The documentary Ancient Futures tells the story of the Ladakhi people and their encounter with modernity. According to the filmmaker, modernity (primarily delivered through new roads and tourism) has destroyed the traditional Ladakhi way of life, which until now had managed to sustain the Ladakhis for centuries.
Sitting bare-footed in the Women’s Alliance, agit-prop all around me, I was having none of it. The film presented a crude dichotomy (pre-modernity good/modernity bad), which positively enraged me. The documentary may not be the best medium for nuance, but that doesn’t excuse such crudely simplistic arguments, arguments which don’t tally with a cursory look around Ladakh’s capital, Leh.
Ladakh is really western Tibet. It has found itself under Indian rule for geopolitical reasons, which saw the Indo-Chinese war being fought on its territory. Despite this, its people have managed to use their physical isolation (cut off from Himachal Pradesh, Tibet and Kashmir by the mountains) to preserve their cultural identity. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion here (the Leonard Cohen-narrated documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead is largely filmed in Ladakh), but the Ladakhis are culturally distinct from Tibetans, with their own language and customs, and wonderfully sinister hats.
Ladakh is the coldest and driest territory on earth. Settlement is only possible in the shadow of the mountains, where the snow-water falls. Beyond the shadows, the land looks strangely like a Middle Eastern desert. Ladakh is the one place in India that the monsoon leaves untouched, an apt reminder of how odd its political status is. I arrived just before the peak tourist season, which is fuelled by the demand for high-altitude trekking and biking, as well as the spiritual attractions. With the seasons changing, the land gave off a hint of what life must be like in winter. Somehow the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism make more sense here – the passive acceptance of life’s brutal rhythms, the futility of using emotions as a weapon against reality. Better to resignedly take your place as part of the landscape, to take your place in the cycle of life as best you can.
Ancient Futures argues that modernity has exposed innocent Ladakhis to the west’s most pernicious features, that the traditional fabric of life had broken up, that communities have been destroyed, that drug abuse and perversion is now rife, that people have become thoroughly individualized, concerned only with the pursuit of wealth.
It’s an easy argument to make, of course, one that’s been made in a number of other places. No doubt much of it is true. The problems caused by modernity are hard to deny. But when the balance-sheet is drawn up, it’s clear that modernity’s overall effect has been positive. This can only be denied through a sentimentally-skewed reading of pre-modernity.
While the film mentions high infant mortality in pre-modern Ladakh, it whitewashes the exclusion of women from political power, the poor standard of literacy, and the dominance of feudal elites. The filmmakers can do this because Buddhism has a soft power other religions can only dream of, because they know that critical questions will not be asked. Sentimentalisation, coming from a familiar place in the human spirit, will win out. The grass is always greener on the other side, and there is nothing worse than the present. Take the Jewish example, with the absurd romanticisation of shtetl life, lazily contrasted with the supposed ‘degraded society’we have created in Israel.
Contemporary Ladakhis have some sense of this, which is why Leh is a surprisingly hip place, where interesting ecological innovation and dramatic architecture sit side by side. If the patronizing westerners who made Ancient Futures had their way, Leh would still be in the dark ages. Arrogant in their conviction of what the good life is (meaning through community, sense of place in cosmos), they neglect to see the rewards reaped by modernization. “Never abandon our culture, just be moving it along, technology and tradition, innovation in the song,” sing Asian Dub Foundation on New Way, New Life, the motto for managing the often traumatic transition to modernity. Yes, there is much that was precious in the pre-modern world. The key word is balance, finding the right balance so that communities can both prosper and maintain their ancient heritage.