When I travel, I remember two things. Since I travel alone, I remember to initiate conversations. If I don’t attempt conversations, then traveling solo would be very lonely. Since I love taking photos and often get mesmerized by what I see, I must remember to ask myself: “What don’t I see?” With these two reminders, I wonder where are the Hindus in Leh?
I talk with fellow Hindu travelers. My first morning at breakfast I meet two men, one a young Chennai engineer and the other a middle-aged Bangalore IT professional. Not on a holiday, the young engineer has worked in Leh for two weeks and is returning home tomorrow. Sent by his company, he is to assure that his company’s waste treatment contact with Leh’s city government proceeds smoothly. Leh faces serious waste treatment problems. For seven months of the year, Leh is extremely cold with the average minimum January temperature of 7 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the amount of waste created in Leh varies tremendously. During the non-tourist seven months of the year, residents generate only about 5 tons of waste; during the other months, residents and tourists generate over 30 tons of waste. The young engineer has monitored the improvements to Leh’s treatment facilities to handle pipes freezing and to handle inconsistent amounts of waste without the system being overwhelmed. Besides enjoying the conversation about Leh, he advises me as he points to the other Indian from Bangalore who genially laughs: “Watch what you eat. Go slow, especially the first two days. You have to acclimate to 11,000 feet. My friend here hasn’t.”
During another breakfast, I talk with a couple from Bangalore. She has a bindi on her forehead. After the usual exchanges about each other’s itinerary and health, we talk about our homes. When I mention Atlanta, he lights up with a big smile. “I’ve been to Atlanta. Have you been to the Coco-Cola Museum?” I answer: “Even though I’ve given up soft drinks, I’ve visited the museum. It was very interesting tasting the coke products in varying countries. The same labeled coke product does not taste the same everywhere!” He says: “I work for Coco-Cola. I have helped with ‘Share the Coke’ campaign in India.” I pause “Do you know Bea Perez. She is out neighbor. She is senior Vice-President responsible for communications and global marketing I believe.” “I sure do know her.” Our conversation continues until we both must get ready for the rests of the day. I find this conversation with a Hindu couple from Bangalore knows one of my Atlanta neighbors.
I have a conversation one morning with an older couple. We begin with the usual small talk. I ask “Are you here on holiday?” He responds: “Yes, we are from Delhi and we’ve always wanted to visit Ladakh. We are finally able to visit for three days.” He asks ” Where are you from and why are you here?” I respond “I’m from the USA. I’m here because I’m retiring.” He catches the strange phrase “Are you retired or retiring?” I answer “Well I’m a professor who is not officially retired, but I am retiring. My last page check isn’t until May 15 so I’m not formally retired yet!” His eyes light-up “I retired last week!” We both break out in really big smiles and extend our hands to each other. “Congratulations!”
HIndus are here. The ones I meet though are ones who are tourists like me. Like Americans who have dreams to travel to Alaska and to Hollywood, Indians have dreams to travel to Ladakh. Because of the mountains, Alaska and Ladakh are similar; because of the movies, the movies’ scenery and stage sets, Hollywood and Ladakh are similar.
Interestingly though, Ladakh itself does not give evidence of Hinduism. I know that other Hindus are either permanent residents here or semi-permanent. My flight from Delhi to Leh had many young Hindus on board. Stanzen, one guesthouse owner’s son, states that these young men are seasonal workers. He speculated that many had just finished working in Goa or other southern India cities. “We couldn’t survive without them because there simply are not enough workers in Leh to handle all the requirements of tourism.” Besides these Hindus, I’ve seen one BJP “Central Committee Office” as we are driving on a Leh street. Finally, I’ve seen a small sign “Ganesha Temple” next to an Indian Army base. As I walk to and from the market area and my guesthouse, I haven’t seen any Shiva lingams or Vishnu Temples. I haven’t seen the pictures of Ganesha, Kali, or Durga posted in stores, on walls, or tucked into the branches of a shrub or tree. Ladakh is part of India, but Ladakh does not seem to have any significant Hindu presence.
Why does this absence catch my attention? In the rest of India, there is a strong Hindu nationalist movement which wants to reassert the role and status of Hinduism nationwide. Prime Minister Modi has capitalized on these feelings. I wonder what feelings among the Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims of Ladakh have been created? We know what has already happened in Muslim majority Kashmir. Will tension in Kashmire move to include Ladakh if the nationalist movement increases expands? While I suspect that most of Ladakh’s Buddhists and Muslims remain loyal Indian citizens, I wonder if a reassertion of Hinduism could not only threaten Ladakh’s Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs, but also create a backlash with these groups reasserting their own identity. What would happen then?