Excerpt : Darwin would be proud of them

Excerpt  : Darwin would be proud of them

In the inhospitable, dangerous, and now, increasingly unpredictable terrain, ordinary Ladhakis have wondrously created a life for themselves. This...

In the inhospitable, dangerous, and now, increasingly unpredictable terrain, ordinary Ladhakis have wondrously created a life for themselves. This excerpt from Beautiful Country � Stories From Another India, takes a look at the delights of this bare, yet bustling, paradise be2 As we entered India's only cold desert, the mountains changed face and colour. Zigzag patterns of the type which are seen on sand beaches after the waters recede, had been traced on the rocks by an invisible hand. We sped past stone houses with wooden windows, as also many fluttering prayer flags and chortens. Chortens are white stupas under which the Buddhists bury the ashes and relics of their dead. As we got closer to Leh, the landscape became more arid; yellow and brown were the only colours the eye could see. By now, the river had vanished and we were on a vast tableland with tufts of grass and a sprinkling of tiny purple flowers. Against the softening evening light, the sky was awash with blue, clear as a mirror, and the road seemed to lead straight into its expanse. Just when the sun was sinking in its customary place on the horizon, we entered Leh, the district headquarters. We had been told that the road journey would acclimatize us but breathing in the rarefied atmosphere of this cold desert was still not easy. � Our next destination was a pashmina rearing farm. It was located some forty kilometres from a village called Upshi, an important junction on the treacherous Leh-Manali highway � the alternative entry route to Ladakh. Located at a height of 15,000 ft, the farm offered a dazzling view of the Indus and the surrounding cold desert. Here we saw pashmina sheep that allow their hair to be used for weaving the most expensive shawls in the world. The livestock lives on the high mountains surrounding the area and is brought to the farm in the last week of September. We discovered that the current inhabitants of the pen had been brought down from their lofty habitat only for our benefit. Officials explained that pashmina is the fine hair which grows beneath the normal hair of the sheep to ward off the cold. During summer, the sheep shed this inner coat as it is no longer required. It is then collected and spun into the soft silky wool that the Ladakhis call 'lena' and the world calls pashmina. It is said that the King of Ladakh once presented Mirza Haider, a cousin of the Mughal emperor, Babar, with some lena. Haider got it woven into two shawls which were purchased by two Persian traders and presented to their king. The traders then went back to Ladakh and brought some more lena which they took as far as Alexandria. Thus spread the fame of the lena or the Kashmiri pashmina. On the way back to Leh, we stopped at the Stok Palace. This four-storey structure is located on the west bank of River Indus. It is a unique palace, unlike any other we had seen across the country. There is no mural, no gold leafwork, no inlay or coloured glass. The palace is sturdy and bare, like its surrounding landscape. Constructed in 1814 by Ladakh's last ruler, it is now a museum that houses a rare collection of thangkas, some of which date back to the thirteenth century. Also on display are garments, coins, religious objects and chunky silver jewellery encrusted with lapis lazuli, jade, amber and coral. � 'Our winters are long and our people have no means of earning. But these very people have unparalleled skills. Have you seen our exquisitely carved tables, our jewellery and, our carpets? Every summer when tourists flock Leh, we are focused to sell wares procured from other parts of the country. We have very little of our own to offer. Just provide us some training and working capital and see how our products become popular in the global market,' they [leaders of the LAHDC or Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council] said. The next morning, as we explored the markets of Leh, we realized the truth behind these words. There had been no exaggeration; stall after stall was filled with intricately carved Ladakhi tables, most of them bearing the dragon symbol. We saw tourists buying Tibetan carpets and chunky Ladakhi jewellery adorned with lapis. The art of handprinting by the wood engraving process had been brought to Ladakh from China via Tibet in the seventeenth century, under King Nyima Namgyal.
We saw exquisite hand-printed scrolls and tables on display. For travellers like us, the prices seemed high. But, as a shopkeeper explained, the two-month tourist season is the only source of livelihood for most artisans. They have to live on these earnings for the whole year. At the end of our journey, we visited the monasteries about which we had read in travel, adventure, and spiritual literature. We found them as we had imagined. Standing proudly against the azure sky of this barren brown landscape, these monasteries are not just tourist attractions but a source of hope and strength for the Ladakhis. � Life in the monasteries has always been mysterious. Some of it was revealed to us during these visits. For example, the Ladhaki stove, which resembles an intricately carved, gold painted wooden table. On top of it are placed huge pots. There are water taps directly above these pots for boiling rice and preparing other dishes. Behind this structure is a small room with an enclosure for burning wood to heat the stove. As we walked through the monastery, we reveled in the sense of orderliness and calm that enveloped it. We could not help but wonder at the ingenuity of a people who had managed to create such a life for themselves in this inhospitable, dangerous, and now, increasingly unpredictable terrain. Theirs was a tough life; the criss-crossing wrinkles on the weather-beaten faces were a living testimony of their hardiness and adaptability. Yes, Darwin would be proud of them, we thought with a smile.
(From Beautiful Country � Stories From A Another India by Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins)
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