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In a rhino stronghold, indigenous wood-carvers cut through stereotypes

first_imgLocal artisans near northeast India’s Kaziranga National Park say their wildlife-inspired woodcraft is an expression of nature-friendly values, and counters stereotypes of tribal people as antagonistic to conservation.Small, locally owned workshops face competition from big-city businesses who control prime retail locations and can undercut their prices.Carving a fast-growing local wood by hand, sculptors say theirs is a green craft, and should be promoted and supported by the government. Sitting on a wooden plank on the floor of his tiny workshop, Kushal Das meticulously uses his chisel and gouge to give the finishing touches to the rhinoceros he’s spent over an hour carving out of a 20-centimeter (8-inch) slab of wood. He pauses for a moment, inspecting his handwork with a critical eye, before making a few final adjustments and handing the sculpture to his assistant, Deepak Bora, who is responsible for dyeing it in bright colors.Das, 48, and Bora, 19, are among some 100 woodcraft artisans running workshops and selling handmade art pieces — mostly wooden replicas of various animals — near Kaziranga National Park in northeastern India’s Assam State. The park is the global stronghold of the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the species Das’s latest statue depicts. According to a 2018 census, 2,413 rhinos live in the park, around two-thirds of the species’ total population.Woodcarver Kushal Das (right) and his assistant Deepak Bora at work in Das’s woodcarving workshop-cum-shop at Rajabari, Kaziranga. Image by Sumit Das.Kaziranga National Park attracts a massive tourist flow, with the 2017-2018 tourist season recording 177,431 visitors. Wood-carvers like Das and Bora rely on these tourists to keep their business afloat.“The wildlife tourists visiting the park like to buy souvenirs from Kaziranga and their most obvious choice is traditionally crafted rhinos,” says Das, whose carving workshop and stall, in the village of Rajabari, is close to the Agaratoli range of Kaziranga National Park and sits by a national highway that connects Assam with the neighboring northeastern states of India. “We have our peak selling season during the months the park is kept open for tourists. For the rest of the year, our customers are primarily the people from different parts of Assam and the neighboring states who ply by the national highway.”According to Das, approximately 100 families around the park depend on wood carving for their livelihoods. Many of these families belong to different local tribal communities, such as the Mishing, Karbi and Adivasi, or so-called “tea tribes.” Marginalized in the state’s politics, these groups have also been portrayed as detrimental to conservation. Even official conservation discourses have accommodated such views: a 2005 UNESCO-IUCN-WII technical report described Karbi and Mishing communities as antagonistic to the park’s values, saying they were “still to come to terms with the creation/declaration of the additional areas of the park.” In 2017, a poster used for conservation communication in Manas National Park, a protected area in western Assam, racially profiled Adivasi communities and portrayed them as encroachers on the park’s land. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) later apologized for the poster. In 1994, an article in the journal Pachyderm tended to only discuss tribes like the Karbi or Bodo as threats to wildlife and conservation efforts.The wood-carvers from these communities stand in stark contrast to such negative portrayals: they practice an eco-friendly art through which they express conservation nuggets.The tools of a woodcarver: chisels, gouges, hammers and a hacksaw. Image by Sumit Das.Wood carving and its potentialsWood carving is a traditional art form of Assam, once patronized by the Ahom kings of eastern Assam. As such, the practice even today doesn’t involve the use of any sort of machinery. Everything is done manually. “Being a handicraft, it’s a green art,” Das says. “The woodcraft we practice is completely eco-friendly.”Kaziranga’s carvers work with Gambhar wood (Gmelina arborea), locally known as gomari gos, from a fast-growing deciduous tree that occurs naturally throughout Assam and other parts of India. The wood is sourced from nearby villages, where the trees grow in abundance. Depending on its size and quality, a dried trunk costs anywhere from 1,800 to 8,300 rupees ($24 to $112), Das says.There are two kinds of people employed in a wood-carving workshop: the artisan, or mistiri, and the assistant, or jogali. The artisan is often the owner of the workshop, while the assistant is a semi-skilled daily-wage laborer employed by the former. While the artisan’s income depends on the amount of finished products he can sell, the assistant gets a fixed daily wage of around 350 to 430 rupees ($5 to $6 per). “If you are lucky enough to work with a good mistiri there could also be incentive per carving. However, that depends a lot on experience and age as well,” says Bora, who has worked as Das’s assistant for over two years.“Till date the highest sale I’ve recorded on a day is about 26,000 [$350]. That was in the peak season earlier this year,” says Das, who puts his average monthly income at 29,000 rupees ($390).Woodcarvings of rhinos crafted by Das and Bora and ready for sale in Das’s stall. Image by Sumit Das.Artisans maintain that business has improved in the last couple of years. While Das is a relatively new entrant into the trade, starting his shop in 2008, Anup and Khajan, who run the neighboring stall, have been in the business for 15 years. Now both in their late twenties, they started working in woodcraft after dropping out of school in 2003. “The business has seen an uptick in the last couple years with more and more tourists visiting Kaziranga and dropping by to buy our works,” they say. “Also, locally, people’s buying power has improved over the years. They are now more interested in buying decorative items than they used to be 10 years ago.”However, there has not yet been any concerted effort to link wildlife tourism and conservation to the handicraft industry in Kaziranga, says Deep Jyoti Gurung, a doctoral researcher at Tezpur University, Assam. “It’s a fact that ensuring decent alternative livelihoods for local forest-dependent communities helps a big way in earning their support for conservation initiatives,” says Gurung, who co-authored a study on Kaziranga’s handicraft industry and wildlife tourism. “If we succeed in creating a stable market tapping on the huge wildlife tourist inflow Kaziranga draws every year, the handicraft industry around the park has tremendous potential to create livelihoods.”The woodcarving workshop run by Anup and Khajan at Rajabari, Kaziranga. Now in their late 20s, the men have been in the business for 15 years. Image by Sumit Das.But little has been done so far, Gurung says. One problem is the lack of a regulation or standard price rates in the handicraft market. As a result, cheap imported items flooding the market make it hard for local artisans to compete. Locals also have little access to the prime spots for attracting potential buyers. The stalls closest to major tourist hubs are owned by big businessmen from outside Kaziranga who don’t run workshops and instead sell items sourced at a low price from disadvantaged artisans, Gurung says.The industry is also lacking in proper promotion, says Gurung. “There’s little online promotion and selling of Kaziranga’s handicrafts,” he says. “The industry has to tap into what the internet has to offer. And while promoting, an emphasis on the fact that Kaziranga’s handicraft is a sustainable green art anchored on a local tradition could attract more international buyers.”A theatrical scene of Kaziranga National Park, crafted in bamboo by amateur artist Golap Kutum. Image by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.Conservation nuggets through handcrafted artDespite the challenges, Kaziranga’s artisans continue producing handcrafted works of art, not only to make a living but also to express their opinions and concerns about conservation issues.“See, this is my handmade Kaziranga National Park,” says Golap Kutum, displaying a photograph on mobile phone. It shows a tableau of various life-size wild animals as well as a forest guard, all crafted from bamboo cane. In the middle of this art installation is a heap of ashes of an effigy of a rhino poacher, burned by villagers celebrating rhino conservation and condemning poaching. This theatrical installation of bamboo-made figures was Kutum’s creation, which he handcrafted on the occasion of the Assamese festival of Magh Bihu in January this year.“In the installation, I wanted to show how important conservation is and that the local communities have a stake in conservation efforts. It’s time local communities were duly acknowledged,” says Kutum, a resident of Baligaon, a village in Golaghat district abutting Kaziranga National Park. Kutum is a not a professional artisan; rather, he uses his bamboo craftsmanship to express his opinions and messages on a range of social issues, including those related to conservation and the environment. He drives an electronic rickshaw near Kaziranga for a living.A Karbi youth, dressed in traditional Karbi tribal clothes, holding a jambili athon totem pole. Image by Angtong Engti Kathar.Some of the stalls near Kaziranga sell a type woodcraft known as jambili athon, a traditional art from the Karbi, a local tribe inhabiting fringe villages of Kaziranga National Park.Considered a sacred totem of the Karbi, and made of bengwoi ke-er (Wrightia coccinea) wood, a jambili athon consists of a central axis and a whorl of four branches, all with beautiful carvings on them. Carved birds, symbolizing the various clans of the Karbi tribe, perch on the tips of the branches and atop the central axis. It is forbidden for the Karbi to kill the species of birds that embellish the jambili athon.“The very fact that we use birds to symbolize our different clans in the jambili athon totem poles shows that the Karbi worldview is intrinsically rooted in nature,” says Lindak Hanse, a veteran baroi — one of the specially skilled Karbi artists who are entitled to carve jambili athon. Hanse says he believes these nature-friendly values behind the traditional Karbi woodcraft of jambili athon should be included in conservation discourses.In Kaziranga, wood-carvers believe that, in addition to earning them a living, their works serve the cause of conservation. “The keepsake animal replicas we make help people [enhance] their appreciation of the wildlife — or at least make them familiar with species they haven’t seen in reality,” Das says.Kushal Das carving an eight-inch one-horned rhinoceros. It takes Das about one and a half hours to complete the carving. Image by Sumit Das.‘We carve rhinos, don’t kill them’The tribal artisans like Kutum, a Mishing; Hanse, a Karbi; and Anup and Khajan, Adivasis, near Kaziranga damn the stereotype of tribals as detrimental and antagonistic to conservation efforts and Kaziranga National Park’s values.Pointing to a half-carved rhino replica in his workshop, Anup says: “You see this piece. It takes a lot of effort to make this rhino replica. In comparison to the efforts put, the money we get is meager. We keep clinging to this painstaking business just because we love Kaziranga and these animals.”“If one or two members of a particular community go astray for some reasons, or go against some decisions of the park, will you hold the entire community responsible for that? Definitely you won’t,” says Hanse. “Therefore these gross negative portrayals of tribals as ecological villains are apparently fallacious.”Kutum says that since time immemorial the tribals have nurtured the forest and have in turn been nurtured by it in an age-old symbiotic relationship. “In Kaziranga, we carve rhinos, don’t kill them,” he says.A rhino woodcarving of six inches made by Das. Image by Sumit Das.Banner Image: Kushal Das at work in his woodcarving workshop at Rajabari, Kaziranga. Image by Sumit Das.FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page. Article published by Isabel Esterman Animals, Archive, Biodiversity, Conservation, Conservation Solutions, Environment, Happy-upbeat Environmental, Indigenous Peoples, Mammals, One-horned Rhinos, Poaching, Rhinos, Wildlife center_img Popular in the CommunitySponsoredSponsoredOrangutan found tortured and decapitated prompts Indonesia probeEMGIES17 Jan, 2018We will never know the full extent of what this poor Orangutan went through before he died, the same must be done to this evil perpetrator(s) they don’t deserve the air that they breathe this has truly upset me and I wonder for the future for these wonderful creatures. So called ‘Mankind’ has a lot to answer for we are the only ones ruining this world I prefer animals to humans any day of the week.What makes community ecotourism succeed? In Madagascar, location, location, locationScissors1dOther countries should also learn and try to incorporateWhy you should care about the current wave of mass extinctions (commentary)Processor1 DecAfter all, there is no infinite anything in the whole galaxy!Infinite stupidity, right here on earth.The wildlife trade threatens people and animals alike (commentary)Anchor3dUnfortunately I feel The Chinese have no compassion for any living animal. They are a cruel country that as we knowneatbeverything that moves and do not humanily kill these poor animals and insects. They have no health and safety on their markets and they then contract these diseases. Maybe its karma maybe they should look at the way they live and stop using animals for all there so called remedies. DisgustingConservationists welcome China’s wildlife trade banThobolo27 JanChina has consistently been the worlds worst, “ Face of Evil “ in regards our planets flora and fauna survival. In some ways, this is nature trying to fight back. This ban is great, but the rest of the world just cannot allow it to be temporary, because history has demonstrated that once this coronavirus passes, they will in all likelihood, simply revert to been the planets worst Ecco Terrorists. Let’s simply not allow this to happen! How and why they have been able to degrade this planets iconic species, rape the planets rivers, oceans and forests, with apparent impunity, is just mind boggling! Please no more.Probing rural poachers in Africa: Why do they poach?Carrot3dOne day I feel like animals will be more scarce, and I agree with one of my friends, they said that poaching will take over the world, but I also hope notUpset about Amazon fires last year? Focus on deforestation this year (commentary)Bullhorn4dLies and more leisSponsoredSponsoredCoke is again the biggest culprit behind plastic waste in the PhilippinesGrapes7 NovOnce again the article blames companies for the actions of individuals. It is individuals that buy these products, it is individuals that dispose of them improperly. If we want to change it, we have to change, not just create bad guys to blame.Brazilian response to Bolsonaro policies and Amazon fires growsCar4 SepThank you for this excellent report. I feel overwhelmed by the ecocidal intent of the Bolsonaro government in the name of ‘developing’ their ‘God-given’ resources.U.S. allocates first of $30M in grants for forest conservation in SumatraPlanet4dcarrot hella thick ;)Melting Arctic sea ice may be altering winds, weather at equator: studyleftylarry30 JanThe Arctic sea ice seems to be recovering this winter as per the last 10-12 years, good news.Malaysia has the world’s highest deforestation rate, reveals Google forest mapBone27 Sep, 2018Who you’re trying to fool with selective data revelation?You can’t hide the truth if you show historical deforestation for all countries, especially in Europe from 1800s to this day. WorldBank has a good wholesome data on this.Mass tree planting along India’s Cauvery River has scientists worriedSurendra Nekkanti23 JanHi Mongabay. Good effort trying to be objective in this article. I would like to give a constructive feedback which could help in clearing things up.1. It is mentioned that planting trees in village common lands will have negative affects socially and ecologically. There is no need to even have to agree or disagree with it, because, you also mentioned the fact that Cauvery Calling aims to plant trees only in the private lands of the farmers. So, plantation in the common lands doesn’t come into the picture.2.I don’t see that the ecologists are totally against this project, but just they they have some concerns, mainly in terms of what species of trees will be planted. And because there was no direct communication between the ecologists and Isha Foundation, it was not possible for them to address the concerns. As you seem to have spoken with an Isha spokesperson, if you could connect the concerned parties, it would be great, because I see that the ecologists are genuinely interested in making sure things are done the right way.May we all come together and make things happen.Rare Amazon bush dogs caught on camera in BoliviaCarrot1 Feba very good iniciative to be fallowed by the ranchers all overSponsoredlast_img read more


Bledsoe sent home after reeling Suns fire Watson

first_imgPhoenix Suns’ Eric Bledsoe (2) looks up court in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)PHOENIX — Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe was sent home Monday, a day after the Suns fired coach Earl Watson and replaced him on an interim basis with Jay Triano.About the time that word of Watson’s firing was leaking out, Bledsoe sent a tweet Sunday that read “Don’t wanna be here.”ADVERTISEMENT No more menthol cigarettes: New ban on tobacco, vape flavors The Suns also fired assistant coaches Nate Bjorkgren, Jason Fraser and Mehmet Okur.Tyrone Corbin was elevated to lead assistant and Ty Ellis, head coach of the Northern Arizona Suns G League team, will fill one of the vacant assistant roles. Marlon Garnett was promoted from player development coordinator to bench coach.Watson’s firing came three games into the season, two of them among the four most one-sided defeats in franchise history.McDonough said those ugly losses weren’t the sole reason for the firing.“We had a number of meetings over the summer about some of the changes we would have liked to see in terms of style of play and player development and accountability,” McDonough said, “all those things that go into winning and helping players develop and improve. Unfortunately, we didn’t see those changes.”ADVERTISEMENT Ethel Booba on hotel’s clarification that ‘kikiam’ is ‘chicken sausage’: ‘Kung di pa pansinin, baka isipin nila ok lang’ Trump to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups Robredo: True leaders perform well despite having ‘uninspiring’ boss PLAY LIST 02:49Robredo: True leaders perform well despite having ‘uninspiring’ boss02:42PH underwater hockey team aims to make waves in SEA Games01:44Philippines marks anniversary of massacre with calls for justice01:19Fire erupts in Barangay Tatalon in Quezon City01:07Trump talks impeachment while meeting NCAA athletes02:49World-class track facilities installed at NCC for SEA Games “I’ve pretty much seen it all now with my years in the NBA,” Booker said. “You’ve got to control the controllables.”An interesting comment since Booker, the highly talented face of the franchise, is just 20 and in his third NBA season. A strong supporter of Watson, Booker said the players are responsible for the awful performances.“You can’t blame two 40-point losses on a coach,” Booker said. “That comes with pride. It comes with effort and love for the game. We haven’t shown that yet.”Under Watson, “there was a lack of development,” McDonough said. “There was a lack of individual player improvement and growth. We realize kind of where we are as a franchise in terms of being young, being in the developmental stage, but at the same time we expect to be competitive and for the guys to play hard and be put into positions to be effective offensively and defensively and we didn’t feel like that was being done.”McDonough said he expects that to improve under Triano, mentioning defense, ball movement and 3-point shooting.As if things weren’t bad enough, the Suns were awaiting word from the NBA on whether rookie Josh Jackson would be punished for making a gesture toward a heckling fan Saturday night in Los Angeles.It looked like Jackson was simulating a gun but he said that wasn’t the case.Jackson said he initially was going to give the guy the middle finger but decided against it and the gesture inadvertently wound up looking like a gun.Sports Related Videospowered by AdSparcRead Next LATEST STORIES General manager Ryan McDonough said Bledsoe told him that he was at a hair salon and that’s what the tweet was about, that it had nothing to do with the Suns. “I don’t believe that to be true,” McDonough said.So Bledsoe was sent home.FEATURED STORIESSPORTSSEA Games: Biñan football stadium stands out in preparedness, completionSPORTSPrivate companies step in to help SEA Games hostingSPORTSBoxers Pacquiao, Petecio torchbearers for SEA Games openingMcDonough said he’s already received calls from teams about Bledsoe’s availability and he planned to answer them. McDonough said Bledsoe had asked to be traded before the season.McDonough also acknowledged his relationship with Watson “wasn’t great” and that it is “time for a new voice, a new direction.” Don’t miss out on the latest news and information. Hotel says PH coach apologized for ‘kikiam for breakfast’ claim View comments McDonough said Triano would be head coach the remainder of the season.Triano, 59, came to the Suns as associate head coach in the summer of 2016 after four years as an assistant to Terry Stotts in Portland. Triano was head coach of the Toronto Raptors from 2008 to 2011. He also was head coach of the Canadian National Team.Triano described himself as a basketball guy and said he didn’t know if he wanted the job beyond this season.“We’ll see how it goes,” Triano said, “but I’m going to embrace it 100 percent and dive into it like I have everything else in my career.”Bledsoe had been averaging 15.7 points per game, second behind Devin Booker, and was the team’s on-court leader.The candidates to replace him are Mike James, who was undrafted in 2012 but played internationally before coming to the Suns this season, and Tyler Ulis, a second-round pick in 2016.The Suns have allowed a whopping 128.7 points per game, by far the worst in the league. They were blown out 124-76 at home in their season opener Wednesday, the most one-sided loss in franchise history.“I know it’s been a short period of time (three games), but as the days went by there were more and more things that we were uncomfortable with,” McDonough said, “so we arrived at this conclusion yesterday morning to make the change.”McDonough, who said he recommended the firing to owner Robert Sarver, accepted some responsibility for the team’s troubles.“I think we all do,” McDonough said. “I think Robert does. I think I do. It reflects poorly on all of us and we own that and we take responsibility for that.”Triano is Phoenix’s fifth coach since 2013. Winter storm threatens to scramble Thanksgiving travel plans Meralco import Durham fined P30k for Game 5 comments Argentine bishop appears at court hearing on abuse charges Palace: Robredo back to ‘groping with a blind vision’ MOST READ ‘A complete lie:’ Drilon refutes ‘blabbermouth’ Salo’s claimslast_img read more


High-jumper Nallaswami Annavi: A promising talent from south India

first_imgIn a corner of Delhi’s huge Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, against the backdrop of tiers of gaily coloured seats, and the oversize score-board with the figures ‘2.12’ glowing on it, stood a lithe, tall figure. High-jumper Nallaswami Annavi, 19, an enquiry-cum-reservations clerk in the Railways from Trichy in Tamil Nadu was,In a corner of Delhi’s huge Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, against the backdrop of tiers of gaily coloured seats, and the oversize score-board with the figures ‘2.12’ glowing on it, stood a lithe, tall figure. High-jumper Nallaswami Annavi, 19, an enquiry-cum-reservations clerk in the Railways from Trichy in Tamil Nadu was attempting to clear the magic figure of 7 ft and beat by slightly over an inch the 16-year-old Indian record in the high jump.Nallaswami Annavi (left) and P.T. Usha: Promising talentAs the countdown began on the score-board, Annavi tensed, broke into loping stride, hurled himself over the bar – and cleared it faultlessly. As he said later: “I had always known I could do it and this time I proved as much to myself. Within a month I’ll be leaping 2.20 m.”Annavi’s towering jump was, in more senses than one, the high point of the 22nd All India Inter-State Athletic Championships held in New Delhi recently. He appeared to have come as a bit of a surprise for the selection committee because, soon after the championships, he and six others were added to the 18 already selected for the pre-Olympic trials.G. Lakshmanan, vice-president of the Amateur Athletics Federation of India – and a former national champion for the 1,500m – was not very pleased with the fact that Annavi had been left out earlier. He complains: “What is the point in us officials scouting and spotting talent if they are not nurtured at the proper time?”Annavi’s feat is all the more praise-worthy because, before he arrived in Delhi, he had not seen a modern high-jump pit. “He even bought his shoes two or three days before the event,” says Chief National Coach J.S. Saini. “He is a natural jumper – there is tremendous talent in those legs. A little more training and he could even challenge the best.”advertisementThe young man from Tamil Nadu indeed appears to have improved by leaps and bounds, because late last year he had managed 1.98m at the Jamshedpur Open. In that context, his claim that he will be jumping 2.20 m soon cannot be taken lightly. Even at Delhi he attempted 2.13m on the last day, but failed after three attempts. He commented: “My body can only take so much. Asking me to improve on my performance in less than 72 hours is asking too much.”If Annavi gets to 2.20m by June, or even by the time the Olympics come around, he will still be 17cm behind world record holder Zhu Jian Hua of China. The gap is typical of the ground that Indian athletes have to cover before they can dream of making their presence felt in international competitions. For instance, Annavi’s mark of 2.12m was passed almost a generation ago by Charles E. Dumas of the United States at the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956.P.T. Usha, 20, of Kerala – adjudged by many to be the best athlete in the country today – ran 400m in 52.6 seconds in Delhi to set up a new national record for women, clipping a full second off the time she held earlier.But she is still nearly 4.5 seconds behind world record holder Marita Koch of East Germany and the time that earned her a gold medal last month was notched up by Ann Packer of Great Britain in the preliminaries in the Tokyo Olympics a full 20 years ago. “We are years and years behind the rest of the world,” says Saini, “and the problem is that even as we progress, others are also becoming better and better.”The only Indian woman to hold an international record, M.D. Valsamma in the 400m hurdles, is at least 4 seconds behind the best in the world. She won easily in Delhi, but says cautiously of the Olympics: “I will try to do my best.” Her coach, A.K. Kutty, who has been training her since 1977, is equally cautious: “I will try and get her to do 57 seconds dead. But the latest time is slightly over 52 seconds and there are at least two dozen hurdlers in the world who run seconds faster than Valsamma. I would say that we have still a long way to go.”The gap, nevertheless, need not be too disheartening. As Ranjit Bhatia, member of the selection committee, said: “Annavi is the best indication that the state-level coaching scheme is working. But to develop you must have many more meets; just two major ones a year is not enough. It is the lack of competition that keeps us where we are.” The high-flying jumper from the south notwithstanding, it appears that India will have to shelve its dreams of an Olympic medal in a sport other than hockey for some time to come.advertisementlast_img read more


Ladhak: The Forbidden Land

first_imgFour years ago, Ladakh was a place suspended in time, discarded by history, and totally cut off from the mainstream of human existence. Its strategic military location coupled with its near-total inaccessibility, only served to lengthen Ladakh’s protracted period of isolation. Since then, however, the “highest inhabited land in the,Four years ago, Ladakh was a place suspended in time, discarded by history, and totally cut off from the mainstream of human existence. Its strategic military location coupled with its near-total inaccessibility, only served to lengthen Ladakh’s protracted period of isolation. Since then, however, the “highest inhabited land in the world” has undergone a welcome, if painful transition.Today, Ladakh is a stark, surrealistic, Dali-like painting come alive. An exotic lunar landscape where tourists from all over the world are flocking like bees around a honey pot. Affluent Germans, extrovert Americans, secretive Swiss, spaced-out hippies and camera-laden Japanese are arriving by the dozens to this remote, primitive plateau aptly referred to as “The Forbidden Land”.Sudden Influx: Paradoxically, it is Ladakh’s primitive culture, its isolation and its comparative lack of tourist facilities that have been responsible for the sudden influx of tourists. “There is just no place like Ladakh for getting away from the rat race of the cities,” drawled Harry Prentice, an American tourist in Leh. “We Americans are so used to the comforts of life that living in this primitive fashion is a kind of catharsis.”Ladakh has much more to offer the foreign tourist than just its primitiveness. The opportunity of seeing the only centre of “living Buddhism”; a culture that is as ancient as civilization; priceless Tibetan antiques; breathtaking scenery and precariously perched gompas (monasteries), has increased Ladakh’s tourist arrivals to a creditable 8,000 last year. (Ladakh was thrown open for tourists in 1974, and is only accessible for six months of the year). The foreign tourist traffic this year is expected to reach the figure of 10,000.advertisementUnfortunately, the overall conception of planning and development of a tourist infrastructure has lagged far behind the rapid growth of tourist traffic to Ladakh. The only means of access to Ladakh’s fairytale capital, Leh, is by a dusty, bone-jarring, two-day 430 km jeep ride from Srinagar, through tortuous hairpin bends, overlooking deep gorges resembling America’s famous Grand Canyon.Ladakh’s largest festival held at the Hemis gompa this year in June. (Clockwise from top left) Lamas assemble in the courtyard of the monastery; one of the grotesquely masked dancers; quartet of dancers dressed as skeletons; a scene of the ritual dance; a silk embroidered tangkha of Padma Sambhava; a shrine in the monastery courtyard.The only consolation along the treacherous route (on an average, one man has died for every kilometre of road built in Ladakh) is Ladakh’s awe-inspiring scenery – an incredible study in contrasts. One moment, all the eye can see is a desolate barren desert, and around the next bend suddenly sprouts a green oasis – cascading mountain streams fringed by luscious tracts of fertile land.Vital Link: Leh (pop: 15,000; ht: 11,500 ft) itself is an anti-climax. Formerly a flourishing centre of Buddhist culture and an important link on the ancient “silk route” between India and China, Leh initially appears as a straggle of stone huts intersected by a Byzantine labyrinth of narrow lanes.Leh’s surroundings are equally unimpressive – stark lunar-like landscape with scattered boulders, and dusty brown hills stretching into the distance. Ladakh, however, is a land that grows on the visitor. The blinding rays of the sun produce an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour, clothing the forbidding mountain peaks in shifting purple, orange and inconceivable shades of blue and black.At the Hemis festival (top left clockwise). Lamas dancing to the eight incarnations of Padma Sambhava; another incarnation ready to fight forces of evil; cameratoting tourists; hippy girl with Ladakhis; traditional head-dress of turquoise.For photographers, Ladakh is a paradise. For tourists accustomed to five-star living conditions, it is not. Apart from the lack of proper roads, communication facilities, running water and decent restaurants, there is very restricted hotel accommodation. At the moment total rooms available in Leh are: 380 double, 50 single and about 200 in private homes.A number of foreigners camps out near the numerous mountain streams, but quite a few find themselves without a place to stay. Leh itself has only two hotels worth mentioning, Larimo and the newly-opened Shambhala (the latter is owned by Pinto Nubru, son of Ladakh’s minister for tourism). Rates are comparatively high.The usual jeep hire rate from Srinagar to Leh and back is about Rs 2,000, while a bus ride costs Rs 130. Hotel rates in Leh’s Shambhala Hotel are Rs 270 per day for a double room and Rs 135 for a single room (with meals). However, with tourism being Ladakh’s only staple industry, local Ladakhis have been quick to cash in – every Ladakhi with enough money is busy constructing a hotel.advertisement(Top left clockwise) Fatula (13,479 ft), the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road; old man in Ladakhi dress; Thikse monastery near Leh; contrasting landscape en route to Leh; polo match at Leh with the old summer palace in the background.Tourist Boom: Inevitably, the birth of the tourist boom has witnessed the parallel infiltration of commercialism. Once replete with priceless antiques, Ladakh has, over the last four years, been stripped bare of almost all its art treasures, except a few that are preserved in the major monasteries. Unfortunately, the locals, because of their prolonged isolation, are anything but business-minded.The more aggressive Kashmiri traders and Tibetan tradesmen from the plains have shouldered the locals aside and set up stalls selling overpriced Tibetan trinkets which are easily available and cheaper in New Delhi’s Janpath shopping centre. Even Ladakh’s Lamas have been unable to resist the lure of commercialism.A number of them have started selling goods outside Ladakh’s major monasteries. There have also been allegations that the religious concepts of Buddhism have been desecrated by some monasteries having staged major festivals for affluent tourists who are prepared to pay large sums of money, even though the festival does not coincide with the religious dates fixed for them (see box).Religious mania reaches a fever pitch in Puri’s gargantuan Ratha Yatra (car festival) held last week. (Clockwise from top left), the three beautifully painted wooden chariots containing images of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Lord Jagannath, surrounded by a vast multitude of devotees; the yellow coloured chariot of Lord Jagannath being pulled through the streets by delirious devotees; a section of the ma moth crowd lining Puri’s Grand Road; Pandas on the chariot platform receiving offerings from the crowds; the blue-painted chariot of Balabhadra; a devotee overcome by religious ecstasy sings bhajans in the porch of his house.Apart from the monasteries, the rugged scenery and trekking facilities, Ladakh has few other attractions. Leh has a nondescript, muddy 18 hole golf course which is virtually unplayable, though the revival of Ladakh’s traditional sport, polo, has kindled a spark of interest.Publicity: Fortunately, a number of small and large tourist agencies have started cashing in on Ladakh’s tourist boom, and their publicity campaigns are attracting a growing number of entrepreneurs to cater to tourist needs. Ladakh also has the distinction of housing the largest concentration of Buddhists in India – numbering over 50,000. Their untarnished culture, Buddhist relics, festivals and monasteries are attracting an increasing number of Japanese tourists.Religion is the staple diet of a majority of Ladakhis. Almost every family has at least one member serving in a monastery. There is one monastery in every village in Ladakh. The major monasteries, of which there are 12 in Ladakh, house hundreds of saffron-robed Lamas. There are estimated to be over 5,000 Lamas in Ladakh. Initiates are taken into the monasteries at the age of eight.Before becoming a monk, the Lama takes 253 vows, including celibacy, drinking or entertainment of any kind. They are allowed to listen to music, but cannot sing. Lamas do not confine themselves to religious pursuits – they also work as teachers, physicians, and astrologers. They live in tiny cells and are not permitted to keep personal possessions. A simple bed is the only concession to comfort.advertisementTelevision Coverage: Despite its relative inaccessibility, Ladakh has recently been granted some accidental publicity by a number of foreign television teams attracted by the stark beauty of the countryside. Recently, a Belgian TV team, and Nippon TV visited Ladakh, while National Geographic magazine devoted a major story to Ladakh in its March issue titled, “Ladakh – The Last Shangri-La”.However, it is obvious that the development of tourist facilities will have to be accelerated if Ladakh is to retain its place on the international tourist map. Currently, it mainly attracts those looking for a place off the beaten tourist track, or students of Buddhism and Tibetology. But Ladakh has the potential and the natural beauty granted to very few places in India.The future of Ladakh, and its people, is, and always has been, as fragile as the myriad, tattered prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Tourism has given Ladakh a new breath of life. It now lies in the hands of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department to kindle that breath into a wind of sweeping change.last_img read more