A much-anticipated international music festival, part of the summer tourism calendar in Ladakh, was supposed to start today—but it was cancelled at the end of last week due to pressures from unhappy Ladakhi groups. Called Ladakh Confluence, the festival was scheduled to run through the 18th in Shey, near the capital city of Leh.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, tourism promoters happily heralded the upcoming event. One news report emphasized that it was to include numerous international bands as well as prominent Indian groups. Planning for the festival also featured an arts exhibition. The planners secured the cooperation of the relevant government bodies, plus the UN Information Center for India and Bhutan. The organizers also obtained the partnership of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Ministry, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, and WWF-India, due to the green elements they were building into the planning.
Problems developed, however, because conservative Buddhist leaders were alarmed at the drugs, alcohol, and sex they had witnessed at the first Ladakh Confluence festival, held last year. While 2,700 visitors had attended that event, and doubtless spent lots of money, Ladakhis witnessed their own young people doing the same things as their visitors did—sex, drugs, and alcohol. Skeptics may have been put off by the advance descriptions of this year’s event: “a whole lotta love” in “one of the highest, purest environments in the world.” Did the opponents see another Woodstock Festival in the making?
The Ladakh Buddhist Association and the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association, both headed by P. T. Kunzang, opposed the repeat of what they saw as an immoral festival. “We are not going to let any such event or activity happen in the name of westernization. In the name of a musical concert last year, we saw that large number[s] of outsiders who had come to attend carried drugs and under their influence our local youth were involved in drug abuse and alcohol intake,” Mr. Kunzang said, according to one source.
The organizers of this year’s event were expecting over 4,000 visitors, but they were ultimately defeated when the state Minister of Tourism, Rigzen Jora, caved to the pressure and cancelled the show last Friday, only 6 days before it was to have started. Organizers stated, defensively, that the event was going to be entirely drug and alcohol free. They maintained that some of the organizers had received threats of physical violence during the course of the week.
Mr. Kunzang spoke out in support of his position. “We were at the festival last year that was held at Shey,” he said. “We witnessed how the musicians and audience was involved in immoral activities including sex, drugs and alcohol. The whole place was messed up. We could not stop them last year even though some of our local kids were seen at this fest indulging in the same activities. It was intolerable.”
The organizing team replied heatedly. “Our efforts to clarify have been ignored, as have the facts that the confluence is planned to be drug free, has declined generous sponsorships from alcohol companies, highlights and showcases Ladakhi culture and music and that the music at the Confluence is folk and percussion from India and the world.”
Mr. Kunzang reacted to that: “We are not against music but all that happened in the name of music. The Confluence did not project Ladakh’s tradition and tourism well. We received so many complaints. Ladakh is working hard to preserve its culture and is a fantastic adventure sports destination. None of this was promoted.”
The Indian news media on Friday and Saturday was filled with analysis and commentary about the turn of events prompting the Tourism Minister to make his decision to cancel. One source quoted someone named Aman Chawla, who had attended the earlier event: “Drugs were used at the festival last year but it was not so much as the locals are reporting.” Others commented on the rumors of possible violence, on the stupidity of taking drugs at a music festival, and on and on. Organizers have initiated a petition to Tourism Minister Jora asking him to refund the money paid by purchasers of advance tickets.
Unease with the developments brought about by tourism and the opening up of Ladakh to the outside world are not new to July 2010. Helena Norberg-Hodge, in her 1991 best seller Ancient Futures, described the changes she saw in Ladakh which were brought about by the introduction of tourism and a money economy in the 1970s. She argued that the Ladakhi people were traditionally conscious of their limited resources, but they were also aware of the importance of connections with other people. Tourism, the money economy, and interactions with outside values upended their society, she felt.
These changes, Norberg-Hodge believed, cut the Ladakhis off from their connections with the earth. Paying everyone for assistance with tasks broke the cycles of village cooperation. The money system that tourists and other outsiders introduced formed a wedge that drove people apart. Farmers have more difficulty remaining on their farms, since they no longer receive much cooperation from neighbors and they cannot afford to pay for help with everything that used to be done cooperatively. Depending on money has increased the differences in wealth between rich and poor, fostering the increasing riches of the wealthy and the increasing poverty of the poor.
Norberg-Hodge identifies numerous other factors, such as Indian and Western films, that have produced changes in Ladakh which are not always beneficial. She has continued to develop and update these ideas in her numerous more recent writings, such as an essay she published just this past February.
Whether or not the festival would have been as free from drugs and sex as the organizers hoped, it is interesting that powerful conservative people in Ladakh are attempting to hold the line against corrupting trends that they feel are being introduced by rampant tourism.