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Appropriate Technology and Co-operative Culture in Ladakh

by Helena Norberg-Hodge

December 1986

Ladakh is a region in the northernmost part of India, lying north of the Himalayas, in the ranges bordering the Tibetan plateau. Until a few years ago, Ladakh was one of the very few places that had not been affected by the Western monoculture that had spread across the entire world; in fact, when I arrived there in 1975, life in the villages was as it had been for eight hundred years.

Despite its size (about forty thousand square miles), the population of Ladakh is only about one hundred and twenty thousand. Situated in the rainhsadow of Great Himalaya, it is a desert. Coupled with the high altitude, the result is an extremely harsh environment. From the beginning, therefore, the people have had to recognise that Nature has limits. In order to survive, they have developed traditions which enable them to live in harmony and balance with their natural environment - traditions which have maintained a stable population and prevented division of the land. The villages are self-sufficient in many ways, models of Gandhian village democracies. In the alluvial fans of glacial melt-water streams, fields have been carved out of the desert, and irrigated. Staple crops are barley and wheat, and there is some grazing in high summer pastures for sheep, cows, yaks and `dzo' (a hybrid of yak and cow). Ladakh has survived only by using its natural resources carefully, and never abusing them. There is absolutely no waste. The scarce trees - apricot, willow and poplar - are not used for fuel, despite the forty degrees of frost experienced in the Ladakhi winters. Rather, they are carefully tended, and their wood used only for construction or for musical instruments and tools. Dried animal dung is used for fuel, and human nightsoil as fertilizer: every house has a composting lavatory, and all `waste' is recycled.

Standard of living

Through this careful use of resources, and by living closely in tune with the earth, the Ladakhis have managed to create a society with a relatively high standard of living. When one considers the constraints - the extreme scarcity of resources, the harsh and difficult environment and the fact that these people have used only `Stone Age' technologies - their success is quite remarkable. Many people in the West would think it impossible even to survive in these circumstances. Yet the Ladakhis have more than survived; they have actually prospered. Virtually everyone is well-fed and healthy, and people even have produced enough excess with which to buy luxuries - fine brocade, jewellery and precious metals. What is more, this is all done in a relatively short working season. During the four months of summer, they meet all their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Even most of the weaving and spinning is done during this period. For eight months, there is a lot of leisure, with weddings which last two weeks, monastery festivals, storytelling, and music-making. Water has to be fetched and all animals fed, but this is just about all the work that one has during winter. Even in the peak of the working season, during the harvest, when people work for eighteen hours in a day, play is mixed with work. The whole family and friends are together in the fields; everyone - from great-grandparents to great-grandchildren - helps and sings together. And there is always time to stop to chat and drink the local barley beer.

In terms of quality of life, the Ladakhis do rather better than one would expect from a non-industrial society. There is a high level of co-operation between all members of the society, with little distinction between rich and poor, male and female, old and young. Roles are very flexible. Women do some jobs more than men and vice versa; but rigid distinctions are rare. There is very little specialization, and as a result, work is rarely monotonous and boring. Everyone knows how to plant, how to build houses, how to make music, how to spin. Crime of any sort is so uncommon as to be virtually nonexistent. You can walk alone at night, without the slightest worry. Even after getting drunk at parties people do not get aggressive.

Co-operation, rather than competition, lies at the foundation of Ladakhi society. It can be seen in all spheres of life; from the sharing of household tasks and rotational shepherding to the interaction between children. One interesting observation that I have made in this regard is that in Ladakh, children are never segregated into age groups. Instead, they spend their entire lives constantly surrounded by and interacting with people of all ages. The implications of this are enormous. Ladakhi children benefit from the help and support that older companions can give. Imagine a room filled with thirty one-year-olds. None of them can walk properly; they are all struggling to gain their balance. How can one possibly help the other? Now imagine another room filled with people aged one to thirty. Imagine the difference. Imagine how different two individuals would become if their lives were spent in such different contexts and societies. This is but one of many reasons why I have had to dramatically alter my beliefs about human nature. In seeing the extreme differences between this completely non-industrial and traditional society and industrial ones, I have had to conclude that one's social environment does affect and mould one to a tremendous extent: especially when it comes to such important characteristics as co-operation and aggression.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Ladakhis that forced me to rethink my beliefs about human nature is the remarkable joie de vivre of the people. At first I thought that the Ladakhis smiled a lot and appeared very happy, but surely underneath they were just like all human beings - with their problems and feelings of jealousy, anger and depression. But after some years of living with them, I started realising that all that laughter was connected to a deep sense of peace and contentedness. Even more dramatically, as Ladakh started changing because of outside influences and modernisation, it became very clear that the people in the `modern' sector were beginning to develop the same signs of depression, restlessness, anger and aggression that I was familiar with from the West. Observing the individual Ladakhis change, as the technologies, economic pressures and education - in other words, their society - changed, was the most convincing evidence that human beings are very dramatically affected by social pressures. And traditional Ladakh has proved to me that it is possible to have a society which encourages co-operation and happiness rather than the opposite.

Ladakh is a predominantly Buddhist area, with a religious tradition going back almost two thousand years. The signs of Buddhism are everywhere. Chortens, symbolic of the basic teaching, dot the landscape. Every village has its monastery, every path and pass its cairn of prayer stones. But interestingly enough, there are also substantial numbers of Muslims, and in the capital, Leh, small pockets of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs; and remarkably all these religious groups co-exist peacefully.

It seems to me that all the great religions of the world have as their central core the unity - the interdependence - of all life. Buddhism, in its very philosophical way, places particular emphasis on the limited nature of the world of the senses (in direct antithesis to science which acts as if only that which can be perceived, isolated and objectively measured has any value). While things appear to have their own absolute, separate existence, and they actually do on the level of the senses, the most important underlying, transcendent truth is the interdependence of all things and the unity of the individual and the universe. If you meditate, if you reflect, this `oneness' becomes apparent, and the illusion of separateness disappears.

This world view based on interdependence goes hand-in-hand with a way of life where everything seems to be connected, where people are aware of their dependence both on other people and on the earth, and where these connections are clearly visible and harmonious.

The contrast with our own society is striking. In the West, the rise of science has been paralleled by the decline of beliefs (and everywhere in the world, one can see that the modernisation process has the same effect), and our world view, which insists that everything is separate from everything else, has created a world where people are separated from one another and from the earth.

I may have given you the impression that Ladakh is heaven on earth, that everything is perfect. This is far from true; in fact, nothing is perfect. There would always be ways of `improving' things, whether in health, agriculture or architecture. In particular, the physical discomfort - mainly due to the extreme cold - is a real problem. However, it is important not to lose sight of the totality. Overall, there is perhaps not a single place in the world today that can compare with Ladakh. It is a peaceful, settled and sustainable society.

Tragic Change

Since Ladakh is in many ways a model society, it is tragic to see young people starting to reject their culture as primitive and filthy. As I said earlier, Ladakh had been almost completely unaffected by the West when I arrived in 1975. (This was a rare situation: the Indians of the Americas, the Aborigines and many other indigenous peoples were dramatically affected by our European culture many centuries ago.) In 1960, a road between Kashmir and Ladakh had been completed, but the area was still largely unchanged, and - for strategic reasons - out-of-bounds to foreigners. But suddenly, in the autumn of 1974, it was thrown open to tourism.

When I arrived, as the first Westerner that many people had ever seen, the young and old alike were proud of their society, proud of what they had, and they considered themselves wealthy. I remember very well going to the village of Hemis Shukpachan, as the guest of a friend, Norboo, and because his village was particularly beautiful, with large palatial houses, I asked him, out of curiosity, to show me the poorest house in the village. He thought for a bit: `We don't have any poor houses,' he said. That was nine years ago. Last year I overheard Norboo saying to a tourist, `Oh, if you could only help us Ladakhis, we're so poor.'

This is the heartbreaking change that I am now seeing: the people's perception of themselves is changing dramatically. Because of the very distorted picture of the outside world that they are gaining through contact with tourists, young people are beginning to think of themselves as poor and deprived. Since Ladakh first opened up, there has been an annual invasion of wealthy Westerners (as many as fifteen thousand a year). The Westerners are rich, and can travel thousands of miles for pleasure. They come for a few days, and spend perhaps £100 a day. In a subsistence economy, where basic needs are met without money, this is as if Martians would come to Bristol and spend £50,000 a day. £100 is what a family in Ladakh might spend in a year (only using money for luxuries, as they do).

The impact on the young is disastrous; they suddenly feel that their parents and grandparents must be stupid to be working and getting dirty, when everyone else is having such a good time - spending vast quantities of money travelling and not working. For Ladakhis, work means physical work; the notion of stress resulting from mental work is unknown. So they get the impression that if you are modern, you simply don't work; the machines do it for you. Understandably, the effect is that they try to prove that they are not part of this primitive bunch of farmers, but part of the new elegant modern world, with jeans, sunglasses, a radio, a motorbike. It is not that the blue-jeans (often uncomfortable) are intrinsically of interest; they are symbols of the modern world. Similarly, cinema films give the impression that racing around in sports cars shooting people - that violence - is modern and admirable.

Suddenly, being a Ladakhi is just not good enough; everything is done in order to seem modern. Tragically, this means leaving the village for the capital, where the money can be earned that will buy all the trappings of the modern world. It follows that basic needs can no longer be met locally. `Modern' clothing must be imported; in modern concrete houses, one must eat modern food; one must eat imported white rice and flour. These modern concrete houses are the product of the changes in attitude that I have just described, coupled with conventional development practices. The traditional architecture is satisfying to the eye; it reflects the environment around it - it uses local materials: adobe, stone and wood. The flat-roofed houses reflect the climate in a rainless land. The new buildings in Leh are a complete antithesis - the same concrete boxes, symbols of the global monoculture which one finds in Florence, Peking and Los Angeles. They are ugly and alien and not adapted to any environment. We are told that they are more economical, yet the materials have to be bought, and in the case of Ladakh, dragged across three high Himalayan passes, two days on the road in lorries. Worst of all, this importation of Western materials and methods leads to centralisation and urbanisation. In order to benefit from these new developments, people have to crowd together in tightly-packed cities; suddenly, they are cut off from the natural environment; the land which gave them mud-bricks for free is now further removed, so they have to use and pay for a lorry to get them.

Even in narrow, Western economic terms the new ways are less economical than the old. But in a broader perspective their effects are disastrously expensive. Health decreases in the city, with a rising incidence of hepatitis and stomach problems hitherto unknown. The mental attitude of the people changes: alcoholism is another entirely new threat to health. Before people drank and got drunk at parties, in a happy social way. Now in the city there is a significant difference as people are trying to escape their daily existence and become dependent on alcohol.

Violence is on the increase. In more subtle but more basic ways the old interdependent society is attacked and the quality of life diminishes. The women who, in the traditional sector had a strong, almost equal position, suddenly find that the new industrialisation has no place for them. The old are also excluded with no function and no room in the cramped space of the city. And the men now do the same monotonous work, at fixed hours, for eleven months of the year.

Along with industrialisation comes the Western educational system, an integral part of the monoculture, but with no well defined origin; it comes with technology and a concomitant economic system. Children struggle with the Iliad, and don't learn how to make shoes from yak hair, or how to build an adobe house. If they learn how to build, it is as an engineer with concrete and steel. If they learn how to make shoes, it is from plastic in a factory. If they learn how to grow barley, it is out of books based on the monocultural system, with no allowance for local diversity. These books have no idea about the conditions at eleven thousand feet, and the wide variety of barley that has grown there, and all the local knowledge of minute differences in soil and climate which the local farmer is in tune with. The practical result is that the educated children cannot survive in the village. The only place they can live is in the city, as an urbanised consumer. If they have more education they have to go to Delhi, get more, and then they only survive in America or England. Yet in Western terms, all this change is `Progress'. All this economic activity increases the GNP, which in the traditional economy was virtually zero. The Western system is simply incapable of classifying traditional subsistence economies, and accounts them as worthless. Bhutan, for instance, which I visited in 1984, and which is very similar to Ladakh, was classified by the World Bank as among the poorest of the poor. And not only can modern methods of assessment not count the worth of traditional systems, they entirely discount the non-financial costs of the new - the disruption of people and the environment, the psychological effects of unemployment, the pollution of land, air and water.

... Conventional development is like a steam-roller covering the earth's surface with an artificial system - a way of life - which has no connection with the earth and its infinite variety or human cultures and their infinite variety. This progress is totally out of touch with that sacred principle, the interdependence of all life on earth. However, there must be other ways of developing, where there is a real need for change; ways which do not lose sight of the fact that we are dependent on the earth. What I have tried to do in Ladakh is to show that there is an alternative: there is a way of improving the pre-industrial standard of living in such a way that it could become a model not only for developing areas but for us in the West.

In Ladakh, one of the very few real problems is the cold of winter. Traditionally, the winters are spent around a smoky dung-fire stove. Now, in the capital, those who can afford it have started buying imported coke to heat their homes. In order to pay for this, they have had to find a job in the modern cash economy, and forsake their work on the land. It is the beginning of a vicious inflationary spiral.

The first appropriate technology I helped to introduce was a system known as the Trombe wall solar space heating system, and it has been very successful. Even when the outside temperature falls to minus fifteen degrees centigrade, the inside of a Trombe room remains at about twenty degrees day and night, fluctuating only slightly. By now, there are about sixty Trombe walls in Ladakh; outside Leh, the Tibetan Children's Village has twenty houses and a hospital heated in this way, and there are others scattered throughout Ladakh. They are cheap - only the glass needs to be bought, and this can be done in Leh; the rest of the materials are the traditional mud-brick and wood. As a result, the walls blend very well with the traditional architecture and surroundings and more importantly, a farmer can raise his standard of living without losing his independence or disrupting his environment.

Excitingly, these initial efforts were greatly appreciated in Ladakh, and a local group formed around the project. The Group, known as the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, now has about a hundred members from all walks of life.

The Center for Ecological Development

We are very keen to ensure that we reach as wide a cross-section of people in Ladakh as possible, including those non-Ladakhis whose positions in the local administration give them a say in the region's development. It is not enough that we work only at the village level, at the grass roots. The political reality is that many of the decisions which affect village life are not taken in the villages themselves, but come out of committee rooms in Leh, or even Delhi.

The Centre for Ecological Development, which is the project's headquarters in the heart of Leh, serves the purpose of bringing our work, and the thinking behind it, to the attention of Ladakh's decision-makers, and thereby perhaps helps to promote the type of development strategy which we are seeking to encourage.

The Centre was inaugurated in 1984 by Indira Gandhi, shortly before her death. In the years since, it has generated very considerable interest not only within Ladakh itself but throughout the rest of the country. Members of the central Indian administration almost always include a tour of the Centre when they visit Ladakh, as do representatives of the media. In addition, the Centre has become something of a tourist attraction, with more than five thousand foreign visitors passing through its gates every year. His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited and consecrated the building in 1985, and we have also received both the Governor and the Chief Minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Other visitors include ambassadors and senior diplomats from Delhi.

The building itself is an example of how traditional Ladakhi architecture can be `updated' to meet changing expectations. Most of the building is solar heated. A small wind generator provides power for back-up lighting. In the garden, we have an array of solar cookers and dryers, and also a solar greenhouse. All these `technologies' are in active use, and are accompanied by written and graphic material explaining how they work, and how they are built.

Inside the building, there are posters describing our work and information about specific issues in which we are involved. There is also an increasingly impressive library, which seeks to show the extent of the worldwide trend to more human-scale, ecological ways of living. We have books and magazines on organic agriculture, community schools, natural systems of health care, and self-reliance. We have critiques of development and industrialisation, and manuals on a wide range of appropriate technologies. There are also directories of environmental organisations in India and abroad, and newsletters from ecological groups around the world. Here is powerful black-and-white evidence that the thinking which we espouse is gaining ever more widespread acceptance throughout the world at large.

The Centre also incorporates a small restaurant, in which a wide range of dishes are cooked in our own solar ovens. The restaurant is particularly popular with foreign tourists. Their presence at the Centre serves two very useful functions. Firstly, they help to provide financial support for our work, and secondly, they show the Ladakhis that this is something which they consider important and worthwhile. A respectable-looking, middle-aged Westerner who stands admiring a solar cooker, or spends an afternoon or more (as many tourists do) browsing through the library, is in fact making a valuable contribution to our cause, and is helping in the long run to promote more sustainable development strategies in the region.

We have recently completed some much-needed extensions to the building, so as to allow for increased office space and a meeting-room capable of holding up to one hundred and fifty people. In addition, we now have a basic engineering workshop (including one of the very few lathes in Ladakh), which enables our technical programme to operate more efficiently than was possible in the past. In the near future, we will be establishing a `living museum' of traditional crafts, in which craftspeople from the villages will demonstrate such skills as weaving, stone carving and `thangka' painting.

Much of our work at the Centre is undertaken jointly with the Ladakh Ecological Development Group. However, we make sure that the building is made available for as wide a range of local events as possible. We frequently sponsor meetings of the Cultural Forum, a group of local poets, writers and scholars concerned with the preservation of Ladakhi culture, and hold musical evenings at which Ladakhi musicians can play together with visiting Westerners. (Such informal events can serve the purpose of encouraging real `cross-cultural' dialogue, and help the Ladakhis to get a better feel for life in the West.) In winter, the solar-heated library is a popular venue for all sorts of social and cultural activities, and thereby serves to promote the whole concept of appropriate technology.

Taken from "Replenishing the Earth", Edited by Tom Woodhouse. Green Books 1990
ISBN 1 870098 38 2

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