By Cathal McNaughton
LEH, India, Oct 12 – Villagers nestled high in the Indian Himalayas are grappling with lifestyle changes in the world’s fastest-growing major economy that are eroding their age-old Buddhist culture but opening up new opportunities.
People have long wrested a living from herding goats and tending wheat fields ringed by 6,000-m (19,685-ft) snow-capped peaks, while Buddhist monasteries dotting the landscape are a reminder of the region’s ties to its eastern neighbour, Tibet.
Traditions are fading fast as larger numbers of India’s burgeoning middle class flock to holiday in the tranquillity of the lunar-like terrain.
Yet living in India’s remote northwestern corner of Ladakh still has advantages, says Tashi Phutit, an 81-year old wheat farmer and housewife.
“Now we can eat better vegetables and wear better clothes. The problem is people are becoming greedy,” she said outside her stone-hut home in Stok, a village 15 kms (9.3 miles) distant from Leh, the region’s largest town.
Residents of the village, 3,500 metres (3,800 yards) above sea level, use cow dung to heat their homes and solar power to warm water. They work together to harvest the fields of each villager, before moving on to the next.
Buddhists form the majority of those dwelling in Leh’s rugged treeless deserts, but make up just 9 million of the 1.3-billion population of India, where Gautam Buddha, founder of the religion, is believed to have attained enlightenment.
Several thousand are ethnic Tibetans who fled across the border after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Today’s biggest change is India’s ballooning tourist industry, with the government forecasting arrivals in Ladakh to hit 313,000 in 2017, exceeding the region’s 280,000 residents and ten times the number of visitors in 2002.
The resulting strain on resources leaves vehicles clogging narrow roads, spurring worries about growing pollution and the risk of receding glaciers.
But tourism spells a more prosperous future for the youth.
Life has “become much easier and much more comfortable,” says Tsering Gurmet, Phutit’s 28-year-old grandson, who is a mountain guide.
Mathematics teacher Phunchok Angmo stands proudly in the shadow of the 15th-century hilltop Thiksey monastery nearby, her head adorned with a fur-lined hat studded with turquoise stones that is a family heirloom.
She says schooling has improved as wealth has penetrated to the mountains from the Indian hinterland hundreds of kilometres to the south, but change has come at a cost.
“The children here no longer care about the culture and they spend less time talking to each other,” the 33-year-old said. “They spend their free time on laptops.”