The village of Likir is nestled in the foothills of the Ladakh Range about 30 miles northwest of Leh, north of the Indus River and the main Leh to Kargil highway. The Lonely Planet guide to India (7th edition) describes the 150 monks in the magnificent Likir monastery as “friendly”—they “offer free tea to visitors and are happy to show you around,” and it refers to one of the two guest houses in the community below as “hospitable.”
A far more detailed view of the village appears in the Winter 2007 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly. The article describes how one Likir family, particularly the women and children, persist in their traditional social, economic, and cultural practices but adapt to changing social conditions and consumer goods.
Angmo Sutu is the center of the story, just as she is the focus of the family that the author visited during the summer of 2007. Julia Harte, the author, describes how Angmo works ceaselessly to produce food and goods for her family members—her husband Jorgas, who is away much of the summer working as a carpenter in Leh, his brother Sonam, a painter, and an elderly lady referred to as Abi-chomo, “grandmother-nun.” While the traditional polyandry of Ladakh was outlawed many decades ago, the author tactfully indicates that Angmo’s two children, her 12 year old son Tsering and her 9 year old daughter Stanzin, refer to both Jorgas and Sonam as “father.” The children treat them both affectionately and equally.
The 32-year old woman kneads bread or washes dishes while she socializes. She weeds her garden while visiting with her friends, who help with the weeding. She churns milk, makes tea, tends the family cows, irrigates the mustard and wheat fields, pounds and dries cow dung for fuel, and floods the garden with a concoction of almond paste to help rid it of grubs.
Harte, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, writes skillfully. She admires the irrigation system used by the village—the way people channel modest amounts of surface water into their many fields and gardens. She observes how harmoniously the villagers distribute water to each household. “Some mysterious, unspoken agreement determines when each family may direct the water flow to their property,” she writes.
It is not clear how carefully she investigated water sharing arrangements in the village. She does observe that the water sharing system, “like so much of Ladakhi culture … is an ingenious and creative response to the unfriendly environment.” Several paragraphs later, however, she relates how Angmo and a friend suddenly listened to an argument they could faintly hear through a window—two people arguing about water distribution.
The author describes how Angmo handles potentially stressful situations with humor. One day she directed her daughter to go blow her nose, and threatened to marry the child off to an American husband if she didn’t obey. The kid became distraught, hurled some things at her mother, and ran from the room in tears. Angmo rocked with laughter, and chuckled for days afterwards when she recalled the thought of her child marrying an American, and the author’s shocked reaction to the scene.
Descriptions of the Ladakhi education system are not as humorous. Angmo is ashamed at her own lack of education—she does not have the obvious sense of control that she does in other household affairs. She stands helplessly nearby when the children are doing their homework, unable to participate in any way. But Harte learns that, at least in the English lessons, the children are only memorizing materials, and have very little grasp of what they are learning.
The Ladakhi still appear to minimize gender roles, much as the earlier anthropological literature suggested. Tsering, the boy in the family, will accompany female singers on the radio with a high-pitched, female-imitation voice, without worrying that others might question his developing masculinity. At another house, the author noticed an 11 year old boy imitating his sister by applying polish to his toe nails. Women will casually sit together with their arms around one another, as will men.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of the article, the concluding pages, describes the changes that are occurring in Likir. Angmo had a splitting headache one day, so she headed to the village clinic to get some modern medicine, rather than to the amchi, the traditional village healer. Harte observes that people still visit the amchis for ailments such as indigestion and rheumatism, but they tend to go to the clinic for surgery or medical needs that require immediate attention. Besides, the clinic is free and the amchi costs money.
Many Ladakhis view changes through the perspective of money, and their own lack of it. Earning money is difficult in Ladakh. One woman the author visits would like to have enough so she could leave Ladakh, particularly during the winter. Stanzin, Angmo’s daughter, confides that she would like to become a teacher in the nearby town of Saspul, but she also does not want to leave Ladakh.
Before the author left the Sutu family, she observed the introduction of a television set into the home. Angmo, along with the rest of the family, sat glued to the set, even though the programming available to them was not in Ladakhi. They seemed fascinated by the Hindi movies. Angmo sat completely idle, for once, and the children began imitating some of the behavior patterns they were seeing on the screen.
But when night came, the Sutu family returned to their radio and began singing the traditional Ladakhi folksongs along with it. The author concludes that Westernization may suck in the Ladakhi to some extent, but outside technologies are not necessarily destructive.
Harte, Julia. 2007. “Likir, Ladakh.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 31(4), Winter: 24-33