I am fascinated by the way Ladakhis and others in the high Himalayas work their farms. Traditional methods still dominate, and although most people would call these methods primitive, I find a level of civilization in their methods that is absent from the modern hi-tech farms, especially the mega factory farms in the US.

This is hands-on farming. Very few people own tractors or any modern equipment to speak of. Plowing is done with yaks or dzos (a dzo is a cross between a cow and a yak.) The plow is made of wood, usually with a metal tip. Most of their implements are made of wood, it seems. And, when they are plowing, the men sing. This man, the one who is plowing outside my window, has a beautiful baritone voice that carries for a long way. I want to find out the meaning. Probably it is a blessing on the crops interspersed with exhortations to keep the yaks moving.

In other parts of the Himalayas, I have seen similar methods. These two women and little girl were also laughing and singing and quite enjoying themselves in spite of being engaged in really hard labor.

Perhaps the most civilized thing about the farming methods in Ladakh, however, is the way they deal with water. Ladakh is, not incidentally, high desert, so water is pretty scarce up here. But Ladakhis know how to share. They have intricate systems worked out for distributing the water. In summer, melt-water runs down from the glaciers, forming streams that provide the main source of water for irrigation, as well. The streams are also a source of water for household purposes, though there are also wells in many places. Different streams have different uses. Some are for washing clothes, etc., while others are for drinking water.

Branches of these streams flow to most of the fields, and there are little temporary dams that are opened and closed during the day where the streams branch off. Everyone is responsible to see that the water is flowing where it should be at any given time. It is an extremely civilized system that is still respected, because you don’t often hear of water disputes here.

Pesticides and chemical fertilizers were never needed here, but the chemical companies came in and convinced farmers to use them anyway. Now, happily, the trend seems to be moving back towards organic methods.

Traditional life is Ladakh is hard, but there are a lot of blessings in it. In former times, everyone had a good house to live in, and enough food. Elders were taken care of in joint families. Times are changing, and it’s not all for the good. Helena Norberg-Hodge’s wonderful book, Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World, tells the story of what can be learned from Ladakhi culture. Highly recommended. (Available from Amazon.com, also from http://www.isec.org.uk/)

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