The Winds of Change : Beyond Conventional Tourism

LADAKH IS a region with a unique history and culture - and a very rich one at that. The region was largely isolated from the rest of the country till quite late. The infusion of outsiders started ?rst with the army, and then gradually tourists started thronging the region, throwing open a hitherto very little known society. Somewhere in this surge of  influences from beyond, the Ladakhis began to lose their identity, their link with what was intrinsically born of the land and its historical, cultural in?uences.  It happened in small ways.  Traditional jewellery and  kitchenware disappeared from shelves of homes and shops. Instead items which were in  vogue outside began to be used.   This phase luckily  did not endure. Gradually realization dawned that tourists were interested in all that was truly Ladakhi.This realization brought the local people back to their culture.  Tourists were interested in monasteries  reflecting  local history, culture, art.  A  repository of printing and sculpture, showcasing a unique architectural style built atop hills or in valleys, these structures were a major attraction.  Alchi, a monastery built in the midst of a village was exceptional for its exquisite woodcarving, sculpture and printing. The fascination shown by the tourists was infectious and also lucrative for locals who were part of the booming tourism industry.  A revisiting of their own culture and history began to happen,  with reinvented  pride in their heritage.  Almost every monastery in Ladakh celebrates a festival once a year. The Hemis festival is  famous,  catching the tourist season at its peak. Festivals anywhere are all about celebrating a particular tradition and custom and in Ladakh have led to a resurgence of the joy, gaiety and fervour amongst locals.  Conservation has taken on a new meaning in this resurgence.  Old palaces of kings in the long historyof Ladakh dotted the landscape, most were neglected and derelict. Today the pages of history have come alive again, shaking out of their  stupor to give a new lease of life to historical buildings. The nine-storied Leh Palace is now being repaired by the Central government, while the Basgo monastery is a part of the world heritage buildings, conserved by UNESCO.Interestingly enough, the influence has not remained restricted to strictly ‘tourist’ aspects. It has permeated into the rest of society as well.   In schools across Ladakh, children would find nothing on their own land and culture in their books. All the study material in the school was in Urdu and English, not the language of the people who speak Ladakhi.  Examples given in these books were from cultures and symbols from  other parts of India and even other countries, leaving the Ladakhi child alienated from his/her own study materials and in a sense from the very purpose of education. Strangely if a Ladkahi child saw  a picture related to life here,  he/she would get very surprised andshow it to all the friends!But now plenty of  books are available written by tourists   and visitors.  The visitors who connected in more meaningful ways with the region , its culture became also a source of immense learning for the local Ladakhis. Young people now  understand the value of culture and read about it more extensively. It also has something to do with the opportunities they  now get for using  this knowledge. In their work as mountaineering and culture guide for tourists, this ful?ls an important and much sought-after requirement.Based on wisdom passed down the generations, Ladakh has been home to an indigenous form of medicine called the ‘Amchi’ system.  Over time,  its popularity had waned and  support for sustaining this ancient form was   ?agging. Of late though, it has invited not just curiosity but  keen interest by several tourists who study its principles and would like to bring it back into usage. Such is the quaint charm of this body of knowledge.  On similar lines, Ladakhi traditional songs and dance which were slipping in their popularity giving way to modern beats and forms have now revived.  The Ladakh Festival held in September every year at the tail-end of the tourist season to give it one ?nalboost before the region shuts down for winter has made this happen.  During this, troupes from different regions of Ladakh put up a colorful, rich fare of their unique forms of   traditional songs and dances in Leh, the capital and the hub of tourists. Several  aspects of Ladakhi life and culture had hit rock bottom and are now on the upswing . This includes  traditional foods. which were disappearing from kitchen tables and commercial establishments.  Modern packaged foods which started making  their way into the region, dealt a blow to these initially.  Teachers who came from outside infact were known to tell young students, that Ladakhi foods lead to stupid minds.  These foods have  been revived and homegrown fruits like apricot and sea buckthorn are not only back on the plates but are being processed for jam and juice. The local handicraft industry has also received a shot in the arm. All over trekking trails, small shops selling local craft and clothes have mushroomed in response to the tourist interest.To be a Ladakhi and to have a sense of pride and joy in this is something of a new experience for countless people. To see themselves from the outside  to view the richness of their heritage, the unique culture of this breathtakingly beautiful terrain is in no small measure due to the spirit of the travellers. Yes the Ladakhis have no doubt risen to the occasion to put their best foot forward to welcome its guests!

{This article has been written under the “Sanjoy Ghose Ladakh  Women Writers Award  2008-09 }
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