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.