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Travel Diaries: That Time When I Had My Own ‘3 Idiots’ Moment In Ladakh

By Aswati Anand

Flat sand banks embrace Indus as it curves and disappears into the gorge. My friend sits with his cigarette and lets the evening light the barren landscape of Ladakh. With his other hand, he fiddles with a radio, crackling with Radio Kashmir. But the three of us continue to listen to the sound of the river jumping over stones.

 He switches channels and we are listening to Radio Pakistan.

“Whoaaa..” he looks at both of us in wonder and tunes the device again only to get a channel in an entirely foreign language.

“Is that Radio China?”

IMG_2932You get enough reminders that this is a border area- through the hilariously pithy Border Roads Organisation signs (“Be gentle on my curves”), the jokes Ladakhi kids make, the army bunkers, the occasional Air Force planes going overhead and the check posts. Yet, it is difficult to orient yourself geographically in Ladakh when all you see is the sky bowing down to the majesty of these snow-flecked ochre mountains.

Among many a wonder this strange ‘moonland’ has to offer, where the idyllic haze takes over the acute awareness of being at the border, is Pangong Tso (Tibetan for “enchanted lake”).

Pangong lake is in Changthang plateau where the firoza stones Ladakhis wear on their perak (headdress) are found. The region is part of the Tibetan plateau with its dry grasslands, nomads who herd Pashmina goats, the occasional appearances of the Tibetan wild ass and the coy marmots.

After our descent from the massive snow walls of Chang La pass, where the altitude is so high that birds glide past our car like an auto-rickshaw cutting ahead in traffic, Changthang plateau is an entrance to a rugged version of Grimms Fairytale. Wild horses, yaks and pashmina goats drink from melting snow streams meandering through the dry green grasslands. Small stone houses occasionally pass you by. And at the end of this 5-hour-long drive from Leh is this endorheic saltwater lake made famous by Bollywood blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’ – which straddles the India-China border. About 70 percent of the lake sprawls in China – a hard fact that snatches away pleasures of boating on the lake.

IMG_2969In mid-March, we are greeted with a white sheet nestled between the red mountains instead of seven shades of blue that had become part of the lake’s myth. It is as if the saltwater itself is hibernating under the snow. However, a frozen Pangong Tso has other enchantments – a chance to walk on the lake or even better, make snow angels near Line of Actual Control.

But the lake wasn’t always divided.

When Ladakh was ruled by kings from Namgyal line, there was a war between Tibet and Bhutan.

The then ruler, Delden Namgyal, supported Bhutan. Angered, the 5th Dalai Lama sent an army to attack Ladakh in the 1680s. Ladakhis were defeated at Chang La pass and were chased down to Indus valley. The Ladakhi leaders and army hid inside the famed Basgo fort. The Tibetans confined them in the fort for three years.

Desperate, Delden Namgyal asked the Mughal rulers for help. Their help came with a price: that pashmina from Ladakh and Western Tibet be sold only to Kashmir and he must  convert to Islam. After this, Delden Namgyal was known as Aqibat Mahmud Khan in Kashmir. Tibetans, upset with this development, sent a representative to meet the king and signed a treaty in 1684 with the present borders cutting through the Pangong lake. The Ladakhis had to send tributes for Tibetan kings and monasteries every three years and Tibetans agreed to sell the pashmina from western Tibet to Kashmir. Ladakh was never truly independent after this. Subservient to both Kashmir and Tibet after this siege, the kings never tried to expand Ladakh’s borders.

ladakh 1My friends start to make a snowman by the lake’s edge as I stagger around with my camera, listening to the fluttering of prayer flags, sounds of laughter as my friends’ snowman-making exercise devolved into a snow fight, clicking pictures of this expanse of white contrasted starkly by the red mountains hemming the lake in.

Since it is off-season, there are only a few tourists apart from us – eating Maggi, clicking pictures and much to our amusement, asking their bewildered Ladakhi driver for the ‘3 Idiots point’. It can be argued that the movie has brought a lot of tourists to an otherwise isolated region, but I end up chuckling when my friend muttered under her breath, “Well I can see one idiot.”

As we head back to the school we were volunteering in, trying to process the beauty we saw, one of our students broke the spell: “Aap logon ne Pangong nahi dekha, aap ne barf dekha (you didn’t see Pangong, you saw snow).”

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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