Shesrig Ladakh: Conserving heritage

Noor Jahan and Wajeeda Tabassum graduated in commerce and their families wanted them to pursue a career in the corporate sector. Noor Jahan explained, “I was not happy with what I was studying at college and was not really interested. My family wanted me to study commerce, take a job in a bank or pursue an MBA degree. I felt like I was wasting time.”

Noor Jahan returned to Leh after completing her graduation. While walking through Leh’s old town neighbourhood she noticed some people working on the conservation of Chamba Lakhang. She was intrigued and approached them for a short chat. After returning to Delhi, she started reading about architectural conservation and learnt about the possibility of pursuing a post graduate degree in this field. At the time, Wajeeda was completing her Master’s in Sociology in Delhi. Noor Jahan told her about what she had learnt about conservation, which got Wajeeda interested too. “During our research on conservation we learnt that there is a lot of scope in this field,” added Noor Jahan.

They found relevant courses at two institutes: National Museum Institute and Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management (DIHRM). The National Museum Institute course required graduation in history, design, and an art-related background. The DIHRM course was open to people with different backgrounds. Soon, Noor Jahan and Wajeeda enrolled for a Master’s in Conservation at DIHRM after clearing their entrance examination.

After attending the theory class for the first year, they had to do an internship. Generally, students from DIHRM intern in Delhi where the institute collaborates with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). However, Noor and Wajeeda opted to do their internship in Ladakh with Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF). “We got in touch with Dr Sonam Wangchok, the Founder Secretary of HCHF and he was very supportive. We got an opportunity to work on three projects for our internship. Dr Wangchok suggested we intern with the restoration work of the Chorten in Shey, which was underway at the time,” said Noor Jahan.

While working on the restoration of the Chorten, they met people from different walks of life, which expanded their understanding of the field. As part of the internship, they also helped document rock sculptures in and around Leh. In addition, they also worked on wall painting conservation in Nubra with a team from the Czech Republic. “We were very happy as we got to work on what we had studied in class. It was a very good experience and we learnt many basic aspects of wall painting conservation. The internship with HCHF gave us a lot of experience. We also became aware of the vast scope of art conservation in Ladakh,” explained Noor Jahan.

After completing their masters, they got in touch with wall painting conservator and a member of the firm, Art Conservation Solution (ACS), Sree Kumar who has been working in Ladakh on wall painting conservation. That year, ASC had a project in Igoo and Sumda Chun, which Noor and Wajeeda were able to join. This was their first wall painting conservation project. “We were so excited with the work and learnt more about wall painting conservation. We had intended to volunteer but they ended up paying us,” said Noor Jahan. Later that summer, the second phase of the work in Nubra by the team from Czech Republic also started. “We joined them once again but after working with ACS we saw many differences in how they work and this raised many questions. The team from the Czech Republic engaged in extensive retouching. So, if a painting is lost, they would recreate it,” recalled Noor Jahan.

In September that year, a firm called Heritage Preservation Attire from Chandigarh called them to work on a conservation project at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was their first experience in working with a lime base painting, which helped broaden their expertise. “These experiences have broadened our knowledge and skills in conservation,” explained Wajeeda. By this time, they had enrolled for a PhD as they had become interested in exploring different aspects including materials, techniques, colours etc of wall painting and artefacts. “During project work we do not get time to study details of the wall paintings. It is very important to understand the work before starting the restoration process. Otherwise, you may end up adding new things to an old painting,” said Noor Jahan.

They continued working on various such projects. They had also started discussing the idea of establishing an independent entity to work with heritage conservation. “In 2017, we were discussing the possibility of starting Shesrig Ladakh. One day, I was sitting in a café in Leh bazaar and the Masjid Sharif had just been dismantled for restoration. I saw this house (Choskor house) and thought it would be ideal for our work. That evening, I called Wajeeda and told her about this house. Early the next morning, we explored this old house and imagined that it could be developed as a working studio for conservation of artefacts,” explained Noor Jahan. They got in touch with owner of the house and started restoring it using their scholarship money. Later, Achi Association helped restore the interiors of the house. The Shesrig Ladakh conservation studio will open in May 2022 in the 200-year-old Choskhor house in Leh.

The main objective of establishing Shesrig Ladakhis to make art conservation more sustainable in Ladakh and contribute to Ladakhi society. “We could easily have taken a job outside or even in Ladakh, but after we chose this field we decided to work in and for Ladakh. This work has kept us connected with Ladakh and helps us contribute to the conservation of its rich heritage. We are part of the local community and must contribute back to society. I can’t even think of working outside Ladakh. Another aim is to make this field sustainable because many conservationists work in Ladakh on a project basis and it is seasonal. We want to make this field active throughout the year as a lot of conservation work needs to be done in Ladakh,” added Noor.

Shesrig Ladakh is also making an effort to engage local youth in conservation to help them understand the field. “There are many skilled youngsters, especially girls, and we are trying to give them exposure. Studying about conservation is important. Even if someone has not studied conservation but has the necessary skills and interest in conservation, we have a responsibility to provide them with training and exposure. If I can educate someone about heritage then that person can educate others and help expand the chain of learning about heritage. As of now we are at the initial stage and it will take time for this idea to grow. There will be struggles along the way,” expressed Noor.

She explained that establishing the studio is important. “We have to work on the site for wall paintings but there are many artefacts that can be brought to one place for restoration. Many people can also be engaged in this work. Right now, two girls are freelancing with us. We cannot give them a full-time job yet. When the studio is functional, we could give them full time work and engage others,” said Noor.

They have also faced many challenges. One of the main challenges at sites is accessibility. Wajeeda explained, “Working in Ladakh is one of the best experiences I have ever had but it comes with many challenges. The remoteness of various sites and the lack of expertise in the field are big challenges.” Many old monasteries and structures are located in isolated sites and it is difficult to carry material and equipment to them. Conservation materials and supplies are often very heavy. “In 2020, we worked on the conservation of Chomo Phu, a 13th Century temple in Disket, Nubra. It is a single room gonpa. There was no place for accommodation so we stayed in tents and had to improvise basic facilities. This is common for many sites. People are very supportive wherever we work. Ladakhis know the importance of conservation of old paintings and many people come forward to help,” added Noor.

Another challenge they face is the lack of systematic funding from the government. “There are funds for structural conservation but not for paintings within the structure or for the conservation of artefacts. It seems that the government is not able to support this work as most of our paintings and artefacts are religious in nature. We need to develop a sustainable model to support conservation work,” Noor said. She added that many times contractors carry our structural conservation work. “What would a general contractor know about conservation? They lack expertise and there is a danger of damaging these ancient structures and their heritage value. It is better not to do anything at all instead of destroying it,” worried Noor.

Wajeeda agreed and said, “Sometimes priceless heritage gets damaged even by professional conservators who may lack understanding of the condition and challenges in Ladakh, limited knowledge of techniques and materials or be aware of the long-term impacts of using incompatible material. This can cause irreparable and irreversible damage.”

Finally, they spoke of the need to have a heritage committee and the adoption of a heritage policy. “In Ladakh, this is regarded as a noble profession but everyone’s intentions are not clear. Sometimes people with good intentions can also cause harm. Similarly, when someone from outside Ladakh works on conservation, he or she may not know about many aspects of the painting unless he or she has studied them intensively. For example, in Karsha Gonpa, when experts were called for the conservation of wall paintings, they started to work but they were not able to bear the cold and took the wall painting to Lucknow. Many such things could happen unless we have someone regulating and overseeing conservation of our heritage. Similarly, we have also seen cases of artefact theft in the name of conservation. This is a big issue,” Noor stated. She added that a heritage policy guideline is required with a heritage committee to oversee conservation work. The heritage committee must verify the work of the conservationist. In addition, we need to have a dedicated person at the Hill Councils to look at matters related to heritage.

Wajeeda added, “We have seen a definitive increase in awareness of our cultural heritage but we have a long way to go. We should incorporate cultural heritage awareness in schools. In addition, museums in Ladakh should serve as educational institutions rather than tourist attractions. Museums can play a very important role in spreading awareness of our cultural and material heritage.”

By Kunzes Dolma

Kunzes Dolma is part of the editorial team at Stawa.

Indian women’s ice hockey team wins silver in UAE

The Indian women’s ice hockey team was invited to participate in the Union Women’s Ice Hockey Tournament in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in March 2022. The tournament was organised by Fatima Al Qubaisi, who captains the UAE national ice hockey team. The invitation letter was sent to the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI), which is the nodal body for the sport in India. IHAI did not have the resources to fund the team as it had allotted funds for the team’s participation in the Women Challenge Cup of Asia Division I in June 2022. They suggested that the players can participate as the UT Ladakh team (as all the players are from Ladakh) if the UT Administration was able to fund them. The players approached Sports Secretary, UT Ladakh, Ravinder Kumar for support. He agreed to fund the team but four days prior to their departure for Abu Dabhi, they received a letter from the commissioner secretary that they cannot fund the team.

Goal Tender for Team India, Noor Jahan said, “I was not clear why they were being so picky about the tournament when ice hockey is still in its infancy in Ladakh. Players must use every opportunity to gain experience. That letter was very disheartening. We shared it with the organisers and they were upset too. They agreed to pay for the air tickets for 10 players and they had already arranged for our accommodation. However, since we had already prepared to participate as a team we could not randomly drop players. We were still keen to go and started approaching various people for funding despite the sever time crunch. We tried calling the hon’ble MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal but he did not pick up our calls. One of the few people who did respond was Councillor from Saspol in LAHDC, Leh, Smanla Dorjey Norboo who agreed to help. He took some loans to enable us to book our tickets. We also started crowd funding to repay the money he had borrowed.” The players claim that Sports Secretary, UT Ladakh, Ravinder Kumar did try his best to support the team but was unable to see it through. In the end, the team left for Abu Dhabi without a coach and a manager.

The tournament included six teams including the national teams of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and India along with two teams with players from different parts of the world. Assistant Captain of Team India, Deachen Dolker said, “This time our team performed very well. There was unity in the team and everyone gave 100%.” They faced various challenges during the tournament including the lack of support staff, which forced each team member to take on more responsibility. Noor Jahan said, “Earlier I would admire other teams. This time I started admiring Team India’s remarkable skill, talent and drive. The other teams also praised our performances.”

Deachen explained that normally she would have to take on additional responsibility but this time the whole team took on more responsibility. This was echoed by team members such as Tsetan Dolma who said, “Generally in team meetings, the coach briefs the team about the approach for each game. This time, everyone contributed to the team’s strategy and team meetings were very productive. Everyone had a positive attitude, which boosted the morale of the team.”

The players learnt a lot through this experience. Several of them spoke about the need to constantly improve various aspects of their game. Some senior team members such as Deachen and Noor Jahan commented on this how the team has evolved over the years. “This time we saw professionalism in the team. We managed our fears and anxiety much better and gave 100% in each game,” they added.

In the end, the team won the silver medal in the tournament. This has strengthened the self-belief of the team and each team member, which will help them in future games. I have seen the hard work that these players have put in over the years and it is heartening to see their efforts bear fruit. Deachen explained that many people think participating in sports is pure fun. “However, we have overcome many challenges in our journey so far. Some people belittle our achievement by claiming that the other teams must have been weak. This is not true. We have won through our efforts.”

In addition, the achievement will also help individual careers like Tsetan Dolma who is pursuing a Master’s in Physical Education. She said, “I have not participated in any international games since I started my masters due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a good opportunity. I hope it will help change the perception of sports in Ladakhi society.”

Furthermore, the win has made the team more resilient. Tsetan described how they motivated themselves during the tournament. “Initially, I was demotivated when I saw this player from Kazakistan. She was very good! As I watched her, I started to question my ability to play ice hockey. Later, I realised that I need to push myself and kept telling myself that if she is able to play at this level, so can I! This helped me improve as a player.”

Deachen agreed with her. She said, “Two of the teams were very good and our team was a little hesitant initially. Then, all the players encouraged each other to give their best. We were always aware that with the necessary practice, training and application, we can win any match. This time we did not have a coach and developed our own game plans. Somehow, we clicked as a team.”

When asked about the challenges they face, Deachen said finances remain the biggest issue. “The financial issue affected all of us. I was very disturbed by the discussions on social media over this issue. This increased pressure on us as people were watching our performances. In addition, many of us had to cope with the lack of support staff, especially a physiotherapist. For instance, I had muscle cramps in the last match and could not play to my potential,” she added.

In the end, the financial challenge for this tournament did get resolved. As the crowd funding efforts become more popular it caught the attention of the hon’ble Lt. Governor of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur who agreed to pay for the team from his discretionary fund. Similarly, Indian Youth Congress also donated funds. The funds from the Lt. Governor will be used to repay the loan taken to support the team’s participation, while other funds will support the team’s participation in the Women Challenge Cup of Asia Division I in June 2022.

Deachen feels these struggles will continue for a few years. “Ice hockey is growing in popularity. It is the responsibility of all the girls currently playing ice hockey to help establish a strong foundation for the sport and improve its stature,” she added. Tsetan agreed and said, “The efforts being made by players and Ladakh Women’s Ice hockey Foundation to improve women’s ice hockey will continue. Perhaps, in the next five to six years women’s ice hockey will overcome these challenges once and for all.”

By Kunzes Dolma

Kunzes Dolma is a part of the editorial team at Stawa

Imagining Ladakh

Ladakh has been on the periphery of development for several decades now. I started thinking of how Ladakh would be, if it were at the core of development, say if it was a nation-state that determined its own development. This thought made me wonder about the first thoughts that come to our mind when we think of a country. My first thought was about physical size. I always imagined that a nation-state would necessarily have a large territory, say much larger than the erstwile state of Jammu and Kashmir. So I did an online search for the smallest countries of the world and I was very surprised! The smallest countries in the world are dwarfed by the municipal limits of Leh or Kargil town:

Vatican City0.44 sq.km825
Monaco2 sq.km36,000
Nauru21 sq.km12,708
Tuvalu26 sq.km10,000
San Marino61 sq.km30,000

I wondered how Ladakh would be if it were in control of its own development process. And so, I started imagining Ladakh as a country by itself where it was able to set its own priorities and develop at its own pace.

Ladags is nestled among the high mountains of the Ladakh, Zangskar and Karakoram ranges that are drained by rivers such as the Indus and Shyok. The people who live here reflect a mix of influences from the east, west Asia and various Eurasian regions. As a nation-state, it has nurtured its centuries-old tradition of music and festivals. The youth have an inexhaustible energy of explorying new and innovative ways of sustainable living, be it for house constuction or food production.

The governance is exemplary and reflects a mix of best governance practices from around the world. The country is rich in renewable energy resources including sun, geothermal and hydro power, which are tapped using sustainable technologies. This has ensured energy supply to every village in the country with surplus energy being sold to neighbouring countries. Energy and tourism have emerged as the main pillars of the country‘s economy.

Speaking of tourism, this country has something for every traveller; be it a romantic gateway for lovers as well as adventure and wildlife spotting opportunities for enthusiasts. This country has a well-regulated tourism industry and remains a treat for adventure sports due to its terrain that tests a person physically and mentally. The mountains are also rich in medicinal herbs and plants that have been used by locals for centuries and is now attracting attention from the world over. It also has an exquisite tradition of artistic prusuits including pottery and statue-making that remain in great demand. The country also stands as a shining example of religious tolerance and coexistence with different communities living together in harmony.

Similarly, its research institutions, such as the University of Ladakh, are conducting cutting-edge research on various topics including climate change, earth sciences, renewable energy, wildlife conservation etc. The education system is finely tuned to provide holistic growth of its students and incorporates best practices in each sector. Professional educational institutions like medical, engineering, and management institutes have visiting faculties, researchers and students from across the globe and have a pragmatic mix of theory and practice. There are government schools in every village, which provide world-class education. The toughest screening in any profession is for teachers who have to clear various examinations as well as emotional, personality and psychological tests. It is also the best-paying and most respected profession in the country. Recruitment for various jobs is done through a well-established transparent system based on merit. Similarly, promotions to higher posts are based on educational qualification, which ensures that people are constantly learning.

The political institutions in the country are based on the principles of equal participation by all members of society, irrespective of gender, religion and caste. There is a strong tradition of democratic representation and governance where people‘s voices are heard and help shape inclusive public policy.

Every village is well-developed in all aspects such as technology advancement, educational infrastructure, and energy development. The use of technology in agriculture has enhanced food security across the country. Apricots, seabuckthorn, and buckwheat are some of the major exports from the country. Since each village is self-sustaining and have all sevrices available locally, there is little need for people to migrate away from their homes.

Ladakh has strict environment protection policies that ensure environmental and social sustainability. Environmental and social clearances have to be obtained for all developmental activities to ensure that no activity undermines the country‘s heritage in any manner.

Ladakh is well-conected with the outside world. The international airports in Leh and Kargil are well-connected with all major airports in the world throughout the year. In addition, there are regular train services between Ladakh and neighbouring countries. The public transport system is well-managed, efficient and uses renewable energy sources. In fact, local people prefer using public transport than their own private vehicles.

Ladakh continues to play its role in regional trade. It is strategically located on the cross-roads of Asia and continues to function as a bridge for trade that links countries in east, south, central and west Asia. This generates substantial revenue for Ladakh as a trade hub.

There is no discrimination in Ladakh based on gender or any other identity markers. This has ensured the it is one of the top countries in the world that attracts the best talent from around the world. It is not surprising that Ladakh has emerged as a global leader in attracting professionals and tourists alike. It also attracts people from around the world to apply for citizenship and settle here premanently.

While I am not arguing that it must become an independent country, this is the Ladakh of my imagination. And as Albert Einstien once said, “Imagination is the preview of life´s coming attractions.ˮ

By Kunzes Dolma

Kunzes Dolma is an engineer by training and is currently a doctoral fellow at the UNESCO GRÓ-Geothermal Training Programme in Rekjavik, Iceland.