Category Archives: India

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.

Bansuri Meets Recorder

Rana Mahal Ghat, Varanasi.
Photo by Mark Mardon.

Varanasi, India
January 2007.

The thin, wavering, reedy, warbling sound of a bansuri, the genuine sound of India, wafted up from the river’s edge every night for the eleven nights I slept in Varanasi, in a guest house overlooking Rana Mahal Ghat.

After the ceremonial fires of the big puja at nearby Dasaswamedh Ghat had been extinguished, the crush of onlookers had gone home or to their hotels. The ghats emptied and the din turned to silence. The boatmen had tied up their boats until morning, settling into the bottoms with their blankets. The masseurs, haircutters, vendors and other denizens of the Main Ghat had rolled out their mats to sleep. All the water buffalo herders had settled their beasts and rolled into corners with their thin blankets pulled over them. The burning ghat in the distance heaved a perfume of wood fire and charred corpses into the dark — then the flute player came out.

He would sit on a platform, under a lamppost, surrounded by his acolytes, gently playing. I couldn’t see him clearly. Sometimes I couldn’t see him at all. On the far side of his platform, steps descended to the Ganga, the water lapping the stone, inviting prayer as it had for centuries. He and his troupe sometimes occupied the steps, out of my view. Yet hear him I could. The flute-playing sadhu, holy man, chillum smoker, musical guru sent sweet strains floating into the night, echoing across the river and back. Ma Ganga herself rode that sound, a goddess on a swan.

For several nights without leaving my room or its old, crumbling stone balcony, without seeing the face of this flute player on the ghat, or knowing anything about him, without knowing for sure where the sound was coming from, I played concerts with him. For, as clearly as I could hear his flute, he could hear mine. He led the dance. I gently followed. He created the melody; I offered accents. The way I play recorder, alternating different rates of vibrato with pure tone, bending some notes, as well as the deeper sound of the tenor, creates a sensuous voice, the plaintive sound I brought back from the Andes decades before. It’s non-Indian, but worshipful, full of power and emotion appropriate for Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi.

Finally I went to meet him. We became fast friends. He treated me as if I were another sadhu, a respected spiritual elder. His group crowded around us to watch and hear us play and talk about music. We played the Peruvian Andean song “El Condor Pasa” together. Most of all he wanted to hear me play “A Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and when I did he exclaimed with delight. I played my tenor recorder, which everyone admired and handed around to examine, its beautiful African blackwood turned in classic English recorder fashion. We discussed its monetary value and decided it was worth a great deal. I gifted him a plastic alto recorder, nice quality, good sound, and he treated the gift as an honor worthy of a king. He in turn gave me one of the bansuris he sells to tourists. I tried to play it but as always found the transverse flute defied my puckering ability. I’ve never been able to get such a transverse flute to sing. He helped me, though. He turned the flute just so against my lips, and for that instant I found I could make the instrument soar.

About that time some young girls came by offering little leafy bowls bearing flowers and flaming votive candles to be set afloat on the Ganga, another way to worship Shiva. I took a few and offered silent prayers for peace, harmony and healing as I watched them bob and drift onto the current. The flute player and his acolytes watched and applauded.

A Woman’s India

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, Norton, 2008.

the_age_of_shiva_manil_suriSoon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.

Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.

“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.

In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi.  The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.