Barren beauty at its best

The breathtaking region of Ladakh, situated at an altitude of 11,500 feet above sea level, offers unique geographical profile that is not found anywhere else in India. Therefore, this region has developed its own social system. It’s inaccessibility and strategic location, hemmed in both by China and Pakistan, bring it close to national mainstream. It was only in 1974 that the region was open to tourists. One of the encouraging signs is that of late the Indian tourists are more in number than the foreign tourists.

The region is divided on the religious and cultural divides. There are two divides, intra-state between the predominant Buddhist and the Muslims and an interstate caused by the formation of linguist states. Thus Ladakhis find nothing much in common with Srinagar. The region has been divided into two districts – Leh and Kargil – the former is predominately Buddhist while the latter is Muslim predominant. The bulk of population is valley centric and most of these populations have their own particular strains, thus the under current remains, although they all have one identity, that of a Ladakhis.

The Drass region has the Drogpas, who trace their descent to the Dards and have a strong Aryan influence. Their ladies can be seen sporting a very elaborate flowery head gear, they are Sunni. The Baltis of Suru valley are Shia. Kargil district is, in fact, more Shia dominant while the rest of India is Sunni dominant and Leh in the Indus valley is Buddhist predominant. The people of Zanskar region are Buddhist predominant while Changthang region has its nomads. The Nubra valley is rich in fruits and water and all this reflects in the occupation and life style of the people. Thus it becomes a need to handle this border region with great care.

For centuries agriculture has been the main stay of people living in this region. Conservative estimates put it at around 65 per cent of the population that is still dependent upon agriculture. The presence of the Army and the positive impact of recruiting sons of the soil and providing jobs, as also, taking on Sadhbhavana projects have had a positive impact on the people of this region. The locals have found jobs in Ladakh scouts and the youth have got education and fetched jobs in this region, while tourism has benefitted all.

The education system is still underdeveloped, higher education is sought elsewhere, and a young district magistrate is doing yeomanry service by taking tuition classes every day for students in his residence from 8 to 9 pm, coaching them for the civil services exams. All Ladakhis enjoy tribal status.
The year 1989 is watershed in the history of this region as for the first time nonviolent Buddhist went violent in Leh. Today when we see Buddhist asserting themselves violently in Burma and Sri Lanka it is often pointed out that this is a new phenomenon little realising that the event first happened for more than a month in Leh. The main cause was the communal divide and some scars still remain. The main point is the attitude of confrontation between the majority community and the minority. The same will always happen in India till such time identity remains a key vote bank issue and unity coupled with economic liberation remains in the back burner.

The religious community still respect its high monks and as per historical records various monasteries were attached to villages like Hemis 100, Thiksay 25, and so on. Thus the modern administrator still finds the average Ladakhi quoting the high priest who has no constitutional validity. The population of this region  as per the latest scientific details is around 1,50,000. The role of religion in one’s occupation is very evident in this region. In Leh the good shops are owned by all but considering their being in a minority Sunni Muslims and Shia shopkeepers are many. Also, there is a proliferation of Masjids in Leh proper. The Sunni is in greater minority to the Shia but economically better off than the rest of the other communities.

The Buddhist are on to tourism sector as then only one can have ready access to the monasteries. Ask the bulk of jawans of Ladakh scouts what they want to do post retirement. Most of them want to run tourist vehicles. Some enterprising ones are also running shops post retirement. In fact one of the best general merchant shops is run by a veteran. The food places serving non vegetarian western and Chinese cuisine are run by a very interesting combination. The Buddhist remain strict vegetarian, the Muslims practice brisk business and the Nepali worker fits in with his looks.

These enterprising young men hire a property for a year. They  have a system of hiring furniture, manage the place efficiently, and pack off by 30 September or 15 October, mostly before Dusshera which is a major festival for Nepalis. They reassemble in Goa to do brisk business there through the winter and again reassemble back in Leh next year, before the tourist come to reinvent the wheel again while the tourists enjoy their cuisines.
Leh has many splendors and these need to be preserved. The ugly side of tourism will swap these simple people if adequate steps are not taken.

The author is a retired brigadier
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