Since the opening to tourism in the 1970s, some scholars of Ladakh have lamented the corrosive influence this outside presence has had on the region’s culture and way of life. In addition to creating a massive resource strain on an already fragile desert ecology, tourism has been perhaps the largest force for rapidly changing the values of the traditional Buddhist society. Particularly, there is the concern that tourism has introduced an unprecedented obsession with material wealth and social status. This has caused some to wonder, in spite of the economic development, whether tourism has created more harm than good.
I think many of these critiques of tourism are both warranted and important; Ladakhis and others who care about the region should consider critically how to balance centuries-old values and ways of life with the rapid transformations affecting the area. For this reason, I was happily surprised when I saw an example of tourism creating an increased appreciation for Ladakhi culture among young Ladakhis, as opposed to deepening an inferiority complex rooted in a (perhaps false) sense of material lack.
Around noon one Saturday, I saw a crowd of nearly 150 young Ladakhis leaving the Atisha Dharma Center in central Leh. It was a sharp contrast from when I visited the center a few years ago and there were only a dozen or so retired Ladakhis, sitting on the floor and learning to read Tibetan scriptures under the guidance of one monk. An hour or so after seeing them leave, I saw the youth filtering back to the Dharma hall. I went to inside to ask what they were all doing at a Buddhist center on their Saturday.
I learned they were attending a five-day course introducing the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism and the history of the most important monasteries in Ladakh. The young people were mostly college students back in Ladakh on their summer holiday from universities in Jammu, Delhi and Bangalore. They were attending the course to learn information necessary to act as tour guides for foreign and Indian tourists in Ladakh.
In most of Tibet and the Himalaya during the pre-modern period, Buddhist study was the exclusive prerogative of a relatively small group of monastics. Even among monks and nuns, the number who had the opportunity for in-depth study was only a fraction of the larger monastic population, the majority of whom were responsible for the cooking, cleaning, land management, and ritual propitiations that constituted most of the daily schedule. Therefore, a group of young laypeople engaging in Buddhist study is a relatively modern phenomenon.
I interviewed a few of the students during a class break about why they were taking the course. Their answers were fairly uniform. As one 20 year old studying in Delhi told me, “I’m mainly studying so I can be a guide. So many tourists come here in the summer and if I can share information with them, it’s a good way to earn money to support myself during the year at university.” He added, “I’m finding I’m really interested in what we’re learning though. Growing up, I never knew the differences between the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, or the history of the monasteries I visited so many times. It’s good to finally learn these things about my culture and history.” When I asked whether they would attend the course were it not for the possibility of employment, most smiled bashfully and replied, “Probably not.”
In both the case of these students and those studying at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, it was outside parties valuing Ladakhi culture (tourists and the Indian Ministry of Culture) that catalyzed opportunities for the students to study their Buddhist heritage. Were it not for these external influences, whether these young people would engage in this study is arguably doubtful. While I think there are many reasons to be critical of tourism in Ladakh, the results it brings are frequently more complex and nuanced than either critics or advocates make them out to be. In this particular case, tourism served as the direct cause for 150 students taking a week out of their summer to learn about their own Buddhist culture, study which, by their own admission, they would not have pursued were it not for the potential tourist dollars. With this in mind, I think it is prudent to consider how tourism can be harnessed to support initiatives encouraging the perpetuation and revitalization of Ladakhi culture, rather than efforts to turn Ladakh into a luxury mountain getaway.