Beyond Bygone

Leh, with love

An account of the writer’s journey through Leh — a land of extraordinary natural beauty and dense cultural history — with the mission of organising the native tribal artisans

My work delightfully took me to Leh, Ladakh on August 15, 2019. Navigating through majestic mountain ranges, at times brown, at times golden, at times indigo and at times pristine white, we landed at the Leh Army airport, bang on time.The first 24 hours had to be spent resting and getting the system adapted to the low oxygen.

My team and I were in Ladakh to organise Aadi Mahotsav to galvanise and mainstream Ladakhi tribal Artisans. The fabled Pashmina, dry fruits, handcrafted copper wares and pharmaceuticals along with the delightful Ladakhi Kitchen were to be showcased. The traditional dances and songs were to be performed every evening. The objective was to help integrate the Ladakhi master craftsmen and women into the mainstream through TRIFED.

Let me tell you a secret. The altitude of Leh was challenging both to my body and my mind. To camouflage this, I had to be in perpetual high spirits to beat the sickliness of the initial days. This was necessary to keep the spirits of my team high and meet the launch deadline of the Leh Aadi Mahotsav, scheduled to start on August 17.

The opening was a grand affair with more than 10,000 Ladakhis packing the parade ground. Locals told me the event was one of the best and biggest events held in recent memory. Midway during the festivities of the opening ceremony, the clouds burst and to our great astonishment, no one moved an inch. The rainfall was cheered with loud clapping. It was an auspicious start, my liaison whispered in my ear, as I tried to hide my discomfiture.

After the VIPs had departed, we celebrated the success with our local hosts feasting on mouth-watering dishes of Thukpa, Khameeri roti and chutney followed by pink tea or salty tea as per preference. And, our celebrations would not have been half as much fun if we did not have Ataullah in our midst.

Ataullah, my Liaison Officer, (LO as he introduced himself) was the Naib Tahsildar of the subdivision Leh. A charmer, fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Ladakhi, workable English and always smiling. He was an animated talker and told me about the local places of importance, the governance priorities, food habits of people and their lifestyles attuned to the harsh eight-month winter.

Ladakh is the land of Pashmina and we had met some great sheep and goat rearers and artisans who made beautiful shawls and other garments from this world-renowned wool. This would be an abiding relationship to be cemented with VanDhan Centres later.

Luscious dry fruits, fresh fruits with exotic names, Sea Buck Thorn, for starters, and a fine range of vegetables grow here and apricots are the trademark products. A variety of herbs grow here and made into drugs on lines of the Tibetan school of medicine. There was potential here and TRIFED proposed to take all of this to 190 countries of the world.

The Sindhu Sangam, the Pangong Lake and the Namgyal Palace are a treat. The riveting tales of valour encapsulated in the Army Hall of Fame and the sound and light show in the evening were awe-inspiring.

From atop a go-around at the Ladakh Museum, you can have a glimpse of the places of worship of all religions. We witnessed this with our ever-smiling liaison, from the top of the monument which had displays of old trading systems, routes and many other relics from the past.

In between our conversations, Ataullah would be receiving messages or passing instructions to someone in a village where rainwater would have caused or would cause problems, with a polite nod to me.

He helped liaise with the district authorities to help set up the arrangements. With juniors, he was the boss and with seniors, "Sir, aap baat kar lijiye". All contact numbers were available with him. He also knew of the ones who would not pick up the mobiles at odd hours when we needed them.

He knew almost everybody, most of whom met him with an embrace. At a shop where the POS was not working, Atta paid up without winking an eyelid. We later reimbursed him with thanks.

At one point, he sheepishly asked me, "Agar burra na mane toh, poochoon", and without waiting for my permission he continued, "Kya aap Devanand ke rishtedaar hain". I stared at him and after an initial moment of hesitant silence, we both burst out laughing, in splits and almost tumbling over the low Ladakh Palace terrace walls. Afterwards, we clicked a selfie to seal our friendship.

The writer is the Managing Director of TRIFED, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India

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