Sunday, July 17, 2005

Learning from Ladakh

Given the violence of our age, the daily reminders of the myriad ways human beings torture and harm one another, it may be tempting to dismiss the peaceful land in which Rose lives as impossible. Luckily, there is a well-documented example of just such a society that has existed for thousands of years: Ladakh, a district in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Known as Little Tibet, Ladakh lies near the Tibetan border and adjacent to Pakistan. Until very recently, the Ladakhi lived extraordinarily peaceful lives, playing more than working, despite the harsh climate--or perhaps because of it, and enjoying a quality of life to which many of us might aspire.

As recently as 1975, when linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge first began living and working with the Ladakhi, they controlled their population, wasted nothing, built beautiful multistory homes that lasted hundreds of years, farmed and irrigated their lands with an economy that would put western farmers to shame, and had plenty of time left for long parties that lasted weeks.

At that time, and for years after, the Ladakhi were known for their incredibly happy countenances and nature. Conflict was rare. Chi choen, they would say when faced with an apparent dig or insult, "What's the point? Anyway, we have to live together." Tucked away in their remote Himalayan location, they were rarely ill, had an effective medical care system, and needed nothing from the outside world.

Although some adventurers had written of their travels in Ladakh, almost no one knew of the Ladakhi until Norberg-Hodge wrote of them in Book: Ancient Futures, Learning from LadakhAncient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, but it was inevitable that they would be discovered. With discovery would come western inoculation. The power of fast motorcycles, fast food, television, and glitzy toys wrapped in sunlight-reflecting cellophane is nearly impossible to resist. Could you? Resist, that is.

We westerners introduced a complex array of changes to the Ladakh culture, symbolized most dramatically perhaps in the presence of Barbie and GI Dolls, which are sold on the streets of their capital, Leh, and evidenced in the diseases, violence and crime that mark Ladakh cities and villages as never in the past.

Tourists scouting for ever more remote regions and unique societies will find them. They want modern conveniences, smooth roads and plenty of gasoline. They want cell phone towers and internet connections. They might want yellow arches and red and white spinning chicken buckets. They bring gadgets, photographs and technologies from their part of the world. Enamored of local crafts, they pay too little for textiles and curiosities, such as the ancient butter jars, handed down from mother to daughter for centuries, to be replaced with rusting tin cans. Homeward bound with their photo journals, travel diaries and rustic treasures, the tourists leave behind trash and desire--desire for a world that seems so much richer and more beautiful than the pristine, well-managed society of Ladakh.

Some of the tourists, though, take something much less tangible than a butter jar when they leave. Some take an understanding of a way of life so simple, yet so elegant, they can never forget. They, like Helena Norberg-Hodge, who, while never a tourist, is ever a student of the Ladakh, will devote a lifetime working to preserve a society from which we all must learn if we are to have any hope of surviving the next century.

Today, the Ladakh strive to recover from the gradual decline of their culture due to the encroachment of western "civilization." They are melding new technologies--such as solar powered generators to run the electricity with which they power their villages and homes--with old technologies--such as returning to the ancient farming practices which nourished them so well for so long and with much less cost in time as well as currency than the pricey herbicide- and pesticide-driven agriculture imported from the West.

The fact that the Ladakh existed so beautifully prior to our intervention gives me great hope that the world can learn from them. Norberg-Hodges' Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh inspired the Village of Ordinary. Not only is it revelatory, it's a good read. I encourage you to get a copy of your own, or borrow from the library, then come back and tell me what you think.

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This post revised 11/24/09, including the addition of the images.

1 comment:

  1. ...also an insightful read is, A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey. If this kind of practice was more daily then for those who would, would need less a retreat than to entreat others with delight

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