The printed word in Ladakh

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Thick volumes of Buddhist treatises printed on loose rectangular pages wrapped in muslin with nicely carved wooden covers held together by straps. These were the only ready source of reading material available in Ladakh in the past. The hundreds and thousands of these block printed centuries-old treatises on Buddhism, carefully shelved in monasteries and houses are a testimony to the knowledge of printing the Ladakhi people had over the ages.

Historians believe that block printing dates back to as early as 14th century, when for the first time scriptures in Tibet and Ladakh came in print. On rare occasions, as duing Chosil, these scriptures are taken out of the shelves when monks and laymen flip through the texts reading aloud to gain merit, a customary practice followed even today in Ladakh.
However, other than sacred books or sometimes chronological description about origin of a monastery (Chagrabs) it is hard to trace any other form of publication that existed in the past. Tashi Rabgais, a renowned scholar and historian of Ladakh, says, “I was able to write the history book Kunsel Melong because of democracy,” also indicting that such an opportunity was hard to come by during the pre-independence era of monarchy.

During the recent decades, institutions and organisations in Leh have brought out numerous journals and reports for the reading public. And the scope of writing and publishing has broadened out. Yet this reading material stops short of addressing issues affecting people and is not a forum for debate on any aspect of society. Perhaps this is the reason that while many of these publications are devoted to special fields such as Buddhist philosophy, history, art, narrative accounts of monasteries, descriptions about the greatness of a past figure in literature, art or religion, they do not capture the imagination of the people. Very often after the first issue, the initial interest of the reading public wanes. Obviously such a conservative approach to writing upheld by most publications does not provide answers to the reading public.

The older generations still pick up a scripture when it comes to reading, a habit that perhaps stems from the limited or apparently restricted publication in the past. “I look for my daily prayer book when I feel like reading something,” says 65-year-old Tsering Dolker. The post Independence era in Ladakh saw many educated locals coming forward to write books, poetry or even novels moving beyond religious themes on a wide range of subjects. Most of them received institutional support in their efforts. 

The J&K Academy of Culture, Art and Languages and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS) allocates special funds for literary works and has published many books and journals over the last 50 years.

The Department of Information and All India Radio too gives opportunities to many aspiring writers and poets. Tashi Rabgias, author of several literary works and the ‘History of Ladakh’ (Kunsel Melong) in local language has served in the Department of Information as the editor of Yargyas Kongphel newsmagazine. Another illustrious figure, Tsewang Toldan who wrote Doongs Choong Choong, first fiction written in Ladakhi language was an All India Radio newsreader in Leh.

More journals 

Still the repertoire is vast for the reader with special interest in any of these subjects. The annual journal called Sheraza by J&K Cultural Academy, Leh, Voice of Himalaya by Ladakh Cultural Forum, Nangpa by Ladakh Buddhist Association, Ladags Ngada by Ladakh Gonpa Association, Ladakh Journal by Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS) Leh, and more recently Senghe Khababs by Ladakh Culture Centre are among the prominent series of journals apart from books and other publications these institutes or organisations regularly bring out.

While many of these publications have the potential to highlight particular aspects of society, they somehow remain confined to a passive role. For instance, the recently published issue of Ladags Ngada of Ladakh Gonpa Society highlights achievements of the incumbent executive bodies at different times. It, however, does not approach the subject in an analytical way and leaves the reader without an objective view so required in any journalistic piece. 

There is also an element of glorification of past traditions which finds its way into published works in Ladakh. The Voice of Himalaya by Ladakh Cultural Forum has articles mostly on rich traditions passed down from ancestors and each writer tends to eulogise the subject to greater heights. Similarly, Ladakh Culture Centre’s Singhe Khababs magazine started recently with an aim to promote Bhoti, a local language also reflects this excessive involvement with past glorious traditions.

Despite a rich repository of religious texts and other fields of knowledge being brought out by modern publications, Ladakh still holds back in confronting issues, expressing  independent opinions on issues and creating a space for dialogue and debate. When it comes to overcoming the barrier which keeps its publishing world and its readers confined to select spheres, Ladakh has not yet been able to make that quantum leap.

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