Himalayan Development

By Pacsoo, Jo | Contemporary Review, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Himalayan Development


Pacsoo, Jo, Contemporary Review


MY most memorable night, during a three months' stay in India, was a night sleeping on the earth floor of a mud-brick room in the small village of Thikse, in eastern Ladakh. It was a place also which, in retrospect, illustrates for me the social and ecological repercussions of contact with the western world and exploitation of natural resources.

We arrived in Thikse, by bus from Leh, on a cold, wet morning a few days before the festival at the local gompa (monastery). The only hotel's only room was booked; but the manager found us a |local room'. We were dubious about this at first; to our eyes its mud-brick walls and earthen floor were reminiscent of a cow-shed, and there was a big pool of water from the leaking roof. However, the woman indicated that she would sweep out the water and the hotel man assured us that the roof was mended; so we left our rucksacks and went for a walk.

On our return the room had been transformed; the floor was dry and along two walls were placed matresses covered with thick Tibetan rugs. It was a room of comfortable simplicity.

At intervals the sound of horns resonated from the rooftop of the nearby monastery; it was an eerie sound, deep and weird -- a long resonant call announcing the presence and activity of these hilltop monks; it never failed to evoke in me a deep, stirring response. We climbed up to the monastery just as prayers were beginning and a monk motioned us to enter the temple. The prayers were accompanied by the long horns we had heard reverberating from the rooftop, as well as trumpets and drums; the sound rolled round us, sonorous and mysterious. Then the monks started to chant; again the effect was deep and harmonious. I became absorbed in the flowing sound, resonating with the harmonies, stirred by the sonorous depths, excited by the strident trumpets; over all was a feeling of mystery, of that which could not be expressed in human speech. These lamas make full use of the effect of sound on the human psyche; we emerged from the temple feeling dazed, having been transported into another world and another age.

That evening, as we sat on our Tibetan carpets, we had a visitor. He introduced himself as an Indian Government employee who was posted to Ladakh for two years. He said he found life here very difficult and boring, especially in the winters.

|There is nothing to do here. The people used to live a very simple life-work and nothing else to do; but they are (or were) very spiritual, they would say prayers and meditate a lot and there's no doubt that a lot of them had spiritual powers: but all that is changing now with the arrival of tourists.'

|You think it is the tourists who are changing things?' we asked him.

|Oh yes, undoubtedly. This was a closed area until five years ago. Only for five years have tourists been allowed in and I have already seen such changes. In another five years I think it will have changed completely. Materialism is causing changes; the tourists bring money and glimpses of another way of life and the people become dissatisfied. They become money-conscious and want radios, television, education. The illiterate Ladakhis were not bothered about appearance; but now they see films and television and are no longer satisfied with a tattered, dusty robe but want a smart suit. They send their children to be educated and they want a different way of life.'

We had become aware, soon after our arrival in India, of the effects of the growing tourist industry. In trying to escape from this and the centres of tourism, we were merely spreading it further afield and contributing to the change of those very ways of life whose simplicity we appreciated. Already, in Ladakh, the capital, Leh, was being invaded by traders and beggars from elsewhere in India, to take advantage of the growing numbers of tourists. Five years of contact with the outside world had made irrevocable changes in this remote village and our presence there was destroying that which we had come to see.

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