82. What if William Moorcroft Returned Today? Ladakh’s Landscape: Physical, Cultural, and Religious


Nobody today is a William Moorcroft. After establishing a “hospital for horses” in London, the first veterinary college, and acquiring four patents for making horseshoes, Moorcroft became a veterinary surgeon of the British East Indian Company. In India, Moorcroft traveled to Tibet and then, with George Tredback, traveled and lived in Ladakh for two years around 1820-1822. Ladakh, and its main city of Leh, are in the northwest region of India. His goal was to continue travels to Bokhara in Central Asia in order to find better horse breeding stock for the British East Indian Company. He never made it to Bokhara. Fortunately, he wrote notes and recorded Ladakh’s landscape, the physical, cultural, and religious landscape in his posthumously published ravels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab, in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawur, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara, from 1819 to 1825. I love 18th and 19th  century book titles even if they go on and on and on and are longer than some of Kant’s or Heidegger’s sentences.

I wonder what he would make of Ladakh now? Given the immensity of geological ages, the physical landscape has changed very little. I can picture Moorcroft looking in amazement at the sheer size and magnitude of the mountains. I suspect that the scenes still stop every traveler. Since we know more about the causes for the Himalayan and other ranges than he did and since the scientific details are fascinating, I want to mention a few basics. (Forgive the tour book style writing)!

The earth has never been static. After the one landmass, Pangea broke up into two supercontinents, and after those two supercontinents divided into our present continents, more relevant changes in the landmasses came which impacted the Ladakh region. The India subcontinent broke away from Africa with a desire to join the Eurasian land mass some 4000-4500 miles away. Although it was similar to a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive, the landmasses eventually met around the Indus River valley, the Ladakh region, and southern Tibet. The sea that had separated the two land masses and which had covered the whole region disappeared (when I and three friends visited Mt. Everest’s Chinese base-camp, we saw fossils of sea creatures embedded in the small rocks)! While not a sudden collision on that Sunday afternoon, the collision began around 60 million years ago and had “earth shattering” implications. The Indian subcontinent slid underneath the Eurasian landmass, which it still does today at the rate of 1.7 inches per year. As it did so, top layers were scraped off helping initially to create various mountain ranges. Around 25 million years ago, the earlier mountain ranges began to create so much pressure that a thrust from underground began to push the ranges even higher. Viewed from my flight from Delhi to Leh, all I saw were miles after miles of crumpled land with endless snowcapped ridges and mountains. There is no one dominant mountain line, no one dominant mountain in the Himalayas. With the Himalayas being 1500 miles long vary from 100-200 miles north to south, there are simply too many mountains and ridges! Although Everest and Kanchenjunga near Darjeeling are hundreds of miles east of Ladakh, the Kun and Nun peaks south of Leh are still massive at 23,000 feet. Compared to the Appalachians in the eastern USA which have been worn down and look like gentle rolling hills since their formation 480 million years ago, the Great Himalayas whose ridges look as sharp as a knife blade are mere babes.


Although we know the causes for the physical landscape, we like Moorcroft are silenced by the mountains. As there is more to the landscape than the mountains, the Indus River and its tributaries cut through the landscape. It is a good thing that the Indus, formed by glacial melting, moves through the Ladakh region since there is only three inches of rain a year in Leh. With the various valleys’ altitude around 10,000 feet or more, the high-desert area includes sand dunes and Bactria camels. 

Even today, this is a tough, tough environment! I admit that I’m a wimp here. When my first hotel did not have running hot water (I’m here before the real tourist season in a month) and when the second hotel gave me two hot-water bottles for the night, and the temperature is 23 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning, I realize that I’m not met for these harsh conditions. I admire those who live their lives here.

Moorcroft would recognize some of the similarities and differences in the physical terrain. In 1820, he would have gazed at the clumps of willow and poplar trees, no vast forests and no evergreen trees; today, he would see the same solitary clumps of trees, still, fortunately, unspoiled by mining activities. In 1820, he traveled on ancient caravan trails; today, he would travel on two-lane roads built by the Indian army. 

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As people interact with the physical landscape, they create different cultures. In 1820, Moorcroft saw people of Ladakh racially and ethnically related to people he saw elsewhere in his travels. The Ladakh people were of Central Asia and Tibet to the north and east, not of India to the south. Even then though, Moorcroft would have noticed the large number of other people who lived or passed through Ladakh such as Kashmiris and Punjabi Sikhs. I suspect that Moorcroft would have seen the presence of numerous Punjabi Sikh soldiers since they controlled the main city of Leh and other parts of Ladakh.


He would have seen  the former royal palace in Leh. Beyond the people who lived in Leh, Moorcroft saw hundreds of villagers. They lived in  rectangular homes with flat roofs flying Tibetan prayer flags. They wore traditional clothing such as the goncha, which is a long sleeved overcoat in maroon or brown, and on special occasions such as weddings the women wore the perak, a large headgear passed down from mother to daughter.They grew potatoes, onions, carrots, spinach, and other cold weather vegetables.




They sold these vegetables in the local market. They selectively grew some fruits, such as apple trees and apricots. Don’t ask for bananas! Because thousands of animals moved on this main caravan route in the 1820’s, they needed food. Apparently, without harvesting the entire fields, the local people simply let the animals graze on those unharvested areas for a daily fee. 



Today, Moorcroft would see  the same small villages and the same fields surrounding each house. However, he’d see a motorcycle or scooter, maybe even a truck, parked next to the house. Rather than the two story square mud brick house with a flat roof in Leh, Moorcroft would stay at a three story “guesthouse: or a six story modern hotel.

While I write this post in a traditional guesthouse, I see three new five-six story hotels being built across the narrow alleyway.

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Regarding clothing, he’d see that traditional gonchas have almost disappeared. The universal uniform of modern life, bluejeans, sweatshirt and thermal jacket, are found in Leh.

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Rather than armed Punjabi Sikhs, Moorcroft would see the numerous bases and the convoys of the Indian Army for units such as the Mountaineers or the Condors. Even memorials for some of the Indian soldiers and commanders who fought Pakistani forces in 1974.

Even though Moorcroft  would have seen the strangers from the great caravans passing through Ladakh connecting India and Central Asia and China, he would not understand todays mass tourism. Businesses reflect this change.

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With all the signs for rafting and trekking, I feel as though I’m in Colorado or Wyoming. Businesses now exist for locals as well as tourists. In the market area, one finds computer shops, a Nikon camera shop, several local bookshops (including Mein Kampf and a book about Abraham Lincoln), pizza shops, and the mark of our modern age, a fashionable coffee shop (although no Starbucks yet).

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Surprisingly, Moorcroft would see the same religious features in the landscape. He, of course, would have seen evidence of Tibetan Buddhism. The gompas set frequently on some cliff, some mountain outcropping, or some site next to the Indus River. He would have seen the stupas, from a foot high to forty feet high. Even then, I suspect the prayer flag would be flapping in the breeze from mountain passes, monastery walls, and home rooftops. He would certainly have seen the mani stones and the mani stone walls. He would have seen a Muslim walking to a mosque and a Sikh sitting outside the entrance to  the gurdwaras.



The age of travelers seeking discovery and exploration is over. Today we follow in the footsteps of previous travelers and tourists, many just yesterday. What the great travelers like Moorcroft saw was a complex world even then. He could note the physical landscape, the way the people of Ladakh interacted with this harsh terrain in order to live and support others moving through their region, he would have heard the lamas chanting in the monasteries and the prayer flags flapping and the Muslim call to prayer even then. 

Our world isn’t exactly the same as Moorcroft’s world. But, if he returned to our world, I hope that he would find this world as fascinating as the world of 1820.






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