Books You Should Read Before You Visit Ladakh
It’s always advisable to know about the culture of the place you are visiting before hand. And the best way to know about any place is to read up about it. Rupert Winchester lists down the books you should read before you visit Ladakh!
For such a lovely, wild and fascinating part of the world, surprisingly little has been written about Ladakh. There are accounts by European explorers written in the nineteenth century; Moorcroft, Younghusband, Hedin, Knight and the like. While these can be fascinating, there is a lot about provisioning animals and somewhat dull descriptions of long, long walks.
Ladakhi authors are extremely thin on the ground; this is very much an oral culture, as is the Tibetan Buddhist culture that influences everything, so the idea of writing a book is one that is usually overlooked, sadly.
Because Ladakh has such stunning landscapes, faces and scenery, picture books are widely available, and many of them are exceptionally beautiful, and would make wonderful souvenirs of this astonishingly photogenic place. But what should you read before you get here? (Obviously my book on Ladakh should be your first choice; I just have to write it first.)
1) A Journey In Ladakh
Probably the best book on the area is Andrew Harvey’s A Journey in Ladakh. Harvey, a young poet and gifted academic, was drawn to this part of the world by a spiritual yearning for meaning, and this book is a record of his travels here. If you’re expecting Bill Brysonesque travel writing, this isn’t it, but if you’re open to the spiritual resonance that Ladakh offers, this is a great place to start. Opening the book at random, I find Harvey describing the bus journey up here from Srinigar thus:
“The journey itself is a rite of initiation. You pass from the lush green valley of Kashmir up the long winding granite sides of the mountains to Zoji-La; then, at the heart of the Karakorams, you pass again through ring after ring of mountains, each more spectacular, tortured, brilliantly coloured than the last; then finally, when you are half-frightened and exhausted by the raids so much magnificence makes on your wonder, you move, by slow degrees, into the plateau of central Ladakh, edged and cradled by the Indus, and from that into the long, fertile valley of Leh and its surrounding villages and monasteries. It is an education in wilderness, this journey, a progress into a bareness that at the last moment breaks into the flame of wheat-fields and prayer flags; it is the penetration of an enormous Mandala with Kashmir for its lush and dangerous surround, the Karakoram for its walls, and Leh and its long valley for its inner room, the room where the creator of the vision of his own inner making is seated in meditation and where the Gods can appear, shielded from cynical eyes, by walls of burning rock and snow.”
A Journey in Ladakh is a beautiful, poised and thoughtful book, and probably an essential read.
2) Ancient Futures
The other best book is Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures. Norberg-Hodge is a well-known ecologist and proponent of localisation. She has been coming to Ladakh since 1975, studying the people and the culture, and in Ancient Futures she has synthesized all that she has learned.
I am, on the whole, fairly wary of new age texts, which can offer nothing but useless solutions to profound problems. But Ancient Futures is startling good. Norberg-Hodge looks at the traditional way of life of the people of Ladakh, and examines how that is being slowly, stealthily but surely extirpated by the march of globalisation and industrialisation. Then she looks at ways that life can adapt, and how to adopt more ecologically-sound practices. It is a well-written and deeply thoughtful book, and I recommend it highly.
As Norberg-Hodge says, the book is about “a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years – values that recognise our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth”. And here in Ladakh, that rings ever more truly.
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