Field Notes: Water in Ladakh

Honi explores having a sense of place.

Photos by Wajid Ansari.

Even in water’s most genial flows, an uncharacterised anger underlies its movement in between the stones and over the meadows holds its own language of deep potential wrath. Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko reminisces of her aunties’ humnah-hah stories, in which animals and humans shared a common language. The humnah-hah arose from the thought that humans, animals, plants, water, clay, soil, microorganisms, and their feelings, interrelate and overlap.

I spent the month of July back home in India and travelled to Ladakh, its northernmost region. The thought of co-existence felt alive and well. I was almost 5000 metres above sea level, grasping on whatever minimal oxygen my body could inhale and looking over the patches of ice on barren mountains gaping at me from down below. Ladakh, hitherto a region under the jurisdiction of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), was provided the status of a union territory in 2019 under the controversial and long-standing Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act. The region lies to the north of J&K, bordering Pakistan on the left and China to the East. The trans-himalayan region is cold desert with sparse vegetation and lunar/martian landscapes.

The sangam (meeting) of rivers

However, the change in geographical scenery travelling uphill from the lush greenery of Kashmir is not as noticeable as the heavy sedimentation process and consequent residuals in the middle of valley tracks. Home to major rivers like Indus, Zanskar, Shyok and Suru, the valley is abundant with various tributaries of these rivers and their movements on the soil as they pass.

A stunning image that keeps playing in my mind over and over again, is that of the meeting point of the Indus and Zanskar rivers between Leh and Kargil. Their emerald and deep aqua colours remain distinct, creating a continuous foamy, chattering sound in their movement yet never changing their form upon meeting density, turbidity, acidic value and flow. 

Unlike usual confluences, these rivers do not join together as one tributary, but rather follow their own diverged path towards different directions.According to Phartiyal and Nag, the Himalayan mountain front makes Ladakh a shadow-zone for rain, causing erosion of the soil in the event of even moderate rains. A major cloudburst usurped the land in 2010, causing mud deposits on an average 2-3 m  deep that buried several settlements. Debris flows occurred across 3 kilometres, killing people on the way. Even though major clearing and rehabilitation projects were developed, debris and rock sediments are still abundant on the side roads, adjacent hills and the undulated travel tracks. How does something so calm one moment and welcoming in all its glory, sweep people in the next moment? What sort of communication do people have with their land, water and forests in the face of environmental tragedies such as these?

Ladakh has been home to major economic development due to its tourism industry and other manufacturing works. The state also faced a heat spell this year like never before followed by another cloudburst in mid-July that swept away several religious settlements.

Naming grief: The communication with Shyok river and a day in Baltistan

As we were proceeding further north of the region and slowly entering Nubra valley, we were welcomed by the Shyok river and its multiple tributaries. Shyok, in Yarkandi language, means death. Similarly, in Hindi, Shok means grief;the act of grieving death. Several local tour guides impart the knowledge that this is named after Baltistan’s traumatic partition with Pakistan and the wars that took place, with an unclear understanding of whether the political tumult in the region has any etymological influence on the name.

Despite my particular affinity for swimming apart from my nimble limbs and weak stamina, I have never thought about a body of water as much as those in Baltistan. The villages of Turtuk and Dhotang, namely the last villages of India separated by the Line of Control, are known for the tragedy of being separated from their kin in 1971 upon occupation by the Indian army. While their tragedy might seem faintly reflective in the actions of the settler colony, I believe that people’s history is not for us to interpret. Shyok flows through the villages in tiny canals and their attached water taps and raw apples fall on your feet as you wander through the village.

You feel your feet against the foamy anger of the water as it reverberates against the stones and the domestic donkeys hee-haw behind you. Sickly sweet mulberries that tint your teeth a faint violet stick on your tongue and you have a talk with the water. The bubbling of the water in fury and its stagnancy are captured by Tibetan poet Dhondup Gyal who captures his ephemeral feelings in the river’s gushing. Ladakh was one of the refuges provided to Tibetans displaced by Chinese annexation and therefore the border on the east serves as an important space for religious and cultural reasons. The wrath of the water wanes as we move to the east and the placid quiet of lakes such as Pangong (extending into China) and Tso Moriri, known for their changing colours in the light.

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