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Himalayan development.

MY most memorable night, during a three months' stay in India, was a night sleeping on the earth floor of a mud-brick room in the small village of Thikse, in eastern Ladakh. It was a place also which, in retrospect, illustrates for me the social and ecological repercussions of contact with the western world and exploitation of natural resources.

We arrived in Thikse, by bus from Leh, on a cold, wet morning a few days before the festival at the local gompa (monastery). The only hotel's only room was booked; but the manager found us a |local room'. We were dubious about this at first; to our eyes its mud-brick walls and earthen floor were reminiscent of a cow-shed, and there was a big pool of water from the leaking roof. However, the woman indicated that she would sweep out the water and the hotel man assured us that the roof was mended; so we left our rucksacks and went for a walk.

On our return the room had been transformed; the floor was dry and along two walls were placed matresses covered with thick Tibetan rugs. It was a room of comfortable simplicity.

At intervals the sound of horns resonated from the rooftop of the nearby monastery; it was an eerie sound, deep and weird -- a long resonant call announcing the presence and activity of these hilltop monks; it never failed to evoke in me a deep, stirring response. We climbed up to the monastery just as prayers were beginning and a monk motioned us to enter the temple. The prayers were accompanied by the long horns we had heard reverberating from the rooftop, as well as trumpets and drums; the sound rolled round us, sonorous and mysterious. Then the monks started to chant; again the effect was deep and harmonious. I became absorbed in the flowing sound, resonating with the harmonies, stirred by the sonorous depths, excited by the strident trumpets; over all was a feeling of mystery, of that which could not be expressed in human speech. These lamas make full use of the effect of sound on the human psyche; we emerged from the temple feeling dazed, having been transported into another world and another age.

That evening, as we sat on our Tibetan carpets, we had a visitor. He introduced himself as an Indian Government employee who was posted to Ladakh for two years. He said he found life here very difficult and boring, especially in the winters.

|There is nothing to do here. The people used to live a very simple life-work and nothing else to do; but they are (or were) very spiritual, they would say prayers and meditate a lot and there's no doubt that a lot of them had spiritual powers: but all that is changing now with the arrival of tourists.'

|You think it is the tourists who are changing things?' we asked him.

|Oh yes, undoubtedly. This was a closed area until five years ago. Only for five years have tourists been allowed in and I have already seen such changes. In another five years I think it will have changed completely. Materialism is causing changes; the tourists bring money and glimpses of another way of life and the people become dissatisfied. They become money-conscious and want radios, television, education. The illiterate Ladakhis were not bothered about appearance; but now they see films and television and are no longer satisfied with a tattered, dusty robe but want a smart suit. They send their children to be educated and they want a different way of life.'

We had become aware, soon after our arrival in India, of the effects of the growing tourist industry. In trying to escape from this and the centres of tourism, we were merely spreading it further afield and contributing to the change of those very ways of life whose simplicity we appreciated. Already, in Ladakh, the capital, Leh, was being invaded by traders and beggars from elsewhere in India, to take advantage of the growing numbers of tourists. Five years of contact with the outside world had made irrevocable changes in this remote village and our presence there was destroying that which we had come to see.

In spite of these thoughts, that night proved to be my best sleep of the whole trip. The small room was so simple and comfortable, perhaps because it was all natural; lying on woollen rugs on an earth floor, surrounded by walls and roof of mud bricks, we became part of the earth in a way which is not possible in modem buildings; even when camping we are insulated from the earth by a plastic groundsheet.

We awoke the next morning to pouring rain and the roof started to drip. There was a pleasant, earthy smell of damp mud; but the drips increased rapidly and the room became awash. Our friend from the previous evening reappeared and told us that all the houses in the village were leaking. He said it was very unusual for it to rain for more than an hour -- this was the fourth day of continuous rain! He advised us to leave Thikse and reluctantly, we returned to Leh. There we found all the hotels flooded and the restaurants closed.

Ladakh is (or was) a desert land with very little rainfall--what precipitation there is is falling as snow in the winter. Snow poses no problems for the mud-brick houses for it can be swept away; but rain soon dissolves the mud. We heard later that the festival in Thikse monastery had been cancelled; the whole village was crumbling and the monastery, which had stood for hundreds of years, was in a dangerous condition.

Usually the monsoon rains fall upon the Himalayan slopes and the rain is spent before reaching Ladakh. However, much water is held by the forest cover of the Himalayas. With deforestation the rain reaches further into the mountains and the climate of Ladakh is changing. The lack of trees also means that the water runs off the ground, instead of being retained. When we returned over the mountains from Ladakh we saw extensive floods. Many unharvested fields stood deep in water and piles of grain lay on the road to dry (the traffic winding round it adding its quota of toxic fumes).

Later, near Simla, we stayed with a Forest Ranger and his family in their wooden house in a eucalyptus forest where the evening air was fragrant with the scent of the trees. This was part of the re-forestation programme; but now I read that eucalyptus trees, which have been imported into India from Australia, exhaust the soil and provide little leaf litter to replenish the humous; so they contribute to soil erosion and exhaustion. Eucalyptus are planted extensively in India as they grow very quickly and provide quick profits in pulping wood; but they do not conserve the soil and they provide none of the forest resources for the local people who lived near the indigenous forests--firewood, fodder, fertiliser, fruits, nuts and plant foods. These monoculture cash-crop plantations which come under the label of |re-forestation' give only a financial, not a biological productivity. Whereas the |economy' of the country may seem to benefit, the people become poorer. As well as the |Chipko' movement to preserve the remaining forests, women in India are now uprooting eucalyptus seedlings in protest against this type of forestation which exhausts the earth and makes the people poorer; they are replacing them with mixed species which will provide subsistence resources for local people whose use also conserves the forest.

Having seen the floods in India, deforestation to me conjures up much more immediate effects than the greenhouse effect. (Indeed, from the viewpoint of Gaia, carbon-dioxide fluctuations are merely part of the natural cycles and are nature's way of redressing the balance -- increased carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere increases plant growth, as in the Carboniferous age which produced the great forests whose carbon we are now returning to the atmosphere.) Deforestation in the Himalayas means drastic climatic changes in places like Ladakh; floods in the lower valleys; people reduced to starvation through loss of forest resources. These are the very people to teach us how to live with forests, not as an economic resource but as a biological resource--to see the trees as living nature, not as something to be exploited for money.

It is this over-emphasis on materialism which has been the West's most prolific export and my brief stay in the remote Himalayan village of Thikse was a vivid example of the far-reaching effects of this materialistic value-system, both in the direct contact with these people, affecting their simple, spiritually oriented life-style, and in the distant effect of forest exploitation which results in their ancient buildings crumbling in the rain.
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Title Annotation:tourist industry's effects to Thikse, a remote Himalayan village
Author:Pacsoo, Jo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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