Letters from Ladakh – Culture Demolition in Fast Forward

Editor’s Preamble: Despite the title, I’m no longer in Ladakh. Indeed, it was way back in August 2009 when I was there, so this article has been a long time coming (thanks to work on the WPN keeping me too busy, amongst other things!). I keep the ‘Letters from…’ part of the title to make my international reports easier to find.

I came to Ladakh with the purpose of profiling positive solutions for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project (still a work-in-progress, for those wondering), but quickly discovered that the kind of ‘development’ I found in Ladakh was more suitable to profile for another kind of book instead — one steeped in lessons gleaned from mistakes, rather than one focussed on shining examples of solutions in action…. This is another reason I haven’t written this article until today….

A Ladakhi woman and her barley.
What’s wrong with this picture? Read on to find out….
All photos copyright © Craig Mackintosh

High up in the Himalayas, in India’s disputed and militarised northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir, lies the sparsely populated region of Ladakh (map). It is one of the highest inhabited places on the planet, and also one of the driest. One of Ladakh’s claims to fame is that it hosts the highest drivable road in the world — where it crosses the Ladakh Range at 5578 metres. And, despite its high altitude, the dryness ensures the upper parts of the region barely see snow cover over the long, cold winter months.

Sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’ (the ancient Ladakhi dynasties came from a Tibetan lineage), Ladakh is a worthy subject for permaculture discussion, as despite its inhospitable terrain and cold-arid desert climate, the Ladakhi people, historically, not only survived amidst their high altitude elements, they had actually improved the landscape over centuries of habitation and agricultural use, whilst living in (mostly) peaceful habitation with each other.

Small villages are scattered throughout the region — holding on to the edge
of existence through careful management of resources

Terraces and carefully managed water flows create the conditions that have
enabled Ladakhis to survive and thrive amidst an otherwise very harsh terrain

Despite its apparent remoteness, Ladakh was a way station for ancient trade routes — notably the famous Silk Road, which connected China, India, Central Asia, Europe and even parts of north Africa. And yet, in more modern times, the high walls of the Himalayan mountain range and the region’s barren, rocky, high-altitude desert plateaus kept modern travellers at bay until quite recently. It wasn’t until the Indian army constructed the Leh-Manali Road that outside visitors were finally able to access the region — less than forty years ago, in 1974.

Industrial Revolution in fast forward

If you’re reading this, in front of a computer, you’re part of the modern, technological age — an age born out of the industrial revolution that began in the 1760s, more than 250 years ago. But, if you close your eyes for a few moments and imagine yourself travelling back in time to picture what your life might be like without the oil- and industry-generated systems, gadgets and conveniences this age has delivered, you may be able to see, at least superficially, that the world we know today is vastly different to that of our ancestors who lived just a few lifetimes ago — where a wheel would turn only as fast as a horse could pull it, and where life and livelihoods, for the majority at least, were inextricably linked to the natural world and its cycles, and dependence on family and community.

Wild flowers at day’s end on a greened, high altitude plateau in Ladakh

For thousands of years, prior to the industrial revolution, various technologies developed very, very slowly and incrementally. It wasn’t until the age of coal and oil that we saw major leaps in knowledge in many areas of human endeavour simultaneously. And yet, within each generation living through this ‘age of enlightenment’, the changes an individual saw could still be regarded as somewhat gradual, and thus somewhat imperceptible, in comparison to the entire period. While the industrial revolution has, to date, lasted about 250 years, we as individuals only get to observe about 60 or so years of the changes it brings, before we pass away — passing the baton to the next generation as it continues on without us.

With this in mind, I’d like us to consider what it would have been like to have crammed the last 250 years of the industrial revolution into a period of, say, just 30 years…. Why, you ask? Well, this is the story of Ladakh’s modern history…. Where many of the changes of the industrial revolution — positive and negative — have been relatively imperceptible for us, in Ladakh, where these same changes can be observed within a few short years, we can get a much clearer look at the impact the modern industrial age has had on all of us. Observing these before and after effects leads us to question many commonly held beliefs about the contemporary view of ‘progress’.

A Ladakhi home, topped with prayer flags

Isolated from modern intervention and influences for centuries, the Ladakhi people suddenly came face to face with a steady flow of trucks, aircraft and an influx of tourists, as the Indian government spied an opportunity for increased economic activity. The isolation and beauty of their culture and terrain became the draw card that has since turned their world upside down.

Pre-industrial Ladakh

It would be a mistake to romanticise the life of pre-1970s Ladakhis. As with all cultures who lived solely off the land and real-time sunlight, without modern technologies, life could be harsh and cruel at times. Babies, and their mothers, would sometimes die in childbirth. Sometimes there were years of meagre harvests and weather extremes which would bring shocks that were difficult to buffer against. Injuries and maladies that are today regarded as routine and rapidly dealt with in modern medical facilities could cause prolonged agony and premature death.

But the flipside to this is the amazing fact that the Ladakhi people not only survived, but they developed a rich culture that embraced their harsh environment, nurtured it into life and sustainably harvested what it had to offer. Although a tough life, people were content, inequality was hardly known, and without outside interference these people could well have continued their sustainable lifestyle indefinitely.

A Ladakhi woman in traditional clothing

A good way to gauge how well a civilisation prospered is to look at their cultural traditions — in particular, those things they did which went beyond base, practical necessity. As a westerner trying to imagine how I would survive the elements in historical Ladakh, I can only imagine that I’d be working incessantly, with all the energy and ingenuity I could muster, just to barely survive, if that, and yet Ladakhi cultural artifacts and traditions make it clear they still found time for some of the ‘little extras’ in life. Ladakhi clothing was often colourful and richly embroidered, and their social ceremonies — for example, weddings, and their annual September harvest festival — could last for days or even weeks at a time. Indeed, exuberant, colourful festivals were a regular part of traditional Ladakhi life (mostly in winter, but some in summer also), telling us that their existence went well beyond mere subsistence.

A Ladakhi family collects herbs and peas in their remote village

Small villages scattered the region, with the number of houses in each limited to available water. Homes were built with thick walls from natural materials at hand — stones are laid for the foundation and ground floor, wood framed the walls made with sun-dried bricks of clay and straw, and stone was used for surrounding fencing.

Each family home had its own parcel of land with which to grow crops and keep their animals. Grains (majoring in barley), pulses (peas, lentils) and vegetables were grown, and, in the lower altitudes, fruit trees, like apricots, were tended. Animals were raised for their milk, meat, wool and skin. Nothing was wasted and everything was biodegradable.

A mud-brick family home with stone wall and mud-brick fencing

Villages were not atomised. Families pooled their labour resources within the community to help each other as needed — whether to build or extend a home, or in harvesting, or celebrating a birth or supporting one another in death.

A Ladakhi woman stacks barley grass on her roof to dry over winter. It will help
insulate the home, before becoming fodder for livestock the next season.

Water was carefully managed, with villagers abiding by strict but cooperative rules on use — taking turns to block and divert small water flows into their fields — and everyone knew which streamlets they were allowed to wash in and which should be protected for drinking water.

Water is precious in Ladakh

A Ladakhi woman moves rocks to divert water to irrigate her field

With hard work and simple, cooperative methods, little communities grew oases out of the frigid desert terrain.

Click for larger view

A carefully managed sliver of green provides for the needs of one
community at the top of the world

Human effluent was never ‘flushed’, but rather naturally composted. Homes have ‘composting toilets’ built into their structure — usually with the toilet being a hole in the floor on one level, where ‘deliveries’ drop to ground level below, after which a liberal sprinkling of soil is deposited on top of the growing pile.

The toilet — with hole in floor at bottom left

Unlike with our modern, clock-watching western lifestyles, work and play were not separated in traditional Ladakhi life. Whether in the fields, in the kitchen or tending animals, fun and work blended together as singing, conversation and comfortably-paced effort seamlessly intermingled. Children played and assisted — getting, by involvement and osmosis, the most relevant education for their little worlds, every waking moment of every day.

Life was entirely practical. Most were skilled in spinning, weaving (for clothing and carpets), shoe-making, brick-making, carpentry and masonry. And where strength was not a limiting factor, men and women shared in all these tasks. The only ‘technology’ utilised was the single water-powered grinding stone that each village operated communally to turn their barley into flour.

If a specialised skill was needed, like metalwork for instance, these services were normally provided without charge. Traditional Ladakhis lived instead by reciprocity, exchanging goods and services cooperatively. Even material goods Ladakhis sought from regions outside of their borders — like tea, spices, jewellery, and salt, for example — were traded in exchange for goods they produced, like fine wool, dried apricots and so on.

Although interrupted by the occasional tragedy, life was otherwise one of healthy, muscle- and bone-building exercise, fulfilling, cooperative labour, and meaningful and lasting social interactions. The modern, capitalist every-man-for-himself mindset could not survive in this place — and the words ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ could hardly be used. Everyone was there for everyone else. Indeed, within the constraints of their harsh climate and limited resource base, I can’t see that it could have worked in any other way.

The ‘development’ of Ladakh

The impact of the opening of the Leh–Manali Highway cannot be overstated. With the influx of goods-laden trucks and money-flush tourists into Ladakh, Ladakhis suddenly found they were competing with far away labourers and subsidised grains. Thus began a rapid unravelling of their world — one that had been largely stable for centuries. This economic onslaught had far reaching consequences for every aspect of Ladakhi life.

Indians from outside of Ladakh flood in over the
summer months to make a buck from tourists

Before the trucks and tourists arrived, agriculture and animal husbandry were the mainstays for the Ladakhi people in tiny villages scattered across the region, but when the money economy slammed onto their doorstep, there began a steady migration of people from those villages to the capital — the town of Leh — and in some cases even to towns and cities outside of Ladakh.

Ladakhi women sell produce on the footpaths of Leh’s main retail streets

Breakdown of the family

Men, in particular, left their family homes to take work in the capital, leaving their women behind to try and manage without them. Under the topmost image in this article I asked, "What’s wrong with this picture?" What’s wrong is that the woman is left alone, with a daughter and elderly mother, trying to do herself what the entire family worked cooperatively to achieve before — her sons now enlisted in the Indian army, her husband driving a taxi in the capital….

This scenario is, sadly, being played out across the region. The breakdown of the family unit is arguably the biggest casualty from this economic shift. Separations were almost universally unknown before, but are now increasingly commonplace, whilst young men and women are falling prey to temptations they could never have known before.

In the 1970s Leh’s population was only around 5000 people. Today it is twenty-five times that.


A Ladakhi couple spend the evening watching television programs and
commercials, where previously the family worked, played and chatted together.

Another social nightmare has been the shift towards modern ‘education’. Schools have popped up all over, taking children out of the home to place them in classrooms where the majority of what they learn is either entirely useless, or only applicable for placing them in hard-to-find jobs in the consumer economy. Instead of learning practical, appropriate skills from parents, grandparents and siblings, young Ladakhis are now isolated into classes of their own age bracket, learning lessons which have little value for their cultural and ecological context.

This segregation has also included keeping the Buddhist Ladakhis in separate schools from the Islamic Ladakhis. (Of the 127,000 Leh inhabitants, as of the 2001 census, 45% were Buddhist and 42% Muslim.) Where clashes between Buddhists and Muslims were historically few and far between, the segregation of the education system, in addition to competition in economic and resource areas, has bred animosity and suspicion between them, and clashes between these religious groups have been on the rise.

Breakdown of the Ecology

Leh, Ladakh

Over the few decades since the region opened up to outsiders in the 1970s, community-based interdependence steadily surrendered to chasing the rupee — the carefully managed development and cycling of natural resources gave way to the process of extraction and profit. Where Ladakhis had been ‘true economists’, preserving and improving what they had, with no pollution and no waste, now they were looking for the ‘better life’ held out to them by billboards, magazines, TVs and the apparent wealth of gadget-wielding international visitors.

As Ladakh has urbanised, Leh’s population has burgeoned and the strain on its infrastructure and resources has been pronounced.

A little girl urinates as her mother waits, filtering the stench of layers of refuse
with her shawl, on the side of one of Leh’s main roads. Leh, Ladakh.

Stray dogs scavenge amongst the refuse

Until modern goods arrived, everything was biodegradable. It is said that the older Ladakhis struggled at first to understand why a plastic bottle, when discarded, would still look virtually the same, even years later. While the cycling of their former economy had no negative excess and no waste, their new economy has both, and in this high, dry climate, it has become an immense problem.

In the countryside natural biological processes deal with organic waste and beneficial bacteria normally wins the battle against pathogens. Not so in Leh, where health and hygiene is difficult to maintain. At even the best restaurants, the shortage of clean water translates to many tourists suffering the unpleasant consequences.

Many of the streets of Leh are rancid with the smell of urine and faeces.
Leh doesn’t have sufficient water to deal with the population and tourists.

The sign (top left) fails to deter the man (top right) from washing his vehicle in
one of the few small streams in town.

A family does their laundry in the trash-strewn streambed…. (Although I
wasn’t in a position to photograph it, I even saw a couple of women washing a
few dozen white sheets in the stream — sheets that were obviously
from a local hotel.)

A man cleans his teeth a little further downstream.

Economic Disparity

In the summer months the streets of Leh are bustling with the sound of cars, motorbikes, livestock, smoke-spewing generators (the power fails regularly) and the entreaties of retailers seeking to herd passers-by into their stores. How many times did I hear "Hello my friend!" as a store owner put his hand on my shoulder, as if I was a long lost companion, before trying to hustle me into my next must-have item? Few of the businesses are run by Ladakhis, however. Most are instead operated by Bengalis (from the Bay of Bengal) and people from other parts of India.

In stark contrast to the persistent marketing mindset of the majority Indians, the pure and simple personality of most Ladakhis was refreshingly pleasant (although young Ladakhis are fast learning the new ways), and accordingly, most Ladakhis still watch the bulk of economic activity from the sidelines.

In Helena Norberg-Hodge’s excellent book Ancient Futures, Helena, who was among the first European visitors to Ladakh and who has lived there regularly ever since, spoke of a particular boy she met there in the early years. After being shown around several communities, with their large and beautiful homes, she asked the boy if he could show her the homes of any poor people in the area. The boy thought for a moment, and replied something to the effect that "we don’t have any poor people". Some years later Helena overheard the same boy talking to tourists — but now he was asking them to help the Ladakhi people, because "we are so poor".

TV, film, magazines, music and tourist dollars — they’ve all lead Ladakhis to think of their traditional way of life as primitive and without merit, and to think of the western way of life as a goal to be achieved. To them we come across as rich, happy, and living lives full of leisure. Just as we are waking to the realisation that our western civilisation has come to a dead-end, and needs to turn about, due to both energy and ecological issues, without even getting into sociological issues, Ladakhis, like a great many other cultures worldwide, are clamouring to follow our lead. As I wrote previously about another sustainable culture I witnessed being dismantled:

Plugging into the global economy at this time could be likened to leaving a lifeboat to hop aboard the Titanic – just to serve drinks at a short-lived party on the upper decks. Many in the west are coming to realise we need to relocalise by rebuilding interdependent communities – something the Black Thai people can teach us a great deal about. In my mind, abandoning such a rich culture now would be bad timing, to say the least. — Letters from Vietnam – The Road to Na Sai

Through disuse, many Ladakhis today are losing the skills that had kept them nobly independent for centuries. And for what? To cram themselves into filthy urban hovels where all of their needs come to them via supply lines outside of their control.

When I try to think of the positive elements the last few decades of change have brought Ladakhis, and compare that with all they have lost, the lop-sidedness of these two lists is truly enough to bring me to tears. Communities that never needed money before are now coming unglued as they strive and clamber over each other to get it. Beautiful, harmonious cooperation has given way to ugly, self-interested competition. Where Ladakhis had a community spirit that gave each individual his or her own feeling of self-worth, now self-worth is based on a treadmill of status symbols promoted by a consumer economy.

How is it that all the things they didn’t need or even want before, they now regard as indispensable? I ask myself, what have we done?

Was it worth it, to exchange this (above) for this (below)?

Although rather depressing, I felt compelled to finally write this article after seeing this slide show. From it you should gather that we have clearly not learned from our past mistakes and are yet recklessly pushing on regardless.

The former Himalayan kingdom of Lo — now known as Upper Mustang — is often depicted as Nepal’s hidden Shangri-la, a remote outpost largely insulated from the outside world. But now, with the building of a new road, the region is on the brink of change…. — BBC

It seems that the monster we’ve created — the western consumer economic model — will not be content until it has bulldozed all of civilisation, and turned it into generic, flavourless, ugly, and acutely vulnerable form of its former self. Globalisation, with its trickle-down flood-up dollars and upside-down values, is wiping away healthy, sustainable resiliency just at a time when we need it most….

Is it all bad news?

As mentioned previously, and despite the above giving evidence to the contrary, I came to Ladakh to showcase positive solutions in action. My main point of contact was Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of ISEC (the International Society for Ecology and Culture), who gave me advice on places to visit and people to see.

Helena Norberg-Hodge talks to a group of international tourists, Leh, Ladakh

ISEC’s work is rooted in what I could broadly term ‘eco-tourism’, or better yet, ‘educational tourism’. If you’re a tourist in Leh, you may well find yourself, through various flyers and billboard posters scattered across town, sitting at ISEC’s Leh centre (the Women Alliance of Ladakh) to watch a video and hear a talk on Ladakh’s history and on how Ladakhi culture has been impacted over the last four decades of change. The goal is to encourage within travellers a deeper appreciation for what the historical Ladakhi, and members of other indigenous cultures like them, possessed. It’s a recalibration of values, you could say.

Conversely, ISEC also seeks to instil pride in Ladakhis, to lead them to revalue their traditional skills, knowledge and heritage, and to help them realise that western civilisation is in crisis, and that we westerners thus have more to learn from them, than they from us. And, since verbal guidance is rarely enough to convince, at an inner, cognitive level, and since seeing is believing, ISEC also funds some of the local women to take trips to places like London. On these trips the women witness first hand the reality, warts and all, of modern day life — where wealth, parties and ostentation walk side by side with homelessness, drug abuse, stress, dysfunctional families, loneliness, depression and environmental collapse — so they can take those experiences and lessons home with them to share with their communities.

A Women Alliance of Ladakh meeting (Helena is seated in the top right corner)

At the time I was keen to see if I can’t visit a community that had not yet been tainted by modern economic influences. But, Helena said what I suspected, that such a community does not exist there any more. No Ladakhis have been immune.

I took Helena’s suggestions, and visited several people and organisations which were seeking to ameliorate the issues I’ve outlined above. But, although I met many well-intentioned people seeking to soften the blow of western capitalism, none, as far as I could see, were able to address the systemic problems.

Click for larger view

One of the groups I visited was the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). Their stated goals (click picture above) are fantastic, but when I asked the director I visited about concrete measures being taken to address the psychological, economic and ecological undermining of Ladakhi land, culture and society, the director proceeded to list how many solar installations and other green-tech solutions they had been able to provide to remote Ladakhis. In short, the ‘solutions’ being applied are still a case of ‘less bad’. Instead of television commercials being powered from a dirty and inefficient, centralised power network, they can be powered by a solar panel or wind turbine instead. The result is still ‘development’ according to the destructive, contemporary understanding of what that is.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I do not wish to denigrate the good work these people do. Not at all. But, my soul yearns for more. As it stands, it seems clear that free market capitalism, as we experience it today, combined with our seemingly insatiable human desire for ‘more’, will always run roughshod over any fledgling desire to live simply, in harmony with the earth.

To illustrate, on one of my last days in Ladakh, I visited a small organic farm up on the high side of Leh. When I arrived, camera in hand, I spoke with the Ladakhi gentleman who ran the place. The first thing I learned was that the site was no longer organic. Detecting my disappointment, he rather gruffly stated that "I’m not interested in the environment — I want to make money". I wondered to myself how long he could continue profiting from killing his soil base, and left.

So when I say I yearn for more, I mean I wish to find a way to apply permaculture principles to not just our back yards, but also our economy, our education systems, and, indeed, our inner being, so that true sustainability — not just ‘less bad’ — will become a natural outflow of the development of our respective cultures. In other words, despite the good work of people like Helena and others, they will always be fighting a losing battle until our centralised political and economic systems are — somehow, and in some way — turned on their heads.

Unlike some, I don’t believe the next phase of the Mayan calendar, or psychedelic drugs, or even bloody revolution, will bring us this necessary change. But where I do see hope is in holistic education (and I don’t mean just memorising lessons from books). Reconnecting ourselves with the land, and each other, and understanding the needs of each, and gaining a critical mass in doing so, is, I believe, central to our collectively reevaluating what really makes us happy, and how to achieve that.

In this respect, I could wish that peak oil had already occurred fifty years ago — as a world without cheap energy is a relocalised one. Ladakh’s culture, and the cultures of a thousand places like it, could still be largely intact, and western civilisation would have long since had to find alternative approaches to survival and prosperity. We seem to have had the untimely misfortune that our fossil fuel energy supplies have lasted just long enough to not only undermine our planetary systems, but also to dismantle most of the world’s sustainable cultures.

We can’t go back in time and change the past, but we can learn from it. I try to imagine what Ladakh would look like today if it had taken the best elements of its culture, and added only the most beneficial, healthful aspects of our western society. I think this is a mental exercise worth doing. If enough of us tried to picture a life that pools all the positives, perhaps we could make some headway to this end. After all, isn’t that what permaculture is all about — observation and design?

Before I left Ladakh, I gave Helena digital copies of Chris Evans’ and Jakob Jespersen’s Farmers’ Handbook. These valuable, practical lessons and techniques were tried and tested in climate-similar Nepal. I hope they have been circulated and have been of benefit to those Ladakhis who have come to realise that their culture is not something to be discarded, but rather something to be proud of and built on instead.

A long time ago, came a man on a track
walking thirty miles with a pack on his back
and he put down his load where he thought it was the best
made a home in the wilderness.

He built a cabin and a winter store
and he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
and the other travellers came riding down the track
and they never went further, no, they never went back.

Then came the churches, then came the schools
then came the lawyers, then came the rules
then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
and the dirty old track, was the telegraph road.

Then came the mines — then came the ore
then there was the hard times, then there was a war
telegraph sang a song about the world outside
telegraph road got so deep and so wide
like a rolling river….

… I used to like to go to work, but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work, but there’s no work here to be found
yes and they say we’re gonna have to pay what’s owed
we’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed…. — Telegraph Road, Dire Straits

Children ride on hand-powered rides in a makeshift amusement park

The hand-powered ferris wheel

Ladakhi women wait and watch for the Dalai Lama to drive by

And drive by he does

The Dalai Lama drives past

Inside a traditional Ladakhi home in the countryside

A Bhuddist monk stares at Leh from above

Perhaps remembering better times?