A Tale From Ladakh

Growing up in Little Tibet
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Introduction to Ladakh
I first met Phuntsok Norbu, a young Ladakhi guide, on my first visit to Leh, the main town of Ladakh, in the early 1980s, not long after the first visitors had been allowed into the area, with the easing of military controls. We had plans to see the ancient Buddhist monasteries of the Indus valley and then to trek in the Markha Valley on a trail that skirted the Stok Kangri peak (20,200 feet high) that overlooks the town of Leh.

Ladakh or Little Tibet is a wildly beautiful desert region, high in the western Himalayan plateau. Culturally and geographically very close to Tibet, the Ladakhi kings had for centuries been subservient to the more powerful Tibetan rulers to the east. Though it is place of few resources and an extreme climate, the Buddhist Ladakhis, with their traditions of frugality and their intimate knowledge of the local environment, have not only survived but actually prospered.

The Ladakhi people have endured centuries of invasions from the Mongols of central Asia, the Baltis from Baltistan that lies to the west, the Dogras from the south and occasionally, even the Tibetans from the east. Their mixed ethnic origins are reflected in their faces and perhaps in their resilience in the face of rapid change that threatens to overwhelm them.

Leh, the main town of Ladakh, was for centuries at the center of the trade in fine pashmina wool, once worth its weight in gold. Heavily laden yak and pony caravans brought in pashmina from Tibet, turquoise, coral and silver from Yarkand and Kashgar in central Asia, spices and fabrics from India and silk from Kashmir. The Yarkandi and Kashmiri merchants of Leh were renowned for their immense wealth. William Moorcroft and John Trebeck, two English explorers visiting Leh in 1836, were stunned to see a town of such wealth located in the midst of what was obviously arid desert land.

In 1976 the first visitors were allowed into Ladakh. Increasing contact with the outside world and commercialization of a largely rural self-supporting society has resulted in the arrival of the familiar problems of drunkenness, alienation and crime. The comforting fabric of old traditions and community ties has been steadily undermined. On the upside—education, though heavily biased in favor of western urban values—has brought some measure of awareness of the outside world. Businesses have started and flourished.

In those early days of Ladakh's opening to the outside world, little was known of the land or its people. I, together with two friends, planned to spend a week or so in Leh visiting the medieval monasteries built at several vantage points along the Indus Valley followed by a brief trek through the Markha Valley. The Markha trail provides a way of doing a complete circuit around the 20,200 foot-high Stok Kangri peak, a prominent pyramid that looms over Leh.

We were referred to Mr. Loondup who ran the lone trekking agency in town and was eager to arrange the ponies for carrying loads, to provide us with a local Ladakhi cook, and to help us buy what little canned foods were available in the local shops to supplement our stores of flour, vegetables and locally grown apricots. And he assigned Phuntsok to be our guide.

It was our first visit to this rugged mountain desert and, led by Phuntsok, we walked along stony trails listening to stories of his childhood. And about how life in Ladakh was in the 50s and even the 60s when the region was still unconnected by any roads to the world outside.

Life in the small Ladakhi villages, often hidden in deep valleys to shelter from the bitter winter winds, had remained unchanged for centuries. Time had stood still. Summer brought whole families out to the fields while the long winters meant staying indoors huddled around smoky yak dung stoves.

Phuntsok was the youngest of three children, born of parents who lived in a village some twenty kilometers outside Leh. His father tilled a small plot of land, growing wheat and barley in the short growing season, and life had remained unchanged for centuries. Phuntsok's brother and sister, both older than him, had never been to school—the small two-roomed mud schoolhouse was only built in the mid 1960s, but by then the older children were well into their teens.

In summer, when the whole family was needed to work in the fields for planting, weeding and harvesting, Phuntsok had to go to school. In fact it was many years later that the Ladakhis were able to convince some city-dwelling school administrator to arrange the school holidays during the harvest season so the children could help in the fields and learn from their parents.

The family's fortunes brightened when the marriage of Phuntsok's beautiful older sister was arranged with a head monk—a rimpoche—who oversaw the affairs of some of the most important monasteries of the area. The rimpoche was a powerful figure in the local Ladakhi politics at the time, and being connected to the family by marriage raised Phuntsok's status considerably amongst his school friends.

Phuntsok's father, though an illiterate farmer in a remote Ladakhi valley, had the foresight and good sense to send the young boy to high school in Leh and then to college in New Delhi. Phuntsok learned to speak passable English. But after three years spent in the city he felt homesick for the brown mountains and the still beauty of his homeland.

By the end of the 12 days spent with our cheerful and talkative guide, I thought I had learned something of Ladakhi culture but found myself wanting to know a great deal more.

We kept in touch through letters for two years.

Phuntsok's invitation to his wedding provided the next opportunity to visit Leh.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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