Imagine the world without anger, without greed. We have the power, the tools, the skills and the resources right now to build a peaceful world, where people live in harmony with the Earth and each other. This blog explores ways we are doing just that, one post, one change, one day at a time. Join me. Tell your stories. Ask for help. Spread your ideas for making the vision real and, well, ordinary.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ladakh: Living example of Ordinary life

Leh Valley in Ladakh
© Dr. Gebhard Gaukler
Creative Commons NC ND 3.0

Some of the most faithful readers of Rose's journal speak of Ordinary as a utopia, a place so far removed from present day life as to be unattainable.

But there is a region on this earth where for centuries, despite political turmoil all round them, the people have lived largely contented, peaceful lives in complete harmony with the land.

That place is Ladakh, tucked in a high Himalayan valley in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Altitude and extreme summers and winters make this one of the least hospitable regions on earth, yet the Ladakhi have thrived for centuries, working hard, yes, but playing for months on end when the work was done.

If you've been reading me a while, you know the Village is modeled, in part, on the Ladakhi society.

The mere existence of Ladakh and its culture make Ordinary possible.

Grab a cuppa and journey to Ladakh with me

I think you'll enjoy the trip. It's a long post, so I timed it--about 6-1/2 minutes to read, unless you stop to enjoy the pictures or follow links.

Ready? Let's see how the Ladakh lived when linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge met them nearly forty years ago. Afterward, I'll ask you how we might build such a delightful, sustainable life for ourselves--where we live.

'Fields of barley, fringed with wild flowers'

© Dr. Gebhard Gaukler
Creative Commons NC ND 3.0

At first, Norberg-Hodge seems to feel alienated by the harsh landscape, the hostile weather.

How can life be sustained in this wilderness? Everything is barren; each step you take sends up a cloud of sand and dust. Yet ... brilliant green oases come into focus, set like emeralds in a vast elephant-skin desert.

Fields of barley appear, fringed with wild flowers and herbs and the clear waters of glacial streams. Above the fields sits a cluster of houses, gleaming white, three floors high, and hung with finely carved balconies; brightly colored prayer flags flutter on the roof-tops. Higher still, perched on the mountainside, a monastery watches over the village."
Helene Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, p. 9

In these few lines, we are transported. Forbidding landscapes surround villages of sublime simplicity and beauty. We yearn to feel our feet on their well-worn paths. We thirst for a taste of that icy water. We flare our nostrils, hoping for a whiff of the flowers dancing in the breeze. We stretch our imaginary necks for a glimpse of people working in the fields, strain to hear laughter or music from the open windows of the sparkling houses.

Monastery at Likir, Ladakh
© Dr. Gebhard Gaukler
Creative Commons NC ND 3.0

Our pulses are calmed at the thought of gentle nuns and monks tending gardens and ancient texts within the thick, stone walls of their monastery.

'Smiling faces greet you'

Ladakhi woman in traditional hat and dress
© babasteve
Creative Commons 2.0 generic
Norberg-Hodge delights in the joy ever present on Ladakhi faces.

She tells us they waste little time dwelling on misfortunes or holding grudges. Their response to difficulty or dissension is frequently a shrug and laughter. Their favorite rejoinder, when asked why they don't respond to conflict in anger or frustration: "Chi choen? (What's the point?) Anyway, we have to live together."

As you wander through the fields, or follow the narrow paths that wind between the houses, smiling faces greet you. It seems impossible that people could prosper in such desolation, and yet all the signs are that they do. Everything has been done with care: fields have been carved out of the mountainside and layered in immaculate terraces, one above the other; the crops are thick and strong and form such patterns that an artist might have sown their seeds.

Around each house, vegetables and fruit trees are protected from the goats by a stone wall on which cakes of dung, to be used as fuel for the kitchen stove, lie baking in the sun. On the flat roof, animal fodder--alfalfa and hay, together with leaves of the wild iris--has been stacked in neat bundles for winter. Apricots left to dry on yak-hair blankets and potted marigolds give a blaze of brilliant orange.
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, pp. 9-10

Here we get a glimpse of the thoughtfulness with which the land has been tended for centuries, its resources carefully managed. Chief of these is water.

Water determines the size of each village

Stream at Zinchen, Ladakh
© wildxplorer
Creative Commons

Until very recently, the Ladakh region was one of the driest on earth, typically receiving no more than 3-1/2 inches rain a year. According to Wikipedia and photographer Dr. Gebhard Gekler, whose photographs are among those on this page, global warming is changing all that. Dr. Gekler, in a comment to me (scroll down to "Dear Kathryn ..."), says that increased rain, due to rapid Himalayan glacial melt, is causing so much damage to the houses, built for dry conditions, that "everywhere you see ugly blue plastic foils to protect the houses against water."

While increased rainfall may change the way the Ladakhi irrigate, in 1975, they were master water managers. Irrigation fell mainly to the women, who were responsible for growing the crops.
The size of each village depends on the availability of water, which comes from the melted snow and ice of the mountains. Generations ago, channels were built, tapping the meltwater from above and bringing it down to the fields. The water is often channeled for several miles, across steep walls of rock and scree, stretching it as far as it will reach. An elaborate, well-maintained network of smaller channels weaves through each village.
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, p. 11

Climate determines the crops

Before western encroachment, the Ladakhi lived very well on the foods supplied by their animals and on the crops they grew. While their diet was limited to just a few fruits, vegetables and grains, it was nourishing. The Ladakhi did not want.

At altitudes of 10,000 feet and above, and with a growing season limited to little more than four months, the decision as to what to plant is to a great extent already made for the Ladakhis. ... On the Tibetan Plateau, the principal crop is barley; the diet is based on its roasted flour, ngamphe. About two-thirds of the fields are planted with barley, the remainder with fast-growing varieties of wheat. Most farmers also have some small fields of peas and a garden of turnips. In the valleys below 11,000 feet there are orchards of apricots and giant walnut trees.
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, p. 11

Animals provide food, fuel, clothing, heat and labor

Woman with cows
© Dr. Gebhard Gaukler
Creative Commons NC ND 3.0

Thriving in this high desert for thousands of years, the animals are adapted well to the harsh conditions of extreme heat in summer, temperatures to forty below during the very long winters.

Lovingly tended, they shelter on the ground floor of the houses in winter, their body heat rising to warm the family on the floors above them.

A rich resource from birth to death, the animals provide milk, butter and cheese, fuel in the form of dried dung, clothing from their thick wool, and draft labor. After death, their meat will be dried for long-term storage. Every bone, sinew and tissue will be utilized. Nothing is wasted.

They provide dung, the main fuel, as well as transport, labor, wool, and milk. The most common domesticated animals are sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cows and the famous yak. The dzo, a hybrid between the local cow and yak, is the most important and useful draft animal.
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, p. 13
On her first visit to a village outside Leh, in the early years of her work with the Ladakhi, Norberg-Hodge treks overland four hours with her host and a Buddhist monk. They reach a pass above the village of Hemis.

'Village fields coiled like a green iridescent snake'

© Dr. Gebhard Gaukler
Creative Commons NC ND 3.0

Below us lay the village fields, coiled like a green iridescent snake between mountains of purple scree.

The path was steep and rocky, yet the Ladakhis ambled down it as if it were paved. The village of Hemis came up toward us: poplar trees, tall and straight; whitewashed houses golden bright in the evening sun, set in a patchwork of a hundred different greens of ripening crops. We wound between drystone walls that had been built over generations to retain the fragile soil of the mountains. Entering the village itself, in keeping with religious custom, we had to make a slight detour to pass to the left of a chorten, the ever-present symbol of Tibetan buddhism.

Chortens, like giant pawns from a chessboard, grace the entrance to every village, growing out of the soil as inevitably as the mountains themselves. Usually made of whitewashed stone and mud, they taper upward twenty feet or so to a spire. The whole structure represents the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings. A crescent moon cradling the sun at the very top symbolizes the oneness of life, the cessation of duality, thus reminding passers-by that all things, even the sun and the moon, which seem so far apart, are inextricably related.
Helena Norberg-Hodge
Ancient Futures, p. 16
It is this last that summarizes so well the success of the Ladakhi. "All things ... are inextricably related."

And that brings us back to today, you sitting there reading about the Ladakhi, me sitting here, typing, inextricably related.

Contrasts and challenges

Contrast the Ladakhi life with yours, or mine. I live in an apartment in a city. I have not so much as a balcony on which to grow a few herbs and tomatoes. Unlike the self-sufficient Ladakhi Norberg-Hodge found in 1975, when she first set foot on their soil, I am completely dependent on others for food, clothing, transportation further than I can walk, and energy to heat and light my home and cook my food.

Some of you have gardens, grow much of your own food. Many of you, like me, depend on others to provide your fuel, food, transportation, perhaps your homes. We pay for these commodities and services with money we earn providing other services and commodities to our customers and employers.

Conversely, the Ladakh, to build their gentle, sustainable society, worked with what was available to them:
  • Their innate joie de vivre
  • Their belief that all things--human, animal, plant, land, water and air--are connected
  • The region in which they lived--bits of dry valley, glacial melt-off
  • A few varieties of seeds
  • A few species of animals

They built a stunningly simple and delightful life for themselves. Unlike you, I'm guessing, and me, the Ladakh spent only a portion of their year earning their livelihood. For several months, the harshest during the winter, they partied! Their weddings and celebrations lasted weeks and frequently followed immediately one after another.

I don't know about you, but I want some of that, and that brings up a few questions.

Learning from Ladakh--Can we build sustainably where we are?

Most of you are well on the path to living consciously and sustainably. Many of you have altered your lifestyles completely, aiming to take less, give more. Reading your blogs and articles, though, I know that you struggle with the need to do even more (or should I say less). So as you respond to these questions, give yourself a break, a pat on the back for all you're doing right.

  • If I start where I am, if you start where you are, can we build a joyful, sustainable life for ourselves, equally vibrant to that of the Ladakhi, within the confines of our cities, our homes, as we live in them today?
  • How might we build a life that meets our needs without taking more than the earth can sustain? (Remember the carbon footprint quiz? I have quite a ways to go to achieve a sustainable lifestyle.)
  • How can we assure that our needs are met while ensuring the needs of Earth, other creatures, and most especially, other human beings are also met?
  • Is it possible to build Ordinary starting where we are, you sitting at your computer, me at mine?

I'm curious where this post and the questions lead you just now.

We make peace in a million small ways every day.
All text and images, unless otherwise noted, copyright L. Kathryn Grace. All rights reserved.

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