April 30, 2013

Ladakh: An Ancient Land that Can Teach Us a Thing or Two.

Photo by Kalpana Chatterjee

“The Ladakhi lady is complete head of her own household and the men are well underneath her capable thumb. She has her own money, she trades on her own: her word is very much law.” ~ Major M.L.A Gompertz 1928

Ever wondered what life would be like without dysfunctional families, plastic bags and distant governing bodies telling us what to do locally? In my search for cultures that can teach us something new I have started to explore a far away land where life is more harmonious. It sits to the west of Tibet to which it is more culturally and socially similar, yet is now governed by India. The sacred land I am talking about is the ancient kingdom of Ladakh. It is the highest place in the world inhabited by humans. Ancient Futures is a book written by Helena Norberg-Hodge and I want to share with you some of her learnings on Ladakh. How their traditional way of life was totally self sufficient before the global economy brought changes to it and has a great deal to teach us here in the developed world.

While the rest of us are struggling to cope with our mortgages the Ladakhis knew no such pressures. The entire family took part in the building of a home. Stone was used for the first floor and the main part of the building was made out of mud. All materials were sourced locally and in harmony with the indigenous environment. They spent time making the doors and windows look ornate, resulting in a functional and aesthetically pleasing home. Property was then shared and kept within the family, passing from one generation to the next.

While the rest of us are desperately trying to squeeze are lives into our weekends Ladakhis only worked, as in hard grafting work, for four months a year. For the rest of the year they cooked, took care of the animals and carried water, which is little work for them in comparison. So what did they do with all that spare time? Most of the winters months were spent partying and attending festivals. But it didn’t stop there. The festivals and parties spilled over into the working summer months too, it’s just that during winter time it steped up a notch and they partied as much as we work!

While the rest of us expect a doctor who is under pressures from funding bodies, time schedules and potential lawsuits to correctly diagnose us in a relatively short time frame, the Ladakhis doctor was intimately involved in a patients daily life. Rather than treating the symptoms, a Ladakhi doctor or amchi looked at disorders with respect to the mind, body and spirit. Prescriptions came in the form of saying mantras or prayers as well as natural medicine. An amchi knew his patients as part of his family, understanding their character and habits, enabling him to truly tailor a cure.

While the rest of us are busy arguing with one another often resulting in costly solicitor fees and stress induced illness, the Ladakhis had a ‘spontaneous intermediary’ system that resolves things before they get out of hand. In shor,t as soon as a disagreement arose between two parties, a third party steped in and worked to bring about a fair resolution. The intermediary could be anyone who happened to be around at the time and this tradition was so embedded in their way of life that someone always automatically stepped into that role.

While the rest of us are at times overwhelmed by life’s many rites of passage, the Ladakhis had a system in place that at times of birth, death and marriage many households which belong to the same group came together and helped one another out. Usually between four to 12 households were part of one group. At a funeral, for example, the grieving family are left in peace to do just that, whilst the members of their group rallied around and took care of things such as preparing the body, hosting and carrying out the funeral. If one member of the group was in the middle of a harvest and couldn’t assist, they could arrange for someone to take their place. I also see this happen regularly with my friends within the Tibetan lama culture. Some Tibetan monks living in Europe for example will get their brother who is also a monk, to cover any monastic duties they have back in India and some of these can be for the duration of a year or more. The reason for doing this is that the lama living in Europe will remain part of the the monastery should he decide to return to India. How great would it be in we could do that in our jobs?

While the rest of us are torn between returning to work full time or staying at home to raise our children, the Ladakhi traditional lifestyle allowed mothers and children to remain together at all times. As the women were part of the working life, they were themselves stimulated and also had assistance from relatives and friends in taking care of their children. With everyone working together in the fields for example the children were constantly showered with kisses, hugs and attention. At social events that run on into the wee hours of the morning, children joined in and partied until they eventually fall asleep. In this book, Helena explains how she told a Ladakhi woman how much time babies spend away from their mothers in the West, that at night they sleep in another room and are fed cow’s milk from a bottle on a schedule rather than when they cry. The Ladakhi woman was horrified and said:

“Please, watch Helena, when you have children, whatever you do, don’t treat your baby like that. If you want a happy baby, do like we do.”

There are convenience benefits to our Western lifestyles, but at what cost? Social structures are crumbling around us, mental illnesses are part of the norm, our food is no longer food. I ask you to stop and think before you call us the developing world for what is developed about isolation, sickness and a poisoned earth? The Ladakhis and their harmonious culture has almost totally disappeared due to our way of life being imposed on them as we blindly think they need to have what we have in order to be happy. A massive paradox in itself.

Top tip: If you are thinking of traveling to that part of the world please do so mindfully. You can find resources of how to that via Helena’s website here. And take the time if you can to read Ancient Futures or watch the documentary of it below so for the sake of all our cultures we start to live outside of the box. We start to live with one another again.

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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