The sky closes in, as blue grey clouds swirl down the mountain side. As we stand below, going up at the closed high walls of the monas¬tery at Hemis, snowflakes dapple the air, van¬ishing on touch like thoughts at random, like a whispered prayer. In the sudden fall of darkness on a late May morning is the unmistakable breath of ice. The path leading up to the monas¬tery winds past the limewashed houses of Hemis, the windows blind and staring, silence within. The entire village is verily quiet as if in the clutch of ghosts.
A sharp wind accompanied us all the way up to the monastery. Bordering the houses, rosebushes grew wild, emptied of blossom by an early gust of spring. As we entered the open courtyard, the billowing silk of the clouds whipped off the sky, as if by some unseen hand, to reveal the drama of this ancient, imposing facade. Hemis is no ordinary mon-astery, towering above all others in Ladakh area. Built in 1630 A.D. by Sengge Namgyal, a great patron of Buddhism from the powerful Namgyal dynasty that once ruled over Ladakh, the verandas of the main temple are emblazoned with richly intricate frecoes that illustrate concepts like the Buddhist wheel of life or Kalachakra.
The splendour of the monastery is celebrated in the autumnal “Song of Hemis.”
“In the midst of the brown trees, Stands a gompa like an ornament of gold,” But the trees around Hemis are a bright sap green now and* for the villagers of Hemis, this is the colour of hard labour. For in the brief growing season that barely spans four months, the people of Ladakh have to drive the earth with all available energy to produce the crops that will keep them alive for the rest of the year. The Ladakhis have remarkable traditional expertise in using snowfed streams to water as large an area as is possible through intricate channels that are designed for the most efficient use of the principle of gravity. The land in its brief and wild tryst with summer is soon emerald with crops of barley, buckwheat and peas.
. Each Ladakhi family grows its own food, tends its own livestock, weaves and makes the clothes required and builds the large comfortable homesteads that are characteristic of rural Ladakh. But this severely self-sufficient lifestyle is shot through with the threads of a strong and enduring sense of community. The industrious Ladakh society uses community links to supplement and strengthen family efforts to raise productivity in an environment that is arid, hostile and frozen for the major part of the year.
All the members of a family are out working the fields. The livestock comprising horses, yak, cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys are sent up to graze on the high grasslands above while fodder is also cut and stored for the long winter ahead. Families work together on the basis of reciprocal exchanges of labour. Sometimes work is paid for in terms of butter or grain.
The agro-pastoral society of Ladakh uses 17 per cent of the total cropped area of 10,000 hectares for the cultivation of fodder. The total cropped area which sustains over one lakh people of the district, accounts for just over 2 per cent of its total land area. Land holdings tend to be small, ranging between one and three hectares. According to Helena Norber-Hodge, an expert on the culture of Ladakh, no family aspires to own more land than it can work, a testimony to the lack of greed among the Ladakhis which Hodge claims is the secret of their contentment.
Ladakh was virtually sealed off by its physical inacces-sibility until the 1970s. The opening up of this last Shangrila to tourism had many observers of Ladakh, Hodge foremost among them, lamenting the loss of a society for which sustainability has been a religious, cultural, social and eco¬nomic reality. Rather like the hand that shields the flickering flame of the candle, much of the development intervention in Ladakh is built around raising xenophobic attitudes among the people in order to salvage local culture. Western culture is derided through caricaturing both those who are native to it and Ladakhis who have gone astray under its evil influ¬ence. Although not explicity targetted, the corrupting influ¬ence of mainland India through the Hindi film is also clubbed along with the undesirable West.
Twice removed from west¬ern culture and perhaps perceived as being twice as danger¬ous, the Hindi film is clearly seen as a dreaded enemy of locally sustainable values.
Ladakh in a sense still remains lost to the world. Only a quarter of Ladakh’s population is literate. There is no news¬paper culture for no newspapers are published here. Yet the grapevine in Leh town is as intricate as it is efficient. As the locals put it, “If someone slips and falls on this street, there will be laughter on the next.”
Most of Ladakh is rural in character with over 87 per cent of its people living in villages. Some villages like Zinchen are no more than a couple of houses by a clear icy mountain stream shaded by willows, poplars, apricot and walnut trees.
Tashi Wangyal, 62, lives in one of them. He and his younger brother are married to the same woman. Putith Palzom, now 55, who has brone them seven children. Poly¬andry was fairly universal in Ladakh until recently. However times have changed and Wangyal’s daughters are in mo¬nogamous marriages. Interestingly, the male-female sex-ratio in the district shows far fewer women as compared to men at 886 women per 1000 men (1991-92) as compared with the rather adverse all India average of 927 women per 1000 men.
According to Tashi Rabgyas, one of Ladakh’s leading scholars, the opening up of Ladakh has caused local cus toms to dissolve in the face of cultural influences inimical to its own. Rabgyas regretes the decline of polyandrous mar¬riages. He calls it “sensible practice which not only kept the population at sustainable levels but also increased the sur¬vival chances of a family unit in the harsh climatic conditions of this region.”
In their dark smoke-filled kitchen, Putith Palzomstokes the fire. Her matted grey hair and lined face do not dim tho sunshine of her smile. She has visitors in her kitchen today from Rumbak, a village a few kilometres away. And they sit together over a low table on the carpet, drinking Gur-gur chai, a thick brew of tea leaves to which soda bicarbonate, yak butter and salt are added making it the rich pinkish brown colour of new mango leaves. In the cold and dry conditions of Ladakh, the butter is a balm to capped lips. Along the wall, as in all Ladakhi homes, brass vessels gleam from rows of shelves in the. kitchen.
Tashi and his family cultivate barley and wheat. None of his children go to school as they are all needed on the farm. During the summer, they go to the high pasture-lands with the livestock. Tashi says they have trouble sometimes with the wolves. He has, he claims, seen the snow leopard four times in his life.. “It is quite difficult to protect your animals when you have no gun” he says. Besides, Tashi is a Buddhist.
The roof of their house is cluttered with odd bits of trash: from rubber tyres and a rusted chassis to plastic bags and other junk. It seems as though the junk is quite deliberately accumulated for some rainy day.