Books about Ladakh

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If you’re looking for books about Ladakh–because you want to travel there, or are interested from a casual/scholarly perspective—here are a few books that are good place to start your reading. Those discussed here are more easily available in India, but some are available via Amazon/Kindle. I don’t actually recommend all of the books that I discuss below, but I hope this ‘reading list’ provides a useful point of departure for any research or casual reading on Ladakh.

Ladakh: Changing, Yet Unchanged by Romesh Bhattacharji. New Delhi: Rupa, 2012

This book started off so well, and captured my initial impressions of Ladakh. I struggled—still do—to describe the landscape of this place, as it is quite alien to my experience, and requires a new vocabulary. As Romesh Bhattacharji writes:

Ladakh makes people either speechless or boringly eloquent. Everyone is stunned. No one can remain indifferent. Every part of Ladakh leaves one short of adjectives to describe the scenery and one’s feelings. One is on a permanent high.

As a retired Chief Commissioner of Customs, the author served in this remote part of India for many years, and clearly knows it back to front. Unfortunately, the way he goes about describing it in Ladakh: Changing, Yet Unchanged, is extremely dry, on the whole. The book is divided into chapters that describe various regions of Ladakh, such as ‘Kargil to Leh’ and ‘Over the Ladakh-Kailash Range to the Karakoram’. For readers with no, or little, prior knowledge of these regions, Bhattacharji’s language and style does not help them visualise these magnificent places at all. The author falls into that faux pas of telling not showing. He can tell me that a landscape is magnificent, but what does that really look like? He writes that places are fascinating, or amazing, but how can I know whether they would be as fascinating or amazing to me, without being given any adequate description. Instead of evocative travel writing, we get numerous pages such as this:

The Saltoro Range is not in a straight line (as nature does not believe in such simplifications). It goes on to Bilafond La (5,547 m), twists to Saltoro Kangri (7,742 m), climbed by an army expedition led by the old Ladakh hand, Col. N. Kumar, in August 1981, carries on to Sherpi Kangri (7,303 m) and climbed in June 1976 from Khapalu in Pakistan by a Japanese expedition led by Prof K. Hirain, turns east to Ghent (7,400 m), and goes on to Sia La (6,166 m) directly due south of Sia Kangri (7,422 m), climbed by Col. Kumar’s expedition in July 1981, and thence to Indira Col. (5,776 m). (p. 189)

Aside from being a shamefully long sentence, the information contained within is not contextualised in any real way. Even having read the whole book, I don’t know who Prof K. Hirain or Col. Kumar are, or why they really needed to be mentioned. This kind of turgid prose, unfortunately, comprises the majority of the book. It’s a shame, because this is an author who clearly has a vast wealth of experience with Ladakh that he wants to share, but the style—which I would actually put down to poor editing—lets this book down entirely.

Not recommended.

Postcards from Ladakh, by Ajay Jain. Kunzum, 2009.

I like the idea behind this book, combining attractive images and snippets of first-hand, observed information. As the author writes:

Postcards from Ladakh is a collection of frames, frozen circa 2009, when I drove for over 10,000 km in and around Ladakh. It can be a guide to the traveller. And serve as a time capsule for future generations. Neither guidebook nor encyclopaedia, it is intended to give a flavour of what Ladakh holds for you. I’ve written the book as if I were writing postcards to you from the scene. To share memorable moments, valuable insights. (p. 7)

The combined purpose of this book as a visual and written record of Ladakh—in a travel-friendly postcard-sized book—appeals to me. But this is not a guide book: there is no practical information included, no maps. But there is plenty of inspiration for travellers in Ladakh, without prescription. The author has described scenes and encounters as he experienced them, so the book works more as a travel narrative, even though it doesn’t need to be read from start to finish.

The one thing that left rather a bitter taste in my mouth, however, was the author’s description of migrant workers from other parts of India. It’s certainly noticeable in Ladakh that a lot of manual labourers—particularly road builders—are not Ladakhis, but from other parts of India, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Jain writes about them in a shockingly dismissive tone:

It makes economic sense to hire migrants, but it’s a nuisance too. They create slums wherever they camp, with no sense of hygiene. They even defecate in the open along river banks. Their children do nothing but beg. (p. 29)

Much of this may well be true. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend this book without pointing out that it is hardly migrant labourers who create slums, but the economic, political and social inequalities of India that create the conditions under which migrant labourers must ‘create’ slums. Nobody lives in a slum because they like it. Nobody sends their children to beg if they have other options. It’s easy for a privileged, urban Indian (or anyone from any other nation) to make such disparaging comments, but it shows a deep lack of sensitivity to the cruel realities of contemporary India.

Still, I recommend this book.

Books about Ladakh
“Ladakh makes people either speechless or boringly eloquent. Everyone is stunned. No one can remain indifferent. Every part of Ladakh leaves one short of adjectives to describe the scenery and one’s feelings. One is on a permanent high. But if one is describing Ladakh, the same superlatives become repetitive. So what does one do? After having described the gigantic vastness and colourful mountains the reader should assume that unless mentioned otherwise, all of Ladakh is like that. Narrow stunning valleys giving way to enormous deserts bordered by bare colourful mountains at the foot of which sometimes sparkle verdant green fields that are golden in the brief autumn. The surrounding endless aridity is highlighted by these sporadic patches of cultivation. Only an epic poem can convey the emotional upheaval that Ladakh stirs up in its visitors.” –Ladakh: Changing, Yet Unchanged, by Romesh Bhattacharji.

A Journey in Ladakh, by Andrew Harvey. London: Rider, 1983.

I started off loving this book. Andrew Harvey was a young writer and scholar from Oxford who had been interested in Ladakh for years, but was somewhat afraid of making the trip there. He was studying Buddhism, and had heard that Ladakh was the final, dying outpost of a ‘pure’ Tibetan Buddhist culture. Friends and acquaintances had told him that Ladakh would change his life, but he wasn’t sure that he was ready for his life to be changed and kept putting it off.

His descriptions of his arrival in Leh, overland from Srinagar, could almost have been written today, although I’m sure the city has changed enormously in 30+ years. The Shanti Stupa, that I climbed up to a couple of days after my arrival, is described by Harvey as I would describe it today, had I thought up such eloquent phrases:

The stupa at the edge of Leh stands separately on a small raised hill. I noticed as I walked up to it, seeing it against the wide spread of the Karakorams, that its shape was a meditation on the wild forms of the mountains behind it. The stupa echoes the mountains and the mountains are stupas also. Everything in this world is linked. (p. 32)

Once settled in Leh, Harvey begins to investigate the Buddhism practiced in Ladakh a bit more seriously. And while I appreciated the descriptions of his visits to various monasteries, his meetings with lamas and the Rinpoche, this is where he lost me. I was reminded of Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a beautiful partial travelogue about that author’s journey in Dolpo, Nepal in the 1970s. Once the travel narrative diverged towards spiritual awakening and contemplation, I lost most of my connection with the book. I’m interested in Buddhism, but as a layperson not a practitioner, or even prospective practitioner. So there was much in the second half of this book that I just couldn’t grasp.

It also made me think of Eat, Pray, Love, which I read recently. Elizabeth Gilbert’s book and A Journey in Ladakh are entirely different types of book, but both are accounts of spiritual discovery and renewal, with a heavy travel component. The gendered differences between the two books are very evident, though. Harvey’s is a more ‘traditional’ type of travelogue, with a central, standalone male figure who expounds (albeit sensitively) on the world he encounters. Harvey is an Orientalist, in the best sense of the world. He becomes deeply involved with the community he goes to investigate, learning the languages and doing what he can to understand Ladakhi Buddhist practices on their own terms. This contrasts quite markedly with Eat, Pray, Love, which has been criticised for making very little attempt to engage with the specificities of the places she passes through. But still I couldn’t help but think of the two books together, as both are about journeys of spiritual transformation.

Recommended, especially for readers interested in, or with some background knowledge of, Tibetan Buddhism.

Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Helena Norberg-Hodge was one of the first outsiders to be allowed to travel in Ladakh when it opened up in the 1970s, and she was the first Westerner in modern times to learn the Ladakhi language. So, she had unprecedented access to the knowledge, stories and culture of the region at a time when it was virtually untouched by modern development (although Ladakh was on the Silk Route, meaning that it was certainly affected by outside influences over the centuries). I really enjoyed the first section of the book, which describes the landscape and culture of Ladakh as the author saw it then.

I didn’t appreciate the subsequent sections as much, though, where she rails against the harm that modernisation and development have done to Ladakh. I know many of her points are true, and I appreciate the message. However, I didn’t so much appreciate her tone. While I’m as willing as the next liberal hippy to acknowledge the evils of Western civilisation, I also quickly grew tired of the author’s positioning of everything Western as evil and everything traditionally Ladakhi as good. There was very little nuance, and much of it felt quite dated. I have no intention of defending the homogenising evils of contemporary, Western-driven consumer capitalism. But according to Norberg-Hodge, everybody in the Western world is miserable, has psychological problems, is disconnected from their family and lives insipid lives detached from nature. It’s just not true.

The author also lost much of my sympathy when she attributed communal conflict in Jammu & Kashmir to development and modernisation (PARTITION, 1947!!), as well as when she mentioned Bhutan’s famous ‘Gross National Happiness’ policy as an ideal. Bhutan’s GNH concept is a favourite of idealists who desperately want to believe that there is such thing as an apolitical Himalayan Shangri La full of happy, peaceful Buddhists. (For a basic introduction to why parroting Bhutan’s GNH concept is problematic, I recommend reading up on the issue in Himal Southasian, most recently an article by my good mate Ross Adkin, a Kathmandu-based journalist).

I recommend this book, but I also think it could do with a 21st century update.

Guide books

I got the entire Lonely Planet India tome for my Kindle because it is a great reference guide for the whole country. However, I found it inadequate for several weeks’ stay in Ladakh. I bought a couple more locally produced guidebooks to supplement the LP, so using a combination of guidebooks seems to cover most of the bases. Travel blogs are always a great addition (obviously!) but in a relatively lesser-visited place such as Ladakh, which also happens to have abominably bad Wifi, reliance on a ‘traditional’ guidebook is still a good idea.

White Water Ladakh: A Guide Book, by Darren Clarkson-King and Tsering Chotak. Kathmandu: Himalayan Map House, 2015.

This little guide was put together by the guys behind well-known Ladakhi rafting company, Wet n Wild. As a guidebook, it’s best suited to serious paddlers, as it explores a lot of rivers and routes around Ladakh that are a challenge to get to. It could have done with a thorough proof-read, but this is a nice little guide for those interested in Ladakh’s rivers.

Available in Kathmandu and Leh.

Exploring Ladakh: The Complete Guide, by Nicholas Eakins. New Delhi: Hanish & Co, 2011.

This is an attractive book with a lot of high-quality, colourful photos. Exploring Ladakh is useful in that it has quite detailed suggestions for different routes/itineraries that you could take around Ladakh. Unfortunately, there seems to be an assumption that readers will have their own private vehicle. A bit of information is given at the beginning about public transportation, but then each recommended route proceeds to describe the route as though you will be able to stop and start at your own leisure.

Another great feature of this guidebook is that it includes several descriptions of recommended trekking itineraries at the back. These include day-by-day breakdowns of the itineraries, descriptions of the trail, and alternatives for if you want to end the trek early and continue with public transport. I’m contemplating doing one of the easier ones myself before I leave Ladakh, and probably wouldn’t have considered it had I not read about the particular route in this guidebook.

A drawback of this guidebook is its poor contents page and indexing, which can make it a bit challenging to navigate if you don’t already know where you want to go. But in general I’ve found this to be a great addition to the usual guidebook suspects.

Ladakh: The Pocket Guide. Partha S. Banerjee. Calcutta: Milestone Books, 2013.

Being a ‘pocket’ guide, I’ve taken this with me when visiting a few sites, so that I can read up about them when I’m there. It’s not so useful as a planning guide as it’s just not detailed enough. But it includes a few pictures and some detailed descriptions of the most popular monasteries, etc, so is quite handy.