Kangsing: Imagining new realities

I sat on an ice block cushioned with a Lokpa (goatskin fleece) and sipped hot tea. Portraits of Ladakh’s birds and mammals taken by local photographers were displayed on the ice walls. This unique space also had displays of metal products such as intricately designed pots and brass spoons from Chilling village.

The centrepiece was a snow leopard made from ice sitting on an ice pedestal in the middle of the ice café on the bank of the frozen Zangskar river. This space was a geometrical functional structure made completely from ice blocks. It had interactive spaces designed for a café along with exhibition spaces, which provided relief in the barren land.

This rugged river-bank is punctuated by a highway that leads to Zangskar valley. People rarely visit this area on cold wintry days. However, it has served as a ‘home’ to numerous Ladakhi artists between December 2021 and February 2022.

Hundreds of ice blocks were harvested from the frozen Zangskar river and used to create this structure. This is the result of the vision and hard work of Kangsing – Snow and Ice Sculpture Association of Ladakh. The members of this association are young Ladakhi artists practicing different art-forms such as contemporary sculpture, ceramics, painting, graphic design and traditional sculpture.

The association promotes snow and ice sculpture art in Ladakh, which can help boost winter tourism. Tsering Gyurmet, the President of Kangsing said that the people of Ladakh are fortunate to have ice and snow during winters. “Ladakh’s winter is cold and harsh, but we shouldn’t dread the winters. In fact, the cold winter months are a good opportunity to experiment and create new experiences. In our case, we have used ice to create an ice café,” he said.

The founding members of the Kangsing team include Chemat Dorjey, Tsering Gyurmet, Tashi Namgyal and Stanzin Nurboo. It was formed in 2018 to represent India at the International Ice Festival at Harbin, Beijing. During the event, they produced massive ice and snow sculptures of a Chorten (Stupa) and a yak and received recognition at the event.

Once they returned to Ladakh, they created several smaller ice sculptures in Leh bazaar while participating in events such as the Zanskar Winter Sports and Youth Festival 2021. They also experimented with small scale ice farming from the Indus. A part of this process was included in the form of a multimedia presentation during an exhibition called ‘How Much Water is Enough Water’ curated by Tsering Motup Siddho in 2019 at Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation, Leh (LAMO). They have expanded their experiments since. This winter they created an ice café structure through a workshop with more than 20 local artists. The workshop took place from 23 December 2021 to 10 February 2022. The Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival was then opened to the public from 11 to 18 February, 2022.

Chemat Dorjey, founding member and Secretary of Kangsing explained the reasons they undertook this task. “Many young artists in Ladakh are not employed full time and this provided them with an opportunity to come together on one platform to create artworks from ice—a medium that is easily available in Ladakh. The idea was to promote winter tourism and exhibit the skills of these artists. In addition, the workshop helped create awareness about climate change. In the past, winters were extremely cold with an abundance of snow. However, over the last few years, the winters have become warmer and there is little or no snow.”

Tashi Namgyal is a painter by profession and a founding member of the association. He said that it was challenging to work with ice. A team of porters from Zangskar and members of Kangsing cut ice blocks from the Indus. Initially they used sophisticated machines but they soon realised that the chainsaw was the only effective tool that worked for this task. They faced many challenges including constant breakdowns. “Nature is unforgiving. The ice blocks used for this project were bound to melt. The natural phenomenon of the water freezing to solid ice and then melting as it got warmer is natural,” he added. He explained that witnessing art using natural materials like ice shows the intangibility of nature. He felt that this project has the potential to create new opportunities for the people of Ladakh in the future.

Stanzin Motup, a traditional sculptor, was new to Kangsing. He worked with a large team for the first time and found the experience to be rewarding. He said, “Sculpture made out of ice, sends a very strong message about the impacts of climate change. The ice blocks used for the workshop are sustainable and a zero carbon emission material as the ice blocks were taken from the river and later melted back into it.”

Similarly, another new member, Phuntsog Namgyal stated that though he has worked with traditional art for many years, it was a new experience to sculpt with ice. In comparison to sculpting with clay, sculpting with ice had its own challenges. The task of transporting ice blocks from the riverbank to the site was difficult and labour-intensive. The most beneficial and wholesome experience was the process of exchanging ideas, experimentation with methods and the need for better understanding to work as a team. His fellow artist, Stanzin Gyalson also mentioned that learning the techniques of ice sculpting from senior sculptors was fulfilling. Initially, he thought the work was difficult but realised that it was relatively easy once he started working.

Like these artists, Tsering Youdol, a painter by profession and the only female member of Kangsing said that the workshop was a learning experience for her as it was the first time that she was working with ice. She hopes to work on bigger projects with ice in the future and urges more women to join Kangsing. She said, “I did not face any problems as the only woman in the team. I learnt a lot from the other members and feel that my experience will encourage more women artists to explore such collaborations in the future.”

Stanzin Nurboo, a traditional sculptor and Treasurer at Kangsing, explained that experiencing the cold winter months marked a changing phase in his life. He learnt the importance of coping with harsh climatic conditions and endured many challenges. He had previously participated in the Ice Festival at Harbin, Beijing.

Chemat explained, “We need to have bigger events in the future to promote winter tourism in Ladakh. Schools are closed during the winter and interested students can be trained to work with ice,” He added that voices of local communities are very important to address issues such as climate change. “We need to bring local communities together with glaciologists and scientists to create a more wholesome understanding of issues related to climate change. This could lead to development of new methods to conserve water and natural resources.”

This was echoed by Stanzin Wangail, a member of Kangsing, who explained that parents of students who learn art from him are very supportive and wanted their children to learn ice sculpture. “However, they were not able to participate this year due to COVID-19 and the extreme weather conditions at the site. I hope to conduct workshops for them next year,” he added.

Chemat envisions that in the coming years this event can take place at the national and as international level by inviting artists from outside the region. It could be in the form of an ice carnival that would include ice sculpture competition, snow sculpture competition, training workshops and various events for students and the public. This will help foster teamwork and promote art. It will also enhance Ladakh’s winter tourism festival calendar and generate monetary benefits for artists.
In 2022, a large number of people visited the café once the exhibition was opened for the public. “People wanted to experience the ice café before it melts. The most interesting thing was the surprise and satisfaction that people experienced. In a way, our work helped overcome the barrier of cold temperatures in the winter months. This was rewarding,” Chemat added.

I watched many young adults using the exquisite backdrop of the café for their social media videos. Similarly, many college students used it to take photographs, which helped make the café very popular online.

Tundup Dorjay, member of Kangsing, who stressed on the need to have organisers for such an event, “We were able to organise this workshop in 2021-22 with support from Dr. Norden Odzer, Stanzin Dawa and Stanzin Wangtak, who helped us with a number of tasks including logistics and event management. This allowed us to focus on our work at the site.”

Stanzin Dawa, an entrepreneur, spoke on the importance of being sustainable and financially independent. “The work of the Kangsing team is a first-of-its-kind in India. It was featured in The Week, covered in French media and included in the list of tourist destinations by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.” He envisions that an international conference can be held in Ladakh around this theme and that such a festival can help generate revenue during winter months when economic activities slow down especially in the wake of the pandemic.

The Hon’ble Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur inaugurated the festival and visited the ice café. The event was collectively funded by Ladakh Police, Leh, District Commissioner, Leh, Tourism Department, Leh and various independent stakeholders including the Contractor Union and the Hotel and Guest House Association, Leh. The initial project outlay was for Rs 65 lakh (Rs 6.5 million). In the end, they were able to generate Rs. 13.5 lakh (Rs 1.35 million) for the workshop and festival. In addition, the Tourism Department paid an honorarium of about Rs. 5,000 to each artist. The UT Administration of Ladakh has expressed interest in collaborating to organise a similar workshop next year.

Text by Dr. Rigzin Chodon

Photograph by Samten Gurmet

Dr. Rigzin Chodon is an independent research consultant based in Leh.

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

Legends of the Balu

One day, my mother asked me to take the cattle to graze in the seabuckthorn forest near the village. It was early summer in the late 1980s. The trees were sprouting new leaves just as green shoots of grass were emerging from the ground. Sun was high and its rays were reflecting on the sand dunes and the barren path leading to the forest. This made walking difficult. There was silence in the area. Even the normal jungle sounds seemed to have ceased. Faraway, a lone bird was preparing to dive in the river across the sand dune.

I walked behind the cattle with a willow stick in my hand. We had 13 cows, four donkeys and two oxen. Since they knew the path to the forest, I have never been able to understand the purpose of walking with them. Anyway, we crossed the river. The herd decided to walk through the water and I used the bridge made by three long branches of a seabuckthorn tree. It requires skill and concentration to walk across this makeshift bridge. Even a slight distraction can break your concentration and you could end up in the icy cold water below.

In the distance, my eyes fell on the figure of a boy sitting alone on a rock. There was a walking stick in his hand and he was wearing a hat. My eyes remained fixed on this figure. The cattle were not bothered and they continued on their way. I was hesitant to move ahead, my heart started beating faster and my hand started trembling. Suddenly, I remembered a folklore recounted by my grandfather and other elders in the village about a supernatural creature. They would describe a short and stocky human-like person with a walking stick and a hat who had magical powers to fulfil any wish. They are known as ‘Balu’ in Ladakhi and are similar to elves and dwarves in other cultures.

My grandfather had told me that if I ever met a Balu, I should call out my wish to him. My grandfather added that my wish would be fulfilled but I needed to ensure that I did not mention the incident to anyone. He warned that if one fails to keep the secret, misfortune would befall. 

I was convinced that the figure in the distance was a resting Balu. The first thing that came to my mind was to wish for a more chicken for our home. A month ago, my father had started a small poultry farm at home with few country chicken and two roosters. However, they had refused to lay eggs even after a month. I was eager to play with little chicks from this poultry farm.

So, I shouted at the top of my voice, “Balu-ley! I want more chickens at home. Can you please help me with it?”

I turned immediately, scrambled back and ran blindly through the river and sand dunes without waiting for its reaction and left the cows to their own devices. I ran through the narrow lanes of the village like someone possessed. I entered the house at the same speed. My elder sister was startled and started running too. I was frightened and excited at the same time. I stopped to catch my breath with my hands on my knees and my head hanging down. I was wondering if I should tell my sister about the incident. 

She was very curious and wanted to know about what happened to make me run so fast. I was in a dilemma: Should I tell her about the incident and wait for misfortune to take place or remain silent, which is impossible. My sister is very inquisitive and difficult to ignore. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to tell my sister about my encounter and made her promise that she would not tell anyone else about it. 

Local folklores claim that Balu live in Beyul (hidden village). They occasionally pass human settlements while travelling. It is said that the Balu are very hardworking. In fact, there is a saying in Ladakhi, “Balu sath pa makher, Balu kol la kher”, which translates as “Don’t kill a Balu but enslave it instead.” It is said that a Balu needs its hat and walking stick to travel. They use the hat as a compass and the walking stick to travel fast and remain invisible.

My family owns a water mill in Kyagar village. It is one of the finest water mills in our village. It is said that a Balu visited our water mill once and took some barley flour from there and blessed the water mill as a token of its gratitude. It thus became the finest water mills in the village. Every village in Ladakh has legends about Balu. For instance, Spangmik village on the bank of Pangong-tso is considered to be a Beyul and villagers believe that it controls the irrigation water of the village. Similarly, the famous Lonpo of Wanla, who was historically known for his supernatural power, is said to have had acquired these powers from a Balu. Similarly, the literal meaning of Phey is ‘half’ and it is said that half of the village is still occupied by Balu and is invisible to us. Likewise, there are ruins of castles in many villages that are often called the castle of the Balu or Balu Khar. Such structures are present across Ladakh especially places such as Khaltse, Hemis Shukpachan, Hunder etc.

Anyway, returning to our story, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking of the Balu. I was excited to see the outcome of my request. I kept wondering if I would see eggs in the morning or if I would face some misfortune for revealing the secret.

That fateful night there were some commotion in the chicken coop. All the hustle and bustle left me exhilarated as I thought that my wish was being fulfilled and the chickens were laying eggs. That night was the longest night of my life. I woke up at the crack of dawn. There was complete silence except for a donkey braying in the distance. 

My father was awake and moving fitfully towards the chicken coop. I saw one of the roosters perched on the toilet and there were feathers scattered everywhere around the coop. My mother was walking around hastily outside our house compound in the narrow lanes of the village as she searched for something.  

It turned out that a dog had entered our chicken coop in the night and killed all the chicken with the exception of one rooster. I went back to my bed and cried profusely for my folly in revealing the secret to my sister. I woke my sister up and told her what had happened. She promised to keep our secret and did not reveal anything to our parents.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence or if such magical creatures do actually exist. I have come across many such incidents and folklores in Ladakh about the Balu. I remain baffled by my own experience, which compels me to believe these legends.

Ladakhi society is full of such stories about mythical creatures. People believe in these stories and they remain an integral part of Ladakhi culture. It is not unique to Ladakh as such mythical creatures are also known in other societies and cultures and are known by names such as elves, goblins, trolls, kobolds etc. Today, such myths and magic are being recreated in films. Unfortunately, legends of the Balu are fast disappearing from our society, which will not only leave a vacuum but also weaken our culture. We are running out of time and need to document such incidents, tales and legends associated with our belief system and preserve them for future generations.

(The author is grateful to Rainer Roos, Stanzin Tsewang, Khanpo K. Sherab and Tsering Namgyal for their valuable inputs for this article.)

Text by Dr Nordan Otzer

Sketch by Isaac Tsetan Gergan

Dr Nordan Otzer is an ENT doctor based in Leh.

History and culture of the Dards

As I read books on Ladakh’s history, I realised that many writers had visited Dha-Hanu villages to collect data. This piqued my curiosity to explore this area. In 2015, I joined the PNR Hydro Power Project in Dha village for my summer internship as a Junior Engineer in the Civil Engineering Department of the company. It was mandatory for me to stay on the premises of the project. I had the option of staying at the staff quarters but I refused. Instead, I decided to pursue my ambition to learn more about the Dardic community. I looked for accommodation in Dha village and found it at the home of a humble villager. We agreed on the rent but he refused to accept money when I was leaving a month later.

During my stay in the village I would spend my time with the elders of the village whenever I got free from my duties. On Sundays, I would visit the village lChangra (public meeting place in villages) where the elders would gather to socialise. Initially I spoke with them in Purigias they regarded me as an outsider. The children would call me ‘Pirki’. I took this name in my stride and continued interacting with the villagers. Gradually, I started speaking in my own mother tongue and people looked at me in astonishment. They asked, “Ture Hamo Moušpo Yea Bo Eesin?” (How do you know our language?). I smiled and responded, “Wa Dudo Ge Dededa, Mo Sharchichok Baitna” (Oh elders, I am from Sharchay). On hearing this, an elder lady started swinging her traditional headgear in front of my face as a gesture to welcome me. After this, many of them started sending fresh vegetables to me from their fields. Their kindness was overwhelming. A few elders started sharing old stories of our ancestors who lived happily together. Times have changed all of us and created various divisions.

In my village, people say that the villagers of Dha, Garkhone, Beama and Darchiks spoke the purest form of our language but I discovered that this was not true. Furthermore, we speak a similar language, eat similar food but follow different faiths. Despite this difference, the people of Sharchay and Chulichan perform many rituals that have no connection with Islam. For example, when something tragic happens or seems imminent, people sacrifice a goat or sheep above the village beneath a big juniper tree called Chilgee. The ritual is called Chal-Gipayis. The place where the slaughter takes place is called Duhi/Duhea in Dardic. As part of the ritual, white flags called Dadarsare tied to the juniper tree as a sign of peace and prosperity. After this, people raise their hand towards the sky and askDabon (God) to protect the area from natural disasters.

Migration from Gilgit to Ladakh

When speaking about the Dards, historians generally speak about Dha-Hanu and Darchiks-Garkhone and exclude Dards who currently practice Islam. When I asked some elders about the history of Dha and Garkhone, they said that our ancestors had migrated from Gilgit through Shigar in Baltistan along the gorge carved by the Shayok between Hanu and Turtuk. On the other hand, elders in my village say that our ancestors migrated from Gilgit to Ladakh along the Indus.

Dogra Governor of Ladakh Wazarat, Frederic Drew has written in his book, The Jummoo and Kashmir Territories: A Geographical Account (1875) that the Dards in this belt belong to an earlier migration who reached this region in small numbers. However, British historian R. B. Shaw writes in his book, Stray Arians in Tibet (1878) that Dards of Dha-Hanu claimed to have migrated from Gilgit and Brushal via Astore, Deosai, and Kargil.

German Tibetologist A. H. Francke wrote in his book Ladakh The Mysterious Land (1907) that there was a dynasty of Dard Kings at Khaltse whose fort was built on the bank of the Indus, and that inscriptions identified the names of the last kings as Shirima, Gya shin and Tri od. This dynasty ended sometime between 1150 and 1200 CE. Francke also mentioned that “…Da [Dha] and Garkunu [Garkhone] were ruled by magspons [Makpons] or “dukes,” just as the Baltis were; but these villages have always been independent of Baltistan” (p.48).

According to local tales, the kings of Khaltse and Leh fought a war, which the Dards lost as they were fewer in number. They were forced to leave Khaltse and Lamayuru and settled in Dha, Garkhone and Chulichan. We still have families in Chulichan village with names such as Yurupa, whose ancestors migrated from Lamayuru and Lehdo.

Researcher Tsewang Gailtsen writes in his Dardi Brokskat Dictionary that Garkhone, Dha and Ganokh were founded by three brothers, Galo, Melo and Dulo after they fled from Gilgit. Their respective sons, Gapomaro, Thapamaro and Gil Singgey settled in Dha-Hanu. Later, Horri Deday and her seven children from Garkhone migrated and founded Darchiks village.

Religion and deities

The Dards in this area currently practice Islam and Buddhism. The Dards of Dha-Hanu, Garkhone, Darchiks follow Buddhism while those in Sharchay, Chulichan, Silmo, Lakha Baltum, Batalik, Gargardo and Lalung practice Islam. Brokskat is no longer spoken in Lalung and Hanu.

Shina scholar Razwal Kohistani writes in his book Dard tribes in Pakistan and Kashmir that over time Dards have followed Shamanism, Astrolatry, Zartosht (fire-worship), Bonism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. He mentioned the names of deities worshipped by Dards, including Raťhi (who brings happiness and wealth), Raťhalo (who protects from disasters), Sabdaq (who protects homes) and Sili (who protects castles from enemies). Austrian ethnographer, Karl Jettmar in his paper ‘Ethnological Research in Dardastan 1958’ (1961) mentions Sili,a holy woman of Dards. I suspect that Silmo village was originally called Silimo. According to Master Hussain, a famous oral historian from Silmo, the Dards who settled in Silmo were victims of a war with the people of Sodh. It is possible that Moti Khan, the son of Gil Singgay, named the place after their deity to protect them from the enemy.

The arrival of Islam and Buddhism

R B Shaw mentions a war between Shigar and Ladakh, which ended with this region being captured by the latter. He mentions that monks from Skurbuchan monastery converted the people of Dha-Hanu some 12 to 15 years before his travel in the region around 1878. This suggests that the Dards of Dha, Hanu, and Garkhone converted to Buddhism around 1863-1866.  Shaw adds that Wachera (now across LoC) was also inhabited by Buddhist Dards who spoke Brokskat during that time. He further mentions that Dards residing in Lalung, Silmo, Dangal, Chulichan, Morol, Singkarmo and Ganokh converted to Islam a long time before his visit to the region.


The languages spoken in this region include Purigi and Dardic Brokskat, which is an offshoot of Shina language. I consider Shina as the mother of our language. British orientalist G W Litner has written, “The language spoken in Dha-Hanu is called Shina of Dha-Hanu.” Other scholars such as N Ramaswamy have mentioned its name as Brokskat. Tsewang Gailtsen refers to it as Dardi Brokskat in his dictionary while Mukhtar Zahid Budgami calls it Chulichani, Garkhoni. Musavir Ahmad, a professor at Kashmir University refers to it as Brokskat and Kyango in his book, A Descriptive Grammar of Gurezi Shina. The Central Institute of Indian Languages has officially registered its name as Brokskat. Razwal Kohistani has called it Shina Indus Bataliki. In a book we are writing together, we have compared words from Brokskat and Shina Indus Kohistani.

Relationship between Muslim and Buddhist Dards

Despite religious differences, Muslim and Buddhist Dards share close family ties. Many families including mine have close relatives in Darchiks. I discussed this with the residents of Darchiks, Dha, Beama, Chulichan, Batalik and Sharchay. It emerged that villagers of Batalik have relatives in Dha-Beama and Hanu, those from Darchiks have relatives in Batalik and so on. These people visit each other during festivals and funerals irrespective of the religion they follow currently.

Agricultural rituals

Agriculture is the cornerstone of the region’s economy. R. B. Shaw writes that the villagers of Dha mentioned that their ancestors hunted rather than farmed. A mighty hunter of the past had dropped his bow (Dah in Ladakhi) on a hillside. This became a water channel that irrigated the fields of what grew into a village. One of their chiefs found seeds of wild wheat and barley and sowed them near the water channel. Thus, the village was established. The process of using the plough and sowing is called Bahis in Dardic Brokskat.

During this season, Muslim and Buddhist Dards perform some unique rituals. They burn juniper leaves to purify the land and protect it from disasters. Before taking the plough and bulls to the fields, children go to the field for a ritual called Sumpa. Children are said to be free of sin and this ritual is believed to improve the field’s yield. The word Sumpa is a combination of Sum (soil in Dardic Brokskat) andPa (a possessive suffix in Balti/Purigi) i.e. person of the soil. The face of the Sumpa is dotted with local ghee (clarified butter) and roasted barley flour with a bag of barley on his back. He then walks around the field before the family starts ploughing and sowing seeds. This ritual is unique to this region.

By Aarif Hussain

Aarif Hussain is a resident of Sharchay village, Kargil. He holds a B. Tech degree in Civil Engineering from Kurukshetra University, Haryana.

Remembering Sodnam Skybldan Gergan (1904-1981)

Born in the beginning of the 20th Century in a Ladakhi Christian family, my father, S. S. Gergan left at a very young age for Srinagar, Kashmir for his education. At the time, this journey would take 14 days on foot or pony. In Kashmir, he studied at the Tyndale Biscoe School, where he had the privilege of studying under the pioneering educationist, Canon Cecil Tyndale Biscoe. My father was a keen sportsman and represented Sri Pratap College in football, field hockey, tug-of-war and water sports. An avid polo enthusiast, he played the sport in Ladakh till well into his 50s. A lover of good music, he loved playing his Amati violin.

After his studies, my father took an administrative position in the Education Department in Ladakh. He would recount stories of school visits, including ones in Skardu region of Baltistan. In June 1929, his older brother, Chimed Gergan, an officer in the Forest Department was murdered on Pensi-la by smugglers of Indian Costus or Kuth (Sassurea lappa), which was an expensive minor forest produce exported to China through Central Asia. After this incident, the Maharaja’s government offered a position to my father in the Forest Department. I don’t know the exact year when he joined the Forest Service but it was sometime in the early 1930s. During this service, he was sent to the Imperial Forest College, Dehradun, which has since been renamed as Forest Research Institute. He was the first Ladakhi alumnus of this institution.

During his years in the Forest Service, he was posted in Ladakh for a few years and the rest of his tenure was in Kashmir where he was instrumental in establishing the Forest Training School in Chattarnar, Bandipore. He also served as Game Warden Kashmir (wildlife was known as game then) till his retirement. In Ladakh, he made a Plantation Working Plan for river valleys stretching from Changthang to Zoji-la, which was quite task in those days of pony transport. He probably spent around 33 to 34 in years in the Forest Service and retired in 1964. In addition to forestry, he also had extensive knowledge of earth sciences and biodiversity.

After his retirement in 1964, he assumed various responsibilities including serving as the Principal of the Moravian Institute, Dehradun. However, he dedicated this period of his life to research on Ladakh. His primary task was to complete editing a book on Ladakh’s history, Ladags rGyalrabs Chimed Ster, which was written by his father, Yoseb Tsetan Gergan (famed for translating the Bible into Tibetan and as a research scholar). In the absence of printing facilities for Tibetan alphabets in Kashmir, S. S. Gergan painstakingly calligraphed the whole book of several hundred pages by writing five to six pages a day for its lithography. This authoritative book on Ladakh history was published in 1976 and remains an essential reference on the subject. Besides this, he collaborated with Prof. F. M. Hassnain to write the ‘Critical introduction and annotations’ to Dr. A. H. Franke’s republished book, History of Ladakh. S. S. Gergan himself wrote two books; The Losar of Ladakh, Spiti, Lahoul, Khunnu, and Western Tibet (1978) and Big Game of Jammu and Kashmir (1962). He received invitations from several universities to deliver lectures, conduct research and participate in field surveys.

It was during one of his research tours to Kargil to explore local renditions of the legendary King rGyalam Kesar’s exploits that he suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. An epitome of health and vigour throughout his lifetime, S. S. Gergan passed away with his boots on! He was survived by his stalwart homemaker-wife Florence and family of six children.

By Elijah Spalbar Gergan

Elijah Spalbar Gergan served as Principal of Moravian Mission School for 25 years. Earlier in 1982, he established the Suru Valley Public School in Kargil.

Uncovering the past: Losar’s Hashala

Every society and culture has its own method of calculating time and has developed its own calendar. The people of Ladakh follow the lunar calendar to mark various events and record history. One of the most important social events in the annual Ladakhi lunar calendar is Losar or ‘new year’. There are several rituals and practices associated with such celebrations, which are rooted in our history.

However, as observed by historian Rohit Vohra, Ladakh’s documented history doesn’t provide details for the period prior to the 11th Century. Most of what is known for this period is in the form of legends, myths, and folklores. One such folklore that still persists in Nubra and Purig is that of Cho Bongskang. Cho is a title given to elderly leaders in Ladakh, Bong refers to a donkey and sKang to leg. He was an oppressive ruler at Teble (possibly in present-day Baltistan) and had an invincible body made of steel. Once he asked his subjects to stitch a shoe for him. All of them stitched a pair of shoes for him but none of them fit him. The only pair that fit his feet resembled the hooves of a donkey and was stitched by an elderly woman. After this incident, he was called Cho Bongskang i.e. leader with donkey-like hooves.

He loved eating a goat kid and he would demand that villagers deliver a goat kid to his palace. Each family would take turns to offer a goat kid to him and this became a ritual in the village. One time, a woman offered a new-born goat kid whose mother died while giving birth to it. Since it did not have a mother, the woman had breast fed the goat kid herself. When this goat kid was served, Cho Bongskang loved its taste and devoured it. He was curious about the new taste but the cook was not able to provide any satisfactory answer. The cook summoned the owner and learnt that she had breastfed the goat kid, which had changed its taste. When Cho Bongskang heard this, he demanded that human children be served to him instead of goat kids. He reasoned that if a goat kid could taste so good due to human breast milk then human children would taste even better.

This cannibalistic demand sent a wave of horror through the village. They were already fed up with his oppression and cruelty and this demand proved to be the final straw. The villagers started conspiring to kill him. Ironically, none of the villagers knew how to vanquish the invincible Cho Bongskang. However, there was one elderly villager who knew that Cho Bongskang’s heart was made of lac (a resinous substance that melts when heated), which is why he was scared of fire. So, the villagers hatched a plan to kill him by digging a ditch inside the gate of the palace. The next time he went on a hunting expedition, the villagers lit juniper branches and chased him towards the palace. The plan worked as intended and he fell into the pit. The villagers then threw the burning juniper branches into it. This ended Cho Bongskang’s reign of terror and freed the people of Teble from his monstrous demands. Since then, they have been celebrating their new year with fire in a ritual that came to be known as Dong-Me (Me means fire).

The origins of this story seem to be lost today. However, the celebration of his death is still practiced in the form of rituals using fire. In Baltistan, people celebrate a festival called Me-phang (me is fire, phang means throwing) and in Ladakh, Buddhists celebrate the onset of Losar with fire.

Losar celebrations start from the 25th day of the last month in the Tibetan lunar calendar. This day is called Galdan Namchot. Since the Tibetan calendar follows the lunar cycle, the date for Losar keeps changing on the Gregorian calendar. Buddhists generally mark the night of Galdan Namchot by lighting butter-lamps around their homes.

Similarly, they follow similar rituals on the night before Losar. The youth from the villages also practice a tradition of slinging fire, which is called Hashala. They stuff a few layers of jute bags soaked in kerosene, tie it in a knot and attach it to a chain. At night, once the monastery gives the signal by sounding a trumpet, musicians start playing Daman (drums). This is the cue for the youth, who light the knots on the jute bag and sling it around their head continuously causing sparks to hit surround surfaces and shining light around them. They run around the village in this manner and villagers encourage them by shouting, “Haishala-Hoshala.” At the end, they gather at a chosen point. In Leh town, they gather in front of the mosque built on the king’s land. Here they compete with one another to see whose fire lasts the longest.

Text by Jigmet Yangchan Katpa

Photographs by Jigmet Yangchan Katpa and Norbu Sponbo

Jigmet Yangchan holds a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences and a master’s degree in Anthropology. She is currently worked on a project being implemented by Ladakh Ecological Development Group. Her instagram handle is @all_about_ladakh.

End of an era: Tashi Rabgais (1927-2020)

Tashi Rabgais was a prominent scholar, historian and one of Ladakh’s great intellectuals. Despite all his achievements, he was always humble and down-to-earth. He had great command over Ladakhi language and Buddhist studies. He has written numerous books and research papers including The History of Ladakh called the Mirror which Illuminates All. His contribution to the study of Ladakhi culture is immense and innumerable. He worked closely with many national and international researchers, scholars and students. In many ways, he served as a bridge between ancient and contemporary study of Ladakh.

Tashi Rabgais was born in the Tukchu family in Serthi (Sakti) village of Leh district in 1927. He completed his initial education from a Primary School in Chemde village and secondary education from Tyndale Biscoe School, Srinagar. Later, he completed B.Sc. degree from Sri Pratap College, Srinagar.

Tashi Rabgais started his career as the Personal Assistant to Ladakh’s first Deputy Minister in the J&K Govt., the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, from 1953 to 1958. He then worked as an Assistant Editor/Cultural Officer in Gangtok, Sikkim. After this, he served as the In charge for Ladakhi Programmes on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar from 1960 to 1962. Then in 1963, he was appointed Lecturer in the department of Buddhist studies at Delhi University. In 1964, he was appointed Secretary of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and worked there for the next seven years. At the same time he also worked as Information Officer, J&K Government from 1964 to 1982. In 1986, he was appointed Education Officer at Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). In the 1990s, Tashi Rabgais represented J&K state as a member of the Sahitya Academy, New Delhi and as an Advisor to the Ministry of Culture’s North Zone Cultural Association, Government of India. He was also one of the founding members of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS). He has a Chair in the name of Gyalwa Lungchen Rabjam at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh in recognition of his services to Buddhist studies.

He started several newsletters such as Yargyas Kongphel and Tendel Sargyur in Ladakhi language. He authored five books including Natir Puja (1961, play translated from English to Ladakhi), History of Ladakh from early times to 1947 in Ladakhi, and a translation of Ancient Futures to Ladakhi, He curated a collection of 127 Ladakhi folk songs, which was published by J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in 1970. Similarly, a collection of articles in English titled, ‘Ladakh Tradition and Change’ was published in 2004. In addition, he published a collection of 115 original songs written in Ladakhi, which was titled ’Jig-rten Kuntu Gawey Lu in 2007. In 2003, he published the first edition of a play titled Zosgar Tus kyi Melon, where the characters are all wild animals and the story talks about the problems faced by wildlife. In 2003, he wrote a book called Mangs kyi Ringlugs on democracy, In 2009, he wrote a book titled Sustainable Spirituality in Buddhism. In addition to all this, he has made immense contribution towards developing text books in Ladakhi for schools in the region.

Tashi Rabgais had great love for Ladakhi culture and his contribution for preserving culture, language and literature was appreciated by government and non government organisations. In view of his contribution towards preserving Ladakhi language and culture, the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages conferred him with the Robe of Honour in 1971. In 1999, he was awarded the Bhasha Samman by Sahitya Akademi for his multiple achievements. He was also honoured with the Dogra Rattan award in 2007 by the Council for Promotion of Dogri Language, Culture and History, Jammu and Voice of Millions, New Delhi. He was conferred with the State Award for Literature by the J&K Government in 2008. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh honoured him with the second Ladakh dPal-rNgams Award in 2017 for his exceptional contribution in enriching Ladakhi language, literature and culture. Over the years he was felicitated by several local and national organisations.

My association with Tashi Rabgais goes back to 2010 when we invited him to inaugurate the office of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF) at Lonpo House in Leh’s old town. Speaking on the occasion, Tashi Rabgais emphasised the value of preserving and promoting various cultural activities for the betterment of society. He was also the patron of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) and I used to visit him often. Each time, I was impressed and inspired by his wisdom, advice and sense of humour. One day, some of us went to meet him for an interview and he kept telling us “Aap Watan Tumare Hawale Hain Sathiyon” (the nation is now your responsibility). Later, he explained that he has done what he could in his lifetime for Ladakh’s culture and literature and now it’s the responsibility of the present generation to carry that work forward.

In 2019, we invited him for the inaugural function of 19th IALS conference held in Leh where he was felicitated. As the patron of IALS, he delivered a speech, which may have been one of his last public speeches for an international audience. In his speech, he recalled his experience working with various scholars and the contribution of IALS to different fields of Ladakh studies.

Tashi Rabgais passed away on 28 October, 2020 in Leh. His passing is a great loss not only for Ladakh but also for the larger Himalayan region and the world of research. This was well articulated by former president of IALS, John Bray in his condolence message. He said, “More than anyone else that I know, Tashi Rabgais would have qualified for the title of ‘scholar sage’, deep in his scholarship, broad in his wisdom, and all the time full of humour.” We have lost a champion of Ladakhi culture and a treasure house of knowledge. He remains an inspiration for us to take pride in our identity.

Text by Dr. Sonam Wangchok

Photograph by Sonam Gyatso

Dr. Sonam Wangchok is President of International Association for Ladakh Studies and Founder of Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation

Research in Ladakh: Status, gaps and opportunities

Reliable scientific data is a critical ingredient in the development of well-informed and evidence-based policy. By and large, this has been inadequate in the Indian context despite focusing on research and development (R&D) over the last seven decades. Scientists generally conduct research to generate and analyse data, which is then published in the form of journal articles, books, reports etc. The extent to which scientific data is used for policy-making remains unknown.

Evidence-based policies are anchored in actual processes and reflect real challenges. In contrast, opinion and ideology-based policies are shaped by views and experience of a few individuals involved in policy-making. Thus, evidence-based policies are more relevant for development as they are well grounded, have clearly defined issues, provide potential options to address these issues along with monitoring of impacts and outcomes. The evidence is meant to inform the policy process rather than influencing its objective.

However, evidence-based policy requires reliable data sets obtained by independent scientific organisations that are not directly involved in policy-making. Scientific and academic institutions generate large amounts of data, which are generally available in publications or in institutional archives. We need tools from the field of data sciences to convert these data sets into formats that are useful for policy and governance.

Many researchers claim that the Himalayas is one of the most data deficient regions on the planet. For instance, a recent report by ICIMOD titled The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment concluded that if current global warming scenarios continue, the Himalayan region will experience changes with temperatures rising beyond the Paris Agreement of 2015, including more rainfall and extreme weather events. However, scientists warn that inadequate data has prevented us from gaining a robust understanding of the impacts of a changing climate on the Himalayan region. The Himalayas are home to about 240 million people but currently lacks sufficient data to understand and mitigate climate change.

As part of its mandate to study the Himalayan environment, the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE) conducted an extensive survey of published literature on biodiversity of the region to evaluate if the region is really data deficient. This search yielded around 30,000 research articles, 5,000 doctoral theses and 4,000 books published on the Himalayan region in India, Nepal and Bhutan. While this represents a fairly large quantity of literature, the information it contains has not been translated into a format useable for policy development. Also, this information remains scattered and is not accessible on a single platform.

In this regard, there is need for an interface between policymakers and researchers to identify priorities for data generation. While ease of access to information can bridge some of these gaps, researchers are often reluctant to share their data. This will require a policy to promote data sharing and public archiving while also preserving the integrity of the researcher’s intellectual labour. In addition, availability of information on a common platform will create communications channels between the scientific community and policy-makers. All of this will help reinforce evidence-based policy making.

The newly-formed UT administration in Ladakh is striving to formulate policies for sustainable development of the region, including a vision to make it carbon neutral. This is an opportunity for Ladakh to prioritise evidence-based policies. Ladakh has a fragile and vulnerable environment. Traditionally, communities lived in scattered hamlets clustered around water resources while being well-adapted to local conditions with minimal environmental impact. In recent times, increasing population and intensified developmental activities have had a negative impact on the environment. Infrastructure development for tourism has led to intensified energy consumption, increased pollution, biodiversity loss etc. The declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory is expected to increase human influx due to tourism and new employment opportunities.

In this regard, research and development institutions in Ladakh can play a critical role in generating scientific data to shape new policies. Currently, there are several research instituitions working in the region (Table 1). A majority of these insitutions focus on education, environment, and agriculture sector limited focus on social sciences, earth sciences, medical sciences etc. While existing research institutions can be engaged to inform suitable policies, this is also an opportunity to establish new institutions to fill current gaps. A consortium of existing organisations needs to be developed in Ladakh to create a comunication channel to exchange scientific ideas.

Table 1. Prominent research and development institutions in Ladakh (Year of initation)

After joining as a scientist at the newly-formed Ladakh Regional Centre of G.B. Pant NIHE in Leh, I started exploring research literature for Ladakh. I did an exhaustive search of global bibliographic databases to identify research papers, books and book chapters pertaining to Ladakh. This yielded around 3,000 publications of which a large majority focused on biodiversity followed by earth sciences and social sciences (Figure 1). I also found a gradual increase in scientific literature on Ladakh over a period of time (Figure 2).

Fig. 1 Subject-wise distribution of published literature
Fig. 2 Temporal growth of literature pertaining to Ladakh.

This literature represents a considerable volume of data for a region that is relatively small. However, the information in this published literature needs to be translated into a format useable for policy development. It needs to be compiled and collated for specific sectors that addresses policy and governance questions and identifies data gaps. Also, most research literature on Ladakh has been published by non-local scientists with limited contribution from local researchers. In this regard, Ladakhi reasearchers need to be promoted as they have a better understanding of issues and challenges with a direct stake in the future of the region.

As a new UT, Ladakh has a unique opportunity to form strong links between research and policy-making. A good example of how this can work in practice is the UT administration’s recent push to adopt organic agriculture in Ladakh. This requires research into various facets of agriculture. For instance, current varieties of apricots, apples, walnuts, buckwheat, etc are well-adapted for the conditions in Ladakh but there is a lot of scope to study their nutritional value. There is similar scope in other sectors too including handicrafts, traditional Amchi medicine system etc. Thus, the UT administration needs to work with the scientific and local communities to set research priorities to identify and tap the unique advantages that Ladakh enjoys. This will help the UT administration regulate the use of these resources while ensuring that they provide equitable benefit to the people of Ladakh.

Earlier in 2020, the Prime Minister of India articulated a vision to develop Ladakh as a carbon neutral region. This will require well-informed policies backed by scientific inputs. In this regard, the environmental impact of each sector of Ladakh’s economy will need to be scrutinised scientifically. The expertise of research institutions in Ladakh can be tapped to inventorise sources of carbon emission and identify energy sources and technologies with low carbon emissions. For instance, Ladakh has enormous potential for renewable energy sources such as solar and geothermal energy. There is need for research on how these resources can be tapped without harming the environment. While the government has initiated large renewable energy projects, research is needed to develop technologies to fulfil household-level energy needs. Such technology will help mitigate some impacts of large energy projects.

All this can happen only if research in Ladakh is strengthened and closely linked with policy and governance. Research projects addressing priority areas for Ladakh must be initiated to fulfil policy needs with a clear mechanism for accountability. Civil society too can be tapped to collect useful data through citizen science approaches. The first step will be to develop a research policy for Ladakh along with financial support, monitoring, evaluation, and a system for data retrieval and access. In addition, mechanisms need to be developed to communicate scientific research through periodic workshops and seminars that facilitate interactions between policy-makers and researchers.

By Dr Suresh Rana

Dr Suresh Rana is a scientist at the Ladakh Regional Centre, G. B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Leh

Open letter: Why engineers need a training facility

Whosoever can address this issue!

I am a serving engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD) in Leh district. Based on my experience, I feel that there is a dire need for a training facility for serving Civil Engineers (and engineers in general) in Ladakh. 

I was inducted in 2015 in PWD Department as a Junior Engineer. Much to my dismay and shock, we didn’t have any sort of orientation programme, forget the sort of intensive training that doctors, teachers and civil servants have to undergo when they join service. 

In this regard, there is an urgent need to establish a technical training facility in Ladakh to cater to the needs of all technical training. On following grounds:

1) Engineers (Civil Engineering in my case) are not directly responsible for people’s lives like doctors. However, we are indirectly responsible for many lives. In view of this responsibility, periodic training is necessary in the whole spectrum of skills exercised by an engineer including designing and executing safer buildings and roads. 

2) Since no training is available, newly inducted and serving engineers have no options but to resort to past (archaic) practices that we have learnt in college.

3) We need to stay updated with new technologies at construction sites (say with new survey equipment ranging from total stations to drone surveys) and software used in everyday management of office and project work. In this regard, a proper technical facility for engineers is necessary to stay updated. Else, it is quite likely that many serving engineers will become obsolete in the near future.

4) Ever since Ladakh was declared a Union Territory, there is a surge of developmental funds and engineers must be oriented and trained properly to utilise the funds properly and in a timely manner.

5) In addition to technical knowledge, engineers also need to meet people on a daily basis. Good interpersonal skills are a must to ensure smooth functioning in public dealing in the office. Accordingly, periodic training must include like communication and interpersonal skills.

This matter requires an urgent solution that will cater to training to technical employees on the same lines as the Education department (District Institute for Education and Training).

In this regard, we engineers have approached Deputy Commissioner, Leh (letter attached), the hon’ble Lieutenant Governor and the Hon’ble Member of Parliament. I now appeal to the larger public to help us find a solution to this urgent need.

Tsering Angchok Mayur 

Tsering Angchok Mayur is a Junior Engineer in the PWD Department, Leh.