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Updated: Nov 23, 2020


This talk was presented on December 6, 2017 as part of The Idea of India – Bangalore chapter, hosted by and at Vidyashilp Academy.


This morning, Arundhati, Komita and Sanathanan gave us numerous possibilities of how art and theatre engage with the idea of history. I’ll make a slight departure, though a lot of the raw material we are working with are very similar, and explore the idea of heritage, conservation of heritage and how education is becoming an interesting and important part of it. I am a filmmaker and an anthropologist, I’m coming into history from the point of view of cultural construction. Artefacts of culture, whether art or cinema, are very active parts of cultural production. They are created with a particular point of view and are products of certain politics. However, it should not go unnoticed that the patterns of circulation and consumption of these artefacts also have a wide array of implications. Visual anthropology enables us to understand those constructions—the visual and the material—and I look at concepts such as heritage through those lenses.


How many of us believe that heritage is something to do with the past? I don’t. I think heritage is concerned with the future. Heritage is something that we construct. By implication, then, whose prerogative does heritage become? Who is responsible for it, who carries the load of it?


I’d like to share  a few anecdotes with you around the idea of materials. In Ladakh, we now realize that one of our biggest concern is concrete. The way it is being used is not sensitive to the local climatic conditions, and is creating a great imbalance with the earthen vernacular architecture. I discovered recently that concrete was introduced by Sir John Marshall (1876 – 1958), the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India. At the time, the ASI was setting down roots in this country and concrete was the new invention. It was  a product of the industrial revolution, and gradually, it became the answer to everything. It was strong, waterproof, modern and seemed to be permanent. And a lot of heritage we have inherited, whether we like it or not, are restorations or reconstructions that took place during the Raj.


This leads me to another point—that heritage also assumes a certain contemporary aesthetic. We are constantly trying to recreate a past with materials available to us in the present. This construction, includes the intent, and the methodology along with the materials. For instance, I do not know the circumstances because of which this school, Vidyashilp Academy decided to have a Gothic entrance. Why not something baroque, something from the early twentieth century, say, something Modernist? So: What is it that we are trying to achieve when we make these illusions? What is this look that is so important for us when we think of history, and what is the kind of social agency that this carries?


Have we ever wondered how, as a group of individuals, we relate to the past? One of the things that has become very popular, in Delhi, in Calcutta, and I’m sure in Bangalore too, are heritage walks. This is an example of an individual, or a group of individuals reclaiming certain narratives. What the presentations before mine demonstrated was a social way of reclaiming or creating an understanding of a past. When we do that, what is there at the back of our mind? What is it that we are looking for? What is this weight of, and how do we negotiate with this idea of tradition? Whose tradition is it? When Sanathanan was talking about Sri Lanka and when I talk about Ladakh, there is a constant appropriation of tradition. How does it get layered? It is very similar to putting a layer of concrete on a building. How does that change the weight of that building? And, of course, there is the political. We are standing here today on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition—I don’t really need to elaborate on that . . . enough has been said. I will take a couple of examples from Ladakh because that is where I have been working—and it is important for me as an anthropologist to be located somewhere—but I will also try and urge you to think of the parallels as I speak.


What is our imagination of Ladakh? In the contemporary context, a large part of how Ladakh is imagined, in India, was constructed by one film. What India’s misinformed development policies could not do, one film has done. On one hand, Ladakh today is imagined as a kind of frontier. Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir is made up of 2 districts, Leh and Kargil. They are really large in land mass and very sparsely populated. Leh district has a rare distinction of having 3 international borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan. Almost all the wars that  have been fought in the subcontinent have been fought at those borders. But it is also a Buddhist Shangri-La, a homogenous Lamaistic culture where people are drumming huge brass gongs and praying and doing things we don’t quite understand. This imagination that we have of a certain space is also being actively constructed for us. Who is doing it and why are the questions we need to ask.


When one studies Ladakh, it is often referred to as the ‘Crossroads of High Asia’ – a book written by Janet Rizvi. It means that Ladakh is in the middle of western and eastern Asia. This was where Arabs were trading with Tibetans and Central Asian silk route traders were interacting with subcontinental India. Exports from Varanasi  and other production centres in India were reaching the Silk Route through Ladakh.  Take the example of Ladakhi jewellery. It has corals, turquoise, pearls and gold. None of these materials are ethnically Ladakhi. Effectively, the most traditional object of a particular place is actually being constructed out of things that arrive from the far corners of the continent by trade and that is how Ladakhi culture has been derived. It is very important to remember this because culture is indeed only possible in interaction and exchange, it can almost never exist in isolation.


When we actually engage with the history of a space for academic reasons, we have to look at sources of history. We’ve already spoken about the kind of agency that history writing has, I don’t need to elaborate on that. In Ladakh the primary source of history is the monastic documentation. Monasteries, apart from being a space that houses a certain religious discourse, but not spaces where people simply meet and discuss philosophy. They controlled large tracts of land for the longest period of time; the villagers paid tributes to the monastery, either as tributes in terms of what they produced, or in terms of labour and those relations continue even today. It is very erroneous on our part to look at the monasteries as an isolated museums of Buddhist art. Second, the royal chronicles. Very little needs to be said about that, but there is one incident that I would refer to which rarely gets mentioned. Ladakh has seen several battles. Of these, the largest battle that it has witnessed was back in the seventeenth century at the peak of the Namgyal Dynasty when the army of the 5th Dalai Lama (1617 – 1682) attacked Ladakh. At that point of time, the territory of Ladakh extended way beyond Kailash Mansarovar. Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707) was, the emperor in Delhi. Kashmir was being administered by Afghan generals. The Namgyal king, sent an emissary to Kashmir for  help. The only clause provided in return for military help was that the construction of the Jama Masjid in Leh, which had been stalled for several decades,  be completed. Aurangzeb simply asked for a mosque for muslim traders where they could pray. The Treaty of Tingmosgang was signed and it still defines the eastern border of Ladakh with Tibet. These are the histories we forget. The Mughal chroniclers have also mentioned Ladakh, the main reason being pashmina. The shawls that get made in Kashmir would never have been made, if the raw materials were not arriving there. There exists a history of material culture in the Srinagar-Leh highway. It is not just a road that tourists use or the military uses, it has a cultural ramification.


One might have also have heard of the Great Game. When the British were ruling a large part of the subcontinent, Jammu and Kashmir was never really under British rule—they were an ally. There was a great fear that the Russians and the French might invade, so the period around the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries  saw a range of agents moving about the region and trying to understand its geopolitics, coined the term Little Tibet. A lot of the documentation that we see, especially in the form of travelogues, which can be broadly categorized as colonial documents of that period, were nothing but reports being made for the imperial government to properly understand the threat of war. Moving on to contemporary historians working on Ladakh, an Irishman, John Bray, has comprehensively worked on documents produced by the Moravian missionaries as they too have been in the region.


It is only in the last couple of decades that a certain recognition and acknowledgement of the presence of Christians and Muslims in Ladakh, have come into circulation, and researchers are increasingly using oral history to try and reimagine other histories of the region. When I started, a lot of my work in Ladakh was positioned around the history of Islam in the region. And my first challenge was the paucity of textual sources. When I began to write academic papers for European institutions, they were all aghast with my lack of references—because that is the framework that you will have to fit into. But there have been local scholars such as Abdul Ghani Sheikh whose work has been published. This also brings us to a very strange space where the legitimization of this history happens only once it is written in a particular manner.


A lot of historical research pins itself around archaeology. August Hermann Francke, engaged with an archaeological survey of the region, at the turn of the century and since there has been hardly been any consistent archaeological mission. A lot of scientific research has been carried out in recent years, mostly again by foreign scholars, and slowly a certain periodisation is emerging which is important for us while working with material  and visual culture and I’d like to share how I have periodised Ladakh around certain concepts of trade, circulation, and of mobilities.


In the mid 20th century while Ladakh and its borders were being reconfigured and they were still trading with Tibet and Central Asia, however, by the early ’50s they were gradually clammed down and till the 1970s Ladakh was completely cordoned off.  Apart from the Ladakhis, Kashmiris and locals from Jammu,  no one was allowed  enter. Another myth, I hope I can shed some light on is that what we know as the  LOC (Line of Control) and what is referred to as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is actually Pakistan administered Ladakh. Baltistan shared several similarities with Ladakh, in terms of language, food, and dress and in the 13-14th century, that part of Ladakh had adopted Islam, and converted into Shiaism. I don’t wish to trivialise our national history, but there is a version of what happened around 1947, when the Indian Army was sent to Kashmir, when the Treaty of Accession was signed. The Indian army were at the LOC (Line of Control) and were reporting back to Delhi, the status of their military advancement and offered an estimate to complete the acquisition when they were actually asked to stop. So much of the politics of the subcontinent is constructed on the notion of this dispute, though it will never go down in history that it was something that we constructed. We constructed the Line of Control and in 1971 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mrs Indira Gandhi signed the treaty in Shimla. It was actually agreed that the Line of control would be used as a de facto border. To complete the periodisation, till 1947 Ladakh had a role and identity in that region and between 1947 and the early 70s, it was  completely kept in isolation. The only people who went there were administrators and teachers of Kashmir. For them it was termed a punishment-posting. Teachers and administrators who found themselves out of favour with their seniors were posted there and were forgotten about, there were people who were extremely frustrated, they were people who were certainly not there to enjoy the landscapes and found it quite difficult to live there. For these 20 years Ladakhis were told that they were fools and capable only of becoming porters and taxi walas. Can you imagine what that does to the psyche of a region? I  remember I used to go into the Nubra valley for my research around Islam and ask people their notion of 1947. Independence of 1947 (for the rest of India) was not only not liberation but the exact opposite of it because for the next 25 years Ladakhis were in a condition mimicking imprisonment. In 1971 when parts of Nubra valley were recovered by the Indian Army, for 5 years they were still cordoned off just to make sure that their alliances were clear. The Indian Army needed to protect them, that was the word used, to make sure that their alliances were towards the right party and they were not shifty about where they belonged. I have accounts of people who were in class 10 and class 12, who were 17 or 18 and were going to apply to college, and for 5 years, they were just working as bonded labour for the army. They couldn’t move out, what does it do to your psyche? In the early ’70s, in a very fortuitous way, again under the pressure of the military, Ladakh was opened for civilian traffic. The reason it was done was, it was very difficult for the military personnel to actually travel to their home towns because they would get very short leaves and most of the leaves would get over, getting in and out of there as there were no flights. They would have to go by road to Srinagar and then Jammu and then take a train from Jammu. This prevented them from going home  for years on end. Under such pressure from within the military, movement was allowed and they tried to make it possible for their families to visit them. It was in lieu of this that tourism was initiated in Ladakh because they had to open it up for civilians. This was post the 1971 war, what we also tend to forget is the ’71 war, you know the epicentre as the formation of Bangladesh but the war was also being fought at the northern border and this was the time when large parts of territories were being reclaimed by the Indian army.


This was the second phase from the mid ’70s, till the ’90s. The people coming from the west were scholars who wanted to study Tibetan art. Tibet was in a volatile state and thereby, inaccessible; Ladakh was next of kin. This was an important period when all academics, with the right intention, were coming into Ladakh. They were looking at Ladakh within the larger context of Tibet, one can observe yet another construction around the colonial phrase Little Tibet. In 2010, when the floods happened in Ladakh, a television journalist from Delhi was in Leh and was interviewing a Ladakhi woman, who was very distraught because she was looking for her family members whom she couldn’t find. The journalist put the mic in front of her and went on to introduce her as a Tibetan. One must realise that Ladakhis and Tibetans are by no means synonymous; there are huge cultural variants between them and they do not identify with each other at all. I bring up this example to see that how within us we have these imaginations.


The contemporary period can be identified as post liberalisation, however the effects have perhaps trickled into Ladakh only now over the last five years. Mobile phones do work sometimes and you have some internet and the Pangong Lake,  is a large garbage dump  of packets of Maggi and plastic bottles because there are people flying in from across the country and the only thing they want to see is that the lake and have Maggi at the 3 Idiots cafe.


The community, what is the kind of role and imagination they have? One of the ideas that I wanted to bring up is  mythology. Ladakh is a rain shadow area of the Himalayas and  a trans himalayan region with very sparse vegetation. The notion of the sacred groves is very popular here. If you said that a grove was sacred, what you were doing is in a way you were protecting it from being destroyed.


There was a man called Rinchen Zangpo, referred to as Lotsava,  the lotus born. He has been credited for bringing Buddhism back into this region. Vajrayana, a third wheel, which is a confluence of  Mahayana and  Brahaminism was brought into Ladakh. Those familiar with Tibetan Buddhism will be able to relate it to an extremely ritualised form which developed a stunning visual and material culture. Back to myths, a very interesting prevalent practice, any temple they cannot remember having built themselves or in the memory of their 3 or 4 forefathers was built by Rinchen Zangpo. There is archaeological proof that the life of Rinchen Zangpo was very finite. Documents locate his existence between the late 10th and early 11th century and attribute the construction of a temple complex of Nyarma (and Tabo in Spiti) to him. He perhaps even offered his blessing to a few more. It is, however, impossible that he lived for 600 years and constructed temples in Ladakh between the 11th and the 17th century. It is one thing to go and tell them they are wrong but, the real question is that where is this coming from? Is this a community’s way of using mythology to protect something because the agency of that single man was important. By eluding to that name, they are actually attaching a certain amount of importance. So heritage  is not just being constructed by adding a layer of concrete, it is also being constructed by adding a name and a narrative to the site and saying ‘this is made by Rinchen Zangpo and hence this is very important’ and it is sacrosanct, we cannot touch it. Having said that, a lot of contemporary myths are developing within the tourism narratives based on ill informed history and that is dangerous.


When we speak of community, the word more and more in circulation today is the idea of stakeholders. When we attach the word stakeholders to community, what happens? The government, the funding agencies, people in the tourism industry, along with people like me who are either researchers or part of a certain NGO working there become invested into that space, we also become a kind of stakeholder. And it takes us back to that point I was making earlier about a social agency. At what point do we decide that something from the past needs to be protected? And why? And then we go and do research on it and prove it is rather important.

Education Outreach Programme: A Case Study of an Education Intervention


At the Achi Association, our mandate is conservation of the Himalayan heritage, and the question we continually confront is how we define it, materialise it? The association was engaged with heritage, mainly through monuments, and a lot of brick and mortar kind of work, a lot of research and a lot of it depends on the community itself because we’ve learnt it the hard way that, without the participation of people there is almost nothing that one can achieve. Our expertise is around earthen architecture and wall paintings, but these do not exist in isolation, indeed they are wrapped in a very complex web of things. Research helps us explore some of the links between the historical and the sociological, the tangible and the intangible. It’s easier in my mind to restore an existing building but how do you restore and repair connections or the flows that have been disrupted through generations?


How does one address the gap between our imaginations of what Ladakh should be and Ladakh’s imagination of what Ladakh should be? The latter has been very heavily influenced by Delhi, by the kind of policy making, development projects, by the kind of people who have not had the opportunity to engage with the geography, the climate or the history and ushered for the last couple of decades, communities in that direction. There is an acute understanding of the problems with constructing in concrete, and a proper understanding of the material has not developed locally, but experimentations are in process. But for the last 30 years the state and the leading institutions have adopted concrete and more recently there is a government policy and funding through the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojna. This rendered the entire historic Leh old town overnight  into  a slum. Because it was all kacha, earth architecture. Under that scheme a huge amount of money was  given for the redevelopment of Leh. The government of India financed massive reconstructions after the 2010 floods, where the fragility of constructing with concrete was quite evident. It leaves the people little choice to access this money and in order to access this money we’ll actually have to take our history and say it was a slum whereas the old town in Leh which was built in the 16th century is perhaps the most cosmopolitan and multicultural bazaar that existed in this  part of the world.


A certain amount of inter-disciplinarity is required when we try and look back at history. In Achi Association, we work with geologists, archaeologists, art historians and anthropologists and even linguists. Because what we often encounter  looking back at history and it’s interpretations,  are gaps between different knowledge systems. Each of us who go there have to also remember that we are going there with a particular philosophy, or a disciplinary framework, we are coming from a particular school of thought, such as returning to the vernacular. That is one school of thought, we are hoping that by returning to the local materials and processes and adapting them to contemporary scales, we can make it sustainable. It is very important for us to remember that when we are engaging with the past we cannot be absolutist. We have to be constantly open to ideas, and adapt ourselves to contemporary needs.


When working with oral history, we are reminded constantly, that memory is fragile, and in our subcontinent fractured, fragmented and subjective, memory has a lot happening within it, it is not simple. It is very important for us to remember that there have been major gaps in flows, such as those created by Colonial and National discourses on education both in terms of access to education and continuities in our imagined histories. I have access to a certain kind of education and hence have the capacity to bridge certain gaps in my mind and move on in order for my work to continue. But if those gaps continue in the field I’m working in then my work will be restricted