By Patrick French
Excerpted from India: A Portrait. Copyright © 2011 by Patrick French. All rights reserved.
In Ladakh the air is thin and dry, and it is cold even when the sunlight burns you. Tashi Norbu could remember how, in 1948, Buddhist monks in their dark red robes had built an improvised, rocky airstrip near the monastery in Leh. Out of the sky came a buzzing metal shape, a Dakota aeroplane carrying India's new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It landed in a cloud of dust.
"We had never seen a car or a motor vehicle at that time," Tashi Norbu said, sitting above his apricot orchard, speaking in a Tibetan dialect. He was an old man, an expert in medicinal herbs, water diversion and the correct way to shoot a bow and arrow. He wore a long brown robe secured with a lime-coloured sash, and on his head he had wedged a homburg.
"There were no roads in Ladakh. A plane lands from the sky, you can't imagine . . . All the local people put their hands together and prayed to the plane, we were all praying."
Ladakh is a mountainous region by the borders of Tibet, China and Pakistan. In the rush of history, it might have ended up on the wrong side of the line; but it is in India. It feels like the remoter parts of Tibet, though without the Chinese influence. By a quirk of history, Ladakhis follow Tibetan Buddhism, having avoided the waves of Muslim invasions that changed the traditions of their neighbours. Geographically inaccessible, the region preserves an ancient way of living. The present, powerless King of Ladakh's lineage dates back an incredible 38 generations to 975. His family lost their influence more than a century ago, and he lives in a little hilltop palace.
Tashi Norbu thought of himself as a Ladakhi above all else. "As children, we hadn't heard about India. We didn't know who the Indians were. We knew they were 'gyagarpa,' people who came from the plains, but it was not until I grew older and saw a map that I understood how big India was. Some things changed after independence: a politician came to visit us from Srinagar in Kashmir, but we didn't know what that meant, whether he was a religious leader or a king, or what.
"I can remember when I first saw the Indian army using kerosene! I couldn't believe the flames, how easily they could make them. They told us we could buy kerosene in Leh if we sold eggs. We would take the eggs, carry them like a baby while crossing the [Indus] river, sell them to a trader, buy the kerosene, and carry the kerosene back to the village.
"Pandit Nehru told the chief lama he should become a leader, and the lama said since we were in a mountain region he would rather be a worker. He handed a shovel to Nehru, who began digging! They took some photographs of it. Yes, I am content to be with India. We would never have got along with Pakistan, because they are Mohammedans and follow different customs. As for China, it is Communist; you have to take permission for everything you want to do, and you can't speak your mind. In India you can speak your mind, so I'm happy to be with them."