Ancient Futures - Learning From Ladakh
by Helena Norberg-Hodge
"I am convinced that people [in Ladakh] were significantly
happier before development than they are today."
Helena lived in Ladakh for long periods, beginning in the early
1970s, before Ladakh had experienced any significant contact with
the outside world. Over the next two decades she witnessed at first-hand
the changes the Ladakhis went through as their culture began the
process of Westernisation. The book begins with a description of
Ladakh as it once was, and then goes on to describe the changes brought
about by "the coming of the West, and, finally, what might we
learn from it all.
Helena is the founder and director of the International
Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). She is also co-producer
of an award-winning film based on this book, and between them,
both film and book have now been translated into over thirty languages,
and are regularly used by grassroots organisations all over the
Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Angus & Robertson)
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
The page numbers referred
to below are from the Sierra Club Books paperback 1992 edition.
In every direction are mountains, a vast plateau of
crests in warm and varied tones from rust to pale green. Above, snowy
peaks reach toward a still, blue sky; below, sheer walls of wine
red scree fall to stark lunar valleys.
How can life be sustained in this wilderness? Everything
is barren; each step you take sends up a cloud of sand and dust.
Yet as your eyes begin to comprehend what they see, brilliant green
oases come into focus, set like emeralds in a vast elephant-skin
Fields of barley appear, fringed with wild flowers
and herbs and the clear waters of glacial streams. Above the fields
sits a cluster of houses, gleaming white, three floors high, and
hung with finely carved balconies; brightly coloured prayer flags
flutter on the roof-tops. Higher still, perched on the mountainside,
a monastery watches over the village.
As you wander through the fields, or follow the narrow
paths that wind between the houses, smiling faces greet you. It
seems impossible that people could prosper in such desolation, and
yet all the signs are that they do. Everything has been
done with care: fields have been carved out of the mountainside and
layered in immaculate terraces, one above the other; the crops are
thick and strong and form such patterns that an artist might have
sown their seeds.
Around each house, vegetables and fruit trees are
protected from the goats by a stone wall. On the flat roof, animal
fodder—alfalfa and hay, together with leaves of the wild iris—has
been stacked in neat bundles for winter. Apricots left to dry on
yak-hair blankets and potted marigolds give a blaze of brilliant
I was becoming increasingly fascinated by the people,
by their values, and the way they saw the world. Why were
they always smiling? And how did they support themselves in relative
comfort in such a hostile environment?
When we reached the village, we walked up narrow paths
between large, flat-roofed houses, passing vegetable gardens and
apricot orchards. Children came running up, friendly and unfrightened.
Women were spinning wool, talking cheerfully, some with bright-cheeked
babies at their breasts. I saw old men with faces of a thousand wrinkles,
young girls with long dark hair in plaits, a newborn calf nuzzling
Arriving at Sonam's house, we climbed a flight of
stone steps to the first floor. He then took me into the kitchen,
a room that was so dark compared with the light outside that for
a moment I saw little. In this large room, at least thirty feet across,
the windows were small openings in the thick walls and the air was
smoky from the fire of the cooking stove. Rows of gleaming brass
and copper pots shone brilliantly against dark walls.
Work and Festivity are One
As the sun appears, the whole family gathers. Two
men carry the wooden plough; ahead a pair of massive dzo [a
hybrid between the local cow and the yak] dwarf the children who
lead them. People drink chang [the locally brewed beer]
from silver-lined cups, and the air hums with the sounds of celebration.
A monk in robes of deep maroon chants a sacred text; laughter and
song drift back and forth from field to field. Once the sowing has
been completed, the crop does not need much care—only watering,
which is usually done on a rotational basis, sometimes established
Harvest is another festive occasion. A
line of reapers, old and young, men and women, sing as they cut the
crop low to the ground with sickles. In the evening, people gather
to sing, drink, and dance. A butter lamp is lit in the kitchen, and
garlands of wheat, barley, and peas are wrapped around the wooden
I walked out onto the balcony. Whole families—grandfathers,
parents, children—were working in the fields, come cutting,
some stacking, others winnowing. Each activity had its own particular
song. The harvest lay in golden stacks, hundreds to a field, hardly
allowing the bare earth to show through. A clear light bathed the
valley with an intense brilliance. No ugly geometry had been imposed
on this land, no repetitive lines. Everything was easy to the eye,
calming to the soul.
With only simple tools at their disposal, Ladakhis
spend a long time accomplishing each task. Yet I found that
the Ladakhis had an abundance of time. They worked at a
gentle pace and had a surprising amount of leisure.
Even during the harvest season, when the work lasts
long hours, it is done at a relaxed pace that allows an eighty-year-old
as well as a young child to join in and help. People work hard, but
at their own rate, accompanied by laughter and song. The distinction
between work and play is not rigidly defined.
Remarkably, Ladahkis only work, really work,
for four months of the year [the short Himalayan growing
season]. In the eight winter months, they must cook, feed the animals,
and carry water, but work is minimal. Most of the winter is spent
at festivals and parties. Even during summer, hardly a week passes
without a major festival or celebration of one sort or another,
while in winter the celebration is almost nonstop.
Well-being, Vitality, and High Spirits
The Ladakhi people exude a sense of well-being,
vitality and high spirits. In terms of physique, almost everyone
is trim and fit. Even without obvious muscle (something
that has puzzled Western doctors), both men and women are extremely
strong, and like many other mountain peoples, they seem to have
The old are active until the day they die. One
morning I saw the eighty-two-year-old grandfather in the house where
I lived running down a ladder from the roof. He was full of life,
and we exchanged a few words about the weather. That afternoon at
three o'clock he died. We found him sitting peacefully as though
In the traditional way of life people experience little
stress and enjoy peace of mind. They breathe pure air, get regular
and prolonged exercise, and eat whole, unrefined foods. Their bodies
are no forced to accommodate materials alien to the natural world
of which they are a part. The food they eat is locally grown and
organic, and until recently there was virtually no environmental
Doctors and Shamans
Responsibility for the sick is primarily in the hands
of the amchi. They are among the most respected members
of the community and generally learn their craft from their fathers
and grandfathers before them. They do not work full time, for like
everyone else, they too farm their own land.
As common in other traditional systems of medicine,
diagnosis involves an examination of the whole patient. Illness is
not seen as a malfunctioning of this or that particular part of the
body, but as a more general imbalance. Disorders are viewed from
a broad perspective, with body, mind, and spirit recognised as integral
parts of the same entity.
Generally the amchi uses natural compounds.
One of the principal medical texts describes the various minerals
and plants used, where to find them, and what they look like. In
addition, the amchi will almost always recommend a special
Surgery is not practiced. Fractures are immobilised
with wooden splints. The need for emergency intervention is rare.
Appendicitis, perforated ulcers, and most of the other sudden-onset
conditions common in the West are rarely encountered. In
the absence of dangerous machinery and fast cars, accidents are few
and far between and are unlikely to be serious. Even such
a relatively trivial injury as a broken leg is unusual.
They Really Are That Happy
"You mean everyone isn't as happy as we are?"—Tsering
The Ladakhis possess an irrepressible joie de vivre.
Their sense of joy seems so firmly anchored within them that circumstances
cannot shake it loose. You cannot spend any time at all in Ladakh
without being won over by the contagious laughter.
At first I couldn't believe the Ladakhis could
be as happy as they appeared. It took me a long time to
accept that the smiles I saw were real. Then, in my second year
there, while at a wedding, I sat back and observed the guests enjoying
themselves. Suddenly I heard myself saying, "Aha,
they really are that happy." Only then did I recognise
that I had been walking around with cultural blinders on, convinced
that the Ladakhis could not be as happy as they seemed.
[In the West] with so much of our lives coloured by
a sense of insecurity or fear, we have difficulty in letting go and
feeling at one with ourselves and our surroundings. The Ladakhis,
on the other hand, seem to possess an extended, inclusive sense of
self. They do not, as we do, retreat behind boundaries of fear and
self-protection; in fact, they seem to be totally lacking in what
we would call pride. This doesn't mean a lack of self-respect. On
the contrary, their self-respect is so deep-rooted as to be unquestioned.
I have never met people who seem so healthy
emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are,
of course, complex and spring from a whole way of life and world
view. But I am sure that the most important factor is the sense
that you are a part of something much larger than yourself, that
you are inextricably connected to others and to your surroundings.
The Coming of the West
I lived through most of the experiences described
in the preceding pages at a time when Ladakh had not yet been affected
by the Western world in any significant way. But the process of change
began in earnest in 1974, when the Indian government threw the area
open to tourism.
People From Mars
When tourism first began in Ladakh, it was as though
people from another planet suddenly descended on the region. Looking
at the modern world from something of a Ladakhi perspective, I became
aware of how much more successful our culture looks from the outside
than we experience it on the inside.
Each day many tourists would spend as much as $100—an
amount roughly equivalent to someone spending $50,000 per day in
America. In the traditional subsistence economy, money played a minor
role and was used primarily for luxuries—jewelry, silver, and
gold. Basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter were
provided for without money. The labor one needed was free of charge,
part of an intricate web of human relationships.
Ladakhis did not realize that money meant something
very different for the foreigners; that back home they needed it
to survive; that food, clothing, and shelter all cost money a lot
of money. Compared to these strangers, the Ladakhis suddenly felt
This new attitude contrasted dramatically with the
Ladakhis' earlier self-confidence. In 1975, I was shown around the
remote village of Hemis Shukpachan by a young Ladakhi named Tsewang.
It seemed to me that all the houses we saw were especially large
and beautiful. I asked Tsewang to show me the houses where
the poor people lived. Tsewang looked perplexed a moment, then responded, "We
don’t have any poor people here."
Eight years later I overheard Tsewang talking
to some tourists. "If you could only help us Ladakhis," he
was saying, "we’re so poor."
Besides giving the illusion that all Westerners are
multimillionaires, tourism and Western media images also help perpetuate
another myth about modern life—that we never work. It looks
as though our technologies do the work for us. In industrial
society today, we actually spend more hours working than people in
rural, agrarian economies, but that is not how it looks
to the Ladakhis. For them, work is physical work: ploughing, walking,
carrying things. A person sitting behind the wheel of a car or pushing
buttons on a typewriter doesn’t appear to be working.
Before the changes brought by tourism and modernization,
the Ladakhis were self-sufficient, both psychologically and materially. There
was no desire for the sort of development that later came to be seen
as a "need." Time and again, when I asked
people about the changes that were coming, they showed no great interest
in being modernized; sometimes they were even suspicious.
In remote areas, when a road was about to be built,
people felt, at best, ambivalent about the prospect. The same was
true of electricity. I remember distinctly how, in 1975,
people in Stagmo village laughed about the fuss that was being made
to bring electric lights to neighboring villages. They thought it
was a joke that so much effort and money was spent on what they took
to be a ludicrous gain: "Is it worth all that bother just to
have that thing dangling from your ceiling?"
More recently, when I returned to the same
village to meet the council, the first thing they said to me was, "Why
do you bother to come to our backward village where we live in
the dark?" They said it jokingly, but it was obvious
they were ashamed of the fact they did not have electricity.
Before people’s sense of self-respect and self-worth
had been shaken, they did not need electricity to prove they were
civilized. But within a short period the forces of development so
undermined people’s self-esteem that not only electricity but
Punjabi rice and plastic have become needs. I have seen people proudly
wear wristwatches they cannot read and for which they have no use.
And as the desire to appear modern grows, people are rejecting their
own culture. Even the traditional foods are no longer a source of
pride. Now when I’m a guest in a village, people apologize
if they serve the traditional roasted barley, ngamphe, instead of
Surprisingly, perhaps, modernization in Ladakh is
also leading to a loss of individuality. As people become
self-conscious and insecure, they feel pressure to conform, to live
up to the idealized images to the American Dream. By contrast,
in the traditional village, where everyone wears the same clothes
and looks the same to the casual observer, there seems to be more
freedom to relax, and villagers can be who they really are. As part
of a close-knit community, people feel secure enough to be themselves.
A People Divided
Perhaps the most tragic of all the changes
I have observed in Ladakh is the vicious circle in which
individual insecurity contributes to a weakening of family and
community ties, which in turn further shakes individual self-esteem. Consumerism plays a central role in this whole process, since emotional
insecurity generates hunger for material status symbols. The need
for recognition and acceptance fuels the drive to acquire possessions
that will presumably make you somebody. Ultimately, this is a far
more important motivating force than a fascination for the things
themselves. It is heartbreaking to see people buying things to
be admired, respected, and ultimately loved, when in fact it almost
inevitably has the opposite effect. The individual with the new
shiny car is set apart, and this furthers the need to be accepted. A
cycle is set in motion in which people become more and more divided
from themselves and from one another.
Comparing the old with the new
There were many real problems in the traditional society and development
does bring some real improvements. However, when one examines the
fundamentally important relationships—to the land, to other
people, and to oneself—development takes on a different light.
Viewed from this perspective, the differences between the old and
the new become stark and disturbing. It becomes clear that the traditional
nature-based society, with all its flaws and limitations, was more
sustainable, both socially and environmentally.
The old culture reflected fundamental human needs while respecting
natural limits. And it worked. It worked for nature, and it worked
for people. The various connecting relationships in the traditional
system were mutually reinforcing, and encouraged harmony and stability.
Most importantly of all, having seen my friends change so dramatically,
I have no doubt that the bonds and responsibilities of the traditional
society, far from being a burden, offered a profound sense of security,
which seems to be a prerequisite for inner peace and contentedness. I
am convinced that people were significantly happier before development
than they are today. And what criteria for judging a society could
be more important: in social terms, the well-being of the people;
in environmental terms, sustainability.
Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase 2016 3rd edition from Australia (Angus & Robertson)
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
What It Is To Be Human: A book by Robert
Return to Inspiration
Return to Site Map
Share This Page
between ladakh ladakhis people self sense traditional village work world