A Former Buddhist Kingdom “Ladakh” Reckons With Modernization

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Leh  Capital of Former Buddhist Kingdom Ladakh

In THE VILLAGE OF THIKSEY, a group of women stands outside the gates of an ancient whitewashed monastery. Removing sunglasses and donning large, looped earrings, gold-embroidered jackets and hoods adorned with Tibetan turquoise, they prepare for the arrival of a special guest to this part of Ladakh: the Dalai Lama. The roughly 500-year-old monastery has been given a face-lift for the occasion—a fresh coat of paint and a new outdoor meeting space, with thousands of colorful prayer flags fluttering overhead. My guide, Nawang Phunchok, who grew up in this village, helps the women fasten fur-lined capes and adjust intricate metalwork necklaces. When everyone is fully dressed, he snaps cellphone photos to preserve the moment for Facebook and Twitter.

His Holiness’s visit to Ladakh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in the northeast corner of India near the borders of Pakistan and China, stems from the fact that nearly half of Ladakh’s population now practices Tibetan Buddhism. (The religion arrived roughly 2,000 years ago, hundreds of years before it flourished in what is now called Tibet.) The sect led by the 81-year-old Dalai Lama—the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat sect—is one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Ladakh. This spiritual connection to Tibet is echoed in the local architecture, notably in Thiksey’s monastery, which is modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Unlike Tibet, however, where Buddhism has been under siege from China for decades, Ladakh allows the religion to thrive in the monasteries that dot this high mountain plateau and attract children as young as 6 or 7 to train as monks. Tibet is occupied by the Chinese government, which forced the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959 and seeks to limit his influence. Ladakh enjoys almost total religious freedom and is one of a handful of places on earth where Tibetan Buddhism is alive and unfettered.

SEPARATE PEACE | The Jama Masjid, a Sunni Mosque, in Leh. On a recent visit to Ladakh, the Dalai Lama noted that the region’s Buddhists and Muslims coexist harmoniously: “This is something very precious that you must preserve.”

The Jama Masjid, a Sunni Mosque, in Leh. On a recent visit to Ladakh, the Dalai Lama noted that the region’s Buddhists and Muslims coexist harmoniously: “This is something very precious that you must preserve.” PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

On my first morning in Ladakh, I awake in a white tent outfitted with a private patio that commands a glorious view across an empty valley. In the misty dawn, the towering monastery rises like a medieval mirage. On my way to morning prayers, I walk through the grounds of my hotel, TUTC (The Ultimate Travelling Camp), which offers safari-style accommodations in two Ladakh locations: here in Thiksey, just outside the city of Leh, and in Nubra, a remote mountain valley a day’s drive north across one of the world’s highest passes.

I climb the stairs to the monastery’s rooftop and stand next to two teenage monks wrapped in maroon robes. Each picks up a brass horn and begins to blow discordant notes that ring out across the valley. Below us, on cue, dozens of monks file into the prayer room. Inside they are met with an explosion of color: a circle of bright orange drapery dappled in sunlight from a skylight and hundreds of paintings of the Buddha in his various incarnations, some bearing a patina, others shiny and new. After an hour or so of chanting, the youngest monks pour cups of tea made with yak butter and distribute handfuls of ground, powdery roasted barley. Senior monks, still seated, pause in their prayers to mix the liquid and grain by hand in wooden vessels before consuming this first meal of the day.

After prayers, I sit with Phunchok’s uncle, Chamba Norfail, a 37-year-old monk who has lived here for nearly three decades. “When I joined this monastery,” he says, “there were 56 students. Now there are just 15 or 16.” Today, he and many other monks own cellphones. Norfail speaks English well and likes to communicate with the monastery’s foreign visitors to learn about the world beyond Ladakh. He tries to reckon with the spiritual dimensions of the global shift toward modernization. “People today are taking the short route to happiness,” he says. “But it’s certain that only internal things can provide us with permanent happiness.”

The road to Turtuk, near the Pakistani border.

The road to Turtuk, near the Pakistani border. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

THE MOUNTAIN KINGDOM of Ladakh, long known as Little Tibet, was for centuries an important nexus among Central Asian traders who sought pashmina wool shorn from sheep grazing in the high-altitude Changthang region. Under Indian rule, after partition in 1947, Ladakh was caught up in conflicts between India and Pakistan, and later with China. When things finally settled down, India allowed tourists to enter the district in 1974. Even with its steady flow of Central Asian traders (and later foreign tourists), geography kept Ladakh isolated. The two mountain passes into the region—from Kashmir to the west and from Himachal Pradesh to the south—are crossable only in summer months. For centuries, the area remained cut off for most of the year.

Air travel and migration from neighboring lands eventually brought a surge of cultural and economic influences from India. In the mid-1990s, when I first visited, traditional Ladakhi dress was still in favor. Today, dark-colored cloaks have given way to other, nontraditional styles of dress. Some younger Ladakhi women have adopted Indian styles, such as the shalwar kameez (a combination of loose-fitting pants and a long tunic). Leh is also now wired to the outside world, albeit with an internet connection that seems to fail daily. Many remote villages remain cut off by inclement weather or poor telecommunications, but their isolation may not last much longer.

PEAK ATTRACTIONS | A police car parked at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rinpoche airport; at more than 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest-altitude airports in the world.

PEAK ATTRACTIONS | A police car parked at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rinpoche airport; at more than 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest-altitude airports in the world. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Tourism in Ladakh tends to emphasize the region’s Buddhist heritage, but part of what sets Ladakh apart from Tibet and Bhutan, other Himalayan enclaves that embrace similar spiritual practices, is its multireligious identity. The Dalai Lama noted this during his speech in Thiksey. “Here in Ladakh,” he said, “I am happy to see that Buddhists and Muslims have good relations and live together in peace. This is something very precious about Ladakh that you must preserve. It’s a treasure that others in India and the world at large may admire.”

For a non-Buddhist perspective, I went to meet Gulzar Hussain, a Ladakhi Muslim whose family has lived in Leh’s old city for seven generations and who now runs a local mountaineering company, Frozen Himalayas. Hussain takes me to see his grandfather, who sits on the carpeted floor in the living room of their ancestral home, perched atop a labyrinth of lanes. Muhammad Hassan, now in his early 90s, says that long before Ladakh had motorized vehicles he made a living as a tax collector, chasing down scofflaws on horseback as a member of the maharajah’s police force. After serving some tea and juicy apricots, Hassan explains that before cars and navigable roads came to Ladakh, the local government maintained stables at locations across the land. As he went about his rounds, he could stop and change out horses, not unlike the system behind today’s Zipcars.

A hand-painted road sign on the way to Turtuk.

A hand-painted road sign on the way to Turtuk. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Later Hussain—who at 29 still recalls a time when electricity was scarce and water came from a public tap—leads me through the alleyways of the old city. Leh is in the midst of massive change, he says, with a controversial plan to rebuild the central market. The project, already underway, aims to install running water and sewage infrastructure in a dense downtown zone that has never seen indoor plumbing. A separate planned hydroelectric plant will eventually provide a stable 24-hour source of electricity.

The move to modernize has brought sacrifices and trade-offs: Dozens of mature willow trees that once lined the bazaar have already been hacked down, Hussain says. New stones have been laid to replace dirt roads; at the same time, cars are now forbidden to enter the market street. Despite these changes, all along the main boulevard I encounter the same sorts of vendors I’d seen two decades ago, seated aside piles of dried fruit, exotic spices and nuts, and jars of traditional Tibetan medicines produced here in Ladakh.

According to Hussain, the atmosphere of the old town has changed. When he was growing up in Old Leh, he says, “there was no tension between Buddhists and Muslims. These are families who have lived together for many centuries. My grandfather’s mother was a Buddhist. We still live together peacefully, but marriage between Buddhists and Muslims has become much more difficult. We now have many Hindus from India and Muslims from Kashmir living here in Ladakh. Everything is much more complicated.”

Until recently, tourism in Ladakh involved low-budget backpacking and cheap homestays. Today, luxury operators have erected tented camps in scenic locations and transformed neglected mansions into boutique hotels. At the same time, many younger Ladakhis, who for decades left home for a university education in other parts of India (often Delhi), are rediscovering the culture they left behind. Some have returned to open restaurants, or to launch fashion ventures or trekking companies. A key question for this generation is whether it will end up saving the culture it was raised in or become its last living witness.

FIT FOR A KING | A room inside what is known as the Royal Palace in Turtuk, a village that became part of India in the 1970s and was opened to tourists a few years ago.

FIT FOR A KING | A room inside what is known as the Royal Palace in Turtuk, a village that became part of India in the 1970s and was opened to tourists a few years ago. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Just off Leh’s main street, I find Jigmat Couture, a clothing store that bridges high fashion and traditional Ladakhi craft. The co-owner, Jigmat Norbu, explains that yesterday he’d been cleaned out of much of his menswear collection by a Bollywood star, Salman Khan, in Ladakh to shoot a movie. “My wife, Wangmo, and I worked in Delhi in fashion design,” Norbu says. “She was working for Reebok India.” In 2008 the couple—both originally from Leh—started researching traditional Ladakhi textiles, a vanishing art form as the weavers who produce them have died off. Eventually Norbu and his wife decided to quit their jobs in Delhi and move back to Leh to start this business.

After a year and a half of intense R&D, Norbu and his wife excavated and archived enough textile knowledge to hire and teach a dozen young Ladakhis how to weave using the old techniques. Their next project is a museum to showcase everything they’ve learned and collected. “In every village, at least one person used to know how to weave,” Norbu says. “But now hardly any people know how, because they all started buying ready-made things. In just one generation, if people don’t learn and practice, this tradition is going to die out.”

RUG LORDS | Young men selling carpets in the market in Leh. “In every village, at least one person used to know how to weave,” says Jigmat Norbu, co-owner of a fashion venture in Leh. “Now hardly any people know how, because they started buying ready-made things.”

RUG LORDS | Young men selling carpets in the market in Leh. “In every village, at least one person used to know how to weave,” says Jigmat Norbu, co-owner of a fashion venture in Leh. “Now hardly any people know how, because they started buying ready-made things.” PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

AFTER STAYING at TUTC’s tented camps in Thiksey and up north in the Nubra Valley, I tour a few small villages in the Indus Valley with Shakti Himalaya, a tour operator that has transformed several old Ladakhi houses into lodging, including in Stakna, about 45 minutes south of Leh. A riverside village with a monastery atop a steep hill, Stakna is home to a 5-year-old lama who has been anointed the 13th reincarnation of a Tibetan monk. (I try a couple of times to visit the young lama, but he’s either eating or napping.) We venture northwest, to Stok, home of Ladakh’s royal family and its impressive hillside palace; then onward to Nimmu, at the convergence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers.

In the evening, I take a walk from one of Shakti’s guesthouses in Nimmu to the town’s main street. As the sun sets over the rivers’ fast-flowing waters, lights blink on in fruit and vegetable stores and residents crowd around tables in front of a tea shop. An aging compact car comes hurtling down the highway from the direction of Lekir monastery, then pulls to a stop. A short, bespectacled monk hops out of the driver’s seat, sits down next to us and starts to chat amiably as he orders two samosas. He has escaped the monastery for a teatime treat. Our driver joins us at the table and the monk lets out an exclamation. It turns out the driver had tried to join his monastery a few years ago but left after only a couple of months. “The monk’s life wasn’t for him,” the monk says, laughing.

Apricot pits, used in traditional Ladakhi cuisine, set out to dry in Nimmu village.

Apricot pits, used in traditional Ladakhi cuisine, set out to dry in Nimmu village. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Ladakh’s population of 275,000 is stretched across roughly 23,000 square miles—it’s as if the population of Newark, New Jersey, were spread across West Virginia. The rest of India is about 80 times as dense. As a result, villages in Ladakh tend to be wealthier than their Indian counterparts; Nimmu boasts large, well-built homes and ample tracts of fertile farmland irrigated by the Indus. Given the region’s relative prosperity, families with school-age children and young adults who are starting a career often relocate from the countryside to the more urban environs of Leh in search of a better education or higher-paying jobs. As we walk back to our house and pass several silent, dark homes, I wonder how long this rural way of life will last.

About an hour’s drive from Nimmu we come to Alchi, site of the region’s most ancient Buddhist architecture, dating back roughly a thousand years. Near the entrance to these edifices (now more like a museum than a living monastery), on an alleyway filled with trinket and amulet vendors, sits Alchi Kitchen. After entering the restaurant and taking a seat, I note that the menu lists dozens of dishes (including ngamthuk, a tsampa soup, and thangthuri, leafy greens with buttermilk) that I haven’t eaten, or even heard of, during my stay in Ladakh. “We just opened two months ago,” says the owner, Nilza Wangmo. “We’re the only Ladakhi restaurant in Ladakh.”

 
ON TOP OF THE WORLD | Table and chairs outside a teahouse near the Khardung La road pass (altitude: 17,582 feet). PHOTO:QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Wangmo talks to me as her mother expertly rolls out brown dough and then forms delicate bow-tie pasta by hand; this becomes chhutagi, a noodle dish, served with a topping of rich chutney made of walnuts, apricot seeds, coriander, spring onion and salt. Using ingredients sourced on the high mountain plateau, Ladakhi cuisine has little in common with Indian food. “We have so many different grains, different kinds of flour, legumes, that used to be common in our cuisine,” Wangmo says. “It’s all being lost very quickly. We’re trying to change that.”

One reason the area has become a popular destination among Indian tourists is the influence of the 2009 Bollywood hit comedy 3 Idiots, about a group of friends from Delhi, one of whom becomes a teacher in Ladakh. The uncredited inspiration for that character, most locals believe, is Sonam Wangchuk, a Ladakhi man who co-founded a nongovernmental organization here, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), in 1988. On the drive to SECMOL’s rural campus, my guide, Rohan Dhar (who worked there for six months), tells me that Wangchuk’s mission was to create an educational, cultural and environmental movement: This has meant, among other things, teaching Ladakhi high school dropouts and developing ways to harness solar energy.

FARM FRESH | Vendors selling vegetables in Leh’s main bazaar. A plan to update the city’s downtown zone, bringing indoor plumbing and sewage facilities to the area for the first time, is underway.

FARM FRESH | Vendors selling vegetables in Leh’s main bazaar. A plan to update the city’s downtown zone, bringing indoor plumbing and sewage facilities to the area for the first time, is underway. PHOTO: QUENTIN DE BRIEY FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

As Dhar recounts bits of Wangchuk’s story, I realize that I met and befriended him on a bus from Srinagar when I was last here, in the mid-1990s; I ended up staying with his family at their home, a couple of hours west of Leh. As we arrive at the NGO, I see that the dream Wangchuk described 20-odd years ago when I first met him has become a reality: a residential campus for Ladakhi students to learn about their culture, to practice an environmentally responsible way of life and to figure out, through trial and error, what will sustain them in the future.

On the day of my visit, Wangchuk presides over a team of architects who are helping him plan an even larger, globally connected university, one he hopes will serve the people of rural Ladakh well beyond his lifetime. As he gazes at plans hanging on the wall, he speaks with passion to the entire group: “We have to imagine not just what this place will look like in 20 years, but how it will look in 50. Or a hundred.”

Courtesy Wall Street Journal Magazine 
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