Every year Ladakh witnesses a mass exodus of students who move to different cities in pursuit of better education. I was part of a group which left Ladakh in the early 2000s and since then, my visits back home have been sporadic, hardly one or two months long and mostly in the summer. Going home, our happiness lay in being freed from the shackles of city life and its torrid heat. Our holidays would feel like therapy sessions, where we would redeem ourselves from all the psychological and emotional fatigue which we accumulated in the cities. Such healing was achieved by sleeping carelessly, fishing, family excursions, taking baths in the natural springs and ponds, and simply enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. By the time our vacations were over and we had to go back, we would be calm, composed and rejuvenated.
But now, every time I visit Ladakh, I see it change year by year. It is not the idyllic place I had known before.
Ladakh has become too crowded, and by that, I don’t mean just the population of locals and tourists, but also the new businesses and shops that have cropped up all of a sudden. New hotels and guest houses stand on roads, barely 100 metres apart from each other. People who were previously into agriculture have suddenly opened up new commercial places such as travel agencies, shops and restaurants. Students have also left their studies unfinished to work at these businesses. The influx of tourists in huge numbers has certainly given people lots of opportunities to earn quick money, which was not an option before.
These changes have taken a toll on Ladakh’s eating habits as well. Earlier, eating out (which was quite rare) meant going to restaurants and having Kashmiri or Tibetan food. Meals would mostly be followed by namkeen chai (butter tea) or kahwa (Kashmiri tea). But now, all kinds of products are being sold and consumed: from hand-made burgers to pizzas to soft drinks and ice-cream. Whatever we tried to avoid eating in the cities is being consumed in the villages. Granted, that all of this is very natural in a growing town, but as a local, there is a sense of distance from the Ladakh I knew. With all of that changing at the speed of light, it feels as if one leaves a city to find another one at home.
Despite the development, the price that Ladakh pays for the increase in tourism is the loss of its enchanting beauty. Ladakh is known for its pristine landscapes and serene, snow-capped mountain peaks. It is a peaceful place, where one would want to chant prayers, perform yoga, meditate or just hang out. The way an architecture enthusiast would visit Rajasthan for its beautiful forts, and a seafood connoisseur would visit Goa; one would choose Ladakh to be at peace with oneself. Where else in India do you get to gaze at the magnificent sky, studded with stars and constellations with the Milky Way galaxy visible to the naked eye? A place where you can also trek to the mysterious mountains and hills and discover new, untouched places.
Unfortunately, most people who visit Ladakh do not stick to the unwritten rules of exploring a place. It is saddening to see how Ladakh has become just another place with visitors acting ‘touristy’. You see people diving into their phones and doing the same things they do back in the cities all the time. People often prefer to stay in hotels and guest houses with wifi and televisions. What is the point of coming to Ladakh if you are not able to discard your gadgets for a few days?
I wonder also if many people even bother to think about what happens to the place after they leave. Just to give you an idea – Ladakh hibernates as soon as the winter sets in. As soon as the calendar turns to October, the air starts to hit you in the face like the stab of a knife. All the places which were flooded with people become empty as if haunted. And with the snowfall, Ladakh gets cut off from the rest of the world. Exorbitant aeroplane tickets – as expensive as tickets to a foreign country – and a shortage of food and medical supplies are just a few of the problems.
Everyone has a right to enjoy the holidays and explore places in their own way, but my only concern, as a local, is that one of the best parts of Ladakh is the zen in its tranquil surroundings and simplicity. In the midst of this new hullabaloo, if you have not been able to listen to the songs of Ladakh’s silence, I feel you have missed the essence of the place.