Cold, High and Dry: Traditional Agriculture in Ladakh
PIJ #49, Dec1993 – Feb 1994
Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom, hark!
The Gods, the Lhu, and owner spirits of the Mother Earth, hark!
May a hundred plants grow from one seed!
May a thousand grow from two!
May all the grains be twins!
– Ladakhi sowing song
Ladakh lies at the western end of the Tibetan Plateau, tucked north of the Himalaya between Tibet and Kashmir. The people are mostly of Mongol stock, with strong, weather beaten faces that are prone to crease into wide smiles at will. Administratively part of India, Ladakh’s culture is much more Tibetan, particularly in the practice of Mahayana Buddhism that infuses all aspects of life. Religious practices are pure Tibetan, and secular culture, though distinct, is similar.
Pushed skyward by the colossal force of India moving north into Asia, virtually all of Ladakh is above 3000m (the capital, Leh, is at 3500m). The Himalaya blocks nearly all the rains from the south, creating a desert in the rain shadow, with most areas receiving only about 100mm (4 inches) a year.
As it is so high and exposed to winds blasting down from Central Asia, the winters are long and bitterly cold. In fact, the Dras region lays some claim to being the coldest non-polar place on Earth with temperatures reaching -50’C.
Cut by four ranges (the Great Himalaya, the Karakoram, the Zanskar and the Ladakh) and rivers fed by snow melt (including the Indus, which forms the major valley), Ladakh is a wildly beautiful land. It is stark, treeless and seemingly barren, with crazily tilted rocky slopes in an amazing range of brown, grey and mauve tones, steep cut valleys, hard clear light and high snow covered mountains.
Self Sufficiency and Inspiration
Despite the incredible restrictions of an eight month winter (thus a four month growing season), virtually no effective rain and a land providing few resources, Ladakhis have traditionally provided more than their needs in all but a few commodities. Largely a self sufficient agrarian economy, it was extraordinarily complete in the range and quantity of goods produced. Surplus grain was traded for the few excess requirements, such as salt, tea and stones for jewellery (Ladakh was hardly cut off from the world, being on the great caravan routes from the plains to Tibet and Central Asia). Far from merely subsisting, Ladakhis have thrived, developing a frugal but fruitful way of living and a rich and elegant cultural tradition.
How this has been achieved is an astounding lesson in sustainability and ecology taught by a people understanding and accepting the limits set by their environment. Remarkably, it has been accomplished with technology no more complex than the water wheel for grinding grain. This is the very epitome of appropriate technology: why reinvent the wheel when the best way over the passes is by foot or pack animal? It is easy to over-romanticise traditional cultures; after all, life is often very difficult. Spending eight winter months largely inside, for example, cramped, and with little variety in food, is not for everyone. However, the spirit and inspiration of a society based on respect for people and the land, of living within ecological limits and with a sense of place is sorely needed in a world at war with Nature and seriously out of ecological and social balance.
This can be Ladakh’s first lesson. Together, the feat of thriving in such a harsh place, the competence and character of the Ladakhis, the wild landscape and the beauty of Buddhist imagery and ritual are deeply moving.
Dzos and water
Evolved over centuries, Ladakhi agriculture is inseparable from the social structure of the villages and the credos of Buddhism (there are Muslim Ladakhis, particularly in the west near Kashmir; however, this article confines itself to the Buddhist farmers).
Central to the agriculture is the harvest for irrigation of summer snow melt from the high mountains. Channels, often many kilometres long, ferry the water to the villages where a finely tuned system of small channels and an equally finely tuned social system of determining who gets what water when, direct the water to small fields. At the fields, little soil dams in the drains are created or breached using long handled spades to distribute the water in a gentle and even flow.
The fields are mostly terraced, built with elegant stone walls, and most skillfully arranged. Each is tiny, the very antithesis of broad scale agriculture, yet they produce yields higher than those of the West. The solid terraces symbolise the essential stability of the practice – a very permanent agriculture still bountiful after centuries of growing. Land holdings are only one to two hectares, but easily sufficient. In fact, there is little desire to own large areas of land, beyond what can be worked.
Barley is the staple crop (with some wheat, peas, vegetables and mustard for oil) and the iridescent green of the fields in summer is in remarkable contrast to the bare hills around. Most villages outside the Indus Valley are small and tucked into narrow valleys, appearing quite literally as green oasis. Roasted barley meal (ngamphe) is the basis of the diet and barley is fermented to produce the alcoholic chang that accompanies all celebrations. Centuries of plant breeding have produced superbly adapted local varieties.
Between the fields, mini meadows of a rich assortment of grasses and herbs add their colour (mauve of lavender, yellow of a local clover) and winter fodder to the equation. Wood is produced in coppices of willow and poplar, which, along with some fruit and nut trees at lower altitudes, are the only trees to be seen.
One gets an incredible feeling of the power of nature and growth standing next to a crop ready for harvest, surrounded by colour, insects and birds, and recalling that just a few months before this place was freezing, with no green growth and little free water. The cold, high and dry desert has been made to bloom in a most remarkable way.
Nothing is wasted, animal dung becomes fuel, human dung goes to the fields (the traditional Ladakhi toilet is an efficient composting design), even old gonchas, the all purpose wool cloak, may be used to patch irrigation channels. The scattered and meagre wild plants, too, are used for fuel, fibre and labour. A village’s animals are taken to high pastures (phu) during summer, by everyone on a rotational basis. Nearer the snow there is more water and hence fodder, and dung is collected and butter and hard cheese made for the winter ahead.
Buildings are of mud and wood, overwhelmingly to a single, very appropriate design. They are multistoried, with massive walls for thermal efficiency and storage space enough to support animals and people during winter. They are large, box shaped and brilliant white, but are oddly in place in the landscape, along with the white stalagmite-like monuments of Buddhist faith called chortens that lie scattered over the land.
Lhu and Community
There is a sense of ceremony and significance in virtually all activities, a holism based on a sense of the interconnectedness of everything. The spirits of water (lhu) and earth (sadak) need to be placated before planting or house building, a marriage or significant Buddhist celebrations.
Typically, a gompa (monastery) sits above the larger villages, a constant reminder of the interconnection of the material and the spiritual. The large numbers of lamas (monks) and nuns ensure, as in Tibet, both spiritual progress and population regulation. Far from a feudal and oppressive relationship, the association between village and gompa is a symbiotic one. The lamas get material support and, in return, give spiritual guidance and oversee the rituals and ceremonies that are so much a part of life.
As in most traditional societies, the rhythm of life and ritual is controlled by the season. The pace of work in the fields is slow and steady, often to the accompaniment of song; the dzo pulling the plough needs to be thanked and encouraged, for example. It is quite beautiful to see tiny figures working in the fields some distance away and to hear the song drifting up on the still air.
Social relations are based on a sharing of labour, tools and animals to a remarkable degree, based no doubt on a recognition that mutual help is essential with so few resources and the Buddhist belief that compassion is inseparable from wisdom. Competition is pretty well unknown, because the Western atomisation of the individual would not allow people to survive in Ladakh. Ladakhis have a saying that ‘even the man with a hundred horses may need to ask another for a whip’. Everyone needs others and everyone has something to give.
The cooperation is formalised in various ways: shared agricultural work, such as neighbours combining to harvest each of their crops in turn, has a special name (bes), as does the practice of collectively taking animals to the phu (rares). The distribution of water is determined by a time honoured system overseen by people on a rotational basis.
In addition, there is the paspun, small groupings of families, sometimes from different villages, that provide mutual support, especially at times of stress, such as illness and death. The chutso, a group of ten families, elects a representative to a village council, although the decision making is so decentralised that many decisions do not get even this far.
The key is the small scale of the social groupings, allowing personal involvement and thus a sense of worth and community. Both young and old were revered, with the learning of skills by osmosis and doing.
The essential role of cooperation in Ladakhi life can be, after the ecological sanity of the agriculture, Ladakh’s second lesson.
East Meets West
Ladakhi society, stable for centuries, is facing its greatest threat from a foreign invader armed not with guns but ideas. The homogenising Western ‘development’ model, a cash economy, formal education and an influx of tourists has reached Ladakh, facilitated by enthusiastic Indian bureaucrats. Ladakh was largely ignored by India until the Chinese invasion if Tibet and, in 1962, India and China’s war over the Askai China region. Ladakh suddenly acquired strategic importance, followed by an ongoing militarisation and a ‘development’ push.
Conventional economics, that gives no value to self sufficiency (goods or services not traded for money have no worth) and regards development as fixed regardless of local conditions or culture, has distorted the traditional economy. Development, in the eyes of the ‘modernisers’, means providing infrastructure, notably roads, centralised power generation, and, in agriculture, chemical cash cropping and new breeds of animals, such as Jersey cows for yaks or merino sheep for the pashm goats of the shepherds of the Chang Tang plateau bordering Tibet. Many imports are subsidised; it is ‘cheaper’ for example, to truck wheat over the Himalaya from the Punjab than to grow it down the road.
The cash economy means an inevitable erosion in social relations; people cannot lend their ponies to a neighbour when they are being used to carry a trekker’s bags. New divisions have appeared, between rich and poor, men (‘breadwinners’) and women, young and old, secular and religious and Muslim and Buddhist. Ladakhi democracy is diminished as people have no control over the rupee’s value, but are obliged to deal with it. Cash brings consumerism and new role models, such as Indian film stars, Rambo and Barbie, and new concepts, such as random violence and submissive women.
Ladakhi ways were criticised as backward, particularly by Indians during the 1960s and 70s, with the disparagement reaching a point where even Ladakhis were mocking themselves. The influx of tourists after 1974 and education also played a role, helping form a distorted view of the desirability of the West. Tourists appear to have unlimited leisure, gadgetry and wealth and school texts show pictures of cities, cars and tractors, with virtually no content directly relevant to Ladakh.
The result was a crisis of confidence in many Ladakhis, believing suddenly in the inadequacy of the old way.
Cultures have always evolved, but it is the sudden collision of two worlds that causes dislocation, wherever it occurs. Ladakh’s small size, the fundamentally different modes of thinking between the old and new, the recentness of the situation and the Ladakhis’ inadequate knowledge of the forces now shaping their lives (not seeing the myriad ecological and social problems of the West, for example) has made the process especially apparent in Ladakh.
The tragedy is that much of the good in the old may be thrown out under the false lure of something that is itself seriously flawed. This is Ladakh’s third lesson, on the serious impact of the increasingly global spread of the Western economic order and Western images.
Challenge and Change
Ironically, many Westerners are looking to traditional societies for inspiration at a time when they are looking to the West. Many Ladakh are realising this, and there has been something of a cultural revival. As one Ladakhi put it, “We are still reaching for the sky. In the developed countries, people are coming back down, saying, ‘It’s empty up there’.” We can help by addressing the problems of the West and its global reach and exercising great care if we visit Ladakh or any other place in a similar situation.
The revival has been facilitated by organisations such as the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) and the Ladakh Project. There has been a move back to traditional agriculture, for example, and a greater pride in the knowledge that Ladakh and Buddhism are influencing many people. How far will this go is unclear, but some Ladakhis I spoke to were cautiously optimistic. Traditional values continue in areas of Ladakh that remain closed to foreigners, and it remains to be seen if the process will repeat itself if, as is likely, some of these are opened.