Cultural Revival: The Ladakh Project

IF I HADN’T WOKEN UP WITH A SPLITTING HIGH-ALTITUDE HEADACHE in northern India one morning, I could now claim to have met the Queen of Ladakh. This royal personage occupies a mud-brick palace in the village of Stok, not far from the Indus River in Ladakh (la-DOC ), a stark, arid land that lies between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges on the western edge of the Tibetan plateau, in the department of Jammu and Kashmir. My traveling companions had arranged an audience, but I was suffering from mild altitude sickness and had to opt out.

I stayed in my hotel bed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and amused myself by reading a guidebook history of the region. I began wondering how her majesty must feel being the figurehead of a Tibetan Buddhist dynasty whose 400-year rule ended when the Hindu Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir “acquired” Ladakh in the 1840s. With 25 servants, and an 80-room palace to wander in, the queen couldn’t feel too bad, though she might well harbor some lingering resentment: When the Maharajah’s troops invaded, her royal ancestors had to flee the eight-story, 16th-century Leh Palace. From my window I could see the old, abandoned building, wrapped in an aura of grandeur and mystery.

But what did the Hindu invaders capture? As any visitor soon learns, Ladakh is a land of barren, gray mountains laced by glacier-fed rivers and dotted by monasteries and villages. Its most valuable natural resource may well be yak manure. If you walk downwind of a traditional Ladakhi home at mealtime or when the temperature drops (it can reach minus 40 degrees in winter), the sweet scent of dung-burning stoves and heaters wafts your way like incense.

Just such an odor was drifting through my hotel-room window. Soon came the added smell of baking wheat bread, at which point the lure of Leh proved stronger than my will to lie down. I ventured out to find a breakfast of warm bread, jam, and local green tea churned with salt, soda, and butter before winding through a confusing maze of narrow streets toward The Ladakh Project, an environmental and cultural-survival institute headquartered in town.

En route, though, I was distracted by Muslim traders who wanted to haggle over the prices of bronze Buddhas and bracelets inscribed in Tibetan with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum (“Oh, thou jewel in the lotus”). Tranquil, red-robed lamas nodded in pasing, and excited children shouted “Jullay!” — Ladakhi for “hello.” From various rooftops, strings of prayer flags flapped like handkerchiefs hung out to dry.

The Ladakh Project’s ecology center was easy to identify by its big sign advertising a restaurant, a library, and a solar-power demonstration. The project was the brainstorm of Swedish linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge, who came to Ladakh in 1975, shortly after the Indian government opened the region to foreigners. She soon noticed that the influx of Westerners — with their cameras, clothes, wads of cash, Walkmans, and notions of industrial progress — was rapidly altering Ladakhi culture. Ladakhis had formerly regarded themselves as rich; after comparing themselves to the newcomers, however, they began to feel ashamed of having no blue jeans or nylon backpacks (like mine) and of having to plow fields rather than push buttons on a computer keyboard (like the one on my laptop).

Norberg-Hodge founded the Ladakh Project to teach local people how to counter large-scale development with locally controlled enterprises. Eventually a group of Ladakhis formed the wholly indigenous Ladakh Ecological Development Group, which runs the center. I saw their accomplishments as I toured the facility: One south-facing wall, painted black and fronted with a double layer of glass panes, heated the space year-round, and a workshop provided craftspeople with tools for designing gravity-driven water pumps and small-scale hydro-generators.

Norberg-Hodge told me that about 100 tourists a day make their way to the Ladakh Project. They’re welcomed with open arms, tips on how to respect traditional Ladakhi culture, and solar-baked muffins — which, by the way, my traveling companions did not get while chatting with Her Majesty the Queen.


This article appeared in Sierra Magazine, March/April 1992.