Ladakhi chai pe charcha: Lost stories from the high mountains

Tell me a story about the wolf, mémé lé?”

I request the old man sitting next to me in the Ladakhi rebo (traditional yak hair tent) as I sip on the delicious butter tea to soothe my rumbling stomach.

“I recall a story about a wolf and three goats,” he says. “A lone wolf encounters the first goat and asks her, ‘What is on top of your head?’ The goat answers, ‘These are my horns.’

Then the wolf asks, ‘What is it that covers your body?’

‘My wool’

‘What is it on your feet?

‘My hooves.’

Unsatisfied with the answers, the wolf eats the goat. He moves to the second goat, who answers similarly. She, too, meets the same fate. Finally, the wolf faces the last and youngest goat. Readying for his third meal, the wolf asks the youngest goat, ‘What is on top of your head?’

‘A knife to kill you,’ she says. ‘What covers your body?’ ‘A rope to tie you.’ ‘What covers your feet?’ ‘My hooves to kick you.’

And with that, the goat pierces her horns into the wolf, binds him with her wool, and kicks him with her hooves, which eventually leads to his death,” concludes the old man.

I am not sure how to respond to this story, but I accept the laughter that pervades the room, smiling tenuously. The anthropologist in me is fighting the conservationist. I am here to record folklore around wildlife for my doctoral research. Folk stories, some argue, are a way for people to make sense of their world by transferring moral qualities to the animal or the ‘more-than-human’ world, as some anthropologists refer to it. Anthropomorphising, that is assigning human emotions to animals, serves as a tool to affirm social norms and behaviours.

I find the wolf story insightful in that it demonstrates how the predator is perceived by the Ladakhi people. I wonder if it is a parable about how some humans conceptualise power, and its subversion by the underdogs (‘undergoats’ in this case). Perhaps it is an example about the thin line between justice and revenge.

When I first encountered the cold deserts of Ladakh in 2013, I questioned my concept of space, mountains, and time. I had previously worked in rainforests, grasslands, agricultural, and urban spaces, but never had I ventured into a landscape so stark and naked, as though the cloak of vegetation had been stripped off abruptly. One must really like nothingness to be able to appreciate a place like this.

High altitudes, that is areas above 3,500 metres in the Western Himalaya, are a world of their own. They are not as remote and disconnected as one would imagine faraway places to be. Instead, they are alive and interconnected through networks both ecologically and culturally difficult even for the technologically-savvy to imagine.

Ladakh, for instance, played an important role in the days of the Silk Route trade, which provided people an opportunity to barter for essential as well as luxury items from Central Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. Even today, it is a place where unpredictability is complemented with ingenuity; the harshness of the landscape is complemented with cooperation, and challenges are complemented with resilience. There are no guarantees about the weather, the high passes, the road, or the mode of transport, but there is usually a way around these even at the most hopeless of times.

Over the six years that I did my research here, I learnt how to work on faith, rely on instinct, and most importantly, memorise a few basic rules sometimes the hard way. No car? Hitch a ride. No ride? Walk. Snowing? Keep walking. If indoors, have cha (as the Ladakhis called chai). Roads closed?

Have more cha. Cannot leave? Make conversation. What did my research involve? Conversations. My world revolved around cha accompanied by endless chats.

Our conversations touched upon a range of topics from local inventions, such as the potential for agriculture at impossible altitudes, or ice stupas to conserve water, to communal and caste politics; to the state of education in government schools, to wildlife, to culture, to agents of social change. Cha being the sole constant. Cups of cha eventually gave way to endless glasses of chaang (fermented barley) as conversations deepened or lightened up, depending on how one looks at inebriation. They would last for hours, during which time long-forgotten folk songs and gory tales of adventure, hunts and battles were narrated animatedly. Like the conversation I had with mémé lé in the summer of 2016.

Or the lines that an apo from Kargil (apo=grandfather), who was very dear to me, recites while his wife showcases a handmade vintage hookah made of argali horns. The song is about the transitory nature of life, conveyed through references to two predominant carnivores, the snow leopard, and the wolf:

“You are a sly creature, you hide between the rocks to kill your prey, But when you grow old, your cleverness will be of no use. The top of the mountain is inhabited by an arrogant wolf, But when it grows old it will not be able to kill a single lamb.”

During the research, we managed to unearth and record many stories, songs, anecdotes, and proverbs, revolving around wild animals from choughs to gazelles to snow leopards. The work involved hundreds of conversations/ interviews, countless visits to libraries, relentless pursuit of suitable (and interested) transcribers who could help us translate the stories from Ladakhi to Hindi/English. Naturally, our efforts were punctuated frequently with solja — an honorific reference to tea in Ladakhi.

What is the relevance of such an exercise to conservation, one may ask? The logic is simple — one cannot expect to ‘conserve’ without a clear understanding of the values, motivations, and perceptions of the local inhabitants, people and wildlife included. Indeed, conservation is as much about people as it is about wild animals.

Over another cup of cha and some more cajoling, a reticent api lé (api=grandmother), a proud Shamma (inhabitant of western part of Leh), sings a beautiful folk song about the ibex’s ‘magnificent brown horns, teeth shining white like a conch’. And another about how the horns of a blue sheep when seen from atop a mountain ‘make all carnivores happy’. I remind myself that I need to be a neutral observer, but this delicate, nuanced observation overwhelms me. I can picture these wild ungulates peacefully munching on grass as evening descends and a young snow leopard stalking its prey, heart in its mouth.

I look around api lé’s summer shack. There are yarns of sheep wool hanging on nails, an assortment of brass ladles and the claw of a bird of prey, most likely an eagle. I am told it is a good luck charm. “So, some wild animals bring luck?”, I ask naïvely. “Yes, sighting a fox at the start of the journey is considered good luck by many,” says api lé. “By extension, some others bring bad luck then?” “Yes,” she says, “In many villages in Kargil, people believe that if blue sheep and ibex come down to the village from the mountains, then one can expect a natural catastrophe, for example, floods. It happened in 2013. Have some more butter tea, nomo lé.” (nomo=daughter)

“Calamities in the village…. happen when the lha is upset?” I remember asking ajhang lé (ajhang=uncle), a local schoolteacher, about a week before. “Yes,” he said, “when the village or an individual angers the deities, especially the temperamental ones, they can take the form of wild animals like the snow leopard or wolf, and attack livestock.” “How does one rectify it?” I ask. “Pray. Ask for forgiveness. Make a peace offering.” Things that people are expected to do to placate those they may have hurt. I ponder over the complexities of our relationship with what we call the ‘wild’. Do we anthropomorphise animals or animalise humans? Perhaps the dichotomy is arbitrary or even superficial. In a world where animals can have ‘human-like qualities’ and humans can have ‘animallike qualities’, this question is moot. Take for instance, Kinnara and Kinnari —half-human and halfbird deities in Tibetan Buddhism, one of the two predominant religions in Ladakh (with the other being Islam) that are believed to protect humans.

The worldview we share about wild animals and wild spaces affects their existence and survival (and ours). For instance, a wolf is typically associated with qualities like greed, slyness, stupidity, and trouble. Such cultural biases against the carnivore can fuel much resentment and sometimes retaliation, especially when they prey on people’s livestock. How then, must one frame conservation messages that resonate with people, whilst also enabling them to minimise their losses?

To me, the answer can be arrived at by listening to and appreciating all the divergent perspectives on animals and their potential/ preferred fate. We have innumerable ways of responding to the untenable question of what makes us human and what separates us from the rest of nature (if at all such a thing exists). We can weave a tapestry of imagination out of nothingness. Our stories need to be heard as much as they need to be told.

As I sip my cha several thousand kilometres away from Ladakh, I think about life in the cold desert. I realise that Ladakhi people’s resilience and ingenuity is mirrored in their culture. I think about what got me interested in this seemingly barren landscape. Nothingness. It was nothingness. Once the initial discomfort faded, it offered me the rare privilege to understand that what I perceived as ‘nothingness’ was akin to béyul (mythical and magical hidden land), which was pulsating with stories, imaginations and experiences that were waiting to be unpacked.

The journey is still ongoing, with documentation being the first step. Moving forward, I hope that the stories can be incorporated not only into conservation, but also reach the youth, who are the ultimate torchbearers for this landscape.

Meanwhile, locked down in Bombay, I reminisce about the savoury butter tea, almost feeling the soupy flavour on my tongue. I go into the kitchen to make a strong cup of adrak chai, a close second to solja khante (butter tea).

This article is from issue


2020 Sep