Paradise lost?

Paradise lost?

It is 5:45 am. A handful of visitors are waiting with bated breath for the sun to rise from the majestic desert mountain which spreads across the horizon like a colossus. In the foreground, the crystal clear waters of Pangong lake are swathed in an incredible blue. The cold wind caressing the cheeks is a constant reminder of sub-zero temperature. And slowly the magic begins…

Later in the day, Nima drives us through rugged roads and uneven terrains of Ladakh. “We are hill people. We love nature. We are happy people. We love tourists who come from far-off places,” says the young man who is our friend, philosopher and guide for a full week in the desert mountains. Negotiating bumpy and treacherous routes with ease and finesse, he also provides us with lively anecdotes and insights into the simple lives of ‘Ladakhis’ (who are isolated from the rest of the world for almost six months in a year).

Slow life of the Ladakhis. 

While going through the delightful desert mountains, deep blue waters, and colourful Tibetan monasteries, one recognises the ominous signs as well. Oxygen levels are low and can go down further drastically and without forewarning. A few unfortunate visitors go into a dizzy in minutes in the hills; some may need medical attention for acute breathlessness. One is comforted to see that help is almost always at hand to take care of the stricken. Army tents and check posts at regular intervals offer free check-ups and medicines. Most importantly, expert drivers like Nima know how to handle even the most challenging of situations.

Gratitude is the norm 

Besides nature’s bounty, it’s the smiling Ladakhis in their simple ways that strike a chord with the tourist. “In Ladakh, I have known a society in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a society in which crime is virtually non-existent, communities are healthy and strong, and a teenage boy is never embarrassed to be gentle and affectionate with his mother or grandmother,” observed Swedish writer and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge, way back in 1991 in her oft-quoted book, Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World. “Ladakh can help to show the way, by giving us a deeper understanding of the interrelated forces that are shaping our society.”

Helena goes on to describe how the Ladakhis’ relationship with others and their surroundings, have helped nurture a sense of inner calm and contentedness; how their religion has reminded them that one can be healthy, warm, comfortable, and well fed; and how contentment comes from feeling and understanding oneself to be part of the flow of life, relaxing and moving with it.

She also finds it gratifying that despite being in the midst of “the fiercest of climates (where) winds whip up tornadoes along the empty corridors of desert; and rain is so rare that it is easy to forget its very existence,”

 Ladakhis remain active until the day they die; are not prone to aggression of any sort; and disagreements, if any, are mild and sorted out easily.

All’s not well

While rejoicing the all-pervading human spirit, Helena also warns her readers about undesirable changes sweeping the region over time. “When I first arrived in Leh (in the 1970s), the capital of 5,000 inhabitants, cows were the most likely cause of congestion and the air was crystal clear,” she recalled in a published interview. “Within five minutes’ walk in any direction from the town centre were barley fields, dotted with large farmhouses. For the next 20 years, I watched Leh turn into an urban sprawl. The streets became choked with traffic, and the air tasted of diesel fumes. The once pristine streams became polluted, the water undrinkable. For the first time, there were homeless people. The increased economic pressures led to unemployment and competition. Within a few years, friction between different communities appeared. All of these things had not existed for the previous 500 years.”

An army post amongst the hills in Ladakh. 

Nima and others we came across also seem concerned. They recall that even 10 years ago, there were not many tourists coming in; and most of those who arrived were foreigners for whom Ladakh meant a courageous trek or an adventurous motorbike ride in the hills. “Today it has become a virtual hot spot for tourists who come from every part of the country during the season, crowding the place and occupying every single room in the hotels and guest homes.” Is it good or bad? “Both,” they smile. “Good, because we get to meet so many people; help them drive around and also make some money in a few months which helps us survive during the off-season. Not very good, because things are changing with so many tourists coming in. Our lifestyles are also changing and we are not sure it if it is good for us and our land. But then, that is life, isn’t it? We have to accept what comes our way.”

A pristine Buddhist thought indeed, and a summation of the law of impermanence.


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