and cheetahs, as also hyenas, if the opportunity arises in order to reduce competition from other predators, it is believed. To set the record straight, the other predators would be equally willing to kill unprotected lion cubs for the same reason.

 

Cheetahs-1

 

Sometime after the filming had ended, in 2007 one of the cubs had an injury and the Masai Mara Conservancy authorities, through the vet stationed there, decided to treat it and for that purpose found it desirable to sedate the mother to keep her from attacking them. The cub was treated with the mother lying unconscious out in the sun for several hours. She was in distress even after gaining consciousness and died soon after. The anaesthetic dart, it appears, had damaged her liver, though the park officials never put out any statement on the cause of her death although post mortem was done.

 

There was a huge public outcry against the very choice of intervention with creatures living in the wild. My personal opinion is that with shrinking wild habitats and numbers, there is a case for a degree of management of wildlife to help in their continued survival. But management is always with certain objectives. Such management will invariably be from the perspective of the welfare of certain individuals or species and may, even if unintentionally, affect other individuals or life forms in that environment in an adverse manner. The very desirability of selective intervention in a landscape that we do not fully understand remains a contentious issue.

 

Cheetahs-2

 

Though an official version was never put out in the public domain, the park officials felt that the three remaining cubs had a fair chance of survival on their own and decided to let them remain in the wild instead of removing them to a zoo or a breeding facility. It is believed that occasionally food was also provided to them as a supplement, given their lack of experience in independent hunting being around a year old and several months short of their normal age of dispersal. Against the odds, perhaps, all of these three brothers survived and were given the names of M1, M2 and M3.

 

Insecure on being deprived prematurely of their mother’s care, the three brothers stuck close to each other and a strong bond developed between them. Female cheetahs in captivity have been known to form coalitions and even share maternal responsibilities; in the wild they mostly lead a solitary existence unlike lionesses. It is instead the male cheetahs that are often seen in a coalition in the wild. They are usually male litter mates but sometimes unrelated males are also accepted into the coalition. Larger numbers give the coalition a capacity to control extensive territories with the consequent enhancement of their breeding success.

 

Cheetahs-3

 

By the time we saw them in 2010 the Honey’s Boys were around four years of age and a formidable coalition. Unlike solitary cheetahs hunting mostly the relatively smaller Thomson’s gazelle and impala, these three brothers operating together as a well coordinated unit were successfully bringing down much larger prey including the wildebeest, topi and the occasional zebra. They were also able to terrorise and to keep other male cheetahs out of their territory.

 

All good stories, as is often the case in the wilderness, usually have a sad ending. Lions killed M2 in 2011 and then M1 in 2013. The last that we heard of them was in December 2013 when the sole survivor M3, after a successful hunt, was seen calling out to his brother to share the meal. Lost track of him after that. The spotlight had moved on, and only the legend remains. We were fortunate to have seen them in their prime.

With Tigers at Bandhavgarh

Bandhavgarh National Park, with its highest density of tigers in the world, is no undisturbed pristine forest but is, in some ways, an unnatural laboratory. Dense human habitation crowds in right next to its artificial boundary. The high density of tigers makes the weaker and the more adventurous tigers foray into the seemingly attractive cattle lifting escapades, which is a sure recipe for human-animal conflict. That can potentially have disastrous consequences for the local tigers. The forest department does financially compensate for the cattle lost to the tigers but the situation remains tenuous. Poaching of tigers is common.

MDV_1296

A tigress at rest

The high density of these territorial animals also appears to be leading to an unnaturally heightened conflict within the community of the resident tigers as also increased scope of inbreeding. There appear to be no easy solutions to this predicament. However, for the moment, this dry deciduous patch of forest is perhaps the best arena in the world for sighting this elusive predator, to study tiger behaviour and to photograph them.

DSC_0015

The deer can sense that the tigeress is not hunting and therefore stand their ground

Certain tigers of Bandhavgarh, due to their forceful personality, have gained individual recognition in popular perception. Mohan, a white tiger cub, spared death in a hunting expedition in 1951 because of his beautiful appearance, was subsequently used in a successful captive breeding programme and is the sole patriarch of all white tigers in the world today. In more recent times Sita, the grand matriarch of most tigers in Bandhavgarh today, was a favourite with the paparazzi (she even made it to the cover of the National Geographic Magazine) till she disappeared in 1996, possibly killed by poachers.

Picture-418

A tigress drinking water

Sita’s two litters with the handsome dominant male named Banka were followed with another four litters with the ill tempered but powerful Charger, who gained dominance over the tala zone from 1991 onwards at the expense of Banka. Charger was notorious for having attacked an elephant carrying tourists and would charge at jeeps but never harmed any human being. Meeting his nemesis in 2000 at the hands of his son B 2 (through his daughter Mohini), his mortal remains lie buried at the Charger Point within the park.

DSC_0074

The shy and aggressive male cub of the Jhurjhura tigress Durga

During our visit to Bandhavgarh in the summer of 2009, the confident and self assured Jhurjhura tigress, named Durga, was frequently sighted along with her three juvenile cubs who were around 20 months old then. We had some memorable encounters with the family.

DSC_0233

Durga’s male cub agitated by our presence

On one occasion we found the family moving from a waterhole to the site of what remained of their kill. As the family neared our vehicle (and dozens of other vehicles bunched together) the male cub got agitated and growling away he thrashed around in the vegetation and angrily took a long semi circle behind our vehicle to avoid us.

DSC_0247

The Jhurjhura female Durga unconcerned about the tourist nuisance

The mother, in all the surrounding commotion, remained an embodiment of calmness. Unconcerned, she authoritatively crossed the forest road immediately in front of our vehicle. Then it noticed that its cubs, out of nervousness, were holding back and she stopped and emitted a low comforting growl which encouraged the two female cubs to also rush across the forest road to join her.

DSC_0253

…… but she has to stop because of the nervousness felt by her cubs following her

The three of them briefly rubbed their heads together for self-assurance that everything was all right and then carried on, joined by the agitated brother by now, across the grassland to the location of their kill. The incident was perhaps a little disturbing for the tigers but it certainly contained all the ingredients of a magical moment for us.

DSC_0094

Jhurjhura female Durga accompanies her nervous cub away from the tourist vehicles

In the summer of 2009 there were as many as three male tigers in the tourist zone of tala in Bandhavgarh. The erstwhile dominant male B 2, who had around a decade back, violently taken over the territory from his legendry father, Charger, was already growing old and was being increasingly challenged by two new entrants into his area – his own son Bamera, born through the Chakradhara female and Bokha, so called, because his upper right canine was missing.

DSC_0287

Bamera at rest, confident in his own prowess (2009)

B 2 was apparently not present in the neighbourhood at the time of our visit. We did see, though from a considerable distance, Bokha mating with the Jhurjhura female Durga, with the cubs also hanging around. The elephant mahavats located the Bamera male who had been named Sashi, and yes, he certainly was a magnificent young tiger. Later on we learnt that Sashi (Bamera) had successfully established his sole dominance over that prized area and that both Bokha and B 2 lost their territory and their lives. Change of guard in the tiger world is usually traumatic.

DSC_0302

Bamera (Sashi) patrolling his territory (2009)

Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and our second visit to Bandhavgarh. A quick appraisal of the local situation brought to us both dramatic developments since our last visit as also tragic news. The Jhurjhura female Durga had died, having been fatally hit by a vehicle. Culprits had not been nabbed till date. Justice had been compromised because of a combination of denial and complicity.

DSC_0018

Bamera (Sashi) patrolling his territory (2013)

Fortunately, Durga’s three cubs appear to be all right. The male continues to have an ‘attitude’ issue. He was being called Bhagora (the one who bolts), which is what he did at the very sight of tourists and their vehicles. He has, though, not been sighted for about a year having been pushed out by a stronger male named Jobhi. One of the female cubs has settled down in the same Rajbehra area and is now known as Jaya. The other daughter is Kankati, who has gained notoriety for indulging in cannibalism.

MDV_1036

Kankati, having her evening drink, incognito

In 2013, a tigress, in the Banbehi area known as Wakeeta, was frequently seen in the tala area. She had three young cubs to whom she was calling out when we first saw her but, unfortunately, the cubs were too young for her to bring them out often. We could not sight them.

MDV_0810

Banbehi tigress Wakeeta trying to locate her young cubs

Banbehi a.k.a. Wakeeta’s two grown up cubs from the earlier litter – a male and a female – were also around and she appeared to be impatient with their continued presence. She had her next litter to take care of but the grown up cubs had still not managed to carve out separate territories of their own.

MDV_1024

Wakeeta’s male cub seeking out his father

On one occasion we saw the nuisance value of the male cub. Towards evening he was seen approaching a cave where his father Sashi was resting. He was enthusiastic about meeting his father but almost as fast he had to beat a hasty retreat in the face of his father’s angry hiss. Dominant males tolerate their cubs but still prefer to be on their own.

MDV_1229

Wakeeta’s female cub stalking

We saw the semi adult female cub of Wakeeta also. She appeared to be stalking some prey but we could not locate the target of her exertions. She soon enough gave up, whatever she was up to, and decided to rest in the grass till the sun became unbearable.

MDV_1264

……..  stalk given up but not the focus

The tigress, Kankati, was also active in the tala area with her three juvenile cubs. The name Kankati was on account of the upper part of her right ear being cut off. She had been given another name of Vijaya (or Victor, in Hindi) because she had killed and partly eaten another tigress, Lakshmi, in a territorial conflict and being victorious in that conflict had been given the name Vijaya. In the fight with Lakshmi she also had lost an eye but appears to be managing to survive, and to take care of her cubs, in spite of her handicap.

MDV_1045

Kankati : The upper section of her far ear is cut off

Of the three cubs of Vijaya (Kankati), one had recently been found dead and the prime suspect for that killing was a new male who appeared to be aggressively intruding into the area. We were not able to locate or to identify this new male challenger but the forest guides claimed that he was Langdi’s Bacha. Langdi (lame) is another name for Lakshmi, the tigress who was killed by Vijaya. She had got that name because of an injury to her hind leg while crossing the chain link fence on one of her nefarious excursions in cattle lifting from outside the park. Perhaps the guides found this story line emotionally satisfying that the worthy son had come back for revenge against his mother’s assassin.

MDV_1042

The two remaining cubs of Vijaya after tragedy struck the family

We may not know enough about a tiger’s psychology to give a definite answer on the ‘revenge motive’. My own understanding is that the new male (whether he is the son of Lakshmi a.k.a. Langdi, or not) is only looking to establish his own genetic imprint on the future tiger population of tala by attempting exclusive access to all the female tigers in the area. Satyendra Tiwari of Skayscamp informs me that this is Indrani’s son and has been named Rahasya (Mystery, in Hindi).

MDV_0922

Sashi continues to patrol his territory

The new male Rahasya is tentatively testing the strength of the resident dominant male, Sashi (Bamera), who is ageing. The two of them appear to have already had a few skirmishes, and Sashi came off worse, needing medical assistance from the forest department personnel for his injuries. A conclusive battle seems to be on the cards and the odds favour the challenger.

BRD_3342

Flehmen gesture by Sashi (Bamera)

On the 3rd. of June, 2013 some tourists heard menacing growls in the bushes and saw Vijaya’s cub rushing out as if the devil was on its tail. Moments later, the new male followed, at a more relaxed pace. My conjecture is that the new male would have been wanting to mate with Vijaya but was not comfortable with the presence of the cub, trying to hang around its mother, after the traumatic loss of its sibling. Aggression towards the cub was possibly resisted by Vijaya intervening. That would explain the commotion of growls between the new male and the protective mother, Vijaya.

MDV_1121

Sashi is not only scent marking his territory but also smelling for intruders

Poor Sashi (sad to use such an adjective for a magnificent tiger but, unfortunately, the ageing process in life is cruel) is in the meantime desperately scent marking his territory in an assertion of his continued control.

MDV_1126

Assertion of control over his territory by Sashi

During the June 2013 visit we had several encounters with Sashi. On one poignant occasion we found him scent marking the caves (carved out by hermits, possibly, in some bygone era, and now, a part of the tiger’s domain).  The setting was perfect. Total control over his environment, being reiterated by, the dominant male tiger of the area.

MDV_1147

Bamera a.k.a. Sashi : A Portrait

In that glorious scenery, unfortunately, we could not help feeling a tinge of sadness. The continuity of Sashi’s reign (and, in the world of the tiger, his life too) hung in balance. The park would soon close down for the monsoon. Would he still be around once the park reopens ? Would he still be the monarch of all he surveys ? Sadly, time and tide wait for no man, or tiger. But then, here and now, Sashi is a beautiful specimen of a species threatened with extinction.

Let us savour the moment.

The Lure of Gold in India

“The quantum of gold import is a clear indication that a large section of the community wants investment in a dead asset only with the expectation that the value would appreciate. Time is ripe to motivate our educated upper middle class to climb from saving mode to wealth generation mode. My request to financial analysts and other experts and leaders in this field is to ensure that we can create confidence in the market, spread financial literacy and merit of investment.”

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji speaking in June, 2012

The Hon’ble Finance Minister was echoing the sentiments of the official establishment and the mainstream economists who have always been critical of the India’s age-old love for gold. The immediate provocation was the release of figures for FY 2011-12 that showed an alarming increase of current account deficit (excess of total imports over exports) to 4.2% of the GDP and the primary culprit identified was gold imports that had grown more than 40% over the earlier year to cross Rs. 3 lakh crores, keeping the gold import bill well ensconced at second place, with only the import bill for petroleum products being higher.

The mainstream economists dislike gold for several other reasons. It is considered to be a non productive asset in the sense that unlike share purchase or bank deposit that are used by the recipient to finance further economic activity, gold is either worn as an ornament, or else is kept usually in a locker for safety. Jewellery, or even coins or bars purchased as investment, are certainly the end product of an economic activity comprising of their manufacture and sale. But with the act of purchase by the customer, though very much visible as adornments in marriage and other functions, they go out of circulation as far as the economic field is concerned.

Another cause of antipathy of the official machinery for investment in gold is that purchase and sale is mostly in cash leading to avoidance of state duties by the seller and hoarding of black money in the form of gold by the buyer. Efforts to dissuade investment in gold by the Government by imposing higher duties and restriction of free trade in gold has invariably resulted in price differential between the gold legally available in the country and that provided by the parallel economy run by smugglers and hawala racketeers. Giving such characters the space to operate is obviously not in national interest. It is also a historical fact that gold control has never worked.

India imported around a thousand tonnes of gold in FY 2011-12, which is the highest in the world and accounts for a third of the total global demand for gold. During the same period the total domestic production of gold was a mere two tonnes. No one knows how much gold is available today with Indian households but reliable estimates place it in excess of 18,000 tonnes. Domestic production has always been meager. It certainly is intriguing that as much as ten percent of the total global stock of over ground gold has, over time, found its way to the Indian households. The reason was a favourable balance of payments situation through most of Indian history. With exports being more than imports, the surplus found its way into the country, in the coveted form of gold.

To comprehend the Indian fascination for gold, relevant indicators could be the fact that Sanskrit has numerous words for gold such as swarna, kanak, and kanchan while the ancient scriptures, statues and paintings demonstrate elaborate jewellery regularly worn by women and also the men. During the Mughal rule, large estates reverted back to the state on the demise of the principal and legal heirs could request inheritance only on payment of dues to the state and, possibly, bribes to the concerned officials. This encouraged conversion of assets into more discreet forms such as gold, silver and precious stones, which could be conveniently kept out of sight of the officials.

Gold, till date, is considered an excellent store of value, being relatively compact in volume, a status symbol and a hedge against inflation and, quite liquid in the sense that it can be exchanged for money easily. Even for the not so well to do, it can be worn on person, ensuring safety from theft, can be carried easily when fleeing from distress and can be converted into money or other assets whenever required. Girls, not being customarily entitled to a share in parental assets, get their portion by way of dowry, which contributes to their future financial security.

Unlike the developed world India does not have social security systems of free education, access to health care and old age pensions. It does have, at thirty percent, one of the highest rates of savings in the world and a third of that is estimated to go into investment in gold. Besides the status symbol of wearing heavy jewellery, gold ornaments have in India always been considered as an investment for tiding over potential financial calamities. The concept of insurance for financially securing the future is an integral component of the investment in gold and, with gold prices keeping pace with inflation, the quantum set aside in gold remains intact unlike other currency denominated financial assets.

Policy ought to work with the given parameters rather than attempt to reinvent a new Indian. Barriers to free trade in gold are best avoided, as it would only push the market to the undesirable parallel economy. Investment in electronic gold through exchange traded funds could be encouraged so that both the sale and purchase are accounted for while retaining the multiple advantages of investment in gold. The negative balance of payments is a problem for the country and can be countered by weaning the population gradually away from gold. For the illiterate poor, access to financial assets may be made simpler with minimal paper work and without the onerous KYC norms prevalent today. Returns from alternate financial assets must be assured, possibly through sovereign guarantee, and the quantum of return must be adequate to counter inflation. Viable alternate avenues for investment must be offered that can compete with gold instead of recourse to the insensitive official diktat.

VI – Ladakh Chronicles – Experience of Travelling in Ladakh

It is possible to reach Ladakh by air from Delhi or Srinagar and within Ladakh there is a decent network of roads through the summer months, painstakingly maintained by the Army’s Border Roads Organisation.

Road repair in progress near Khardung la pass

The most comfortable option of travelling around is in a hired SUV though, one has to keep in mind, that taxis registered in Leh or Kargil are permitted to operate only within their respective areas other than point-to-point dropping. No such restrictions are there for private vehicles.

Cyclist on his way down from Khardung la pass

More adventurous ways of getting around are by motorcycles (Royal Enfield Bullets, almost exclusively), bicycle (popular in the Leh-Khardungla circuit), kayaks and Gemini boats (popular in the  Zanskar area) and trekking.

Rafting and kayaking on the Zanskar river

Leh alone has some fancy options for stay and in most other places the hotels are fairly basic, though usually neat and clean. Outlying areas such as Pangong Lake or Turtuk may have only tented accommodation.

Hotel De Zojila at Kargil

North Indian food, with some western continental inputs, is normally served in the hotels while Maggi noodles and soup are common on the roadside. We did not trust the local water and depended entirely on packaged bottled water. Incidentally, though generally cold, the consumption of water is fairly high because of the dryness of the atmosphere and care is recommended for proper disposal of empty bottles.

Me emerging from another round of photography

Altitude sickness can be an issue if one flies into Leh from the plains. Though Leh is more than 11,000 feet above the sea level, the shortage of oxygen is more pronounced because of the general lack of vegetation. We preferred to drive in from Srinagar giving our bodies enough time to acclimatise.

My wife, Iti in the snow at Khardung la

The road from Manali takes similar time but is a little rougher. We kept our visit to the Pangong lake towards the end of our trip as it is more than 14,000 feet high. The Nubra valley, being mostly less than 10,000 feet above MSL was placed earlier in our itinerary.

My wife and our two sons

The generally clear skies coupled with the pollution free air means that the sun is bright and the ultraviolet rays can do some serious damage to the skin.

My wife Iti breaking icicles

……….and then playing with the ice swords

I got severely sun burnt at the Khardung la pass because the snow clad surroundings and the bitter cold sent me seeking the warmth of the sunlight without realising that even in that environment sun burn is common. My wife was wiser – seeking shade wherever possible, covering her face with a shawl, wearing sunglasses and regularly applying sun block cream.

Staying on the shore of the Pangong Lake with the strong wind flapping the sides of the tent we were made acutely aware of the harshness of the Ladakh landscape and the modest nature of the infrastructure available. However, adequately prepared, travelling around Ladakh can be a wonderful enriching experience. I have no doubt in my mind that Ladakh certainly is the Mecca for landscape photography.

Sunrise over Leh

V – Ladakh Chronicles : A Photographic Journey : Monasteries

Namgyal Tsemo Monastery above Leh

Likir Monastery near Leh

Shergol Monastery across the Wakha river on the Kargil – Leh highway

Diskit Monastery in the Nubra Valley

Lamayuru Monastery

Basgo Monastery and Palace complex

Chemrey Monastery near Leh

Thiksey Monastery near Leh

Stupas have been a part of the traditional Indian Buddhism as repository of the mortal remains of Buddha. In Ladakh, construction of stupa is an act of piety. Both large elaborate ornate stupas have been constructed as well as more modest structures, and at the lowest level are the pile of stones and flat pebbles that reiterate the builder’s belief in the religion.

Row of magnificent stupas near Leh

Small stupa or Chorten near Basgo

Another revered concept in Ladakh Buddhism is Bodhisatva, an enlightened soul capable of Nirvana but opting to stay back in the world in order to help others on the path to Buddhahood. Many monasteries also have a figure of Maitreya Buddha outside and facing the Gompa. This version of Buddha is the future Buddha who the scriptures predict will come back for the salvation of mankind, once the teachings of Buddha have been forgotten.

Maitreya Buddha statue outside Diskit Monastery

IV – Ladakh Chronicles : A Photographic Journey : Ladakhi Buddhism

The organization of Lamayuru village

The physical organisation of the villages is typically agricultural fields in the relatively flat lands next to the local stream, with houses clambering up the slope and the whole settlement culminating in a monastery perched on a crag overlooking the whole community.

Lamas watching the dance drama at Hemis

Lamas, or monks, looking after the monastery function, as astrologers decide the appropriate dates for sowing, harvesting or commencing a long journey, preside over functions associated with birth, death or marriage and, in general, ensure the spiritual well being of the community.

Almost every family contributes a son or a daughter to the religious order who, thereafter, becomes a monk or a nun, leads a life of celibacy and spiritual training pursued, often, in the earlier days, at religious centres in Tibet.

Kids will be kids even if they are monks ! Cricket involving one bowler and three batsmen

The celibate religious order taking away almost a tenth of the population, combined with, a loosely practised polyandry, whereby only one son or daughter, in any particular generation got married served to prevent division of agricultural land into economically unviable units and also managed to keep the population in check and in tune with the low carrying capacity of the resources of the region.

Festival held in the courtyard of Hemis Monastery

During the winter months, when the agricultural operations are at a standstill, most monasteries have their own two day festival based on specific dates of the Tibetan calendar. Hemis, near Leh and one of the richest monasteries, modified this and holds its festival in summer and has, accordingly, become famous with the tourists. Some other monasteries appear to be following suit.

Performers with their masks still on resting in between their dance

These festivals, where typically monks attired in rich brocade gowns and fearful masks enact an elaborate dance drama; narrating the age-old story of the victory of good over evil.

 

The symbolism, typical of the tantrik version of Vajrayana Buddhism practised in Ladakh, has made the actual story secondary to the stylised rythmic movements to the accompaniment of the droning sound of chanting of hymns, drums, cymbals and long horns.

 

The vestiges of the pre-Buddhist shamanistic Bon faith make their appearance as grotesque masks worn by the performers, leading the early Western explorers to describe these festival as ‘devil dances’.