By Dr Spalchen Gonbo, Stawa 11-19
Leh market in the summer of 1977
The latest effort in the 'beautification' of Leh market seems to be displacing local vendors, especially womenfolk from Leh who have been selling vegetables in this manner for centuries. Yes, centuries; as is evident from photographs of Leh market taken by Western travellers and explorers. In these photographs, you invariably see ama-leys with their vegetables gracing Leh market. Currently, there are discussions about displacing local vegetable-sellers from the main market as they are disturbing shopkeepers. Their aged and mute companions, the tall poplar trees, have already been removed from the market. This reminded me of a Ladakhi proverb "phiphi tse pe nangpitse pa phings" (The outsider ousted the insider!).This is not very different from situations where humans have built houses by cutting trees in jungles or flattening mountains and then claim that wildlife is intruding into human habitat!
The vegetable sellers have always been targeted .People often complain and question why local ama-leys charge the same rate for vegetables as their Kashmiri counterparts. They reason that the Kashmiris have to pay transport charges, which justifies the high price of their products.
During my visits to France, I have spent a lot of time in the countryside where people live a laborious but prosperous and modern lifestyle. I noticed that in every supermarket there were two kinds of vegetables on sale. One looks rather shiny and fresh, while the other one looks fresh but less shiny and sometimes with the odd insect on them. I was astonished to see that the second category of vegetables was almost always twice the cost of the shiny ones.
My friend Olivier would buy the not-so-shiny vegetables for us and claim that they are organic. The worms on the vegetables were a sort of certificate that no insecticides had been used on the plants. He assumed that everything in Ladakh is organic and seemed rather disillusioned when I told him the truth that some farmers do use insecticides. I compare the costlier varieties in France to the vegetables sold by ama-leys in Leh market. Yes, at the very least Ladakhi vegetables are grown on clean soil and pure glacial meltwater. This will probably continue for a few more years till all our farmlands are built over with hotels and guest houses and our glaciers disappear into a faint memory. Buying vegetables from the ama-leys is a way of encouraging them to continue cultivating as opposed to building a hotel or guest house on their farmland. When you buy these vegetables, you can be assured that they are reasonably fresh and most often without chemicals, insecticides and artificial colours.
The ama-leys selling vegetables also reflects the degree of freedom enjoyed by women in Ladakhi society and reflects the matriarchal structure that existed in the society in the past. If we stop them from selling vegetables at their place of choice in the market it would in a sense mark the final transition of Ladakhi society from a matriarchal to a patriarchal structure. Many people suspect that Ladakhi society was never matriarchal. They argue that it is similar to societies where women have to fight for their rights and remain oppressed. There was a joke circulating in Leh's social circle, of a Ladakhi man walking along Leh market with a non-local guest. When the friend commented that the vegetables sellers were 'poor ladies', the Ladakhi man responded that one of the ladies was the wife of a rich businessman while another was the wife of an officer. Thus, Ladakhi women selling vegetables reflects freedom and the matriarchal structure of Ladakhi society.
In my opinion, ama-leys selling vegetables in Leh market are a part of Ladakhi culture and the soul of this area. Displacing them will not only be against Ladakhi culture but also discourage this eco-friendly business practiced by many families who grow and supply healthy food items to our larger society.