Between Earth and Heaven, Between Tradition and Modernity

I arrived a couple days ago in Leh and, ignoring the medical advice of the J&K tourism bureau, did not wait to acclimatize to the altitude. I was so excited to be back in the Himalayas, after dropping my bags at the guesthouse, I immediately began the 2.5-mile hike up to the main bazar.

The beauty of Ladakh has an almost dreamlike feel. Leh is situated in a valley, surrounded closely by rust-colored rock faced mountains and circled more distantly by snow peaks on the horizon. The city itself is at 11, 500 feet, while the surrounding mountains are upwards of 19,000. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism is pervasive. Pictures of lamas and the Buddha adorn nearly every car dashboard while stupas are situated all throughout the city, even in the center of roundabouts, facilitating the accumulation of positive karma in the daily act of driving. The older generation walk through the market quietly murmuring mantras and fingering their rosaries while children stretch up to reach the handles massive, 15-foot prayer wheels, running round and round to send their prayers outward.

This stark geographic beauty and rich Buddhist culture have made Ladakh a central tourist destination for Indians and foreigners alike. Whereas formerly the journey required an arduous daylong jeep trip from elsewhere in the Himalaya, there are now daily flights into Leh, connecting Ladakh to the rest of India unlike ever before. In June through August, the prime tourist season, the city witnesses tens of thousands of tourists. Tourism is now one of the central sources of income for Ladakhis, and this risks changing the very culture that draws tourism in the first place.

Ladakhis are trying to manage a delicate balance. While the older generation value their language, traditions, and culture, it can be difficult for young people to see the economic value in the modern world. Ladakh has a total population of around 200,000 and their language Bodti, a dialect of Tibetan, is not spoken beyond the mountainous region. To communicate with the thousands of Indians and foreigners with whom Ladakhis do business, Hindi and English are essential. For many young people, Ladakhi language and the culture it carries can seem anachronistic and irrelevant. Furthermore, there is a steady increase of young people from rural Ladakh to Leh, and from Leh to bigger Indian cities. The agrarian way of life that sustained Ladakh for thousands of years is less and less appealing within a generation who value smart phones and social media.

My central research aims are to understand how Ladakhis are responding to the onslaught of modernity and to examine how educational institutions are attempting to perpetuate traditional Ladakhi knowledge while also recognizing the need to respond to the unprecedented globalization occurring in the region. I have visited the Student Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) Leh office and am making arrangements for an extended stay at their Phyang campus, in a village about 20 kilometers outside of the city. I also intend to research at monastic schools in rural Ladakh to study how they are responding to the rapid changes happening in the region. While my research is specific to Ladakh, I hope it will have relevance to other contexts in which indigenous cultures struggle to affirm their own traditions while also engaging with the globalized modern world.

P.S. I promise to include photos in my future posts. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling to find an internet connection strong enough to upload them!!

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About patrickjdowd

Patrick Dowd is completing his master's degree in international educational development from the University of Pennsylvania, where he has focused on indigenous education and language revitalization in the Tibetan-speaking Himalayas and Tibet. He is currently working with the education division of UNESCO Kathmandu as well as the constitutionally-established Language Commission of Nepal.