Book Review : Janet Rizvi

LADAKH: CROSSROADS OF HIGH ASIA

By Janet Rizvi

Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 390,

MANJU KAK                                                  

Profiling a Landscape

It is a common sight today to see young Ladakhi lamas, sporting trendy Puma sneakers that peep from hems of flowing maroon robes thumbing lifts off rumbling army trucks.  Although in this land of Vajrayana Buddhism, government never relinquished power to the clergy as in neighbouring Tibet, one son in a family was still traditionally given to the monastery or gompha, which inevitably cast a tight net of religiosity over the community’s cultural life.  A life that resisted change right through the early decades of this century and which remain cloistered due to Ladakh’s legendary inaccessibility which gave it it’s hermit status.  Now all this is a thing of the past.  With some of the world’s highest roads crisscrossing snow-capped granite mountains, a rapid rise in literacy, communication via satellite and a daily flight out of Leh, more and more Ladakhis are being lured by new cultural invasions often seeking education and economic opportunity outside.  Though as yet Ladakh is one of the most underpopulated regions with a ratio of one person per 3 km, the population is rising, having gone up 25 per cent between 1971 to 1981 and much more since, there may come a time in the near future when the region will not provide employment to those equipped for it.

No doubt the transition to modernity is more rapid with the deflection of tourists from Kashmir, it having become a virtual death-trap this last decade.  But concommittant are dangerous rifts appearing in a docile community that was traditionally homogeneous having allowed the intermingling of diverse races as the Aryan Mons, Tibetans, Baltis, Dards, in its distinctive physiognomy, language and culture.  It is tourism which has accelerated this change particularly in the last decade after the initial opening up in 1974 bringing in a mixed bag of social benefits to the urban population.

In this changing scenario, the reprint of Janet Rizvi’s book, Crossroads of High Asia fulfills an essential space.  Divided into accessible chapters designed to give a holistic picture of the districts to both the initiate and the informed.  Rizvi’s own stay in Ladakh where her husband was posted as Development Commissioner provided her with valuable insight and access into various aspects of this hostoric kingdom.  The author does not set out to provide new interpretations or analysis, but seeks to inform and in what the book’s parameters are, she succeeds.  The canvas she discusses is varied moving from profiling the landscape to the creatures of the wild, legendary trade routes, polyandry and polo, and the Jesuit missions and gomphas that coexisted from the latter Mughal times.  There is discussion on issues of language, an amazingly sophisticated irrigation system, development technology suitable to fragile ecosystems, etc.  Of particular interest is the analysis on women in a society which traditionally awarded its female half, a high status.  There is information on social customs such as older members moving into the lower house leaving the young people to manage, the absence of caste among Buddhist Ladakhis, and the fact of Leh being a major entreport, hence a melting pot of races and the wealth of oral literature.

Of particular interest to me was the pashm and charas trade routes that traversed over inaccessible ranges.  There is the account of Scotsman Andrew Dalgleish, agent of the short-lived Central Asian Trading Company, who attempted in the latter 19th century, to cut into the trade and carve a colonial niche at a time when the British were hellbent on a policy of containing Russian aggrandizement.  He died near the Korakoram Pass at the hands of an Afghan assassin, Daud Mohammad, ending as another mystery  the rugged mountains have buried.  Rizvi explains that the importance of the pashm trade had a decisive effect on Ladakh’s  political destiny.  One of the most important clauses of the 1684 tripartite Treaty of Tingmosgang, between Tibet, Ladakh and Kashmir was the one which gave Kashmir a virtual monopoly of the precious wool.  It is reiterated that perhaps it was to get his hands on this lucrative trade that Dogra Gulab Singh, Raja of Jammu and Ranjit Singh’s vassal, undertook the conquest of Ladakh and later invaded Tibet which ended abortively.  Right from its production by the nomadic Chang-pa on the plateaus of Tibet the trade continued to be handled by certain Kashmiri families hence, the renowned Cashmere shawl.