| Talking of nirvana
Thupstan Chhewang’s election to the Lok Sabha reflects the fear that alien hordes might unthinkingly trample this fragment of Tibet into oblivion. Ladakh is as Sikkim was; as Bhutan is determined to remain. Perhaps Towang, that other finger of the Tibetan palm, is still unspoiled.
Ladakh is pichda, pasmanda ilaka, a remote and isolated place, says Pinto Narboo, that the rest of India might never have heard of but for the war with China. Pinto, an engaging member of the state assembly, would pass unnoticed in Kalimpong. His father, Sonam Wangchuk, was a member of Sheikh Abdullah’s cabinet and ambassador to Mongolia. He managed Balmer Lawrie’s tea estates in Assam for five years. We sit in his garden amidst apple and apricot blossoms, a pair of black and white magpies fluttering their long tails on the roof, snow fringing the Leh horizon. He has lent me a wide-brimmed hat because, as every English-speaking Ladakhi warns, you can suffer sunstroke in this high thin air even while the frost deadens your toes.
Written in a less politically correct age, K.M. Panikkar’s The Founding of the Kashmir State says baldly, “The plateau of Ladak does not belong geographically to India.” The book has been sitting on my shelf these 23 years since Karan Singh gave it to me as proof that his ancestor extended India’s frontiers. Gulab Singh’s Dogra general Zorowar conquered Ladakh. The rounded mud walls of Zorowar’s fort guards the approach to Pinto’s house and the hotel he is getting ready for the season.
“The population of Ladak is predominantly Mongolian in type,” Panikkar continues. “Buddhism in its Lamaist form is the prevailing religion.” He missed out on the gnarled man who sold me dried apricots in the bazaar, a Dokpa, descended from Alexander’s soldiers. Panikkar also overlooked Kargil where 80 per cent of the people are Muslims. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election posters were all in Urdu. “Everyone understands it,” says Tsering Angmo Shunu for, thanks to Gulab Singh and Zorowar, Ladakh has been part of Muslim-majority Kashmir for 170 years.
Veteran of the Youth Congress, Angmo is All India Radio’s station director, a plump and jolly woman in a hugely gathered velvet skirt. The signs in her own office and even on her table are in Devnagari. Ladakh’s Tibetan script is nowhere to be seen. She gives a lift to a man who stands out in his smart trilby and a braided robe that looks better cut than the others. Tsewang Topden, a local notability and Raja of Matho, also breaks out in flowery Hindi. It seems bizarre that Angmo, Pinto and Colonel Wangdi, descendant of the kalons (ministers) of the old Ladakhi kings, should chatter away in Hindi among themselves during our al fresco lunch at a height of 11,000 ft. As bizarre as being interviewed by Angmo in Hindi, which I struggle through, for AIR’s Leh service.
Radio straddles borders, with listeners in Baltistan, Skardu, Tibet and China. It is the glue that links Ladakhis who may be a 19-day trek away in remote Zanskar. Every house has several receivers. As in Green Revolution Punjab, villagers take transistors to the field. There is no other media.
Angmo’s questions roam the world but zoom in on Ladakh. I have no hesitation in endorsing the need for special measures to preserve its Lamaist culture. Most land still belongs to the gompas. There are 13 major monasteries, thousands of whitewashed chortens and some 5,000 lamas. Sixteen-year-old Jigme Dorji, whom we rescue from the rain as he trips down the mountainside from Hemis monastery beyond a little iron bridge over the Indus, is among them. His father is lord of 300 sheep, 30 head of cattle and 20 yaks. He has been in robes for three years. Why' The childish prattle stops and his smooth young face turns solemn as he talks of nirvana.
Paradise has always been under threat. Gulab Singh’s was the first violation. But soon he was complaining of British visitors making off with vast quantities of saffron. Modern trekkers think nothing of rolling up an antique thanka in their backpacks. The more daring smuggle out forbidden shahtoosh.
Theft need not be material. The imperatives of security, with guns and khaki a constant presence and Zorowar’s fort bristling with soldiers, take toll of native rhythms. So does the Sindhu Darshan festival that Lal Krishna Advani, carried away by his belated discovery that the Indus also flows through India, foisted on Ladakh. The BJP’s return to power might have robbed Ladakh of more of its heritage, forcing garish temple stucco on the serenity of rock and river. Roadside hoardings like “Ladakh — The Jewel in the Crown of India” and “Unity in Development is Our Strength” may be fine for morale but are a blight on the wilderness.
Chhewang’s solution is the old demand for a Union territory. The battle goes back to 1947, when the Young Men’s Buddhist Association submitted a memorial to the vacillating Hari Singh to say that irrespective of Kashmir’s decision, Ladakh wanted to be Indian. So, I recalled, did another Buddhist enclave on the other side of the subcontinent, the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Karan Singh, too, thought Ladakh should be centrally administered. Now, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sees that as a way of ensuring Jammu’s complete merger with India.
The National Conference is accused of giving Ladakh a raw deal. Two representatives could not make its voice heard in the 86-member assembly. The autonomous hill development council conceded in 1993 was without powers or funds, though things have improved since. “I represent all communities,” Chhewang says, describing a 2002 decision to press the demand for a Union territory that also includes Kargil. It unites all parties. The Ladakh Union Territory Front sponsored Chhewang.
Some cite Article 370 as an obstacle. Others fear that Union territory status might bring Ladakh even closer to New Delhi’s Hindi domination with the administration passing to men who have no knowledge of or feeling for the area’s distinctive identity. So distinctive that when Indian troops captured a Pakistani soldier from Skardu, he asked only to be allowed to gaze upon the ruins of Leh’s nine-storey palace.
Angmo and I wander into a LUTF rally under its shadow. “I really shouldn’t be here,” she murmurs, remembering her official position. But everyone else is. And it’s difficult to get away from so many friends. Pinto is on the dais. So is Kushak Thiksey, the former Rajya Sabha member, a thin figure draped in red, whom I missed when I panted up the rough hewn steps to his monastery rising sheer from the mountainside like the Potala 18 kilometres from Leh. The wind carries the sound of music from beyond gilded fretwork; it also blows down a white plastic bowl and sends it careering across the terraced patios. The Buddha image fills all of three floors. A solitary monk breaks off his reading to ask me about the coming elections.
Clearly, the present cannot be shut out. Nor is there need to. Ladakh must live and to live it must trade. Tibet and China agreed in the 1842 treaty with Gulab Singh to keep the road open “for the traffic in Shawl, Pasham, and Tea.” A trade route to China is one possibility. Another is a road to Mansarovar for the pilgrim traffic. Local autonomy is essential. Chhewang talks of non- government organizations and harnessing solar energy for sustainable development. His solitary voice may not carry in New Delhi but a Muslim president, Sikh prime minister and Catholic rajmata might take an interest in this minority’s survival unless they themselves are too busy identifying with the majority.
Geographers call Baltistan Little Tibet. But as Ladakhis tell you, with Tibet lost, Ladakh is all that remains. It was a huge kingdom from Aksai Chin in the east to Gilgit in the west. What remains deserves preservation.