The Ladakhi Story In A Grain

By Arnaz KhanonJul. 18, 2023in Economics and Technologies

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

The tent set up at the Himalayan Institute of Archaeology and Allied Sciences (HIAAS) 

On the morning of 17th September, 2022, tents were being set up with much wrestling against the strong winds in the small town of Rambirpor, near Thiksey, 22 km outside Leh. The banner, “Celebrating Nas (Barley)” was fluttering on one of the multi-coloured tent sheets. People dressed in traditional Ladakhi attire were busy prepping up their stalls for the two-day Ladakhi food mela ensuring that their stalls are up and ready to welcome the visitors. 

Tashi Morup, Projects Director, Lamo with Tsering Sonam, folk singer. PC: Arnaz Khan

Tsering Sonam, a folk singer inaugurated the ceremony by performing the chhod ritual invoking the significance of barley, singing praises for the land, water, glaciers and the guardian spirits. This was followed by felicitation of the esteemed guests.

In the meanwhile, Ama Tsogpa, the women’s association of Chushot village started serving breakfast prepared at their food stall to the visitors. The traditional meal consisted of kholak (a preparation of roasted barley flour), nyungma (turnip) and cha khante (butter tea). Members of the ama tsogpa were going around graciously teaching the struggling non-Ladakhis (like me) how to prepare kholak. In conversations with some of them, we found out that despite this being their traditional breakfast, it was no longer served at Ladakhi events, functions or occasions. The tradition was lost to non-native rice, red kidney beans and paneer (cottage cheese). Opening the food mela with the kholak was the first step to reclaiming Nas and bringing it back into the Ladakhi consciousness. This was indeed one of the main objectives of the Mela.  Throughout the 2 days, I was amazed at the number of forms in which barley can be consumed. I realised that they weren’t just reviving a grain but also all the knowledge of the creative ways in which it can be prepared and eaten; which is an antidote to our current monocultures.

The event was co-organised by Ladakh Art and Media Organization (LAMO), Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), Kalpavriksh and Local Futures. Apart from the stalls curated to extend the flavours of Ladakh to a wider audience, the mela saw a variety of panel discussions, expert sessions, music performances, film screenings, photo exhibitions and hands-on workshops.

This wasn’t just a food mela. It was an opportunity for the Ladakhis to reclaim their traditional knowledge encoded in their food. In celebrating nas, we were celebrating the Ladakhi way of life.

Agriculture and Development

Dr. Anup Dhar, philosopher set the tone of the discussions over the two days. He took us through his exploration of agriculture and philosophy. Examining the link between food, agriculture and development, he traced it back to the binaries created between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘uncivilised’, where the agrarian and adivasi cultures were looked down upon as backward and hence needing development. Further unpacking the development narrative that has spread rampantly in Ladakh in the last few decades, he pointed out its inherent flaws. “We need alternatives to development, not developmental alternatives,” says Anup. He critiqued the general consensus of defining these so-called backward societies as our ‘past’ and the cities like Delhi as their future. When we define a society as ‘pre’ (e.g. pre-industrial, or pre-modern), we have laid out a fixed path for that society, without even asking if it is appropriate.

It shed light on my own blindspots where I attempt to contextualise the current crises in binaries and on a linear time continuum.

After dissecting the meanings of many mainstream concepts, he offered a lens of society as local futures where there is movement from parivartan (transition) to roopantar (transformation). This philosophical principle offered me a new lens to approach work set in social change contexts.

Why is Nas (Barley) important?

A panel discussion took place on Barley and Agriculture in Ladakh, moderated by Dr. Tsewang Namgail with panelists Tashi Namgyal (seed conservationist and foodgrain seller), Urgain Phuntsog (agro-pastoralist, progressive farmer) and Dr. Sonam Spalzin (archaeologist). 

From the left: Dr Sonam Spalzin, Urgain Phuntsog, Tashi Namgyal and Dr Tsewang Namgail. PC: Arnaz Khan

The discussion threw light on how barley, which was the staple of Ladakh, lost its place in the current diet to rice which is not native to the Ladakh region. Due to this mainstream trend of rice replacing local foodgrains, young Ladakhis including children started opting for preparations of rice owing to its popularity and a more palatable taste. Due to the loss of barley, the traditional knowledge of various barley recipes is also getting lost. Dr. Spalzin emphasised that barley was one of the earliest grains grown by humans on the planet, according to archaeological evidence found in the Indian sub-continent. The agriculture and consumption of nas was also pivotal in bringing together two distinct regions and peoples of Ladakh: one, areas like Changthang with its nomadic pastoralists, and the other parts of Ladakh with more settled agriculturists. 

Listening about the staple food specific to a geographical region sent me into an existential spiral. Hailing from Mumbai, a hardcore metropolitan city, I questioned what it meant to have a staple food that was locally grown and produced. We are, in fact, not only the recipients of the mercy of our neighbouring agrarian regions who provide for our sustenance, but also the culprits who exploit all capitalist means to import food from regions so far away that the import won’t be possible without causing significant ecological damage.

In the context of this island-city, then, what demanded revival? Reflecting on this made me feel very rootless and envy those who do have something to call their own and also strive to revive what is lost. Though the Ladakhi context is very distinct and unique, it does offer some fundamental questions that can be applied universally for people and groups to reflect on.

Seed Sovereignty: a saving grace

After the panel establishing what one loses when they lose their grains, Dr. Debal Deb’s session took us through what it means to reclaim our sovereignty by preserving our seeds. Dr. Deb, also known as India’s ‘Rice Warrior’ for his work in preserving around 1500 varieties of rice and the resultant return of the knowledge that comes with them, mentioned that only growing barley in Ladakh won’t ensure sustainability. The true meaning of sustainability would be when we don’t take even one seed from another region.  

Dr. Debal Deb presenting. PC: Arnaz Khan

He underlined the three pillars of Sustainable Agriculture:

  1. Zero external input
  2. Knowledge and use of biodiversity
  3. Sense of sufficiency

Farmer to farmer seed exchange has been happening since ten thousand years where they would gift each other varieties of their seeds. A sign of cultural security and health is in how many varieties can one name in today’s day and age. Loss of name leads to loss of seeds to loss of cultural aspects that come along with the consumption (harvesting rituals, songs, preparation of recipes) to high yielding varieties.

Keeping the legend alive

Oral storytelling traditions have been a rich component of Ladakh’s culture; through songs, poems, legends, and so on.

Songs of the farmers

Staying true to the spirit of celebrating the songs involved in our farming processes, we had folk singing by Sonam Angdus and Tsering Sonam who sang Ladakhi Zhunglu (folk songs) about agriculture, followed by a discussion moderated by Jigmet Singge. 

Sonam Angdus (left) and Tsering Sonam (right). PC: Arnaz Khan

The zhunglu were specific songs sung for specific parts of the food growing process: sowing, harvesting, thrashing and so on. When the farmers would gather to sing them, anyone from afar would be able to identify what event was taking place in the farm. When seeds would be collective, they would recite positive affirmations as an act of reverence towards their food.

(Right) Padmashri Morup Namgyal. PC: Arnaz Khan

The participants became mesmerised listeners of what followed next: the Kesar saga. It is the epic of Kesar, a mythical hero. The saga was a storytelling affair that went on for days and was a source of entertainment during the winters. We only got a glimpse into this captivating story narrated by Padmashri Morup Namgyal which began with an old couple going to harvest barley on their land. Why was this story relevant to the food mela? Because in the beginning, the legend captures the traditional Ladakhi agricultural practices and is the bearer of knowledge around wild flowers, grasses, landforms and scapes. Keeping the names of the flora and fauna alive through these stories ensures that they remain in the collective consciousness of the locals; which is one of the components pivotal for conservation.

This reminded me of my summer vacations spent with my grandparents in a village in Gujarat. It was a ritual every evening for all us cousins to gather around our grandmother who narrated elaborate legends set in agrarian contexts, with details of phenomena so alien to city realities. She described modes of transportation, their daily schedule, how their lives revolved around the crops and seasons and the paraphernalia that came with living a slow, thoughtful, connected-to-the-earth life.

How to revive traditional agriculture in Ladakh

This enquiry was explored across two panel discussions. Significant questions were asked: Why do we bring back millet? How do we bring back millet? Should we create a market within Ladakh? Should we consume the produce locally first before exporting or selling it? How do we make organic products more accessible to the poor? And so on.

2023 is the International Year of Millets and it also calls for a push in cultivation of buckwheat in different regions of Ladakh especially, upper Ladakh. There are some challenges owing to the topography of Ladakh: the rising temperatures in certain areas like the Dah and Hanu villages or higher altitude regions like Likir village. The younger generation resists doing agriculture as it isn’t a profit making venture. 

Dr. Deb pointed us to a study by ICAR which identified 31 land races of buckwheat. Since buckwheat is sensitive to temperature, he suggested that Ladakhis determine which land races have plasticity for adaptation. It is difficult to grow buckwheat to sell in the market or export. The priority is self-sufficiency among the locals. There is an epidemic of a host of new diseases in Ladakh and that is linked to the loss of millets from the staple diet. 

Skarma Gurmet appealed to the Ladakhis to revive buckwheat and preserve it along with the cultural knowledge linked with it. 

Nutrition and Health

Dr. Nordon Otzer who worked extensively to obliterate the smoking culture in Nubra, took us for a deep dive into the link between reviving local foods and the health crises in Ladakh. In a comprehensive and extremely detailed manner, he laid out the web of the health crises in Ladakh with direct links to revival of traditional food systems (cultivation and consumption). Diseases like cancer, diabetes and obesity among others have seeped into the lives of people in a mind-boggling short span of mere 14 years. Along with the disconnection from local food, changes in lifestyle owing to insidious capitalism, rising pollution in the region there is also a lack of awareness about how these factors contribute to the host of diseases in the region. 

Dr. Otzer addressing the participants. PC: Arnaz Khan

Dr. Otzer emphasises that some things that we consider harmful may not be inherently harmful. For example, alcohol. Traditionally, Ladakhis consumed chhaang i.e. barley liquor. As opposed to commercial alcohol, chhaang helped preserve vital microbes in the stomach. Hence, drinking chhaang in moderation ensured gut health.

But over the decades, many healthy foods and drinks have been replaced by harmful counterparts: barley and wheat by white rice, water and sherbet by aerated cold drinks, chhaang by commercial distilled alcohol and so on. Even the traditional dry toilets have been replaced by western toilets which are water intensive whereas Ladakh is a water scarce region; this has raised concerns over composting and waste disposal too.

He underlines that banning something is not successful. Individuals need to realise the effects themselves to have a lasting impact. There are awareness camps in every village to accomplish this.

Towards Eco-swaraj: Food Sovereignty 

This presentation by Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh took us through various examples of communities working towards attaining food sovereignty. 

Through their work, we were shown the differences between food security and sovereignty. One of the markers of sovereignty is to take control over one’s immediate environment and not just talk about food and farmers. For example, in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, 90 villages together claimed their rights over jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land). Deccan Development Society in Telangana consisting of 5000 dalit women is a striking example of preserving seeds and sharing them. Culturally, the women consider seeds as pavitra or sacred as they are passed down to them over generations through their mothers and grandmothers. They keep these seeds hidden under their mattresses to save them.

Their grain bank allows one to freely use seeds as long as they fulfill the condition of depositing double the amount of seeds next year if the harvest is good. They go by the principle of “Beej hamare, jameen hamari, paani hamara, gyaan bhi hamara,”  which can be translated to “Our seeds, our land, our water and the knowledge too ours.”

Some other initiatives included Kedia in Bihar, Nagaland North East Network, Vanastree and Dharani- Timbaktu Collective.

Many roadblocks still exist on the path to food sovereignty. Despite women leading at the forefront of food sovereignty, decisions are still taken by men. The men end up demanding seeds and land in the name of the women. In Ladakh, within their traditional governance system, goba, women face double the strain: the responsibilities of being the goba and also the duties that are assigned to them by the virtue of being women. They protest by saying, “Andolan bhi hum karein, kheti bhi hum karein, ghar ke kaam bhi hum karein,” which loosely translates to, “We are the one who are supposed to lead transformation, and also look after our farms, and do household chores.”

Young entrepreneurs

The mela had many outsiders who didn’t speak Ladakhi. Most workshops took place in a hybrid of English and Ladakhi. This panel decided to speak only in Ladakhi as they believed that for the conversation of revival, including and catering to the Ladakhis in the audience is of utmost priority.

Panel discussion of young entrepreneurs of Ladakh. PC: Arnaz Khan

Ladakhi youth has been distanced from their traditional culture and very few are interested in taking up agriculture due to the meagre financial returns. This panel of young entrepreneurs came as a reassurance to the people working to revive the local culture and also as an example to other youngsters to urge them to return and get more involved. We had Dolma, Sonam Angmo, Rigzen Yangdol, Tsetan Dorjey and Thinless Nurbo on the panel and Shrishtee Bajpai of Kalpavriksh was the moderator.

The entrepreneurs shared their inspiring stories that led to them start their ventures, and reconnection to their Ladakhi roots was at the centre of all these ventures. 

Through the sharing of their journeys, they tried to explore the question of how more youngsters can be involved. One of the core principles was walking the talk. One of them shared that they consume barley for breakfast daily without fail. There is also a dire need of youngsters taking bold steps and risks, to not shy away from agriculture owing to financial insecurity. The Ladakhi society is considered very shy and that’s a notch higher among Ladakhi women. They have stories from their childhood passed on to them through stories and/or practices within their houses. They have to come out and revive those traditions. For example, one of the entrepreneurs told their mother to stop growing barley and grow vegetables instead because they yielded more profit. The mother refused saying that barley produced fodder to the livestock and discontinuing it would mean breaking the cycle. 

Weaving the mela together (conclusion)

The mela was a solid curation of knowledge: in the form of workshops, hands-on experiences, the taste of the Ladakhi food and a space to receive stories from the Ladakhis themselves.

Through barley, the mela projected an inter-connected web of life and how the death of any one of those nodes disturbs the entire web leading to ills and illnesses of many kinds. 

It is not only imperative to share knowledge about one’s culture, but also celebrate the gifts that it offers us and this mela was a space of celebration. It will take not only the locals but also non-Ladakhis to stand in solidarity to support the region by understanding why the health of one region reflects in its surroundings as well having long-lasting implications.

When I walked into the mela, I had theoretical information about food revival, localisation and the inter-connections. It is only when I witnessed what it means to preserve a culture through the mela experience, did its significance hit me. I felt the sense of community when I saw the Ama Tsogpa huddling up in their makeshift kitchens to whip out their traditional recipes while cracking inside jokes and giggling away. I felt pangs when I realised that before me stood the last of the generation of traditional basket weavers and potters, both integral to the farming practices as these products were used to carry and store grains. The documentalist in me felt despair knowing that maybe the Kesar Saga will lose its relevance if there is no one to take the story-telling on; and even if the saga were recorded and archived, how could we retain the phenomenon of children sitting with their elders in peak winter, and feel the warmth from the story, when they are those children whose parents moved to cities to find livelihoods? In the coming together of the multiple spokes of the wheel of Ladakhi culture, I found hope. Hope, seeing people still carrying remnants of a past they will not allow the death of. Hope, that there are hearts that care and strive for transformation.

And in seeing all this, I saw the Ladakhi story in a grain.

Glimpses from the Food Mela

Reference: Report on Nas

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