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In Ladakh, the overall terrain is desert-like. It is very arid and dry for the most part. Therefore, the Ladakhis have become expert at the art of water irrigation. They had little trenches that would run alongside creeks or branching off, sometimes traveling miles before reaching their destination. When we were driving around Ladakh, we would primarily see dry, rocky terrain, sometimes sandy deserts, at other times it would look like we were on the Moon and yet in at least one location, the dark reddish hue could have been Martian. But, wherever there was flowing water, there would be little oases of trees and a few houses, sometimes villages of several dozen houses. It was a visual adventure to track the water by following the path of greenery. The city of Leh got most of its water from a glacier, high above it.
I believe I heard that 95% of Ladakh is desert-like, leaving very little land to cultivate and live on. Ladakh is a fairly large region (maybe similar in size to Texas or France?), but due to its incredible mountains and dry landscape, there are only 150,000 permanent residents. In the summer months, this number might swell to an additional 25 – 35 %. Leh, the capital and main city in Ladakh, has a population of over 20,000 in the summer, as many merchants and workers come in for the few precious warm months to earn some money and entice tourists looking for Kashmiri products. There are a large number of Tibetan refugees living in or near Leh, and their presence was obvious with the dozen or more markets that specialized in Tibetan products. There is also a school for Tibetan refugee children, which I learned about later.
I was in Ladakh for about a month, and it really only rained once. It sprinkled a couple of times, but nothing much in the way of accumulation. I forget the actual numbers, but some months in Ladakh receive very little rainfall (think parched desert). Then there are six months of hard winter, where there is generally always snow on the ground (Oct – Apr).
Briefly, to describe the custom of working (or not), Ladakhis are pretty much all the land owners in their country and they hire people in the summer to work their fields, and to be waiters and porters. It seemed there were certain jobs that were below the Ladakhis (but I might be over-generalizing). It is understood that the Ladakhis are the aristocrats of their region.
Something else note-worthy: the trip guide and the pilgrimage leader (both males) remarked that Ladakh is a matriarchy, though hidden behind a patriarchal front. For instance, in Tibetan Buddhist religion (the primary religion of Ladakh), the lamas and teachers are primarily males. However, the reason for their saying that the women hold a lot of power is that the females, through their collections of jewelry, possess the wealth in Ladakh. This is definitely noticeable (see the upcoming post about the Ladakhi wedding). Some of the jewelry is very elaborate and the cobra-hoods of turquoise and other precious stones are just incredible – sometimes weighing up to 7 kilograms!