Buddhism and Development in Ladakh, Northwest India


A review of Keeping the faith: an investigation into the ways that Tibetan Buddhist ethics and practice inform and direct development activity in Ladakh, North-West India, by Andrea Butcher.

In her dissertation Andrea Butcher questions what happens as different forms of governance confront each other in the former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh, in the Western Himalaya. Since becoming part of the Indian Union in 1947, Ladakh has undergone rapid development through state and NGO led efforts, whilst retaining strong connections with exiled Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders. Drawing on ethnographic field work and textual analyses, Butcher describes the fascinating encounter between the ideals of development, liberal democratic government, and a far older ‘economy of merit’ maintained through sponsorship of ritual offerings to enlightened beings and transcendent and worldly deities. She argues that development processes are caught between two representations of Ladakhi identity and culture. The first is perhaps the one we are most familiar with – Ladakh as the “quintessential Shangri-La” (p.1), a spiritually and ecologically sustainable paradise. The second representation is essentially Buddhist and based in Mahayana teachings, but found to be promoted by religious elites through the technologies of modern governance. Lost between these two are the local cultural and religious realities of Ladhakis.

After a general, conceptual introduction (Chapters 1 and 2), Part One (Chapters 3, 4 and 5) describes this first representation, that of Ladakh as a model of sustainability and participatory development based on neo-liberal and Buddhist modernist ideas. Butcher’s perspective on contemporary ideologies and bureaucracies of development in Ladakh is informed by post-development thought, which criticises top-down conventional development as a repressive tool used by industrialised nations in global power relations. The current approach to development in Ladakh is characterised by the use of market mechanisms, the transfer of power to NGOs and civil society, and an emphasis on participation and individual responsibility. It is also influenced by Buddhist economics, situated within a wider Buddhist modernist movement, and espoused most notably by Ernst Schumacher who saw Buddhist philosophy as a foundation for the rational and modest use of resources (Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London: Vintage Books, 1973). Helena Norberg-Hodge, a linguist turned critic of conventional development played a key role in projecting these ideas onto Ladakh from the 1980s onwards, with her ahistorical vision of Ladakhi people living in simple harmony with each other and nature, a relationship threatened by modernity (Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). This discourse has been embraced by the development administration and the several hundred NGOs in Ladakh, helping to make them legitimate recipients of aid.

In Chapter 3, Butcher interrogates the statements and documents of the development administration, such as the Leh District Hill Councils ‘Vision Document’ of 2005, to show how they appeal to post-development thought and Buddhist economic theory through the ideas of ecological conservation, empowerment, and cultural revival. When in Chapter 4 we are given a glimpse into the realities of development on the ground through interviews and observations with development personnel and villagers, there emerges a mismatch between the intentions and ideals of agencies and the needs and social lives of local people. Some green energy projects (passive solar technologies, micro hydro-electricity) were abandoned rather than sustained by communities once project subsidies were withdrawn, and there was low participation in local village planning sessions and uptake of rural employment programs due to higher wages being available elsewhere. Development professionals blame the lack of engagement on the decline in self-sufficiency and village solidarity, whilst local people are frustrated by a lack of follow up and the failure to meet their energy and consumption expectations. Butcher concludes that participation is “an ideal embedded in the project design rather than an ideal shared by the recipients” (p.111). Chapter 5 situates these findings within the greater body of literature critical of the participatory development paradigm for remaining embedded in neo-liberal ideologies of self-reliance as a basis of good governance. Butcher elucidates the parallels between the development orthodoxy and Buddhist modernism that has gained popularity in the Himalayan region. Buddhist philosophical ideas such as the ‘Middle Way’ have been reinterpreted as the path that avoids excessive resource use, and ‘dependent origination’ as the ecological interdependence between the self and the natural world.

After setting out the discourse and realities of development in Ladakh, Part Two (Chapters 6, 7 and 8) is concerned with the disjuncture between processes of sustainable development and the older ‘economy of merit’ based in social and ritual hierarchies. Ceremonial offerings mediated by monastic specialists remain key performances in fostering harmonious relationships between humans and beings such as mountain deities, reducing misfortune, and ensuring the blessing of tantric buddhas. Here, Butcher follows the work of Jean and John Comaroff by examining how myth and ritual form part of people’s experiences and responses to development processes and aspects of modernity (Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Post-Colonial Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Interviews with local people suggest that material comforts are viewed as the result of karmic consequences, and aspects of development are thought to anger chthonic beings resulting in natural disasters. Butcher contends that part of reason for the failure of some participatory development interventions is the vital place of the expert in mediating between the cosmological, divine and human worlds to remove misfortune. Despite development discourse asserting that local culture is a foundation for sustainable development, Butcher finds little engagement with Buddhist activity in project development, although a few practitioners have realised they must depart from the constitutional separation of state and religion in India, and participate in ritual processes to ensure project success.

The myth of degeneration, an ancient prophecy, has been brought to the surface in Ladakh through the signs of climate instability and the threat of conflict along the nearby borders with Pakistan and China. Chapter 7 is a case study of the devastating floods of 2010 which provided convincing evidence to people that this prophecy had come true. As the events coincided with Butcher’s field work, she is able to bring into sharp focus the significance of local ritual authority. Worldly deities were seen by Ladakhi Buddhists as agents who sent the floods due to destructive development activities, especially land exploitation, a lack of ritual propitiation, and the decline in the faithful relationship between people and lamas. In response, ritual purification and construction of sacred architecture such as statues and stupas have been sponsored in the region to pacify the negative forces, transforming the landscape into a sacred space. Butcher examines Taklha Wanchuk, the local area god of Lalok region, even interviewing his medium whilst he is in a trance. The god prophesized the disaster and prescribed ritual measures which were retrospectively thought to have averted flooding in this particular locality.

In Chapter 8 Butcher returns to post-development discourse to argue, with evidence from her fieldwork in Ladakh, that it falls short of engaging with the ritual practice that shapes Ladakhi identity. Several points of disjuncture are highlighted: for example, that production in Buddhist Ladakh is viewed as the generation of merit and blessings rather than sustainable resource use and rational management as envisioned by the development administration. Ecological harmony is maintained through engagement with ritual, for which households have traditionally produced an agricultural surplus to sponsor rites.  Butcher joins in critiques of the work of Arturo Escobar for the lack of consideration he pays to alternative non-secular rationalities and the cultural realities of development processes. Instead she follows post-development writing that describes the diversity of development practice on the ground (e.g. Marisol de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology. 25(2): 334-370, 2010) by demonstrating that local cosmologies are part of political processes.

Part Three turns to the second representation of Ladakhi identity creation, that focused on Buddhist doctrine. Butcher describes the increasing influence of the exiled Tibetan administration of Dharamsala in the religious affairs of Buddhist Ladakh and the expanding authority of the Dalai Lama. Tibetan exiles strategically emphasise the compatibility of Buddhism and liberal democracy to raise the profile of Tibet on the international stage and avoid the isolationism that was thought to be a contributing factor in Tibet’s susceptibility to invasion. This approach to religion rejects an economy of merit focused on worldly concerns and is shown to have resulted in social transformation and tensions in Ladakh. Chapter 10 examines how Ladakh’s religious authorities, including exiled leaders, lineage heads and monk scholars, are attempting to revive Buddhist practice in Leh in accordance with Mahayana teachings. This revival is centred on compassionate consciousness, inner development, moral discipline and the maintenance of social harmony as the basis of beneficial development. Education, a tool of liberal democracy, is key in this process, and Buddhist organisations have set up Dharma centres and organised public teachings and workshops. Chapter 11 tackles the surprisingly thorny issue of Ladakhi grammar, highlighting the clash in ideals between development administrations and religious scholars, notably exemplified by the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. The latter is a strong proponent of the classical written Tibetan language as an essential means to preserve Buddhist teachings, despite it being incomprehensible to the majority of Ladakhis who speak a very distinct dialect. The development organisations contest that the colloquial language is a practical means of communication emphasising participation and change.

Whilst material development in Ladakh continues unabated, Butcher argues that “commitment to a ritual economy is still pervasive alongside the transformation to a capitalist economy” (p.325). The thesis culminates in a description of what she terms “the contemporary economy of merit” (Chapter 12), which links the modern political identity to ancient governance in Ladakh and to Himalayan Buddhism more broadly and thereby attempts to confront contemporary challenges. Unlike the forms of Buddhist modernism which dismiss ceremonial life, some Ladakhi religious leaders are remodelling ritual practice to address development challenges. For example, sacred architecture is constructed to protect the climate, and tree planting ceremonies are conducted to restore the environment. Butcher draws upon Ann Frechette’s model of entitlement (Tibetans in Nepal: The Dynamics of International Assistance Among a Community in Exile. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), to show how Ladakhis are reinterpreting their Buddhist identity through the dynamics of development, according to both Buddhist and post-development orthodoxies.

The dissertation contributes to our understandings of the complexities of modern day Buddhist practice in Ladakh, in which powerful global representations can obscure local realities. It uniquely examines the points of friction between ancient government systems, development processes, religio-political influences, and liberal democracy in Ladakh. The work gives credence to the idea that we need a more nuanced understanding of societies targeted for development. As such, it forms a contribution not only to the anthropology of development in that it shows what happens when the discourses of development are made manifest in local contexts where there are strong religious traditions, but to the study of contemporary Buddhist practice – how it is changing and the plurality of discourses that constitute it.

Emily Woodhouse
Department of Anthropology
University College London

Primary Sources

15 months of ethnographic field work in Leh District from October 2009 to July 2012. Six weeks of field work with the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.
Formal and informal interviews with Leh Hill Council, the NGO sector, Buddhist scholars of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Gompa Association, and dharma centres, education institutions, Buddhist social movements, and local laity.
Observations of monastic and prayer festivals, public teachings and workshops.
Local literature, public relations materials, and mission statements of development organisations.

Dissertation Information

University of Aberdeen. 2013. 472 pp. Primary Advisor: Martin Mills. Secondary Advisor: Will Tuladhar Douglas.

Image: New stupa built on the road to Nubra to protect against future disaster. Photograph by author.

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