Visit the Ladakhi people of Kashmir: A warm community in an icy climate
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As the summer sun rises over Ladakh, a mountainous region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the shadows of the vast, jagged mountains begin to retreat and the spectacular Ladakhi landscape is slowly revealed in all its majesty.
The dramatic, barren mountains which dominate this region provide a stark contrast to the hidden valleys nestled amongst them; fertile oases bearing a variety of fruits and crops with rushing rivers spreading like veins across the land.
Scattered throughout these valleys are a number of colourful Buddhist monasteries and pristine stupas, glowing white against the grey mountainous backdrop. Often perched atop dramatic rock formations, adorned with colourful paintings and draped in Buddhist prayer flags, these picturesque sites are increasingly drawing tourists and trekkers to the region.
Several small villages are also peppered throughout the lush green valleys and, as dawn breaks, many of the villagers are already hard at work in the fields. Each hour of summer sun is precious in this region; Ladakh is a land of climate extremes and, to survive the long winter months, the local people must be well prepared.
As the summer comes to an end, snowfall begins to decorate the mountain peaks like icing sugar and strong bitter winds cause the vibrant prayer flags to dance and flutter; a beautiful warning of the brutal months ahead.
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So, what does this mean for the Ladakhi people?
Since most Ladakhi locals hold agricultural occupations, it would be easy to assume that winters are long, drawn-out months of boredom and isolation. However, the winter months are packed with festivities and ceremonies and the locals spend a great deal of time creating beautiful handicrafts.
The monasteries host annual festivals during which the monks perform masked dances and act out ancient Tibetan Buddhist stories, dressed in colourful costumes and adorned with intricate silk designs.
At Matho Festival, there are even oracles; monks in a trance state who claim to be able to predict the future of the Ladakh region.
The warm temperament of the local people, their sense of community and happiness despite the bitter winter, seems to melt away the icy environment. The Ladakhi people may have a lot to teach us about perspective and optimism; instead of viewing their barren winter landscape as a secluded, frozen enclave, they spend the long months in celebration.
As the years go by, the ruthless winters are not the only obstacles the Ladakhi people face.
As tourism to the region increases, many travellers have expressed concerns that the rich Ladakhi culture, and beautiful environment, will suffer.
For centuries, the self-sufficient Ladakhi people have lived sustainably in a challenging environment but, in recent years, globalisation has brought packaged foods, cigarettes and a variety of other environmental hazards to the area.
There has also been a multitude of scholarly articles expressing concern for the Ladakhi culture as an influx of new media (such as television and the internet) and increasing numbers of tourists are causing the local people to re-examine their own identity.
Ladakh, previously frozen in time and secluded from the world, is encountering global threats to its culture, tradition and environment. However, the indigenous people recognise these pressures and are determined to confront and embrace them accordingly.
The Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) are working to preserve the environment and culture of the Ladakh region, introducing new methods of ecological and sustainable development to the area. They believe that the isolation of this area has shaped the unique way of life, combining Indian, Tibetan and Buddhist values in a colourful, distinct culture, and are determined to protect this lifestyle.
LEDeG has environmental projects including micro-hydro projects, solar panel plants for remote communities and studies on ground water management and climate change.
As for preserving this distinct culture, LEDeG aims to grow the Ladakhi handicraft sector by embracing, rather than rejecting, the rising numbers of tourists. By recognising the opportunities which the tourism industry provides, LEDeG can strengthen community-based institutions and sustainable livelihoods to support locals as they encounter new markets.
The Ladakhi people are resilient, cheerful and creative, ready to take on the wider world and all the threats which come with it.
Throughout the winter months, the pale sun light up the snowy landscape, the frozen lakes and rivers glow an ethereal pale blue and the snow sparkles and glistens; perhaps it is not that difficult to comprehend the optimism of the Ladakhi people once you have experienced such beauty.