Hotels in India » Religion-culture in India » In Praise of a People on the Rooftop of the World

In Praise of a People on the Rooftop of the World

Ladakh is not for the faint-hearted; not for those wedded to the creature comforts of the Western world. It is for the bold of spirit, the strong of lung and limb. It is for those seeking physical challenge - trekking, cycling, rafting, mountaineering -- in a wilderness of awesome grandeur; and it is for those seeking spiritual renewal through a community largely untouched by the wider world; a people poor in worldly riches, devout in religious faith, secure in their sense of who they are.

I do not mean that Ladakh is Paradise before the Fall. Its people, descended from tribes who settled there two to three millennia ago, eke out a bare subsistence living. To the casual interloper it wouldn't do for the long haul. Yet the notion of a culture pared back to the basics, unencumbered by Western post-modern neurosis, exercises a powerful fascination.

In saying this I am indebted to Helena Nordberg-Hodge, a Swedish linguist, who fell in love with the place on her first visit there in 1975. She has returned time and again ever since. To conserve traditional values, develop intermediate technologies and resist surrender to Western economic development models, she founded the Ladakh Project. In her book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Oxford India Paperbacks, 1991) she writes:

In Ladakh I have known a society in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a society in which crime is virtually non-existent, communities are healthy and strong, and a teenage boy is never embarrassed to be gentle and affectionate with his mother or grandmother. And as that society begins to break down under pressures of modernization, the lessons are of relevance far beyond Ladakh itself.

Thousands of Westerners, pilgrims in quest of a spiritual nirvana they cannot find in the West, mostly young backpackers from northern Europe and Anglophone countries, converge on Ladakh in the summer months, from June to late September.

If you visit the capital, Leh, in the first fortnight of September, it offers the bonus of the annual Ladakh arts festival. There is a daily program of song, dance and music celebrating the Buddhist faith, imported a thousand years ago, and its own peasant culture, including hill-tribe polo and archery contests. Ladakh's very isolation enables it to withstand bland, seductive baubles of Western pop culture.

Helen Nordberg-Hodge again:

Everything in Ladakh reflects its religious heritage. The landscape is dotted with walls of carved prayer stones and chortens, fluttering flags whisper prayers to the winds and always on some distant height rise the massive white walls of a monastery.

Leh is a frontier town in a frontier region. Once upon a time it was a staging post on the famous Silk Road between China and Europe. From 950 AD it was the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, until 1834 when it fell to the Maharaja of Kashmir. With the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, Leh became a major operational base against border incursions by Pakistan to the west and China to the east. To this day it hosts a huge standing army.

Today, with a population of some 30,000, Leh is a fusion of medieval and modern market town. It has open drains, packs of stray dogs, livestock stabled in town houses; it has Tibetan refugees and Kashmiri traders entreating you to buy Himalayan jewellery and clothing; it is a cacophony of horns and engines as scooters, bikes, cars, trucks and buses clear paths through pedestrians on narrow, winding, dusty, unpaved roads.

As travel destinations go, thanks to its climatic and topographical extremes, Ladakh is well off the beaten track; indeed, the sense of being on the rooftop of the world is central to its charm. Helena Nordberg-Hodge describes life there as:

...dictated by the seasons -- more so, perhaps than almost any other inhabited place on earth. Scorched by the sun in summer, the entire region freezes solid in winter when temperatures drop to as low as minus 40 degrees. This is the fiercest of climates: winds whip up tornadoes along the empty corridors of desert; rain is so rare that is easy to forget its very existence...The vast majority of Ladakhis are self-supporting farmers, living in small settlements scattered in the high desert. The size of each village depends upon the availability of water which comes from melted snow and ice of the mountains. Generations ago channels were built, tapping the meltwater from above and bringing it down to the fields.

Nordberg-Hodge carries a torch for the Ladakhi people in public lectures all over the world. She tells her audiences of a way of life under threat from Western economic and cultural domination. For all that it offers lessons which the wider world should take to heart.

The old culture reflected fundamental human needs while respecting natural limits. And it worked. It worked for nature, and it worked for people. The various connecting relationships in the traditional system were reinforcing, encouraging harmony and stability...I have no doubt that the bonds and responsibilities of traditional society, far from being a burden, offered a profound sense of security which seems to be a prerequisite for inner peace and contentedness...


The capital, Leh, stands at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level, with mountain peaks more than twice as high. You should beware of rushing about trying to do too much when you first arrive, particularly if you come by air. The state government tourist booklet warns of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema and Cerebral Oedema, "very serious forms of High Altitude Sickness which are life threatening and require immediate medical attention." Visitors, particularly those coming by plane, should take a complete rest for the first 24 hours while their bodies adapt to lower levels of oxygen.

Ladakhi tourism focuses on the economy-class backpacker. More than 100 hotels and guesthouses are listed in Leh, 20 of which are "A-class", among them is the Omsila Hotel where Roz and I stayed. It is a ten minute walk from the town centre. The ambience was up market hostel. Lunch and dinner were a variety of north Indian curry dishes. Guest rooms boasted en suite bathrooms but with hot water at particular times of the day only. Bathing oneself involved a handheld shower-rose or a bucket and pannikin.

Leh restaurants offer north Indian of Chinese food at about Rs. 100/- per head. For Rs. 900/- you can hire a car and driver/guide for the day. Of Leh's 30-odd travel agents and tour operators offering porters, pack-ponies and guides for individual and group trekking, I must commend in particular Gypsy Tours Treks and Tours because it provides in addition a fax and phone service to the wider world, a service conspicuously absent in most of the local hotels.