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.



21 thoughts on “Letters from Ladakh – Culture Demolition in Fast Forward

  1. This is an excellent article, thank you so much for sharing it with us. Your comment about wishing that peak oil had already occurred fifty years ago totally jibes with how I felt in Yemen, seeing similar changes to what you presented here. I wish that globalization didn’t have to mean homogenization of cultures. That’s a shame, such a precious thing being lost.

  2. This caught my eye because I have a older DVD Helena probably made. Some very early footage of the Ladakh people in their fields and homes laughing, playing, even dancing during work time. I really appreciate this article, photo’s and video footage by Craig. It stirs my emotions -brings back childhood memories of my Jewish grandparents and how even in their old age the clung to the old culture they broaght from Kiev Russia. They seldom frequented a grocery store unless it was the backside to get discarded vegetable trimings that they fed the cows. They raised and grew most of their food and still managed to market milk and eggs and give away produce. My California dreaming memories are of a seemingly endless variety of sweet farm fruit and the gandparents grew millet we all worked together to thrash and grandpa hulled it in a wooden device called a stoopa. So again I really value the points that Craig is bringing up here -it is just what I have wanted to say and he does it so well -I teared up of coarse this is all dear to my heart. As I see it development is as abusive to humanity as it is to the earth. Especially those who have had it thrust upon them. My hope is to see places where people can go, stay and get a immersion experience in yester-year in preparation for what is ahead. I see this as offering hope to those who find they cannot let go of their rural land and roots.

  3. Dear Craig, thank you for writing this story. I understand completely why you found it difficult. I found it difficult to read, once I reached the part about the road and the ‘development’.

    We, all of us, need to do everything we can to promote permaculture where ever we can.

  4. Craig,

    Everyone loves a story told well. My wife visited Ladakh close to 10 years ago and loved it. I would love to visit myself, but having read your story, maybe it’s better for everyone that we not jump up and visit such far away places.

    Your story, global as much as it is local, leaves me with more questions than answers. I wonder if all cultures once they get a taste of our so called civilized life, can’t help but to follow it through to it’s inevitable termination point?

    Are there any nations that have successfuly resisted?

    As destructive as it may be, maybe this is simply part of the great turning we are going through? I reckon the day may not be too far away when those most suited to Ladakh, will find their way home again.

    Thanks again for a great story.



    p.s. Great photos:-)

  5. Thanks Craig – well written essay.

    I wish holistic education would work as the way to remove-stop this industrial-capitalistic system – but I have little hope for education to achieve the necessary change, as critically important as it is. We certainly can’t compete with the young capitalist schooling system, and we just won’t be able to reach the numbers of people required. As you said on another post recently: We need to know the enemy if we’re to defeat it. How do we defeat the system, or do we have to wait for the system to beat us? Or do we just wait for humpty-dumpty to fall off the wall? I do feel for the people of Ladakh – Sauron has launched his armies all over the world.

  6. Thanks for a heartbreakingly beautiful article. My hope is that we and our children can learn from these experiences and keep what is helpful about modernity (advances in medical knowledge, technology that allows us to share truly USEFUL information) and build a culture that avoids the pitfalls of mindless globalisation and consumerism. The pictures are worth tens of thousands of words. Prayers for the Ladakhis and for us all.

  7. “Indians flood in over the summer months to make a buck from tourists”

    This is offensive. Ladakhis are Indians and proud of it. Over 90% of Ladakhis voted to remain part of the Indian union in a recent plebiscite.

    Please reconsider your statement. Maybe learn some Indian geography and call them Rajasthanis or Gujaratis or Biharis etc (India has over 500 racial groups).

  8. Nice article. The after effects of the modern economy is explained in easy to understand way.

    But here and there statements like the below quoted one could have been avoided, so that Indians who read this feels about the environmental impact instead of feeling agitated by these comments. “In stark contrast to the persistent marketing mindset of the majority Indians, the pure and simple personality of most Ladakhis was refreshingly pleasant”.

  9. Hi C.

    You’re right – Ladakhis are Indians. I’ve changed the sentence to “Indians from outside of Ladakh…” Thanks for the correction.

    In regards to learning geography, etc., yes, I’m aware that India is made up of hundreds of racial groups and languages. But as you can imagine, I didn’t have the time (or reason) to ask all the retailers about their specific ethnic groups. My point was more to help people understand that the Ladakhi economy is mostly run by non-Ladakhis.

  10. Hi Raja

    I can see how some might take offense, but I still leave this passage unchanged, as how I described it is how it was. It might not be politically correct, but it is a true account of what I found.

    But, the same pushy sales approach is found all over the world in people from almost every place imaginable. My point was that Ladakhis don’t naturally have this aggressive, western, profit-motivated approach to their interpersonal relations/interactions, and, unfortunately, they are learning it from us. Where most of the retailers almost needed to be beaten back with a stick (metaphorically speaking), the Ladakhis were generally friendly, but with a dash of shyness, and I found this refreshing.

    For any Indians who might take offense – please recognise this same aggressive sales approach is found everywhere, unfortunately, from Ladakh to London to New York, etc. That we’re changing Ladakhis from what they were (where they looked upon other people as human beings), to become more like us (where the self-interested, profit-centric mindset leads you to look upon others as a potential resource to extract something from), is what we should be getting offended about.

  11. “In stark contrast to the persistent marketing mindset of the majority Indians, the pure and simple personality of most Ladakhis was refreshingly pleasant”.

    Raja – I did not find this offensive. It’s the truth. As Craig said this doesn’t apply to all Indians, but I would say it applies to the majority unfortunately. Craig’s observation is the same that other Indian permaculturalists also say.

    Thanks for changing the other sentence Craig.

  12. Thank you so much Craig. A beautiful, moving article and one worthy of very deep reflection. Even though many of us are doing our bit permaculture-wise, it is still hard at times to come to grips with the allure and incidiousness of the Western “civilised” model of economic progress and development. It seems to have a trance inducing, magnetic pull that somehow manages to block out the truth or reality from the perception of most human beings.

    Thanks again.

  13. Unlike someone, I believe just the revolution will bring us a necessary change. Nobody ever succeeded in educating the starving crowd. The will to educate is not stronger than a need to eat.

  14. Wonderful article Craig, and stunning photography!

    Having been in those regions (Mustang too) and worked in grassroots aid projects, I feel and can still smell what you describe….

    Readers may want to see a short video about a project dealing with these after effects in the poorest valleys of the Nepal Himalaya. FYI, the Gateway to Mustang is pictured in the second opening shot:



  15. Hi Craig,

    An excellent article that must also have been hard to write. I’ve travelled to Nepal and India in the late 90’s and I concur with your opinion.

    PS: I purchased the Love over gold LP vinyl album as a very young teenager back in 82 and I loved that song. It was a brilliant bit of music.



  16. love laddakh & my home town baltistan same culture same people,s.
    but i found one diffrence we are muslim ……any way i missing my home town..love u all my baltistani & ladakhi people,s….

  17. I was in Ladakh earlier this year and was lucky enough to witness ploughing at Spitok and at Yangtang. All the families help each other out – and they were happy to welcome me to butter tea and chapatis at tea break time. One young man in Raybans directed his plough alongside older people in traditional costume.

    But at Yangtang, I was told the family I stayed with had left some fields unploughed this year, as the younger men’s jobs (teachers, I think) didn’t leave them enough time to work the land.

    There’s something remarkable and elegant in the simplicity of the Ladakhi village and its ecology; the willows and poplars grown (and pollarded) for poles and beams, the fruit trees and walnut trees, the fields terraced out of hillside, the water systems that take water from raging torrents, tame it, and divide it out by means of sluices among the fields; the composting toilets (which never smell as disgusting as WCs can in the rest of India) providing fertility. Even the water economy of a Ladakhi kitchen is a joy to see – the boiled water pot for drinking water, the hot water pot always on the stove, and water moved from the tap to the hot water pot, then to the boiled water pot, then to the tea pot… All very organised but very simple.

  18. Well your article again speaks of the ever merry situation of frog in a ‘well’.I don’t deny the responsibility of preserving culture, tradition and overall ecology but change is the only permanent thing in this world although it can be done in a better and more sustainable way no doubt but the patronizing tone of intellectual foreigners is little too much to digest. After all they don’t bear the harsh winter time of ladakh and are observing superficially for a meagre time during their short span of study. You just ask any old lady there don’t they talk about how life was so harsh during the older times when ladakh was the most isolated part. Development will always have a side effect but atleast it gives us opportunity and avenues to look beyond our ‘well’ although sometimes later we might find our own ‘well’ the best….

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