The guidebooks on Ladakh make it a challenging terrain–it’s the highest, most remote, and sparsely populated region in India. Its climate is severe even in summers when hot days are followed by freezing nights. It’s cut off from the rest of the world from November to May by snow when the temperatures can drop to -30 C. Nature is stark here, and living is tough. And that it is stunningly beautiful, swathed in a way of life that was unaffected until a few decades back.

Its present name comes from the Tibetan word La-Tags — ‘Land of High Mountain Passes’. With half the population Buddhist and its key position on the ancient silk road means culturally, it shares more with Tibet and Central Asia.

For a long time, Ladakh was independent, and then in 1834, it was raided by Hindu Dogra rulers who merged it with Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) state. Following Indo Pak war of 1947, the northern region of Baltistan fell on Pakistan side of the ceasefire line and the remaining Ladakh became a part of the Indian state of J&K. After the Chinese war of 1962, and their occupation of Aksai Chin, Ladakh has become one of India’s most critical strategic zones. Bounded on one side by Tibet and China and on the other by Pakistan, the area is of strategic concern to India’s security.

Following are notes and pics from a family trip, a few summers back.

As Boeing 737 banked gracefully to line up for descent and in every direction, peaks started gaining in height. A vast valley appeared with ochre-tinted mountains on either side, and sheer walls of merlot scree debris tumbled to the serpentine Indus River. The skies were a bright turquoise blue.

We were landing 3.3 kilometers above sea level at the Leh Airport (IXL), arriving from Mumbai, via Delhi. At 8 AM, the sun shone brighter and 22 degrees C seemed sharp. Out on the terminal, the air was powder dry, and I felt my lungs working, pumping a little harder to pull in the oxygen. We were at an elevation of 11,650 feet.

The airport was basic and functional. The porters and baggage-handlers were sturdy, thick-set women wrapped in red cardigans, headscarves, and baggy blue pantaloons and they jostled with each other for the heaviest bags. Their features were more Mongolian than Indo-Aryan, with darker, berry-brown complexions and broad cheeks.

Outside the airport there was a large military presence — rows of jet fighters in revetments at the runway, and sprawling barracks all the way to Leh, thus reminding us of border sensitivity — only this time it’s not Pakistan that causes concern, but China. Cantonments sprawl on the dusty plains along Leh highway, their mottoes–”Who Dares Wins”, “Never Say Die”–emblazoned on painted rocks, are an odd parody of Buddhist sentiment.

We spent the day only partly somnambulant at the hotel, not quite heeding to the acclimatization advice of our travel agent. Our guide Namgyal arrived at 5:00 PM and we rode up to Leh Palace. Long back it illustrated the power and influence that came from living on the Silk Route — but now, ASI handles maintenance and it looks, and feels, run-down.

Its 400 hundred years old, nine floored, imposing edifice, built on a bluff that soars over the city center with its upward tapering walls.

We drove up to Shanti Stupa for the sunset.

They constructed this shimmering white structure in 1991 with Japanese money, and it provides the best panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.

Dinner was at eponymous “Tibetan Kitchen” where stupidly I indulged in chicken and Kingfisher and paid heavily through the night, retching. Note of caution–AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is real, and should be guarded against. Symptoms are divided into ‘Early’, which include, ‘Headache, Loss of Appetite, Dizziness, Fatigue on Minimal Exertion’ (I had three of these four on many occasions), and ‘Worsening’, characterized by ‘Increasing Tiredness, Severe Headache, Walking Like Drunk and vomiting’ (I sure had the last one that fateful night).

We spent the day visiting the main monasteries around Leh.

As we head south, random monasteries and gompas appear out of nowhere. Thikse straddles an outcrop of rock with the smaller outbuildings that are the monks’ quarters, wrapped around the steep sides of the crag. This has been a working monastery (or Gompa, in Tibetan) for a thousand years and 60 lamas still live here. On the rooftop, two eight-foot-long copper horns are laid out (zangsti); used during the morning prayers that we had missed.

Thikse — The stunner is often called Ladakh’s Patola Palace.

The wealthiest and most powerful of the great Indus valley gompas is Hemis, another half-hour’s drive along the main road and then by a side-track up into a tight gorge squeezed between walls of striped granite, folded and thrust upwards at 45 degrees to the plain below.

The last part of the climb to the monastery is up along a rocky staircase. By the time I reach the top, my breathing is shallow and my legs feel like lead, but the dramatic entrance makes me glad I endured.

Despite the narrow site, the courtyard that opens out beyond the main gateway gives a heady sense of space. High stone walls rise on three sides while the fourth is open to the bare rock slopes. The sides are covered in paintings and a line of prayer wheels runs along one side. Another mighty flight of steps leads to the prayer hall, whose entrance is flanked by wooden pillars with carved figureheads and richly colored murals of dragons and gods. A wooden gallery runs around the walls and an arcade below has what look like very ancient wall portraits of the Buddha. Among the treasures of Hemis is a thangka so precious and huge that it is only displayed in public every 12 years. The famous Hemis festival is held here in June and July.

Hemis Courtyard

About 15 km outside Leh, stands Shey — this was the summer capital, where the ruling Namgyals fled to after they abandoned the palace during the 1834 Dogra war. It is less striking than the first two gompas, but a string of impressive chortens is its distinctive detail.

Chortens

The chortens are the most idiosyncratic aspect of this landscape. Like giant pawns from a chessboard, they grace the entrance to every village, growing out of the soil, as inevitably as the mountains themselves. Made of whitewashed stone and mud, they taper upwards 20 feet or so to the spire. The complete structure represents the principles of Buddhist teachings. A crescent moon cradles the sun at the top, suggesting the oneness of life, the cessation of duality, reminding the passerby that all things, even the sun, and moon, which seem so far apart, are inevitably related.

From a distance, they resemble rows of half-melted snowmen, crumbling white monuments, with the contours of once square bases, conical middles, and pointed tops now soft and imprecise. These chortens contain the remains of lamas and monks from the monastery attached to the palace, or members of the royal family and their possessions.

On our way back to Leh, we visited DRUK Lotus School, where bits of ‘3 Idiots’ were shot. Other than Aamir Khan, Richard Gere is amongst its patrons. Some 400 kids study here but being a Sunday, it was quiet.

We spent the evening at a Leh market square crowded with monks, tourists, and lady vegetable sellers. A row of men, some holding prayer wheels, sit cross-legged on the sidewalks behind sacks rolled back to show off various nuts and spices and fruits. saffron-robed lamas talk freely, laugh, joke, (flirt?) with ladies selling vegetables. I am attracted by the piles of shawls, scarves, and rugs made from pashm, the fine under-fleece of goat’s wool that is the specialty of this part of India. The streets were busy, in a low-tech manner.

Today we head north to Nubra valley, with an overnight homestay at Sumur.

This is a daunting, barren land. There are mountain peaks cardiogrammed, their bony shoulders shedding landslides of debris (scree); the wind roars through dizzying ravines; cloud shadows morph across the mountainsides.

Navigating the never-ending arid landscape, one can’t but wonder — How can life sustain in this wilderness? Yet as eyes start to discern what they see, we notice purple aconites sprouting in scree slopes, brilliant verdant fields of Leh town below, the coiled snake-like tar road on the mammoth elephant-skin of a mountain desert.

There is humor too along the way. As we drive across, we’re treated to an array of effective warnings: ‘Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep’, ‘Drive Like Hell — You’ll Be There’ and ‘Be Mr. Late Rather Than the Late Mr’, our favorite. The road surface is smooth and maintained, better than you’d expect in such a remote place. The reason, of course, is that the highway is built and maintained by the army, or ‘The Mountain Tamers’, as they prefer to call themselves.

Khardungla Pass is the gateway to Nubra, and we reach it by noon. The air is light, and the pass is covered with fluttering prayer flags. At 18,400 feet, it used to be the highest motorable road in the world. That honor has been usurped in 2021, by Umlingla Pass, at an altitude of 19,300 ft. For context, Everest Base camp is at 17,500 ft, and Kilimanjaro clocks a mere 16,900.

Nubra valley separates Ladakh from Karakoram Ranges, and Diskit is its principal town. Nubra and Shyok rivers irrigate it and villages along the inlets are fertile — producing wheat, barley, peas, mustard, and a variety of fruits and nuts–thus earning the valley its moniker of ‘Orchard of Ladakh’. LOC with Pakistan borders it on the west and Baltistan lies just beyond. Siachen Glacier is to the north.

This is a sensitive zone, and mobile connectivity is limited. Tourists need permits that are verified at checkpoints. At one such checkpoint, we met up with an officer from Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan); he was affectionate, obviously homesick, and urged us over for a meal that night, which was not practical.

Two humped Bactrian camels roam here, a legacy of 19th-century trade routes with Central Asia and China.

The valley has a unique and surreal topography, with greenery and desserts side by side. Scree slopes are enormous, and houses and monasteries built on them seem ready to tumble. Most area, away from the rivers, is a cold desert.

The principal attraction here is Diskit Monastery, perilously perched on a huge scree slope. A large 10 story high Maitreya Buddha sits at the foothill, near the car park. Shyok river flows nearby, overlooking green fields and imposing mountains; an amputated hand and skull are preserved inside the monastery — legacy of Mongol invasion centuries back.

Diskit Monastery & Scree slopes

We spent the night at ‘Mystical Homestay’, Sumur. The Swiss Tents and organic farms were impressive, but only 4 of 18 tents were occupied.

In the morning, we walked around the Sumur village, of 2 dozen homes and 100 odd habitants. There is no trace of mass tourism here yet. Small children graze domestic cattle, and address us with a cheerful “Joolay, joolay!”–the sing-song catch-all for “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. The village was otherwise quiet.

We drove back to Leh, with a brief stopover at Khardungla pass for Maggi and hot tea (fun fact–water takes a lot longer to boil at high altitude). One rarely travels 8,000 ft descent by road in a day. Caution — Altitude sickness (AMS) is real and random — Diamox and Panadol are essential. The slightest incline causes breathlessness. The dupe is to move slowly.

This time at Leh, we stayed at Ladakh Residency, a large hotel owned by a Kashmiri family. In fact, most tourism and retail ownership vests with Kashmiris here and native Ladakhi are at the lower end of the food chain. There is the tension of ‘natives Vs Kashmiris’, under the surface.

It’s proving to be a fantastic detox destination — BlackBerry, newspapers, TV, smoking, non-veg, and alcohol just do not fit into the everyday routine. Nature conspires to slow us down, and after a while, one notices minutiae that are missed in the blur of usual city routines–the breeze rustling through the poplars, the tink-tink of someone cutting stone…

The next two days were for the Pangong Tso Lake, made memorable by the ‘3 Idiots’ movie. The trip took 5 hours, and we crossed Changla Pass, at 17,600 ft.

The lake itself is lovely, with shades of green and blue that change with the direction of light — like a flurry of peacock plumes.

This water-body is 13,800 ft high and over 130 km long between India and China, and indeed a flash-point during the summer of 2020 . The water is brackish, salty, and with no fish or marine life, though ducks and seagulls abound.

We walked along the lake and had fun taking photographs. Dorje, our driver, was hesitant to drive to ‘3 Idiots point’ as snowmelt had risen in the afternoon, but Namgyal prevailed. It was icy cold and windy.

Our night was in a tent close to the lake. Dinner was vegetarian and when we requested another helping of salad, we realized how difficult it is to get the supplies organized from so far away. A night with thousand stars instead salted the lake, and we stayed up late!

The next day, on the way back, at Changla pass, I banged my head on an exposed iron bar and had to seek medical treatment at the local military camp. The staff was most helpful- they even gave me liquid band-aid supplies for later use.

We take off for Lamayuru, along with a mask festival on the way. Our first stop was at Phyang Monastery, where monks were performing dances in fantastically colorful brocade attire and monstrous masks. The courtyard setting and tall surrounding mountains lend themselves to an intimate feel; most of the spectators were locals.

Phyang -monks performing dances in colorful attire and monstrous masks

We were now on Leh Kargil route, and a slight detour took us to Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, dating back to Guru Nanak’s life. A little onward was Magnetic Hill, which is supposed to pull stationary vehicles uphill! Villagers in Ladakh believe that this road once led to heaven. Deserving members would be drawn upwards, but those who were undeserving could never find their way to it; we proved to be the latter.

The next stop was Indus-Zanskar Sangam, a confluence of two rivers join at Nimmu.

Given the right season and light conditions, the rivers show two distinct colors — the green-tinged Indus river that originates in the Tibetan Plateau near the Mansarovar range, and the gleaming blue Zanskar river has its source in the Zanskar valley.

From time to time, gompas appeared at random, topping selected crags. We visited Basgo (a fortress of a monastery towering over the ruins of the ancient town) and Likir (with a 75 ft high gold-gilded statue of Maitreya Buddha). One marvel at the precise painting of these monastery walls and the way the white, brown and maroon, and the timber and stone construction harmonizes so seamlessly with the dry and tawny landscape.

Most of these monasteries continue to survive today because of the faith and determination of a few caretakers and monks who are happy to show a stray traveler around.

Our night stay was at Gapchow where the young couple cooked the finest meal of the trip: momos, lentil soup, noodles, vegetables, and fresh apricots.

The first stop, Alchi, is a small hidden jewel of a monastery. Maintained by Likir monastery, it dates back some 900 years and is no more an active religious center. One of its walls features thousands of miniature-sized pictures of the Buddha painted in natural pigments of ocher, black, green, azurite, and gold — the art form is very distinct from orthodox Tibetan conventions.

The monastery and its paintings are in grave danger — the very fact that they still exist is a miracle. Rain and snowmelt have seeped into temple buildings, making mud streaks to wash away parts of the murals. Cracks in clay-brick and mud-plaster walls have widened. The most serious threat, according to conservators, is the changing climate. The low moisture in this high-altitude desert is one reason Alchi’s murals have survived for almost a millennium. With the onset of warmer weather in recent decades, their deterioration has sped up. And the risk of an earthquake remains ever present. ASI, assigned for upkeep and maintenance, is ill-equipped for the task, and it’s unclear how much foreign funding is making its way to real conservation here.

We then made a brief detour to Ridzong Monastery, with impressive wall frescoes, before arriving at Lamayuru, called ‘Moonland’, for its lunar landscape. The other thing that I noticed was the quality of light. It was as if sterilized, and everything looked freshly washed, pure as if I am seeing things for the first time.

Lamayuru's history dates back to the 11th century when a Buddhist scholar laid the foundation stone of a monastery here. It is believed that his prayers caused drying up a lake that fed an entire village; and because the water receded, the place got moonlike craters.

We climbed up the windswept hilltop chorten with fluttering prayer flags. Exertion at this elevation was difficult and, straining for breath and feeling lightheaded, I had to stop for rest. Namgyal helped me along and the rest of the family didn’t have problems clambering up the slopes.

While returning to Leh, we made an impromptu choice of White Water Rafting from Phey to Nimmoo, a distance of some 50 km on the Indus River. This turned out to be a 5-star experience. The instructor was young and cheery–his lessons took all of a minute –1) there are 3 basic moves- forward, backward & stop. 2) Sneak your toes tight under the seat ahead & the most important — 3) Meet the Rapids Head On!! The water was tepid, and at one point Shreeya Parth jumped into the river for a float along. We shared a laugh about the right spot for junking the plastic bottles–from there, the river flows into Pakistan!

Today we said goodbye to Namgyal at Leh and proceed to another high-altitude glacial Tsomoriri Lake (4500 meters). Compared to Pangong Lake, this is much smaller at 26 km and lies all within India.

At the lakeside, we choose to stay in pucca rooms at Nomadic Campsite, with the comfort of hot water and en-suite bathrooms. Here the lake was far away, glistening like emeralds. Lush green fields of wheat lay between the camp and the lake.

Dorjay drove us over to the top of a mountain to an authentic nomad camp, with lots of goats, yaks, a few horses, and Djo. Cattle are the main wealth here, as agriculture is not workable at this altitude. Nomads move from pasture-to-pasture, to avoid overgrazing. Milk, curd, dried cheese, meat — all derived from herds, sustain their winter months.

The Korzok Gustor is an ancient dance festival held at the monastery by the same name, next to Tsomoriri Lake. It is noted for its Black Hat Dance, a masked dance performed to ward off evil forces from nature. We had arrived a day early and saw mock sessions without the masks.

These festivals are a day out for the local village.

The monastery itself is dilapidated, with dust dribbling under the staircase every time someone walked up or down the stairs. That hardly mattered as the entire village gathered for a day of picnic and revelry. A group of old women were having fun, so full of life and mischief. Another one showed up with a regal headdress decorated with turquoise and coral (called perak). The headgear looks like a cobra Hood. By custom, a mother hands over her perak to her eldest daughter when she weds. That this storehouse of family wealth remains the wife’s possession reflects the secure position women have held in Ladakhi society.

Dorjay later drove us to a spot lined with exquisite Mani stones. These rocks are carved with religious motives and are left there by villagers as an offering.

We rise to a cold grey morning, with a storm building up. Snowflakes floated in the air and the light was surreal. We stopped for pictures at Tsokar Lake. Soon we said goodbyes to Dorjay and shifted to another vehicle, to take us to Manali. Lunch was at Pang — Maggi soup and Noodles.

The drive was a full-on roller coaster and the road, an engineering triumph–one of the highest in the world, and one of the most terrifying. Our driver navigated Gata Loops — A white knuckle vertigo-inducing ride, with 21 hairpin bends. The landscape is stunning and constantly changing, with a kaleidoscope of colored mountains and rivers in the valleys.

Gata loops

It’s an unbelievable job by Border Roads (BRO ) to maintain these routes, in the midst of nowhere. These roads are usable only 8 of 12 months, else buried in heavy snow. Himachal Roadways even run buses at this altitude, and there is thriving Enfield tourism too.

We soon entered Himachal at Sarchu, where Chandra and Bhaga rivers ran alongside us. Our night halt was at Keylong. We had descended 5,000 ft, to 10,000 feet, and the air had lost its lightness. Here we had our first hot bath & shampoo in weeks. This was the longest drive of the trip- 250 mountain kilometers in 12 hours.

We make our way to Manali, crossing the Rohtang Pass. The change of scenery is very dramatic–as one moves from a barren valley to lush greenery. We were told that all the rain falls on the Manali side of the valley, leaving the other side dry. Rohtang means “Valley of the skulls” and the ever-present fog and a few upturned trucks lend credibility to its scary moniker.

At Manali, we tried a government rest- house (Hidimba cottage) — great location but musty rooms and then chose Johnson Lodge. The lunch was perfection: Trout fillet, Wood-Fired Pizza and Chocolate Mousse.

Blackberry started filling with messages and I got to know of Daulat’s bypass surgery. We later walk over to visit Hidimba Temple.

We spent the day para-gliding at Solang. In the evening, we caught a Volvo to Delhi.

The lifestyles are pastoral. At altitudes of 10,000 ft plus, and with agriculture season limited to four months, the choice of what to plant is already made for the Ladakhis. As elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau, the principal crop is barley and the principal diet is its roasted flour. About two-thirds of the fields are planted with barley, the rest with fast-growing varieties of wheat. Most farmers have small fields of peas and gardens of turnips. In the valley below 11,000 ft, there are apricots and walnut trees. In the very highest settlements where cultivation does not work, people depend on animal husbandry alone.

Animals play a key role in the economy. They provided dung — the primary fuel, as well as transport, labor, wool, and milk. The most common domestic animals are sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cows, and the famous yak. The dzo, a hybrid between the local cow and yak, is an important draft animal.

In winters, ladakhis eat meat (goat in particular, but also yak), because it would be tough to survive without it. They do not eat fish as if you are going to take a life, better take the life of a large animal that can supply food for many people.

Traditional Ladakhi houses are two to three floors high, made of thick stone walls and clay that insulate from harsh weather. Poplar beams support a flat roof and snow has to be manually brushed off. Some houses sport carved lintels. Windows and doors are painted black and ochre. The form and functionality have remained unchanged over the centuries. But now, the curse of urban sprawl and concrete construction is growing.

The entrance to the house faces east, the auspicious side. Stone stairways take straight up to the first floor; the ground floor serves as a stable for the animals. The kitchen, typically on the first floor, is the heart of the home where the household spends most of its time. Much of the dwelling is given over to storage, as for over six months of the year, nothing grows outside. The roof is stacked with grass for the cattle and shrubs and dried dung cakes for the kitchen stove.

Around each house, vegetables and fruit trees are protected from the goats by a stone wall on which dung cakes bake in the sun. On the flat roof, animal fodder- alfalfa and hay, together with leaves of the wild Iris, can be seen stacked in neat bundles for winter. Apricot left to dry on yak hair blankets and potted marigold give a blaze of bright orange.

With 50% population following Mahayana Buddhism, religion manifests in many facets of life. For centuries, monks from Ladakh studied in Tibetan monasteries, and there was a steady interchange of both merchandise and ideas. Traditionally, each family gave away a son to the local monastery. But to a fresh set of eyes, it is the landscape that exudes spirituality; this “land of mountain passes” is revered at each step, by marks of love and prayer. Every crag, every twist in the trail, every summit of every incline, and every entrance to every valley receives affection: a garland of prayer flags, an enormous prayer wheel, a dedicatory chorten, or a mani (a wall of stones inscribed with mantras). These are messages for the gods whose home this is. Each person who passes adds a touch, in prayer at least, so that the entire landscape feels charged with a good vibe.

Helena Norberg, in her seminal book “Ancient Futures,” tells, “The Ladakhis attitude to life and death seems to be based on an intuitive understanding of impermanence and a consequent lack of attachment… Rather than clinging to an idea of how things should be, they seem blessed with an ability to actively welcome things as they are.”

Oh, one more thing… what struck me during my travels in Ladakh was the wide, spontaneous smiles of the woman who moved about freely joking and speaking with men in an open and unselfconscious way. Though young girls may sometimes appear shy, women show great self-confidence, dignity, the strength of character, and dignity.

Polyandry exists in these parts, though made illegal since 1942. The social construct around this practice is economic–the practice has been a key factor in maintaining a stable population in Ladakh over the centuries. It reduces social conflict when people share a finite resource (i.e. Land) from generation to generation. The land goes to the eldest son, and the younger son is normally given to the local monastery to become a monk and remain unmarried. If there are no sons at home or if other circumstances make it desirable, the eldest daughter inherits everything and brings in a magpa — a husband who himself has no property rights. The guiding principle behind the system of land inheritance is that it remains undivided, instead of being split into smaller and smaller pieces with each generation. Thus, polyandry has worked hand in hand with the monasticism of Buddhism.

From an urban/western viewpoint, Ladakhi life standards may appear poor, and I wondered how a region centrally placed on the silk route with China did not thrive as much as, say a Petra, or an Istanbul? Perhaps the Buddhist philosophy and contentment that has seeped into their behaviors over the centuries have something to do with it?

Like many other ancient civilizations that opened up in the 20th century, Ladakh faces the predicament of dealing with modernity. This society lived for centuries on a self-sufficient model of farming, animal husbandry, and barter, and they were content to exchange extra crops and dried cheese for few utensils, salt, etc. that they didn’t produce. Extra wealth was stored in lapis lazuli, and the concept of cash and inflation didn’t exist. Farming and house building were communal exercises. They produced all that they needed — food, clothing, and housing. And then the tourist arrived, happy to spend $100 a day, and that has turned their life and convictions upside down!

In fact, today, the son of the family wants to be a tourist guide rather than a monk, and it is unreasonable to judge his choices. The landscape is altered as road networks are developed, and small pastoral communities diminish. Tourism is transforming remote villages and signs for homestays for trekkers are everywhere. Modern technologies based on cash and fossil fuel are creeping in, and nature-based cultures that relied on subsistence agriculture and barter economy are sweeping away. Whether this import of monoculture is good or bad is a never-ending debate, but the drift is towards monetization.

Modern conquistadors are development, advertising, the media, and tourism.

Yet, it would be careless to look at Ladakh in binaries and romanticize self-sufficient economies and age-old technologies, without recognizing their shortcomings. Or conversely, sneer at their primitive ways, poverty, and ignorance. Definitely, there is something about the traditional cultures that need to be cherished and preserved. They are more at peace, more in tune with nature. It would be a tragic disaster if ‘progress’ divides people from the Earth, from one another, and ultimately from themselves.

Helena Norberg, wrote in the 1970s, “In Ladakh, I have known a culture in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a society in which crime is virtually nonexistent, communities are healthy and teenage boys are never embarrassed to be gentle and affectionate with their mother or grandmother… The elderly are active until the day they die… One morning I saw the 82-year-old grandfather in the house where I lived, running down the ladder from the roof. He was full of life, and we exchanged a few words about the weather. That afternoon at 3 o’clock he died. We found him sitting peacefully as though asleep.” The question to ask is — which of these traits in society we shall forsake at the altar of ‘modernity,’ and ‘progress?’

As an example, take the local diet. According to Western understanding, the typical Ladakhi diet is far from balanced, with very few fruits or green vegetables; consumption of both butter and salt is, by WHO standards, dangerously high. Yet few of the health problems seen in the West, because of such imbalance, exist. Despite the exceptionally high cholesterol intake, heart disease has been nonexistent, perhaps because of an active lifestyle and absence of stress. What we think of as absolute rights and wrongs of nutrition are not so absolute. It seems likely that human nutrition needs to have, to a great extent, according to the environment in which people live, so that the body’s requirements come to coincide with what the land itself can offer. Just as Eskimos can be healthy on a diet of fish and meat, with virtually no grain, so the Ladakh can prosper on barley and dairy products.

Indeed, simply transposing western ways and methods, in the name of development, will be lazy and ignorant.

It is easy to put on sepia-tinted glasses and wax lyrical about the ‘old world charm’ — women winnowing grain in the open air while singing songs, or the whole family perched on the floor in a semi-dark, warm hearth sharing chang and having a good time, etc. Or one can choose a patronizing tone and look at the situation from a western prism and only notice the lack of basic medical facilities, high mortality rates, and the sheer effort needed to stay alive at minus 30 degrees centigrade for months together, without electricity, gas stove or geyser.

Maybe the wisdom lies in the Buddhist philosophy of madhyam marg (the middle path). To not reduce the debate to a binary of an ‘either/or’ but try to arrive at an inclusive ‘And’. To not discard or embrace any of these views in totality, but try to choose the best of both. There are no straightforward answers here.

‘Progress and Development’ are now imminent, and while they solve one problem, they also create another. Western medicine and better sanitation have reduced infant mortality, but without developing the economic opportunities and resources (land is finite), it may become a demographic liability for the next generation. Science is increasing longevity, but modern society is also removing the social support for the old generation, thus taking away a big part of their quality of life.

The sight of solar panels covering the rooftops of Hemis monastery or the prayer flags fluttering on 2G towers in Leh, gives one hope that the twain shall meet. And that modernity does not entirely end a thousand-year-old culture.

Om Mahi Padma Hun — “the planet spins on faith.”

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.