Namza Spiti: Spring Gardening, Traditional Medicine, and Food Security in Ladakh

Spring has arrived in this land that was only recently barren, frozen, and gripped by relentless icy winds. The apricot trees are in brilliant bloom and I find myself basking in the sun like a Ladakhi lizard, almost forgetting the silent challenges of the Himalayan winter. This delightful new phase of my Fellowship is very much characterized by getting down and dirty in the garden with my co-workers and Ladakhi hosts. The market is sprawling with branches of apricot and apple tree saplings for grafting, potted plants, and a spattering of green in everyone’s periphery. My host family’s garden is already sprouting leafy goodness, and we’ve dug irrigation canals in anticipation of glacial melt.

My host in Hemis National Park, humming a happy tune on her way to work in her garden.

Garden Learning

This is a critical season for the Snow Leopard Conservancy, India Trust’s (SLC-IT) ongoing Biodiversity Park in Matho, a significant portion of my project. In the month of April, we had the opportunities to meet with school faculty, conduct workshops on senses, mindfulness, and ecosystem balance with students, and discuss the role of Buddhism in conservation with the monks of Matho Monastery. My colleagues and I have also been in contact with the Defense Institute of High Altitude Research regarding indigenous plants, seeds and saplings to be donated to Matho’s garden. However, the most satisfying deliverables this month have been digging up the earth and preparing the garden beds for Matho’s medicinal and vegetable gardens, a significant feature of our Biodiversity Park and the student experience of learning outside. On Monday, April 22nd, SLC-IT celebrated Earth Day together at Matho by swinging pickaxes, mixing soils, and planting trees.

Leading student discussion on mindfulness and ecosystem balance.
The SLC-IT team living the garden life at Matho school!

This fun day in the dirt inspired my colleague Thinless and me to conduct a workshop with students about the exciting world of soil. Yes, it’s very exciting, and our students agreed! On April 30th, we gabbed for almost three hours with students about soil profiling, different types of soil and how they are formed, and the squirmy little world of decomposers and their niche in the ecosystem. All life begins with soil, and we witnessed our students come to life in that discussion. After months of researching and reading about the prevalence of agriculture, natural fertilization, and medicinal plants in Ladakh, I’m finally seeing it unravel merrily in the daily life of every Ladakhi I know.

Students discussing roles of soil and decomposers in the ecosystem!
Fungi, bacteria, invertebrates, and scavengers, the life of the party!

Plant-based Medicine in Ladakh

Sowa-Rigpa, the ancient Tibetan medicinal tradition of using natural remedies, is also very prevalent in Buddhist communities of the trans-Himalayan region, including Ladakh. Known as the Amchi system of medicine in Ladakh, this long and revered holistic approach to wellness is the foundation of much of Ladakh’s garden and agricultural strategy, as well as local cuisine. However, most medicinal plants grow wild and Amchi traditional doctors specialize in wild plant distribution (1). The two most prominent ingredients in natural remedies I have noticed during my time here are extracts from Seabuckthorn berries and apricot seed kernels.

A visual representation of my office life.
Seabuckthorn products for sale in my favorite ecological store.
The Earth’s own chosen berry, Seabuckthorn.

Seabuckthorn is ecologically and economically valued in Ladakh, as it thrives and withstands extreme temperatures from -43 to 40 degrees Celsius and is drought tolerant. Mostly found growing along the Indus riverbank, its extensive root system controls soil erosion and provides wildlife habitat. Considered one of the most nutritious of all fruits, the medicinal value was recorded in the 8th century Tibetan medicinal classic rGyud Bzi, and is even mentioned in the writings of ancient Greek scholars, famed as the exclusive food of choice of the mythical flying Pegasus.

Rich in antioxidants, amino acids, minerals and vitamins (especially Vitamin C), it is estimated that there is enough nutrients in Seabuckthorn plants across the world to meet the dietary needs of the entire human population! Seabuckthorn grows extensively and naturally throughout Ladakh, and approximately 500 tons of berries are harvested annually, which is less than 5% of the total available wild supply in the region. This harvest is then manufactured into juices, jams, teas, oil capsules and antioxidant herbal supplements. The local Amchi traditional doctors often prescribe remedies prepared from Seabuckthorn to treat infections and just about any ailment or disease. Modern laboratories and clinical studies confirm the efficacy of Seabuckthorn’s medical properties in relieving a variety of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease (2).

My two favorite local shops which provide eco-friendly and healthy products.
Apricot kernel oil.
Seabuckthorn apple jam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Preservation and Security

In Ladakh’s harsh, high-altitude and frigid climate, fresh fruits and vegetables have not been a historical staple of Ladakhi cuisine. Rather, a primarily Buddhist population (otherwise known to be strict vegetarians) has subsisted on yak and mutton meat and dairy for centuries. Serving at SLC-IT, I’ve learned about the human-wildlife conflict that arises when the elusive snow leopard occasionally attacks and often obliterates an entire herd of domestic livestock. This threatens local livelihoods and food security, and herders have even retaliated by bating and poisoning the already threatened snow leopards and other opportunistic predators. A substantial ongoing project of SLC-IT is supporting locals who have lost their livestock, as well as building stronger corrals that protect against predators.

Domestic yaks roaming free to graze. 

Although globalization and subsequent changes in food patterns have allowed Ladakhis to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables imported from western Jammu and Kashmir, all roads leading to Ladakh close in winter and the produce sent by air is expensive. However, Ladakhis have perfected the art of growing and preserving a variety of root vegetables through the sub-zero winters. Onions, potatoes, carrots, and turnips can be found, frozen solid, beneath the ground of most Ladakhi yards; once harvested in the fall, they are then buried in the Earth for storage and preservation to last the family throughout the winter. Living with a Ladakhi family, I’ve learned that when my hosts say “let’s have potatoes tonight,” we grab a shovel rather than a fridge handle. I’ve also learned to roll semi-perfect chapattis from barley flour, an age-old staple present in most Ladakhi meals, and even tasted the local barley wine. I’ve learned to prepare traditional Ladakhi foods such as thukpa, sku, and my favorite, momos. While cooking, I’ve had the privilege of learning from my Ladakhi hosts, discussing Ladakh’s evolution in food variety and security.

Five of ten thematic informational signboards I illustrated to accompany Matho’s Biodiversity Park and outdoor learning.

SLC-IT’s goal is to bring all these medicinal, traditional plants and strategic agriculture to life in Matho school’s garden, for students to be able to study them in their science lab as well as use the fresh produce for their school lunches. In the past month of garden and plant adventures with my organization, I’m reminded how I am happiest with dirty hands and facilitating alternative learning. I’m extremely grateful for these new opportunities to serve, learn, and lead in my organization as Ladakh comes back to life through Spring.

Additional Photos:

This might be my favorite past-time.
My host family’s vegetable and herb garden.
An artificial glacier in Gya village, soon to melt and irrigate Gya’s fields.
My education colleague, Thinless, admiring our school’s new apricot tree blooms!
One of three garden sections we prepared for Matho.
Glacial melt irrigating Matho’s medicinal garden.
SLC-IT’s Religion and Conservation workshop with Matho Monastery.
My little host brother helping his mama with the flowers.
My little host sister helping us dig irrigation trenches for the garden.

Sources:

  1. A Clear Mirror of Tibetan Medicinal Plants by Dr. Tsering Dorjee, Dr. Tsultrim Kalsang, Mr. Namgyal Phunrab, Mr. Phuntsok Gyaltsen, Mr. Tsewang Gyatso.
  2. Value Chain Analysis of Seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.) in Leh, Ladakh by Tsering Stobdan and Tsewang Phunchok.

Alexandra is honored to serve in the high mountains of Ladakh, combining her passion for religion and environmental science to help achieve the mission of SLC-IT. After studying in Varanasi through the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, Alexandra participated in two summers of the Critical Language Scholarship in Jaipur while volunteering at a home for survivors of domestic violence. Alexandra also studied West African Islam and gender in Dakar, Senegal, while interning at an artist colony for at-risk youth of Dakar. She has facilitated asset-based community development in rural Kenya, volunteered in a mental health hospital in Guatemala, and was the Resident Director for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth in Pune. Prior to AIF, Alexandra taught outdoor environmental science in the alpine forests of Southern California. She is very eager to help SLC-IT create a biodiversity park to continue inspiring humans’ connection to nature and responsibility towards wildlife conservation.

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