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Before Now | Tibetan Buddhism in Zanskar

By: Mary McIntyre

Before Now | Tibetan Buddhism in Zanskar

Crystalline ice creaks and groans underfoot, slowly working its way downstream in one of the deepest canyons on earth.

During summer months, the Zanskar River is a raging torrent of class V rapids, crossable in only two places where bridges span the narrowest sections of gorge. However, the annual winter freeze – with temperatures plummeting below -40°C – transforms the roiling waters into a blanket of ice, known to locals as the Chadar. The ethnically Tibetan Zanskari people have inhabited these remote valleys in northeastern India for thousands of years and, for just as long, have used this frozen route to trade with the outside world.

I first hiked the Chadar in 2014 with friend, photographer, and Zanskar enthusiast Ace Kvale. We used the Chadar as a way to access the remote villages of Zanskar during deep winter, a time when other visitors are nonexistent, and locals spend their days drinking tea, telling stories, dancing, singing, and praying. These are the only relaxing months their subsistence lifestyle allows. Summers are busy with farming, yak herding, and gardening; growing ample provisions for the following winter.

Chadar

Four years later, I find myself back on the ice, walking for days up the frozen river to revisit the Kingdom of Zanskar and document changes the region is undergoing due to a tourism boom, road building projects, and the resulting surge of globalization and modernization.

“You are lucky to be born in your country. You are lucky to be from America, not here,” one of our hosts in a five-family village in southern Zanskar solemnly tells me. We’ve hiked four days and jeeped seven hours to reach his village at what currently marks the end of the road, and soon we will begin another daylong walk to reach the most remote monastery in the region.

I uncomfortably agree with him. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to be from a place where education, work, and privilege has enabled me to now be visiting Zanskar for my third time. I try explaining that we’re here – Ace for his 8th visit, others in our group for their second or third – because we find his lifestyle inspiring, that our nostalgia for this way of existing in the world brings us back again and again. It’s hard to communicate the underlying sense of power and peace we find in his joyful, hardworking community; one that we lost long ago, or never had to begin with, back home.

Chadar

The self-sufficient Buddhist communities of Zanskar existed independent and unbothered for more than 2,500 years and are now facing both the wonders and perils of the modern world. Cell phones, solar power, and cars make life easier, and new schools built with foreign funding are a huge improvement on local education. But in a place that has never created trash and doesn’t have systems in place to deal with items that don’t break down, a strange new paradigm has developed. Throwing garbage out the window means you can afford to buy something that has a wrapper. Thus, littering becomes a status symbol – as does owning anything from the outside world. Life is changing here, fast.

Many developing countries and indigenous cultures are eager to join the modern world, and for good reason. In most ways, the benefits of advanced healthcare and education outweigh the negatives. The key is finding a way to maintain the unique customs, social mores, and subsistence traditions while assimilating into this new world. Every culture represents a different way of being human, an alternative way of existing on this earth, and the Zanskaris exhibit one of the most wonderful ways I’ve seen. Not only have they been able to thrive in an arid, high-elevation desert for millennia, but the Zanskaris’ irrigation and farming systems, maintenance of zero-population growth, and understanding of how to live within their means and provide for themselves is something that most developed societies today only dream about achieving.

Chadar

These villages also represent the last vestiges of untouched Tibetan Buddhism. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, which resulted in cultural and religious suppression, practicing Buddhists were forced to dramatically modify their way of life. In other areas where the religion was introduced over the past several thousand years – Nepal, Bhutan, and elsewhere in India – amplified contact with the rest of the world had the effect of gradually transforming base traditions. The isolated monasteries and nunneries of Zanskar are thus the most unchanged, historically significant manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism left on the planet.

All of this stands to change as the Indian government dynamites roads through previously impassable river canyons, bringing cars, exotic food and clothes, and a different, higher-volume, higher-impact level of tourism to a region previously visited only via multi-week trekking routes. The physical contrasts of Zanskar are immense – in one of the most stunning landscapes on earth, in some of the most friendly communities I’ve encountered, the level of environmental degradation caused by tourism is grotesquely spectacular. Aquamarine ice lining the gorge is dotted with human excrement topped with toilet paper flags, while used batteries, hand warmers, and tin cans litter the campsites. After a Bollywood film popularized the region and the ice trek, thousands of Indian tourists began pouring in for four-day treks up the river, capturing hundreds of selfies to accompany tales of death-defying adventure. Three tourists died this year – from altitude sickness or falling in the water – and according to our local guides, every year only gets worse.

Chadar

But deep in the canyon, beyond the end of the road, a glimmer of the past flickers on. It’s the most stunning place I’ve been, like something out of a fairytale; a place where 60 monks in red woolen robes and pointy hats pray for world peace, health, and happiness. They carry on rituals their forefathers practiced for the past 2,500 years in a monastery tucked inside a limestone cave, spilling out of which are bunkrooms, kitchens, and a myriad of stairways and ladders connecting rooftops and balconies. Tiny 10-year old monks tear through passageways, playing tag, chopping firewood, and carrying water up from the river. As darkness creeps over the gorge, stars pop against the inky sky, silhouetting prayer flags waving in the wind. A deep wail resounds through the night as a young monk blows a horn, signaling the end of the day’s worship. Another monk runs over and thrusts a cell phone in my face, “You like Bieber?” he asks, not waiting for a response before playing Justin Bieber’s newest pop hit over the horns’ soulful notes.

I shake my head, laughing. It's hard to imagine what this place will become in the next few years as it gets road access and an increasing number of visitors, but I’m hopeful that somehow these interactions can be positive, as ours were, and that both sides come away knowing about a different way of life, enabling us all to imagine alternative futures.

Combining her love of long days in the mountains and extreme snacking, photographer and writer Mary McIntyre travels the world using skis as her catalyst for connection. Since getting her first passport at the age of 3 months, she's been on the go, in search of people, places, and stories - exploring the Wasatch mountains she calls home along with the Himalaya, Andes, and many lesser-known ranges in-between. After completing degrees in Geography, Environmental Sustainability Studies, and French, McIntyre now tries to be inside as little as possible and attempts to document and share the diversity of human experience through narrative and imagery.

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