The cold border. A Himalayan winter
The Himalayan regions of West India, Kashmir and Ladakh, belong to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, bordering Pakistan and Tibet. Politically they are part of India, but culturally they are far apart from the rest of the nation, both because of the rough terrain and the people’s firm will to maintain their autonomy. For different reasons, but with the same tenacity, the inhabitants of Kashmir and Ladakh have always opposed to the integrating actions of central government; India has reacted violently to the Kashmiri people and left the Ladakhis to their own devices. I spent the winter between 2016 and 2017 in these regions.
It has been part of India since 1947, and a land of bloody conflict since 1990. The annexation was decided by Hari Singh – the Hindu Maharaja who had ruled the region since before the Second World War – to counteract Pakistani insurrection. In 1953, Kashmir’s first aspirations for autonomy manifested, and the central government reacted by imposing a long series of puppet administrations. The situation remained relatively quiet until 1990, when, after yet another electoral fraud directed against the opposition, people took to the streets to protest. The Indian troops opened fire on the crowd, killing more than fifty people. This led to the civil war, with thousands of deaths on both sides – that of the pro-independence Kashmiri and that of the Indian soldiers and pro-India Kashmiri. In the summer of 2016 there was yet another upheaval, and the Indian government reacted by killing more than a hundred protesters and blinding thousands of others with the use of pellet guns. I arrived in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, at the end of November, and I found an half destroyed city, preparing for a winter of desolation. I attempted to capture this atmosphere in my photographs.
Nestled in one of the roughest and most inaccessible areas of the Himalayas, it’s historically tied to Tibet with which it also shares its chief religion – Tibetan Buddhism – and to which it was previously commercially tied. In fact, Ladakh played a key role in trading with Central and Southern Asia, but following the closure of the Chinese border, it’s undergone a process of strong isolation. Resultantly, thereafter the Buddhist schools of thought in the region have had a more autonomous development.
In the photos I capture the winter life of Phuktal monastery in which I stayed for a time – one of the most important and ancient monasteries of Ladakh. I also photographed the journey that you have to make in winter to reach it: fifty miles on a frozen river amongst the Himalayan peaks. Due to the remote position of the monastery, monks’ way of life has remained the same over the centuries, and the influence of globalisation has been minimal; at the same time however, the indifference of the Indian central government for this border region has put a strain on the members of the community who, because of the lack of infrastructure and concrete aid, risk their lives every winter.
Last summer in Srinagar, the fight between those demonstrating for independence and the army was not only incredibly harsh, but sorely imbalanced. The weapons used by the army included tear gas, pellet guns, assault rifles and bazookas, while stones were the weapons used by the protesters. What’s more, the demonstrators were mostly kids from the age of ten to twenty-five who want the azaadi – the freedom of their people – and for the Indians “go back home”, just as it is written everywhere on building walls and on the shutters of closed shops. Yet if you ask them what they mean when they speak of freedom, at first it seems they do not know. Soon though you change your mind, especially by observing how they move their arms, bodies, and eyes. There is a desire for independence so deep and desperate, such a deeply-rooted demand, that to translate it into words would be a form of treason and infidelity. When they say “freedom”, they shout and pull up their shirts to show their scars, then spit.
I arrive in Srinagar at the end of November. I live in the Lake Dal area, the big lake in the center of town. To get home, a shack, I walk on long gangways and unstable wooden bridges, the dense network of paths connecting the islets of the lake where the water is shallower. On the muddy islands there are cracked concrete houses, stilt houses and ruins destroyed by fires. Floating on the dirty water there are long and narrow houseboats of rotten wood. On the doors, men wearing the peeran appear, with dark expressions. They scrutinise, spit, and go back inside. There is a humid cold, a cut-throat cold, and among the sparse trees that stretch obliquely towards the sky, thin and bare, there is dense fog. It is a nucleus of haze that turns gangrenous from the pollution of the diesel engines and of the coal used to warm up the houses. The horizon is obstructed, and not only the spatial one, but also the temporal one. The year when civil war began is as evanescent as the soft profile of the mountains beyond the great lake; they are like intuitions, things that cannot be sure.
I wander around the city, in search of the history in this part of the planet where you can touch it with your own hands. It knocks on your chest at every breath, you can feel it in a night of nightmares, pitch dark night, when the places deny themselves the light and the dogs bark, hated by people. Rotten dogs, without legs, frayed, rabid. A history made by the stones flying from the hand of a boy without an eye, and the face of the soldier with the rifle. A tiny yet huge story, the story of the Kashmiri War, so extensive that you can see neither beginning nor end; a story that collapses on the burning school and church, in front of which I happen to pass.
One day at the Srinagar Hospital, I meet a twenty-three old guy blinded in one by a bullet wound. He tells me about the fight against the army.
“Well, now I will try to explain you something, though it’s a bit difficult to understand,” he tells me. “What I realized of us throwing stones and trying to kill the fucking soldiers, and above all what I understood of myself, is that the first reason why we do it is not freedom. Freedom means an independent Kashmir, and I hope that one day it will happen, and we all pray for it to happen as soon as possible. But a stone? Is a stone enough to make Kashmir independent? We are not stupid, certainly not. The independence of our nation is far away, it will happen in a long time. Mind you, I firmly believe it. I’m not saying otherwise. But at times of greater discomfort, I have been known to reduce my certainty to a slight hope. So I fight to reawaken myself, to come back to belief. And I do it also to reawaken those who begin to say that India will never give up. We have never been granted any freedom, we have only been deprived of it. Many times I have been told: ‘you fight, but you cannot win.’ And so I respond: ‘But we do not let them defeat us!’”
(click on the image below to open the gallery)
2. The roads
Teshi, a fourteen-year-old monk, drives me around the mountains that surround the Phuktal Monastery. “Over there they lead the yaks to graze,” he tells me, “down there is the river where we wash the clothes and at the end of that trail there is the village where I was born.” Phuktal clings to the rock, a citadel of thirty white buildings, in stone.
“They brought me to the monastery when I was five,” says Teshi, “and I’ve lived here all my life”. We are very high on a ridge from where we can see the whole valley, and the wind blows. “What was there, Teshi?”, I ask him while I point to the concrete debris next to the river. “Our school, last year a flood destroyed it,” he replies. He then dives down the mountainside, running along the path leading to the monastery, and at some point he suddenly stops, turns and asks me where I come from. “Rome, Teshi, I told you a hundred times. Why do you keep asking me?”
He frowns for a moment, and then smiles. “The capital of Italy! I’m glad you came from so far to meet me,” he says, and then he starts running like a fool. He knows all the capitals of the world and is sure to know why I came here, even if he does not tell me.
I stay in Phuktal for more than two weeks and I spend most of the days together with the fifty boys who live in the monastery with their seven masters. We are always on the large trapezoidal terrace in the center of the monastery where most of the activities take place. Meals, prayers, lessons, and games. I’m in a corner observing, and sometimes Teshi comes to me to ask for the things he wants to know about me and to try to teach me the principles of Gelupa philosophy, the school of Tibetan Buddhism studied in Phuktal. I struggle to keep up with him as I do not have the means to really understand, but I listen in silence.
Phuktal is far away. I arrive there at the end of December, after walking for three days through the Himalayas. Most of the monks living here never leave Ladakh. Only those who are chosen to become Geshe – doctors in Buddhist philosophy – spend a part of their lives out of here. They are sent to study in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives, and when they finish their studies they return to Ladakh to teach.
In Phuktal there is a Geshe named Tinlè. He confides in me that after the years spent out of Ladakh, coming back here has been very hard for him. I ask him why.
“Because of the things I think about, which have all changed. Before leaving Phuktal I was used to think only about what I was studying, and what I saw around me. Then I used to think about the food for the winter, the organization of the prayers, the river that was going to freeze. Now I can’t stop thinking about the roads of Moscow, about all the cars passing by.”
“The roads of Moscow?”
“Yes, I stayed there for a few weeks, once. There was a conference on Buddhism where I was invited to speak. I do not remember what I said... But I can’t stop thinking about the roads now, and when I do not think about them I dream of them, those big roads full of cars...”
I arrived at Phuktal in the afternoon and they put me in a large room with hard and dusty mattresses. I laid down and rested for a while until they called me for dinner. At the end of the meal the prayer began, very intense, with the boys almost shouting. When the prayer was over, the boys got up suddenly, while I remained there sitting for a while, with my face hidden in my hands. That was the first time Teshi spoke to me. He approached me and asked me if I was alright, then grabbed me by the hand and led me to the stupa of the monastery, the conic-shaped monument inside of which are kept the ashes of an ancient monk. We started walking around it slowly, many times.
“Do you know what you have to think about now?” Teshi asked me.
“Nothing, I guess.”
“I’m not capable, unfortunately.”
“Don’t worry, me neither. But sooner or later we will be, I’m sure.”
(click on the image below to open the gallery)
3. Wolves laugh
I suddenly woke up from a dream in which I was escaping from some terrible dangers, and feeling past loves on my lips. I woke up to the screams of the wolves; Himalaya, total night without lights, hard stars, wolves are hunting – and the snow leopards too. The prey is the same: yaks lowering their horns and trying to pierce their guts. If you take them lower than three thousand meters they stop working, but here they fight with unfailing rage. It makes you think about the tenacity of the flames, or about the unpleasant hardness of the rock.
I’m in a cave, stuffed inside the sleeping bag, while outside a brutal wind blows. I left Phuktal seven days ago and now I’m on the Zangskar river: there are places in India that can only be reached on foot in winter – and Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is one of these. In January, you can get there only if you walk on the ice of the frozen river.
I leave the sleeping bag for a moment to pour kerosene on the wood and to throw a match on, then I get back inside. “That’s Vega,” I say to myself as I look at the brighter star of the piece of sky I see from down here. When I was a kid my father used to bring me to the top of our building in Rome and point our telescope straight to the sky. We couldn’t see shit. Here you can see almost everything though, and especially what’s inside. Like the past, which chokes.
Some days I walk for hours without meeting any living soul. Other days I follow the Ladakhis who return to Leh with their backpacks loaded onto rudimentary sledges they drag behind them. They run, and to follow I have to run as well. I slip many times, and for every wound here the memory stings. You see them coming, the memories. You see them coming already from the present. You just have to lick – like the wolves, like the yaks. But then they stop and laugh, the Ladakhis. It’s a piece of cake. They don’t give a shit about the cold – no gloves, tattered pants, salt tea. I try to learn, but it’s impossible, it’s another skin. They do what they do and that’s it, without thinking. In the morning, after the screams of the wolves come the screams of their prayers. You can hear them coming from far away like avalanches or floods.
“Hey, Ya-ko-po, you want some tea?”
“You see that?” Stanzin points at the mountain wall.
“Yes, what’s that?”
“My cousin died there. Three years ago.” He says so and laughs – in Ladakh when death is involved people always laugh. The ice seems to hold, we put the steel cups and the bread back in the bags and we start running again.
It was Geshe Tinlè who explained to me how to get back to Leh on the Zangskar River. “Go to the end of the trail, get down on the river and start walking,” he told me.
“Some days and you will get to Leh.”
“Alone?” I asked him.
“Don’t be silly. It will be full of Ladakhis, ask them where to go, where to walk, how to eat. So you will not die”.
Halfway between Phuktal and Leh I stopped in the village of Nerak. To get there you have to leave the river and climb up the mountainside. There is no vegetation, only black stones. Arriving at the village, Tsatar came to meet me, a thin kid with a hoodie who took me to his house, and we stayed there for a couple of days. He lived with his grandfather, who never left the valley, and we all drank a tremendous wine that they make there. Tsatar’s sister had a hunchback, their kitchen ceiling was black from cooking smoke, and the walls were covered in Tibetan writing. The wolves had killed two of their yaks the previous week. When I left, Tsatar hugged me for a long time. He couldn’t believe I was leaving. We went around many times, searching for traces of the killed animals.
This night that I wake up in the cave, light the fire, and leave the dreams. Then I go to the river and put my hands in it. I take the water and I drink. Then I think. I feel alone but I’m fine, I’m perfectly inside of myself. Nothing comes out of this envelope; I’m all in my flesh. The thoughts fit one into the other, and form a long row, firstly inarticulate, and then more and more ordered; straight from the brain to the center of the stomach, where I feel a great heat.
In certain places, when dawn comes, with the loneliness and the cold and all, I have the clear impression of an epiphany, and I hope that the evidence is coming to my eyes; the idea of having finally understood something. It lasts a little. My sensitivity becomes sharper for a moment, and makes everything more concrete. When it’s gone, everything comes back in. Everything in here.
(click on the image below to open the gallery)