Learning from Ladakh

A Video on a little-known culture prompts students to reconsider the concept of a "primative" culture and the benefits of "development."

By Bill Bigelow

I’m old enough to be part of the generation — and perhaps the social class — whose mothers told us: “Eat everything on your plate. There are people starving in India.” The impression I got from such exhortations, as well as from the school curriculum, was that we in the United States were healthy, economically comfortable, and happy. People in “underdeveloped” countries were hungry, poor, and miserable. The story of Ladakh calls these stereotypes into question, and also makes us rethink the idea that “development” is always an inherent good — or that there even is such a clear-cut category as “development.”

I begin my Global Studies curriculum by examining the contact between some indigenous cultures and the modern world. I want students to question the “primitive” to “advanced” paradigm that has long been a fundamental myth of Western cultures. Of course, I’m not anxious for students to imagine indigenous cultures as conflict-free Edens or to conclude that everything “modern” is corrupt. Nonetheless, I do want students to appreciate key aspects of many traditional societies — ecological sustainability, cooperation, interdependence, considering “us” instead of only “me” — that may be crucial as we confront the future of the earth and of humanity.

I also want my classes to “visit” societies that prompt them to reconsider basic features of our own society. Words and concepts such as economic growth, progress, development, and individual freedom are often presented to students (and the rest of us) as synonyms for “good.” But such comparisons are problematic. They are ideological building blocks for practices that are inherently unsustainable — for example, proposing that an automobile-based consumer society like ours is the model of “development” for countries around the globe. They celebrate the production of a cornucopia of things, while turning our attention away from a social and ecological emergency that includes the frightening pace of global warming, rainforest destruction, species extinction, pesticide proliferation, and the like. Finally, they discourage us from considering fundamental alternatives to the current damaging socio-cultural arrangements.

Central to this curricular rethinking in my classes is an extraordinary video titled, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, and is based on a book of the same name by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Ladakh is in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and is so high in the Himalayas that it is snowed under for eight months of the year. In fact, it’s the highest place in the world where people live year-round. It’s the size of England, but is home to only 130,000 people.

When I first watched Ancient Futures, I was fascinated by its portrayal of traditional Ladakh, a place where people appear to be deeply content yet that lacks the material possessions valued in industrial societies. In this harsh land, with only four inches of rainfall a year and very short growing seasons, Ladakhis had worked out an elaborate system of cooperation, environmental care, and economic self-sufficiency.

The video details the effects of the area’s rapid incorporation into the global economy. In about two decades, cheap grain undermined traditional agriculture, new roads brought buses and trucks that filled the thin air with choking exhaust, and Ladakhis were bombarded with the values and temptations of consumer culture. As the video’s narrator points out, “In the short term, cheap imported food might be a real benefit, but the result is that increasingly, Ladakhis are being tied to a global economy, putting them at the mercy of market forces far beyond their control.” The video’s critique is not that new material goods in and of themselves are bad, but that their arrival is on the terms of a profit-oriented global economy and not of the Ladakhi people. Ladakhi poet and Buddhist scholar, Tashi Rapkis, concludes in the video, Ladakhis are “getting more money, they’re having more technology, they are getting very comfortable. But comfort and luxuries don’t bring happiness.” The video vividly brings this observation to life.

I was fascinated by the video, but how would students respond? Would Ancient Futures feel like just another National Geographic portrayal of exotic people in a pretty place? I was gratified that my students (and the students of teachers affiliated with the Rethinking Schools Globalization Workgroup in Portland) responded to the video with both wonder and alarm.


I tell students that we’re going to watch a video about a place that most of them likely have never heard of before. On a world map, I point out the state of Jammu and Kashmir in far northern India, squeezed between Pakistan and Tibet (a country controlled by China). I tell them that, as they watch the video, they should note as many aspects of Ladakhi culture as they can, and I ask students for the meaning of “culture.” We needn’t settle on any particular dictionary-like definition, but I want them to begin with the understanding that culture is a totality, that it’s everything human that is not biological — what we can see, like clothing; what we can hear, like language and music; what we can taste, like food. But it’s also habits, patterns , and ways of thinking; it’s the values and attitudes that give meaning to any particular cultural artifact.

On the board I make three columns:

  • ideas/attitudes/beliefs
  • behaviors/relationships
  • “artifacts”/elements of culture: animals used/tools/ clothes/homes, etc.

Students copy these down and take notes in the columns as they watch the video. I urge them to write about what they see, not merely what they learn from the narrator.

The video’s beginning gives away the ending that Ladakh has been dramatically transformed by “development.” I don’t want students to learn about Ladakh’s transformation until they’ve been exposed to traditional Ladakh and until we do an activity predicting how Ladakhi culture might be affected by Westernization. So we begin the video about five minutes into it, with a scene of Ladakhi men blowing long horns, immediately following Helena Norberg-Hodge saying that traditional Ladakh “shows how we might get out of this mess that we’ve created.”

I pride myself on being able to predict whether a reading, activity, or video will captivate students, but as I mentioned, I wasn’t confident that students would respond positively to the video or to the traditional culture it portrayed. To my delight, they seem enchanted by the ecological sophistication, the cooperation, the playful interactions between young and old, the relative economic equality, and the joy people appeared to take in their work. Many students seem genuinely relieved to discover a place that appears not to be consumed with materialism, selfishness, and violence. Of course, the filmmakers may have played up the culture’s positive aspects, including its egalitarianism, and downplayed less admirable qualities of traditional Ladakh. For example, the video ignores the reportedly poor treatment of the tribal Mon and Beda people and generally fails to deal forthrightly with questions of social class. But throughout the school year, the video lingers as a kind of touchstone reminding us that human nature may be less rapacious than we have come to accept by living in a society that so lavishly rewards greed.

The following excerpt from a student paper is typical of the seeds of doubt planted by the video about the universality of aggressive selfishness:

Ladakh seems like a fantasy, something most people couldn’t imagine. From my experiences, this would lead me to believe it’s too good to be true. But then I would have to ask myself, “Is it too good to be true? Or could it just be that the society I live in has led me to be this untrusting?”

I stop the video before the arrival of modernization, right after several still shots of smiling Ladakhi men and women. (This first part is 21 minutes long, not including the part I skip.) I ask students to look back over their notes and to talk about what they see as the key cultural elements that have sustained Ladakh for over 1,000 years. I ask if there are particular pieces of the culture that, if taken away, Ladakh would stop being Ladakh and the culture might begin to erode. I want students to begin to feel some discomfort with the glib terms that textbooks and commentators use to describe today’s countries and cultures. I ask: “Would you call Ladakh a developed society, an underdeveloped society, or a developing society? Is it primitive, backward, advanced?”

Students readily see the difficulty in applying these conventional terms to a society that had none of the comforts of their homes, and yet had worked out such an elaborate system of cooperation to take care of each other and the land. “People don’t waste anything in Ladakh,” says Ladakhi elder, Tashi Rapkis. “It may be wood, it may be stones, it may be grass, it may be water. They don’t waste it, they take care of it. In that way, we could say that the Ladakhis are the real economists. Not like the modern economists, increasing production, destroying all the natural resources. Not like that. Rather, taking care of natural resources, and how to develop them.”

As one of my students summed up nicely: “The people knew their earth and used it well.”

For homework I sometimes give students Chapter 4, “We Have to Live Together,” from Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book, so they have more information for discussions and later essay writing. The chapter explores the tension between individual rights and the culture’s need to maintain solidarity. For older students, Norberg-Hodge’s entire book might be assigned.


After this initial activity, I tell students that several years ago, Ladakh began experiencing a kind of cultural invasion, what some people call Westernization, modernization or development. I tell them, “Based on what you’ve learned about Ladakh, I want us to see if we can predict some of the consequences of these changes on traditional Ladakhi culture.”

On the board, I list six different features of the Western cultural invasion: tourism; compulsory schooling; highway development; foreign movies; imports of inexpensive barley and wheat; and the arrival of new retail stores. I divide the class into six groups and assign each of them one of these features. Each group’s task is to brainstorm as many consequences for Ladakhi culture as they possibly can, and to do these as a “spillover chart,” sometimes called a concept map. I like the term spillover chart because it’s a metaphor that captures the idea that the effects from one social change keep spilling over into further effects. It helps us imagine society as a network of interconnections, rather than as discrete institutions.

I do an example with them. On the board I write “Unemployment doubles” and I circle it. Then I ask them to brainstorm as many consequences as they possibly can for how a doubling of unemployment could affect life in Portland. I emphasize that this is speculative; there aren’t any correct answers, but their projections should be reasonable. I ask about the effects on young people, on mental health, on family life, on government programs, and encourage them to draw on their own experiences. For each student comment — for example: “People wouldn’t be able to buy as much” — I ask about additional consequences, and connect each consequence by drawing a line to the previous consequence.

I assemble students in their six groups and distribute large pieces of easel paper, along with magic markers and a card with a brief description of the aspect of Westernization that they’ll be working on [see Ladakh Situations, p. 20].

When they finish, I ask students in their small groups to discuss among themselves which three of the spillover effects they think would most deeply affect life in Ladakh, and to highlight these on their charts. The first year I did this, each group reported on its entire spillover chart and this quickly became tedious. Asking them to indicate and then to elaborate on their top three consequences speeds up presentations and doesn’t sacrifice anything major. Students’ predictions are uncannily, and depressingly, accurate. Sometimes they veer off into the silly or tangential, but the top three predictions will almost always be verified by what they learn from watching the second part of the video.

We post their spillover charts around the classroom. As we begin the second part of the video, I ask them to take notes on which of their predictions came true, and to list any additional consequences of Westernization that they notice.

If the first part of the video has left students enchanted with and intrigued by Ladakh, the second part will leave them angry. In this 33-minute segment, students see each of the dire predictions for Ladakh from their spillover charts come true. A man interviewed on the street in Ladakh’s capital, Leh, summarizes the changes wrought by development: “People used to have peace of mind. They were happy and they used to help one another. These days there are motorbikes and things, there have been all sorts of improvements, but on the inside I don’t see the same kind of happiness.”

Tsering Dolkar, a Ladakhi farmer, laments the loss of shared work on each other’s farms that characterized traditional Ladakh: “Now everyone’s going off looking for paid jobs, you can’t get any help with plowing or harvesting without paying for it.”

Sonam Wangchuk is a brilliant, articulate Ladakhi student leader interviewed in the video. He talks about how “development” has affected young people, as they’ve been compelled to attend school to learn in Urdu and then in English, both foreign languages to Ladakhis. He says that 90 to 95 percent of Ladakhi students fail their final school exams and emphasizes what a tragedy this is for them and for the entire culture:

When students fail their school exams they are really in trouble. They cannot go back to the traditional life and start doing farming and other things because they are so confused because they have been kept away. And they are rejected by the modern sectors. So they belong to none of these. They are rejected by the modern, they are cut off from the traditional.

Following the video, I give students a writing assignment: “Who or what is to blame for the decline of Ladakhi culture? Write this as an essay answer: clear thesis (implied or stated), introduction, several pieces of evidence, conclusion. And, if you like: What could be done to stop the destruction of Ladakhi culture?”

While students are uniformly dismayed by the erosion of traditional Ladakhi culture, there is no such uniformity in their essays. Some attack U.S. and European tourists for their insensitivity and for introducing the virus of materialism to Ladakh. Others go after the Indian government for building roads that allow tourists and Western culture free access to Ladakh. Others see the “enemy” more systemically, as global capitalism or Western Civilization in general. A student in one recent class provocatively blamed people in the United States for exporting a vision of the “good life” throughout the world that was both undesirable and unattainable for those living in other cultures. Still others blamed the Ladakhis themselves; no one had forced these changes on them — ultimately the defense and preservation of their culture was no one’s responsibility but theirs.

I first read Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book, Ancient Futures, several years ago and though I found it enormously insightful, I was struck by its lack of clarity in specifying the cause of the cultural calamity that she details so passionately. At various times the culprit is “modern technologies,” “industrial culture,” “industrialized society,” “the scientific perspective,” or “the development process.” To these, the video adds “Western notions of progress” and “the new economy.” Thinking clearly about underlying causes is not simply an academic nicety. The effectiveness of strategies to build societies of social and ecological justice depends on the accuracy of our diagnoses of the roots of global ills. As Norberg-Hodge argues herself in Ancient Futures, the central moral imperative of our time is to “tackle the underlying causes behind social and ecological destruction.”


This past year the students’ wildly varied responses to the question about the roots of the problem in Ladakh gave me the idea of structuring our discussion about this issue as a trial. The crime would be the harm done to traditional Ladakhi culture. I used students’ diverse essay responses to decide on “defendants,” and even borrowed language from students’ papers to craft the indictments. [See Rethinking Schools Vol 15 No 4 “lad152.shtml” for the text of these.] I played prosecutor, and students were divided into groups, each representing one of the accused.

The description of “The Case of Cultural Destruction” that I gave students began:

This is a complicated crime: A culture that existed in relative peace and harmony for generations is in the process of being destroyed. Greed has replaced cooperation; pollution has replaced care for the earth; insecurity has replaced security; “look out for number one” has replaced family and community. If this process continues, it will destroy a viable, ecologically responsible culture. The people there will be the big losers, but everyone in the world is harmed at least indirectly when we lose a culture like this.

That’s the crime. But who or what is to blame?

Defendants included U.S. and European Tourists (for thoughtlessly introducing Ladakh to Western materialism), the Indian Government (for promoting Ladakhi “development”), the Ladakhis themselves (for their failure to resist cultural invasion), the Global Capitalist System (for being the economic motor that powers development and cultural invasion), “Modern” Ideas (for teaching Ladakhis that their culture was inferior to so-called developed cultures), and People in the United States (for unwittingly creating a model of development that spreads and negatively impacts other cultures around the globe). Each student received all indictments, so groups could use arguments from an indictment against another group in their own defense.

In their post-trial write-ups distributing responsibility, I asked students to assign percentages of blame to each group. Students spared none of the defendants, including the Ladakhis. Noah gave 8 percent of the blame to Ladakhis: “They really didn’t do much to stop the development of their country, but what can you expect? Their culture is based around non-aggression.”

Lauren gave 25 percent of the blame to People in the U.S.: “The ones who walk with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears. … Being absolutely oblivious does not mean you’re not guilty.” Colleen gave 20 percent of the blame to the Indian government, who “literally paved the road for capitalism, modern ideas, U.S. and European tourists” to “open the can of worms.”

In an exceptionally lucid paper, Andrea fingered the economic system: “The Global Capitalist Economy bears the greatest blame for what has happened in Ladakh. This mysterious and intangible entity exists behind the action of all others. It is global capitalism that seeks to turn every corner of the globe into a marketplace to be exploited, and every man, woman and child into a lifetime consumer of useless products.”


My aim with this activity was not to reach consensus about a single cause for the decline of indigenous cultures like Ladakh. Just the opposite. Yes, some factors play a greater role in the trend toward a monocultural world dominated by commercial values, but I hoped that students would see how these factors interrelate, and how any strategy for change needs to address a very large picture indeed.

But Leela criticized my requirement to assign percentages of guilt and pointed out how this requirement didn’t facilitate students’ exploration of interrelationships: “Creating easily definable groups made it easy for students to understand who was involved in the situation in Ladakh and what their role was. … However, assigning blame seems to over-simplify the situation. … Each group is to blame, but in different ways. I find it impossible to compare them directly in terms of percentages.”


It was a valid point, and I’ll drop the percentage requirement in the future. Nonetheless, the trial does allow students to glimpse myriad ways in which all of us are implicated — albeit in different ways. Ironically, this offers some hope. If responsibility for the destruction of cooperative, ecologically sensitive cultures like Ladakh is so dispersed, it means that we don’t need to travel half way around the world to make a global difference; we can be effective change-makers by engaging in projects close to home. But these implications need to be explicitly drawn out.

Leela closed her paper with an additional criticism of the Ladakh unit: “We covered who was to blame quite thoroughly, but just pointing a finger is not enough. We need to work towards solutions.” She was right again: Analysis of wrongdoing does not automatically suggest possible alternatives.

Thus, I concluded the unit by asking students to imagine that they were activists with the organization, International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). I told them: “You are committed to helping to preserve indigenous cultures around the world — not because you think they are ‘quaint,’ but because you believe that indigenous cultures hold great wisdom for how all human beings should relate to each other and to the earth.” In a whole-class discussion as ISEC activists, the students brainstormed three projects — either in cooperation with groups in Ladakh, or in this country — that could “reverse the trend of globalization and cultural destruction.” We followed this discussion by watching an ISEC-produced video, Local Futures, about the group’s work in Ladakh and Great Britain (available from ISEC, www.isec.org.uk). The video drifts a bit toward self-promotion, but it’s valuable for students to see that organizers around the world are creatively addressing the problems that they witnessed in Ancient Futures.

As an early warning system, coal miners used to take canaries with them into the mines. The birds sensed the presence of dangerous gases before the miners could. When the canaries stopped singing, disaster was close at hand. Ladakhis are not canaries; they are human beings. But the arrival of “development” and the decline of traditional cultures as depicted in Ancient Futures ought to be a warning to us all. Throughout the world, canaries have stopped singing. Ancient Futures helps students notice the silence.

Bill Bigelow is classroom editor of Rethinking Schools. This is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, edited with Bob Peterson (Rethinking Schools).