Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh - Helena Norberg-Hodge

Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh

by Helena Norberg-Hodge

"I am convinced that people [in Ladakh] were significantly happier before development than they are today."

Helena lived in Ladakh for long periods, beginning in the early 1970s, before Ladakh had experienced any significant contact with the outside world. Over the next two decades she witnessed at first-hand the changes the Ladakhis went through as their culture began the process of Westernisation. The book begins with a description of Ladakh as it once was, and then goes on to describe the changes brought about by "the coming of the West, and, finally, what might we learn from it all.

Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-HodgeHelena is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). She is also co-producer of an award-winning film based on this book, and between them, both film and book have now been translated into over thirty languages, and are regularly used by grassroots organisations all over the world.

Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Angus & Robertson)

Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase from Amazon

The page numbers referred to below are from the Sierra Club Books paperback 1992 edition.

Little Tibet

In every direction are mountains, a vast plateau of crests in warm and varied tones from rust to pale green. Above, snowy peaks reach toward a still, blue sky; below, sheer walls of wine red scree fall to stark lunar valleys.

How can life be sustained in this wilderness? Everything is barren; each step you take sends up a cloud of sand and dust. Yet as your eyes begin to comprehend what they see, 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 coloured prayer flags flutter on the roof-tops. Higher still, perched on the mountainside, a monastery watches over the village.

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 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.

I was becoming increasingly fascinated by the people, by their values, and the way they saw the world. Why were they always smiling? And how did they support themselves in relative comfort in such a hostile environment?

When we reached the village, we walked up narrow paths between large, flat-roofed houses, passing vegetable gardens and apricot orchards. Children came running up, friendly and unfrightened. Women were spinning wool, talking cheerfully, some with bright-cheeked babies at their breasts. I saw old men with faces of a thousand wrinkles, young girls with long dark hair in plaits, a newborn calf nuzzling a goat.

Arriving at Sonam's house, we climbed a flight of stone steps to the first floor. He then took me into the kitchen, a room that was so dark compared with the light outside that for a moment I saw little. In this large room, at least thirty feet across, the windows were small openings in the thick walls and the air was smoky from the fire of the cooking stove. Rows of gleaming brass and copper pots shone brilliantly against dark walls.

Work and Festivity are One

As the sun appears, the whole family gathers. Two men carry the wooden plough; ahead a pair of massive dzo [a hybrid between the local cow and the yak] dwarf the children who lead them. People drink chang [the locally brewed beer] from silver-lined cups, and the air hums with the sounds of celebration. A monk in robes of deep maroon chants a sacred text; laughter and song drift back and forth from field to field. Once the sowing has been completed, the crop does not need much care—only watering, which is usually done on a rotational basis, sometimes established by dice.

Harvest is another festive occasion. A line of reapers, old and young, men and women, sing as they cut the crop low to the ground with sickles. In the evening, people gather to sing, drink, and dance. A butter lamp is lit in the kitchen, and garlands of wheat, barley, and peas are wrapped around the wooden pillars.

I walked out onto the balcony. Whole families—grandfathers, parents, children—were working in the fields, come cutting, some stacking, others winnowing. Each activity had its own particular song. The harvest lay in golden stacks, hundreds to a field, hardly allowing the bare earth to show through. A clear light bathed the valley with an intense brilliance. No ugly geometry had been imposed on this land, no repetitive lines. Everything was easy to the eye, calming to the soul.

With only simple tools at their disposal, Ladakhis spend a long time accomplishing each task. Yet I found that the Ladakhis had an abundance of time. They worked at a gentle pace and had a surprising amount of leisure.

Even during the harvest season, when the work lasts long hours, it is done at a relaxed pace that allows an eighty-year-old as well as a young child to join in and help. People work hard, but at their own rate, accompanied by laughter and song. The distinction between work and play is not rigidly defined.

Remarkably, Ladahkis only work, really work, for four months of the year [the short Himalayan growing season]. In the eight winter months, they must cook, feed the animals, and carry water, but work is minimal. Most of the winter is spent at festivals and parties. Even during summer, hardly a week passes without a major festival or celebration of one sort or another, while in winter the celebration is almost nonstop.

Well-being, Vitality, and High Spirits

The Ladakhi people exude a sense of well-being, vitality and high spirits. In terms of physique, almost everyone is trim and fit. Even without obvious muscle (something that has puzzled Western doctors), both men and women are extremely strong, and like many other mountain peoples, they seem to have endless stamina.

The old are active until the day they die. One morning I saw the eighty-two-year-old grandfather in the house where I lived running down a ladder from the roof. He was full of life, and we exchanged a few words about the weather. That afternoon at three o'clock he died. We found him sitting peacefully as though asleep.

In the traditional way of life people experience little stress and enjoy peace of mind. They breathe pure air, get regular and prolonged exercise, and eat whole, unrefined foods. Their bodies are no forced to accommodate materials alien to the natural world of which they are a part. The food they eat is locally grown and organic, and until recently there was virtually no environmental pollution.

Doctors and Shamans

Responsibility for the sick is primarily in the hands of the amchi. They are among the most respected members of the community and generally learn their craft from their fathers and grandfathers before them. They do not work full time, for like everyone else, they too farm their own land.

As common in other traditional systems of medicine, diagnosis involves an examination of the whole patient. Illness is not seen as a malfunctioning of this or that particular part of the body, but as a more general imbalance. Disorders are viewed from a broad perspective, with body, mind, and spirit recognised as integral parts of the same entity.

Generally the amchi uses natural compounds. One of the principal medical texts describes the various minerals and plants used, where to find them, and what they look like. In addition, the amchi will almost always recommend a special diet.

Surgery is not practiced. Fractures are immobilised with wooden splints. The need for emergency intervention is rare. Appendicitis, perforated ulcers, and most of the other sudden-onset conditions common in the West are rarely encountered. In the absence of dangerous machinery and fast cars, accidents are few and far between and are unlikely to be serious. Even such a relatively trivial injury as a broken leg is unusual.

They Really Are That Happy

"You mean everyone isn't as happy as we are?"—Tsering Dolma, p83.

The Ladakhis possess an irrepressible joie de vivre. Their sense of joy seems so firmly anchored within them that circumstances cannot shake it loose. You cannot spend any time at all in Ladakh without being won over by the contagious laughter.

At first I couldn't believe the Ladakhis could be as happy as they appeared. It took me a long time to accept that the smiles I saw were real. Then, in my second year there, while at a wedding, I sat back and observed the guests enjoying themselves. Suddenly I heard myself saying, "Aha, they really are that happy." Only then did I recognise that I had been walking around with cultural blinders on, convinced that the Ladakhis could not be as happy as they seemed.

[In the West] with so much of our lives coloured by a sense of insecurity or fear, we have difficulty in letting go and feeling at one with ourselves and our surroundings. The Ladakhis, on the other hand, seem to possess an extended, inclusive sense of self. They do not, as we do, retreat behind boundaries of fear and self-protection; in fact, they seem to be totally lacking in what we would call pride. This doesn't mean a lack of self-respect. On the contrary, their self-respect is so deep-rooted as to be unquestioned.

I have never met people who seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are, of course, complex and spring from a whole way of life and world view. But I am sure that the most important factor is the sense that you are a part of something much larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.

The Coming of the West

I lived through most of the experiences described in the preceding pages at a time when Ladakh had not yet been affected by the Western world in any significant way. But the process of change began in earnest in 1974, when the Indian government threw the area open to tourism.

People From Mars

When tourism first began in Ladakh, it was as though people from another planet suddenly descended on the region. Looking at the modern world from something of a Ladakhi perspective, I became aware of how much more successful our culture looks from the outside than we experience it on the inside.

Each day many tourists would spend as much as $100—an amount roughly equivalent to someone spending $50,000 per day in America. In the traditional subsistence economy, money played a minor role and was used primarily for luxuries—jewelry, silver, and gold. Basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter were provided for without money. The labor one needed was free of charge, part of an intricate web of human relationships.

Ladakhis did not realize that money meant something very different for the foreigners; that back home they needed it to survive; that food, clothing, and shelter all cost money a lot of money. Compared to these strangers, the Ladakhis suddenly felt poor.

This new attitude contrasted dramatically with the Ladakhis' earlier self-confidence. In 1975, I was shown around the remote village of Hemis Shukpachan by a young Ladakhi named Tsewang. It seemed to me that all the houses we saw were especially large and beautiful. I asked Tsewang to show me the houses where the poor people lived. Tsewang looked perplexed a moment, then responded, "We don’t have any poor people here."

Eight years later I overheard Tsewang talking to some tourists. "If you could only help us Ladakhis," he was saying, "we’re so poor."

Besides giving the illusion that all Westerners are multimillionaires, tourism and Western media images also help perpetuate another myth about modern life—that we never work. It looks as though our technologies do the work for us. In industrial society today, we actually spend more hours working than people in rural, agrarian economies, but that is not how it looks to the Ladakhis. For them, work is physical work: ploughing, walking, carrying things. A person sitting behind the wheel of a car or pushing buttons on a typewriter doesn’t appear to be working.

Artificial Needs

Before the changes brought by tourism and modernization, the Ladakhis were self-sufficient, both psychologically and materially. There was no desire for the sort of development that later came to be seen as a "need." Time and again, when I asked people about the changes that were coming, they showed no great interest in being modernized; sometimes they were even suspicious.

In remote areas, when a road was about to be built, people felt, at best, ambivalent about the prospect. The same was true of electricity. I remember distinctly how, in 1975, people in Stagmo village laughed about the fuss that was being made to bring electric lights to neighboring villages. They thought it was a joke that so much effort and money was spent on what they took to be a ludicrous gain: "Is it worth all that bother just to have that thing dangling from your ceiling?"

More recently, when I returned to the same village to meet the council, the first thing they said to me was, "Why do you bother to come to our backward village where we live in the dark?" They said it jokingly, but it was obvious they were ashamed of the fact they did not have electricity.

Before people’s sense of self-respect and self-worth had been shaken, they did not need electricity to prove they were civilized. But within a short period the forces of development so undermined people’s self-esteem that not only electricity but Punjabi rice and plastic have become needs. I have seen people proudly wear wristwatches they cannot read and for which they have no use. And as the desire to appear modern grows, people are rejecting their own culture. Even the traditional foods are no longer a source of pride. Now when I’m a guest in a village, people apologize if they serve the traditional roasted barley, ngamphe, instead of instant noodles.

Surprisingly, perhaps, modernization in Ladakh is also leading to a loss of individuality. As people become self-conscious and insecure, they feel pressure to conform, to live up to the idealized images to the American Dream. By contrast, in the traditional village, where everyone wears the same clothes and looks the same to the casual observer, there seems to be more freedom to relax, and villagers can be who they really are. As part of a close-knit community, people feel secure enough to be themselves.

A People Divided

Perhaps the most tragic of all the changes I have observed in Ladakh is the vicious circle in which individual insecurity contributes to a weakening of family and community ties, which in turn further shakes individual self-esteem. Consumerism plays a central role in this whole process, since emotional insecurity generates hunger for material status symbols. The need for recognition and acceptance fuels the drive to acquire possessions that will presumably make you somebody. Ultimately, this is a far more important motivating force than a fascination for the things themselves. It is heartbreaking to see people buying things to be admired, respected, and ultimately loved, when in fact it almost inevitably has the opposite effect. The individual with the new shiny car is set apart, and this furthers the need to be accepted. A cycle is set in motion in which people become more and more divided from themselves and from one another.

Comparing the old with the new

There were many real problems in the traditional society and development does bring some real improvements. However, when one examines the fundamentally important relationships—to the land, to other people, and to oneself—development takes on a different light. Viewed from this perspective, the differences between the old and the new become stark and disturbing. It becomes clear that the traditional nature-based society, with all its flaws and limitations, was more sustainable, both socially and environmentally.

The old culture reflected fundamental human needs while respecting natural limits. And it worked. It worked for nature, and it worked for people. The various connecting relationships in the traditional system were mutually reinforcing, and encouraged harmony and stability.

Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-HodgeMost importantly of all, having seen my friends change so dramatically, I have no doubt that the bonds and responsibilities of the traditional society, far from being a burden, offered a profound sense of security, which seems to be a prerequisite for inner peace and contentedness. I am convinced that people were significantly happier before development than they are today. And what criteria for judging a society could be more important: in social terms, the well-being of the people; in environmental terms, sustainability.

Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Angus & Robertson)

Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase from Amazon

See Also

What It Is To Be Human: A book by Robert Wolff.

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