August 2007
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Buddhist ceremonies at Naro Photang temple, Shey, Ladakh. Click on a picture to enlarge.

Ladakah (August 16, 2007)

I went to Ladakh a month ago for a festival to celebrate the longevity of an 800-year-old subsect of one of the four sects of the Tibetan school of Buddhism. A man in his early 40s, referred to chiefly as Holiness, heads this particular subsect in India and much of South Asia -- though not in Bhutan. Apparently at around incarnation number five of the founder of this sect (Drukpa Kagyu), there happened to be two incarnations. One of them stayed in Tibet and became the line that later came to India and the other became the line that went to Bhutan. This subsect is of course not as popular as the line headed by the Dalai Lama -- the Yello Hats though even many people at this festival were wearing yellow hats so it is very confusing -- but both are quite popular in Ladakh.

Once again, as in Nepal, there was this feeling of being in a place where one could finally catch one's breath. After Patagonia, it is the once place where I've once again had that feeling of being in place with more space than people - not something I expected to find in India. Perhaps it is the space that gives people a more even, placid keel, as opposed to the simmering rage that seems to underlie everything in the plains. Or perhaps it is something that mountain people share, since I feel like I have seen this same placidity and pace in the highlands of Peru.

One thing that struck me especially was the visible operation of the migrant labour economy. Of course you see lots of Biharis and other newcomers working in Delhi but I had not seen an outdoor labour market here of the sort you see around gas stations in Long Island. But one Friday morning in Leh, before we headed out for a trip to a village, I was walking past the city's main mosque (Ladakh is half Buddhist and half Muslim) where there were crowds of people gathered, just waiting. A shawl seller said they were waiting to be picked up for work, mostly construction, but some agricultural as well. The people by the mosque were mostly from Jammu -- Ladakh is officially part of Jammu and Kashmir state -- which is lower down and west. The people from there are apparently good stonebreakers. The Biharis also used to wait by the mosque but after a falling out they now wait by an archway on one of the roads leading out of the city. Some Ladakhis joke that at six in the evening when the Biharis get dropped off after work and do their bits of shopping before turning in for the night, the market turns into a "litte Bihar." They also say that because wages in Ladakh are comparatively much higher than in other parts of India, that Biharis call Ladakh "Little Dubai."

It's midnight as I upload this and I am starving but I dare not go into the kitchen to prepare any food (anyway there isn't any except for an old, dry piece of yak cheese from Ladakh) since I came home to find four cockroaches lying on their backs on the kitchen floor.