A Knife that Cuts Both Ways


Northern Leh city – tradition and modernity mix. New roads follow the contours of fields that have been under continuous cultivation for hundreds of years.

What does it mean to respect tradition in a changing world? This question has been plaguing me for years and was recently driven into sharp focus with my work at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust. While this post will not have many details on my actual work, I do hope to share some of my experiences in Ladakh, because they have forced me to think very hard about questions like these. Here in Ladakh, perhaps more than many places in India, the question of “What do we do next?” will not get an easy answer. There are too many unknowns and too many variables to simply choose a path and set plans in stone. The political situation is touch-and-go, the environmental situation is dire, and the social situation is unsettled. One thing is certain, though: sustainable development and wildlife conservation both require reconciling Ladakh’s traditions with its present and future.

I’ve come to see that reverence for tradition is both a good and bad thing. As the saying goes, it’s a knife that cuts both ways. On one side, tradition is an individual’s link to his or her heritage, complete with the sense of security that brings. Observing tradition acts as a reminder that even if the individual’s life will not span the ages, a people can. Feeling a part of a society is an immensely powerful source of well-being for most people. Additionally, for many societies, tradition is also the root of law and the basis for determining right and wrong behaviours. Even further, for some people, tradition carries the forces of faith and duty, to god(s) or some other higher purpose. By reminding us who we were, tradition shows us who we are. I cannot deny the psychological good this can do.


Historically, Ladakh’s mountainous terrain moderated the speed of societal change. Modern changes have come much more quickly.

The other side of the knife is that which fears and resents change, or becomes paralyzed in the face of it. Even worse are those instances when reverence for tradition commits someone to a fundamentalist path, casting all change as bad or evil and refusing to consider any break from tradition. In my conversations with Ladakhis, particularly the older folks, I’ve come to note an almost-universal sense of unease at the status of the region, and I’ve written about this before. However, it is often more difficult to nail down precisely what people dislike about the new Ladakh than it is to find out that they dislike it. As far I’ve been able to identify, it’s many of the “usual suspects”: traffic jams, noisy motorbikes, the prevalence of drugs, runaway pollution, rowdy tourists, noisy tourists, rude tourists, too many tourists, etc.

I’ve written about these things before, and I certainly don’t mean to minimize them now, but I suspect that these woes are symptoms of a broader malaise. I also suspect that many Ladakhis have fallen victim to the erroneous idea that their culture was one unaltered thing for hundreds of years before the advent of mainstream development and the introduction of commercial tourism. Ladakh has never been a static region, and it has certainly never had one homogenous culture. As one of the main trading hubs of central Asia, Ladakh has always been exposed to outside forces, some stranger or more exotic than others. Forgive me for quoting Janet Rizvi one more time.

“It is the combination of the spirit and atmosphere of Tibetan Buddhism with elements of other cultures that gives Ladakh its characteristic and piquant flavour. Old Tibet turned in on itself, refusing access to all outsiders…until the modern world forced its way in…in 1904. Ladakh on the other hand welcomed whoever wanted to come, which for most of its history meant traders from Kashmir, the Punjab, Central Asia and Tibet. …The Islamic culture keeps a lower profile than the Buddhist, but without it, and without the contributions of the Indian connection, and even of the European missionaries, Ladakh would be a different and poorer place.”
-Janet Rizvi, “Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia,” 2nd ed., Oxford University Press: New Delhi. 1996.

In light of such a changing history, then, how do we explain why people are so nostalgic about the past today? I believe that part of the answer is that because the modern changes are bringing so many undesirable elements, it is easy to romanticize the past. In other words, it is easy to forget just how difficult life was in previous generations in favor of the rosy-tinted view that the past was some kind of paradise. Tourism plays into this mythical status of Ladakh, as well, something that harms locals and tourists alike, giving everybody a false sense of history. The other part of the answer is that prior to the 1960’s, cultural change usually progressed at the speed of a camel rather than the speed of broadband, and communities could adapt what they knew and believed at a reasonable pace. There was time for consultation and consideration, something almost entirely lacking nowadays.

Contemporary Ladakhis seem to sense this dualism, perhaps because the notion of inherent, immutable change is strong in Buddhism, and as a result they do not speak out very loudly when things bother them. Unfortunately, this seems to lead to a kind of paralytic state. On the one hand, most people believe that change is inevitable. On the other hand, many feel unable to direct these changes as they would like. It is not an enviable position.

This brings me back to my initial question, phrased with a little more understanding – How can development respect meaningful traditions while simultaneously bringing about desired improvements in peoples’ lives? Somewhat paradoxically, I believe that observing sensations of loss and nostalgia is a great place to start. My intention is not to judge such sentiments one way or another. Instead, the question I ask is this: can nostalgia help direct where we go from here? Is our longing for things we’ve lost a good indication of what development should value? I believe it is. I believe it can form some of the conceptual basis for sustainable development.

For example, I recently returned from a two-day workshop in the tiny village of Ulley about sixty kilometres west of Leh.[1] The purpose of the workshop was to find out, first hand, what the villagers want to change about their lives. The conversations showed that my understanding of the hierarchy of their needs and desires was askew, albeit not entirely wrong.­­ They seemed to care far less for encouraging tourism, for example, than they did for finding a way to sell their organic produce. This information has shaped my programmatic focus here and may well change the course of my Fellowship.


Scene from the northernmost household of Ulley village. The local environment is harsh, but the villagers here have benefitted from relatively robust participatory development.













Starting with peoples’ self-reported feelings of loss and nostalgia, I’ve come to a few modest conclusions about how to begin respecting tradition in development. First, development projects of all sizes should take careful stock of the market forces they will be introducing to people’s lives. The cash economy is an addictive thing: the more people get, the more they need. Most distressingly, the drive to accumulate cash-wealth competes with everything else that people formerly deemed worthwhile in their lives. For example, the people of Ulley reported that for the first time in their memories, they were now competing among themselves (for tourist revenue) where they had previously cooperated in almost every matter. As development practitioners, we are sometimes in positions where we can “pump the brakes” on initiatives that would rope people into dependence on national and global economies. We need to consider such junctures carefully.

Second, people’s happiness can and should form a central justification for any development project. Difficulties in quantifying happiness aside, it seems self-evident that if people report less happiness after the completion of a development project than they did before, something is awry. Despite gaining a road to their village, securing tutelage for their young ones at a school in a larger village nearby, and successfully coaxing tourists to their village in large numbers, the people of Ulley reported feeling less happy now than they did in the year 2000. Something has gone wrong in this development scenario. Obviously there are many variables involved in this example, and it is important to distinguish between correlation and causation. This just means that we must hold ourselves accountable to a high standard of rigor in our feasibility studies and impact analyses.


This single photo captures a world of change. In the distance: the 450-year-old Leh Palace, an artifact from a time long past. On the right: a row of shops that have been shuttered since September, evidence of a seasonal economy that has become extremely dependent on tourist revenue. On the left: a new multi-story building being constructed completely from concrete, evidence that the old styles of construction cannot compete with cheap concrete imported from elsewhere.

Finally, I was reminded that in attempting to gather information on the kind of developmental aspirations I’ve been talking about, extra care must be given to record the opinions of those who normally don’t speak out, or who can’t speak out for whatever reason. In many cases, this would mean consulting women and children separately from men. In other cases, it may mean consulting the disabled and marginalized. Much has been written on this topic, and I believe mainstream development is generally getting better at it. But I was reminded of this rather powerfully when one woman in Ulley raised her voice in dissent of a proposal. Even though the setting that day was a congenial one, and even though Ladakhi women have historically held empowered positions in their societies, I still admire her courage in standing alone in that debate. Nonetheless, I was reminded that for some people, speaking out so publically isn’t an option, and if sustainable development is to operationalize their opinions, as I believe it should, then anyone seeking such information must go out of their way to get it.

After all this, I still do not have a clear answer to my question about how to incorporate tradition into sustainable development. And considering that I’m barely able to answer the question when thinking of my home country, I’m definitely not positioned to attempt an answer on behalf of Ladakhis. In any case, part of my point in this little essay has been to suggest that the answer to this question will be different for every community. If India’s (and the world’s) development is to be sustainable, we must be vigilant in assessing people’s needs as they themselves see their needs. And a good place to start is by duly considering economic dependence, happiness, and marginalized perspectives in all regards related to our work. So while I don’t have an easy answer, I’m becoming more confident in the power of listening. As my recent experiences have shown, the only way to understand what people need is to ask them. Their answers may surprise us.

[1] For further reading on Ulley and its development, check out the excellent post called “Missed Bus” on this blog. While I recommend it highly, the views expressed therein do not necessarily represent my own views, those of the American India Foundation, or those of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India trust.

  1. Cal Brackin
    Cal Brackin

    Great questions to think about, Tim. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Jim Trautwein

    Tradition is best when it illustrates immutable principles adaptable to new facts.

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