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Need to preserve Ladakhi culture, amid 'shifting sands'

Leh , Fri, 02 Dec 2011 ANI

Leh, Dec 2 (ANI): A faded photograph in the window shows a handsome young couple in traditional Ladakhi dress, complete with vibrant turquoise semi-precious stones adorning the perak, or headdress, that symbolizes the rank and economic status of the woman wearing it.


The smiling young girl in the picture, is now a rugged middle-aged woman with deep lines on her face from years of tending to her vegetable garden under the sharp sun in this cold desert region, laughs away questions about the attire. "We only wear them on special occasions now," she says, adding ruefully, "The youngsters don't even do that." Her sprightly son Jigmet, the jeans-and-T-shirt clad Jimmy, sure doesn't.


The 'Land of Mountain Passes' cut off by snow for over five months each year, Ladakh has seen identities and aspirations change with time, influenced by passing travellers and more recently, escalating domestic and international tourist traffic. Its rich traditional and cultural heritage underwent changes with each passing influence: some practices lost their essence while others withstood the test of time and remained intact.


The moot question remains: Is the acceptance of these changes at the cost of the collective cultural knowledge a step in the right direction?


The Ladakh region has an interesting history, with changes sweeping across its snow covered barren land over the centuries. It became the melting pot absorbing the most changes, developing a dynamic distinctiveness all its own.


Despite its geographical inaccessibility, Ladakh was a significant trade centre in ancient times and evolved a unique culture from the seeds of mixed customs, brought to its land by traders from Central Asia, Tibet, Punjab, Kashmir, Kullu-Kangra and Baltistan. It served as a venue for barter trade. Tibet had a dominant influence over the religious beliefs of the region.


Traditionally self-sufficient farmers, the Ladakhi families would spend the brief summer in their fields, producing enough to last the long, harsh winters, when they worked equally hard for the production of wool. Animal husbandry remains a prime source of sustenance for the rural communities, providing milk, wool and transport; and dung for fuel. The unflinching Buddhist faith is reflected in the numerous beautiful monasteries dotting the landscape.


In 1960, the first winds of change swept through the mountains, when the Indian Government carved out a road connecting the neighbouring Kashmir Valley to Ladakh as a strategic move to defend its borders against China and Pakistan. In the 1970's, foreign travellers were given the permission to visit this sensitive region. They found the spellbinding terrain ideal for trekking, mountaineering, jeep safaris, biking and river rafting. The monasteries evoked the interest of historians, anthropologists and scholars alike.


Appreciation for its enigmatic charm and geographical uniqueness spread fast and wide, giving Ladakh credit and popularity worldwide as a great tourist destination. There has been no looking back since, as Ladakh remains high on the list of preferred tourist destinations in India.


Relatively less known are the disturbances this has caused to the cultural and traditional practices in Ladakh. To meet the demands of increasing numbers of travellers visiting Ladakh every year, hotels, shops, restaurants and guesthouses have sprung up unchecked. This has made huge demands on the limited infrastructure of the sparsely populated region, and affected the fragile environment.


With global influence, work practices have also altered, transforming the aesthetic sensibilities of the locals. Young Ladakhis have moved away from the traditional ways of life, rejecting the hard work in the field and developing a preference for the relatively sedentary and more lucrative tourist trade.


During the peak tourist season, youngsters from interior villages migrate to Leh and work in hotels, restaurants and cafes. Some become tour guides. This happens when their farms need them the most. Interestingly, one would think that all this must have created better job opportunities. But to the disappointment of all, there is inconsistency in the employment opportunities, resulting in increased rates of unemployment and crime: in a region where scarcity and sin were practically unknown.


In the past, artefacts like thangkas, prayer flags, prayer wheels and jewellery had tremendous significance and were highly revered. Today, they are produced for sale, and have all but lost their very essence. The traditional Ladakhi dress, Goncha, once made in Ladakhi homes and most appropriate for the climatic conditions of the region, is barely ever worn by the youth.


This has also intensely influenced the self-image of the community. A sense of inferiority permeates the youth who place a higher value on the western lifestyle in terms of wealth and leisure in comparison to their traditional way of life; a way of life that truly reflects the perfect balance between social and natural heritage. The young now wish to acquire a modernised and seemingly glamorised life complete with luxuries and technological gadgets. English has overtaken the Ladakhi language.


All this seems like an attack on the Ladakhi culture. Environment, society, traditions and cultures have become the target of these rapid changes. If the changes would have been gradual, the people of Ladakh could have prevented the erosion of their cultural heritage. ut the old adage better Late than never still holds. There are many government and non- government organisations offering information, support and a sense of pride to those who continue to live and work in Ladakh.


The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that such initiatives need to be encouraged as the Buddhist virtue of self- awareness alone can help the Ladakhis retain their culture. By Deachen Yangdol (ANI)


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