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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Buddha's Nativity in Ladakh

August 26, 2008

Israel Shamir
August 23, 2008

Long snake quickly moved down the mountain: hundreds of monks ran
along a curving paved path from the monastery at the top to the broad
polo grounds at the bottom, where the whole population of Leh had
gathered to celebrate the Buddha's Nativity. Powerful, muscular monks
in yellow hats and orange robes were accompanied by peasants, city
folk, urchins of sorts, cars and cattle. The polo grounds with flags
and garlands, important folk sitting up on a long elevated tribune,
and performers queuing up recalled a typical May Day celebration in a
provincial Soviet town, though there were Lamas instead of Party
officials. Actually, (ex-Soviet) Tajikistan is not far from here –
just over the impassable mountains, for Leh, the capital city of
Ladakh, is located in the upper reaches of the Indus River, between
the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, squeezed between Tibet and Kashmir,
bordering on China and Pakistan, next to Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The local people are fond of horseback riding, so the game of polo is
not a foreign invention to them, but rather a native game. Actually,
the Brits learned it in the southern slopes of the Himalayas, and
later on built polo grounds all over the Empire.

Monks from the Ladakh monastery

Once, Leh was an important place on an important road, but that was
long time ago. Nowadays, Ladakh belongs to India, being part of the
State of Jammu and Kashmir, its farthest-away part. The border with
China and Pakistan having been closed, Leh is isolated by frontiers,
troops, rivers and mountains. In the winter, Ladakh is practically
cut off from the rest of the world. The road from Kashmir to Ladakh
was opened in May, and it will be closed again at the end of
September. It passes through awe-inspiring passes with romantic
names: Zoji-la, Namika-la, Fatu-la, reminiscent of Shangri-la, beyond
the snow-capped mountains. It is a scary experience to come to Ladakh
from Kashmir – the Zoji-la mountain pass can frighten any atheist
into saying a prayer. There is an image of the Virgin next to that of
Buddha and to an Islamic mihrab at the top of the pass, and all of
them are well attended by grateful travellers. However, the passes on
the second road to India, the Manali road, are allegedly even worse,
though one wonders whether that is even possible.

Ladakh, this vast, frozen and sparsely populated desert, looks like
the South Sinai, a barren land with high mountains and huge military
bases, mercifully enlivened by temples and monasteries. There are
trees in a few spots in the river valleys, but otherwise this land is
bare. Ladakhi towns are tiny and rather pleasant. They have wonderful
palatial houses with colourful frescoes on the walls. Ladakh was once
ruled by its own king, but not anymore. The royal palace has been
taken over by the government. Now the queen, the widow of the last
king, lives in an ordinary house one hour's drive from the capital Leh.

I've been visiting a few monasteries in this most remote Buddhist
country with an average altitude of 10,000 feet. Though religions
differ, man's need for communing with God remains a constant.
Buddhists – like Orthodox Christians – strive to achieve this perfect
union with God; they call it enlightenment while we call it theosis
or deification. Their monasteries are full of icons they call tanka.
Their night chants begin at the same time the monks of Mt Athos start
their morning prayer, and last very, very long. There are
differences, too: though we admire and venerate our spiritual
teachers, we never worship a living person like they do. There are
more photos of the Dalai Lama in the monasteries than there were
portraits of Stalin and Mao in Russia and China. To make the
comparison stick, there are also copies of his collected works in so
many languages.

Once there were many monks and monasteries; huge reliefs of the
Buddha still embellish the land, as well as their mani walls made of
ritually inscribed flat stones. But the attraction of monkhood has
faded notably. I stayed in Lamayuru, one of the biggest monasteries
in Ladakh. It is a vast complex with dozens of houses and stupas, big
and small -- but there was only one resident monk. I was told that a
few more were scattered throughout the area, helping with the harvest
and teaching children. In the old days, the monks taught children in
a monastery school. Now the Indian government provides schools, so
children do not have to go to monasteries, though monks still teach.
Still, the literacy rate here is below 25%, while in neighbouring
Tibet it is 95%. Moreover, Tibet is accessible all year round even by
train, while Ladakh is not.

Ladakh is a good place to get an understanding of the Tibetan
problem, for Ladakh is also a part of Tibet, and the native
population is kin to the Tibetans. Ladakhis and Tibetans understand
each other almost as well as people from different parts of Ladakh
understand each other.

There is one important difference: we never hear any bad news from
Ladakh, though their situation is quite similar. Both are not
independent. While Tibet belongs to China, Ladakh belongs to India.
Whereas in Tibet, money and business is mainly in Chinese hands, in
Ladakh business, trade, hotels, tourism are in Indian, mainly
Kashmiri hands. The reasons for the differential treatment lie
elsewhere: India is more compliant with the West than China, and that
is why China is attacked. If India were to become equally 'stubborn',
we should soon be hearing about mistreated Ladakhis, too.

The people of Ladakh and of Tibet surely have their problems but
these problems are mainly due to "progress" -- the State (China or
India) took over the role once performed by the monasteries.
Nowadays, roads are repaired, schools run, and taxes collected by the
state, not by monasteries. The monasteries have lost their position
as feudal seigniors. Naturally the monks are not happy about it; but
the same can be said in France or Russia: even there, the monks would
like to revert to less hectic times. Tibet is just the only place
that the Western media brings us the opinion of the monks as a valid
one rather than as curiosity.

The native people haven't sufficient capital, connections or
experience to compete with the Indians and the Chinese in trade and
business. Native culture is being eroded by globalisation both in
Tibet and in Ladakh (as it is in your home town), but only in Tibet
we hear it called "cultural genocide."

On a wall in Ladakh I spotted this sticker attached to -- Pepsi Cola
sign, apparently the very opposite to "cultural genocide". Indeed the
present attack on China because of its "cultural genocide" in Tibet
is a cynical media manipulation. Tibetans actually do better in Tibet
than Ladakhis in Ladakh, and with departure of communism, even this
reason evaporated.

If ever Tibet will become independent, it is likely to tear away the
Indian territories of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, as the native
population is akin to Tibetans, and connected to Tibet by blood,
marriages, customs, language and religion. This is a strong argument
against giving too much support to the Tibetan cause: changes of
status quo are bloody and violent and usually are connected with
ethnic cleansing.

The Tibetans in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh describe themselves as
'refugees', but after all they live in close proximity to their old
homes, among their cousins and at their own choice. They are as much
refugees as the Irish in Liverpool. They should make their choice: go
back to Tibet or become naturalised in India. Apparently both
possibilities are open to them. Chinese Tibet is not some dreadful
place of communist torture chambers, and they can go back without
fear for their lives. Instead, they take CIA money to despoil the
walls of Leh with their nasty anti-Chinese slogans and with their
cheap propaganda in English aimed at foreign tourists. I asked some
Tibetan refugees: would they return to Tibet? Yes, we would, they
said, if the Dalai Lama would return as well, and this is not likely
to happen soon.

Tibetans are just one ethnic group among many others living in the
area. Their independence would cause other small groups claim their
independence, as it happened in the most recent case of Georgia and
Ossetia. Indeed, if Kartvelis can become independent of Russia, why
Ossetia can't become independent of Georgia? If Tibetans may become
independent of China, why Ladakhis can't become independent of India?
Promotion of 'national independence' is a deadly game, it always was,
and it is better to stop it.

Let the Tibetans and the Ladakhis worship at their monasteries and
improve their lives, let the Dalai Lama concentrate his efforts of
the real Buddhist goals, i.e. seeking Nirvana, while leaving the
dreams of full cultural (let alone political) independence where they
belong -- in the Dream Kingdom.
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