Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Coming

Photo by Lobzang Dadul

A wooden footbridge hung with a thousand flags spans the Indus just above the town of Nurla, making a passage to the valley and village of Tar. Ascending first along water, among boulders, crossing and re-crossing the stream, the path leads out to broader, open areas with stalk-dry, aromatic shubs the goats graze in the summer. Sometimes the way will split around a Mani wall, passed always to the left, stones upholding stones carved in prayers. Turning back Ang Pu stands framed by the walls of the valley, the snow mountain to the north.

Just more than half of the way to Tar, the valley widens enough that a few terraces of fields lie out, and a cluster of houses above them. This is the Yok-ma, the lower summer village where a few families will move for the season. Above the houses an enormous, ancient cedar spreads, green against the grey-rising cliffs behind it, a blessing on the village. I wonder how long it has stood in that place; I wonder if its seeds might sprout, if planted. The whole is held in a bowl of unbelievable mountains.

Valley narrowing again, the water falls among willows and many, many roses. They are called thorns here, and valued chiefly for the strength of their long, arched wands. Climbing now steadily, the way leads to a place where a fast-running stream pours out, running over the path and down to the stream. An upturned teacup sits on the rock above, for thirsty passers-by. Prayer-flags mark the crossing. The water is cold and sweet, without the earthy taste of the springs of New England, water moving cleanly over hard, smooth rock.

Above the spring the valley closes further into a tight gorge, sheer walls on either side of the stream. The stone path turns upon itself in switchbacks, flags flying now in many strings. Smooth bowls and hollows carved above the level of the water show how it must have run once, or must run in some seasons. In several places, the drops make small waterfalls.Above one face of stone many, many khataks are tied, and a small shrine with a butter lamp-lantern made in an alcove. Once, the image of twenty-one Taras appeared there, stained on the rock face. People still journey to make offerings.

Up and up, half-breathless, and then the gorge gives way again to Tar. Fields spread in steep terraces below the houses, large and straight-walled and white, each one beautiful and well-made, well-kept. There are twelve, and several more for the summer, above as well as below. “Lep-le,” Chondol’s father Namgial said, sitting to rest at the head of the path. “Arrived.”

The afternoon of our coming we worked with Namgial and Chondol to rebuild a terrace wall that had collapsed. A grandfather of the village came, speaking to us, shaking Jason’s hand emphatically. Jason writes of this, “I stood on top of a terrace, ready to finish the section of the nine foot vertical wall that had tumbled during the winter.  Suddenly a dark-faced, grinning, eyes-bulging, wrinkled man stepped up and began laughing and talking and asking questions.  "Kane yin?" (Where are you from?) he said, slapped my back at my response, grinned and laughed and looked deep into my eyes and said "Yok la thores zhing smo chen le; nyerang skyod he le!!" (We're plowing my fields in the lower village tomorrow; come please my friend!!)  How could I refuse?  Of course the answer is yes." 

We had arrived just in time for the beginning.

We woke the next day and found Namgial looking out the window with binoculars. “Ibex,” he told us. “Many.” It too me a long time to see their sand-colored bodies against the mountain, but finally I caught their motion. We watched as they moved up a grand slide and over rocks, across a cliff-face that seemed impossibly sheer, up again. We heart a whistling noise, that sounded like a bird of prey, almost—Namgial told us it was the skyin’s (ibex’s) warning call, which they make through their noses. It meant, he thought, a snow leopard was near. “They walk over that slope,” Chondol told me, gesturing to the mountain very near the house.

After tea we went with Namgial, four young cows, and a herd of village sheep back down through the gorge to the Yok-ma. As we entered the wider part of the valley just above, we saw more skyin on the slope to our right, very close. They looked to me to be the size of small horses, but massive, like dzo; I could see their shaggy coats, and the incredible arc of their horns.

 Leaving the animals in the scrubland, we descended to find tea laid outside of Abi (grandmother) Tsewang’s small, simple earth brick summer house: an outdoor chansa made with low tables and Tibetan rugs, set between running streams. We rose to spread manure on several fields, moving in pairs, carrying lut shoveled onto burlap sacks. I carried often with Jason, sometimes with a young man named Rigzin, the son of the house, whose smile made me wish quickly to be friends.     

We ate breakfast where we had drunk the morning tea, a single square tarp protecting Azhang’s (uncle's) Bodhic prayer book from the light-falling snow. His voice steadily intoned the prayers, and people sat, listening, looking at the world around them. He paused to grind a mixture of fresh mint, cilantro, and green onion when it was handed to him, the mortar almost flat, heart-shaped, hollowed just a little by its use. Then the courses of food began, after the blessings and tossing bits of food and drops of chang with a dipped juniper twig.  Our attention turned to each other, and to the meal. We ate paba, steamed bread of barley and pea flours, yogurt, thin tagi (wheat bread), and thukpa, noodle-soup with delicious summer-dried cheese and Ladakhi peas.

Plowing happened much as it had in Takhmachik, and I felt intensely grateful for all we learned in our weeks there. The stream-sound was loud, and sight in every direction was an amazement, cliffs, and scree-slides of blushing purple stone. Washing my hands before lunch, I saw a small prayer wheel above the washing-place, wooden paddles turning it with the water’s flow.

The day was filled with song, and dancing too, Abi Dolkar doing a fantastic bent-backed wheeling dance on the field edge when entreated, Kunchok Palmo and Dechen Angmo graceful, with perfect hands. We sang Ladakhi folk songs and, as in Takhmachik, people were delighted—but unlike Takhmachik everyone sang together with us, and sang more songs as well, old ones and new ones both. And most of all there was the continuous song of the work, people singing instead of speaking, calling out to each other, thanking each other, narrating, teasing, all in the form of nonsense-songs, matching the rhythm of the labor. Ache (older sister) Tashi sang us a song, courting us, telling us of the house they would help us build, the fields they would help us prepare, the babies we would have, if we stayed in Tar forever.

We walked together back up to Tar in gathering dusk, a long, slow line of people and animals, stopping at the spring to drink the water rising fast from the ground. Coming out of the gorge and into Tar just as the dark was full, we brought the sheep home to the first house in the village, and then went inside.

For many hours then we sat and drank tea and chang, the first after-plowing gathering of the season here. Jason sat at the head of the room with Meme, the grandfather who had invited us to the plowing: “The old fellow laughed and slapped my knee and grabbed my shoulder, and spoke to me loud, and laughed hysterically when I grinned back and said ha ma go (I don't understand) and drank chang and rum and sang Ladakhi folk songs in a wavery voice late into the night.”

 At some point Rigzin put music on a set of speakers—someone carried speakers up here!—and the gathering turned into a dance party. I think I will never love loud music from machines very much, but if it happens, let it be like this: grandparents present, laughing, involved, and little Padma Itses in arms, passed around among the dancers.

At one point Ache Tashi and Ache Palmo disappeared, and came back dressed in costume, tattered goncha and huge sunglasses, carrying a basket and a baby-carrier. Ache Tashi had a moustache painted on in charcoal. They introduced themselves as travelers from Changthang (eastern Ladakh), and proceeded to put on a comedy sketch that made me weep with laughing, even missing much of the language. Ache Tashi stopped dancing only long enough to pretend to drink glass after glass of the uncle’s chang, taking it from their hands. Dechen Angmo, at the stove, invited the Changthangpas to stay for dinner, which was ready. In hilarious parody of Ladakhi social custom they made the fastest exit they could, refusing everything, bent almost double, touching their hands to their foreheads again and again in an unending stream of "ju-le"s. At long last, after delicious, rich chu tagi, we went home, joyful and exhausted, to sleep. 


Photo by Izzy Pezzulo

An old man spreads seeds on the bare field in handfuls.  The earth is dark; it was watered two days ago, and it is covered with a thin layer of manure.  He tosses barley, a spray of seeds, and they lie thickly, pale against the darkness of rich watered desert soil.  A cry goes up "Norbu nyis ka!" (You two golden ones) from the young man holding the plow handle, and he steps on the plow blade, sinking its upside-down spade head into the earth on one edge of the field.  The head, about five inches wide by nine inches long, points below horizontal at a slight angle, and it willingly enters the soil, raising up a wave of clumped earth and small stones and countless seeds.  Locked into the vertical shaft between handle and plow is a three inch thick, seven foot long poplar shaft that leads forward to the yoke and the team of two dzo who pull it.  They pant and grind their teeth at times, hundreds of pounds of black-hair-clad muscle and smooth, upward-curving horns.  A young man walks just before them, holding a rope tied between their two nose rings, guiding and sometimes dragging them where they need to go to line up these furrows, back and forth.  The horns of the dzo are oiled each morning of plowing, and their foreheads anointed with barley paste and a handful of tossed flour as a blessing. 

The song of the plowman is urgent, and kind, and full of thanks.  It carries the harshness and angst and madness or desperation of masculine energy.  Voice cracking and wavering, soft now, loud before the lash, whip in hand.  In trying this art my sense is that when they are tired, the dzo must believe you will hurt them to keep moving.  The voice lifting in mock anger convinces them and they quicken their steps.  The whip lashes through the air to remind them to pull hard.  The whip lands on their backs to assure them of the pain that comes from the man behind them when they don't move.  Most of the time the memory of pain, their training, and the plowman's reminders are enough to keep them going.  But there is a continual vying of wills that the plowman and the dzo must rise to.  These animals live quite a good life.  They have enough to eat, freedom to roam much of the time.  And yet I wonder if there is a way to work with draught animals that does not rely on what, if it were used on humans, we would call a device of torture.  I want my relationship with animals to be different from this.

Women work their way across the field, bent low at the waist, short-handled picks (thokse) in their hands, bashing clumps and raised furrows of earth, plucking out balls of roots and ferociously digging out tough ones.  (An abi [grandma] standing resting next to Caitlin as she digs at an alfalfa root, saying "shante rag, nomo le" [feels tough, little sister]).  I tried this tool for as long as they would let me (about ten minutes: it is not a tool for men) and I felt it, hard and sore in my lower back.  These women are tough beyond belief, some are working this way at fifty, sixty, and they have the hardest work in plowing time.

The thokse wielders flatten the soil surface somewhat, and they stack the large stones in piles.  These are used to block and direct water during irrigation.  Then a group of lighter workers moves in with long-handled all-wooden rakes called rbat, and with these they flatten the soil as best they can, preparing for later, dryer work with earth-flattening tools to make the surface truly beautiful and flat and form the low walls that surround each small (3 to 6 feet to a side) section of the field.  These sections have special canals, built also when the soil is a bit dryer and the crops' shoots are emerging, that feed and flood each section at the right time.

Little kids are there on the field, toddling around, getting pulled out of the way of the dzo by the women who shriek but understand that the men are paying attention too.  Elders have their roles, easier on their bodies yet essential to the work.  Men have their work, women have theirs.  There is a little crossover, but very little.  We break for rest and tea and chang and snacks many many times a day, tossing spoonfuls of roasted barley flour (sngampe) into our mouths.  The people tell each other to sit down and rest, while they work tirelessly.  The scene is quiet: birds sing, the plowman's melodic song rings out, people talk easily and sit drinking tea within feet of where the dzo pass.  The dzo easily navigate huge boulders in the fields and the edges of sheer rock walls that fall often six feet to the next terrace below.  They can place their front feet on a stone terrace three feet high and jump their huge bulk and their back legs up.  There is no way machines could replace this way of plowing.  It is a living practice.  Our first morning of plowing I was close to tears with the beauty of it.

Carrying Lut in Takhmachik

Our first day in Takhmachik we cleaned out three rooms of manure and moved it all by basket down to a pile in the road.  From there it went by truck and by donkey along the road and paths to the fields.  The baskets are simple to carry and to adjust, held by one strap across shoulders and upper chest.  To empty it you hold the bottom, bend forward, and make a toss over the shoulder into the pile.

Tashi, our host and friend from SECMOL, said that ten years ago their rooms were filled to brimming and they had many more animals; now the rooms are only about two feet deep.  At first I carried "lut" with about ten other people, mostly middle-aged or old ladies, two men, Nyilza, and Tashi.  ("Nyilza Angmo" is a suitable Ladakhi name Caitlin was given at SECMOL.  I am called "Phuntsok Dorje."  We introduce ourselves often with both our regular and Ladakhi names, and people gladly use only the Ladakhi ones.)

When I stopped to adjust my basket strap and get more comfortable, someone would say in passing "Chi wa?" or "What gives?"  Then on one trip back to the room I noticed Tashi was breathing hard.  So I helped shovel for a while, and fill people's baskets.  I was tentative at first, not shoveling hard, not knowing how much to load up these old ladies.  But they are tough in a humbling way, and one of them stopped me and showed me how to shovel, picking up a heaping scoop and speaking words I couldn't understand.  So I started working and breathing hard, loading them fast, not letting old ladies wait with a load on their backs.  It was our first day and I felt energy surging through me, wanting to rise to the challenge of these tough, amazing people.  When Tashi's dad came in one time, Tashi filled his basket faster than I've ever seen.  Later, Tashi told me to tip, not dump, the manure in, so it's easier on people.

These women, forty, fifty, sixty years old, are carrying forty pounds of manure up and down steep slopes and staircases two hundred yards at a time.  Singing mantras in soft voices, braids double and tied together at their lower backs, washing together afterward with soap and a bit of water from an old Indian mustard oil tin in the cow yard.

Arrival in Takhmachik Village

Night arrival, walk up slope, stone walls rising
higher, stars bright, "sang-sang" they say.

We are in a belly.  We ducked and climbed in
the stone alley stairs, up and around, hands on bricks of a castle.

Shovels full of "Lut", manure dug out with a pick,
the tiniest sheep, prayer flags spraying from its collar.

Desert scape spreads beyond the village edge.  Purple slopes,
white peaks, layers of rock and sand towering over the Indus.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Red Willow Baskets, the Lives of Young People

The red willow hedges last season grew thin leaders straight up.  We trim them and they are perfect for basket-making.  Caitlin and I start by making hoops and wrapping them with spiralling weavers until they are strong and can accept many tied-off ends between their parted strands.  Soon there is a handle and a belly.  The weavers mirror each other, over-under, and we wrap the edge and handle tight and neat.  The willow strand glow in the light, deep red and shining yellow like the desert sands.

The word for basket in Ladakhi is “tse po.”  We made a few as gifts.  Then there was a youth camp at SECMOL, and ten or twelve of the young women on campus joined us to weave gnarly little willow hoops.  Then we showed them how to lash and weave, and most of them left a few days later with a small completed basket.  Some of them loved it, and asked at every opportunity for us to help them weave.

“Chang ma” is the name for willow.  And they seem to grow everywhere people live in Ladakh, so these students should have a chance to make more baskets, if they want.

Basket weaving seems to be a new skill for these young people.  I don’t think that would be true if we were here twenty years ago.  At that time I imagine young people learned more of the old ways.  It was a time when Ladakh was being flooded with new products and new jobs.  If you could speak English or if you made it through school they would give you a stable government job with good pay, benefits, and a pension.  The parent generation these days seem to think we are still in that time, but we’re not.

Young people these days are sent to urban centers.  They help at home and learn farming only a few weeks of the year.  Textbooks and exams are written far away by people who know little about Ladakh, and most of the young Ladakhis are failing them.  The teachers in the government school by and large don’t want to be there.  Many of them hit the students with sticks and pinch them as means of maintaining “control” of the classroom.  This apathy and abuse is part of the lived experience of many teenagers we have met here.

If you have a lot of money you can send your kid to a private school in the capital where they will learn a lot more, but they still aren’t learning the old ways and there still won’t be enough jobs for them afterward.  Many educated people “collect” masters degrees until the jobs they want open up, and it takes a long time.  People who don’t succeed in this system of education join the army or work construction to make money, and build cement buildings and roads and power lines, all of which the people of Ladakh did not “need” until quite recently.  Their old homes of earth brick are holding strong.

So who is farming?  Who is practicing the old ways?  Most families are, but the participation is a bit different than it used to be.  Growing staple grain crops with hand work is common practice.  Most families keep animals for milk and fiber and manure, and some keep many and live a herding life, especially at higher elevations.  Most families in the villages grow most of their vegetables, their fruit at lower elevations, and everywhere people harvest wild greens from cultivated fields and pastures for fresh use and drying.  

All the students here at Secmol can describe the basics of farming and the cycles of village life, but most have not really lived there since they were six.  Since then, they have learned, in their daily practice of life, to achieve academically in a setting where their success is determined by writing appropriate things on exams.  These exams are created in Jammu, a world away.  They have been graded in past years at a wage of 2 Indian Rupees per exam.  (This comes to approximately four cents.  It is clear that the graders are sometimes not even reading them.  Students in India have been known to staple money to their exam papers.  It is common knowledge at SECMOL that if you merely handwrite a copy of the Urdu language exam’s questions you will likely pass.)

These young people also learn that food fills the stores from far away, that loud pop music and smart phones and pre-packaged snacks are cheap, fun, and easy to come by.  And the voices of their ancestors pour from their mouths as they sing ancient songs, and they dance beautifully together with a confidence and grace that touches my heart to see.

Irrigation and the Ice Stupa

In the desert at the top of the world, people spread water and plant seeds.  From dry sand, sprouts and saplings grow.  

With all plant matter returning to the soil as manure, slowly organic matter and soil build.  Ancient stone wall edged terraces hold the soil in place.  With the first spring flooding and the plow each year, seeds are mixed in and the rich brown earth is revealed.

Barley, wheat, peas, vegetables, and fruit trees are essential plants for cyclical human survival here in this high desert of Ladakh.  They all depend upon spring and summer flows of snow- and glacier-fed melt water, brought to them by people.  In springtime it is so clear: the steep banks of the Indus river appear as dry sand and rock, then a human settlement appears and there is abundance: leaves bursting out, countless fragrant white orbs of apricot blossoms, grass growing, crop sprouts rising from soaked soil.  Irrigation canals channel water across even-sloped rubble valleys, around terraces, and across impossible slopes so that it can pour down and feed the soil.


Snowfalls have decreased in Ladakh in recent years; glaciers are shrinking here as they are around the world.  These two things provide much of the irrigation water.

Many Ladakhi families today do not go hungry as they sometimes used to.  Now plastic-packaged snacks appear, even if people need to carry them an hour’s walk up a steep canyon to serve them for tea.  Eating imported staple foods from the lowlands of India has become a daily reality.  How these are grown, and what that means for people and land, is another story.  Punjabi rice farmers sometimes drink pesticides when they get worked out of business by harsh economics controlled by powerful seed companies.

The umbilicus that connects people to earth in this place is shrinking.  Yet in many places it is still strong.  When I ask people in Tar village if they would have enough to eat without imported rice, they say that they absolutely would, yes, without question.


The Ice Stupa is an attempt to capture some of the winter stream flows in the village of Phyang, lock it up in great statues of ice, and delay its release until it is needed as air and soil warms for cultivation.  Phyang is not far outside the capital of Leh.  This winter’s project is a test case to discover effective techniques and assess how well this project could benefit communities all over the Himalayan desert.

It requires pipes, sprayers, pumps, a good winter water source, and a crew to work continuously assembling and maintaining this gear.  It also requires an initial input of machine power, to level a large area and create pools below it from which water can gravity feed into canals or drip irrigation further downslope.  This year, it also required a shipment of pipes from Jammu, which broke en route, followed by a supply of donated replacement pipes, 2.3 kilometers of them, which were airlifted over snowy passes by the Indian Air Force.

Workers, volunteers from SECMOL, start a stupa by piling branches around a central pipe.  The pipe stands vertically, about twelve feet tall, and sprays water into the air that then settles and freezes on the branches, forming icicles that grow into connected mounds of ice.  Now the main stupa is three stories tall and forty feet across, a lumpy cone shape.  It is solid enough to climb all over it.

In order to build size quickly, workers harvest and pile great limbs of thorn bushes onto the stupa.  Caitlin and I spent about seven days working with the crew, harvesting thorn branches, driving them to the site, dragging them up to the stupa, climbing and throwing them on.  These provide a lot more surface area for the water to freeze onto, and help us control the shape, too.  When the temperature dropped below freezing, the sprayers went on, and soon the fresh layer of thorns would become white, the branches and thorns fat and bulbous, icicles growing below them.


The Ice Stupa is being built in the wide valley above Phyang village.  On one day in early March, the 1,000 families of Phyang village each brought five 8-10 foot cuttings of willow and poplar to the site.  On the next day, they all showed up again to hear speeches, watch traditional music and dance, and plant 5,000 trees in machine-dug trenches.  They did a very fast job and left a lot of earth work to be done, but they did plant 5,000 trees in one hour.  Having never seen it before, I am a bit sceptical that in this desert you can plant a cut green willow pole in the ground, water it, and expect it to grow.  But these people seem to know what they’re doing.

Phyang’s monastery of 80 monks is a major partner in the project, and asked this work of the people of Phyang as part of their annual tribute to the monastery.  They knew that this amount of tree cuttings and work time would not be a burden.  The monastery building is 450 years old and stands like a white and red walled fortress above the village, across the slope from the Ice Stupa.


Can enough villages in Ladakh afford to feed a crew and airlift pipes and run a backhoe for weeks and summon the people power and money to accomplish something like this?  The people power seems abundant here, especially because people are invested in their communities, they still depend on farming and growing trees, and success in this sort of project could mean that in the future they have water when they need it.  

The money and equipment, who knows?  Forty years ago it might have been unimaginable.  Forty years ago, the first automobiles were brought to Ladakh.  Today, many people showed up in private cars, and drove home.  Today, thousands of soldiers of the Indian Army live in huge camps all through Leh valley as well as the border regions.  This is Leh valley, a “suburb” of the capital, and here at least some Ladakhis have been able to channel modern resources to the uses they see fit.

The Ice Stupa now sits above Phyang village, slowly melting in the April sun and turning slightly brown as the thorns are revealed.  How long will it last?