The boughs of the apricot trees in Fayaz Shabir Hussain’s peaceful little orchard in Kargil are heavy with fruit, and the ground beneath them is littered with those that the fruit-pickers couldn’t get to in time.
It is perhaps an apt metaphor for the immense, yet wasted, potential of this impoverished no-man’s land, a Himalayan Shangri-la tucked away between two warring nations.
Fayaz himself is a gracious and personable thirty-three year-old, brimming with ideas for the economic development of his homeland. Yet, even as an English-speaking university graduate, the opportunities available to him are close to none, and he fills his time doing odd jobs in the nearby town. A keen naturalist, he hopes that one day, someone in the government will take seriously his proposal to establish an ethno-botany museum in the area.
Fayaz is to be my guide for the next six days, along with Gulzar Hussain (no relation—this is a Shia stronghold and posters extolling the Ayatollah and the Iranian revolution can be seen everywhere). Gulzar is a half-Buddhist, half-Shia mountaineering and wildlife expert in the region.
Together, the two of them will introduce me to the astounding biodiversity of this land. I say astounding, first because hardly anyone knows of its existence and, second, with ten to twenty centimeters of rainfall annually, Kargil is a cold desert.
The very first day of our expedition, Gulzar persuades a family friend on the Buddhist side, an eighty-four year old Ladakhi herbalist or Amchi, to come out foraging with us.
The Amchi, drawing upon a body of knowledge that has been accumulated over thousands of years, has a keen eye for the hidden munificence of a seemingly harsh land.
He tells us that he began his training in childhood, under the rigorous supervision of his father and grandfather, also Amchis. For the first four years, he had to memorize the classical texts on medicine. Only then, he was allowed to accompany his elders on foraging trips.
On these trips, he learned when and where to forage for certain plants so that their healing properties were at their most potent. Then, he learned how to extract, combine and process the medicines in these plants to maximize their effectiveness. It is a sophisticated tradition, and no man of science could convince me otherwise.
To my untrained eyes, the mountain we are about to climb has no discernible plant life. Yet within five minutes, our Amchi has uprooted several shrubs to show us.
The first one is Artermis vulgaris (mugwort), a plant with a distinctive, bracing smell that I will instantly recognize whenever I pass by it in the following days. The Amchi tells me that it is a very important plant in both Tibetan and Chinese pharmacopeia, and when used in appropriate combinations, can cure everything from arthritis to zygomycosis.
The second plant is Urtica hyperborean (a stinging nettle) known locally as Zatsot. It was made famous by the eleventh century Buddhist monk Milarepa, who turned green from a diet of nothing but Zatsot tea. The Amchi ascribes Milarepa’s miraculous powers to this potent plant and relays the following anecdote:
Milarepa was wandering through the marketplace stark naked, announcing to anyone who would listen that he would be ascending to heaven later that day and would they like to accompany him. A homeless old woman with nothing to lose volunteered. To the astonishment of all, Milarepa took her by the hand and, together, the both of them flew up into the awaiting skies.
Even today, Zatsot is sometimes cooked and eaten as a vegetable, although such feats as the one just described appear to be confined to the hoary past.
The next day, we climb the alpine meadows of the Sapi valley. Here, at an elevation of almost five thousand four hundred meters, within sight of celestial glaciers, we find native orchids, buttercups, delphiniums (larkspurs) and aconitums (monkshood), roses, asters, louseworts (a horrid name for such a pretty flower), geraniums and so on, all growing in the wild. In a single day, we collect more than thirty species of plants.
On our way down from the arduous climb, we stop occasionally so that Fayaz can perform his prayers, the sweet sounds of his devotion settling gently atop our exhaustion.
That night, Dawabai, our cook (but also an accountant and a guide in his own right back in his native Nepal), celebrates our return with pizza topped with canned cherries, peas and cheese. It is delicious.
Dawabai, it bears noting, has just joined us from cooking for Bollywood superstar Salman Khan and his crew, who are in Ladakh to shoot a film. After dinner, Dawabai and Fayaz entertain us by crooning old Bollywood melodies.
As Fayaz was unable to identify some of the species we have collected, the following morning we go into the village neighboring our campsite, where we are referred to the local Amchi. Amchis, it must be noted, typically serve the same community over generations.
(The Shias of Kargil are relatively late arrivals at around six hundred years ago and have no indigenous plant knowledge of their own—although Fayaz tells me of one Shia Amchi who lives near Leh, who it later turns out is a relative of Gulzar’s on the Shia side. As a result, most know little of the wondrous properties of Kargil’s native plants, which in turn poses a challenge for conservation in Shia-majority Kargil.)
This Amchi is (yet again) a seventy-year old gentleman who does not hesitate to share his knowledge, an admission perhaps that if not us, then who? After all, the younger generations are all turning to the much more lucrative practice of modern medicine.
Among the plants the Amchi identifies for us is Ganga Choong (botanical name unknown), a miniature cabbage rose-like flower, used in thirty-five other medicines and also a cure for jaundice.
Then there is the hardy Cicer microphyllum or Sarii (a wild relative of the cultivated chickpea), which can miraculously survive the frigid winters thanks to a cold gene. It is normally fed to cows to treat bleeding ulcers, but is sometimes used to treat excessive bleeding during menstruation.
Of particular interest are several kinds of Ranunculaceae. Of the two hundred and fifty-one known species of Ranunculaceae, seventy-two are endemic to the Himalayas.
Delphinium brunonianum or Chargotspos, normally thought of as poisonous, is used here to treat infections and also as a cheaper substitute for valerian.
Aconitum heterophyllum or Burma Karpo is a very important plant in Indian pharmacopeia and also a critically endangered species. It has been used since ancient times both as a poison and as an antidote and to treat a wide variety of diseases including gastric disorders and high fevers.
From Sapi, we move on to the Suru valley, home to the Suru river, a tributary of the mighty Indus. On our way, we see peaks that are across the border in Pakistan, where some of Fayaz’s distant relatives live even today. The threat of war is ever present, and the Indian military is everywhere.
Both Fayaz and Gulzar tell me indignantly that Kargil’s tightly-knit Shia community—all of them friends or family — gave every assistance possible to the Indian armed forces in the 1999 war against Pakistan, a fact that went unreported in the Indian media.
Although Kargil is administered as part of Sunni-majority Kashmir, its Shia community is pro-India and anti-Kashmir. The Sunni-Shia rivalry is pervasive: Fayaz says that when he was a student in Srinagar, the Kashmiri shopkeepers could tell from the Asiatic tilt of his eyes that he was not one of them and were rude and dismissive as a result.
Dependent on largesse from the Kashmiris, Kargil’s ambitious and educated have little say over their affairs and as a result, its economic potential lies untapped.
Apart from being an ideal location for pharmaceutical companies (biodiversity aside, the cold climate also makes it an energy-efficient location for warehousing drugs), Kargil’s many rivers could, if harnessed properly, provide more than 1200 MW of hydroelectric power.
In terms of agriculture too, the superlative produce of this region (you’ve never eaten a potato like a Kargil potato) would have many takers, if only logistics permitted.
The Suru valley is a veritable forest of Hippophae salicifolia or sea buckthorn. Sea buckthorn was recently rediscovered as one of those super fruits whose “10 miraculous properties” the Internet loves to write about, but it’s been in use for a long time.
Legend has it that Gengis Khan ate the orange berries regularly and also fed them to his horses to give them the strength required to wage his campaigns (hence the genus name, hippo meaning “horse” and phaos meaning “shining”).
Walking alongside golden wheat fields, we find random concentrations of Podophyllum hexandrum or Denmokushu (sometimes known as Himalayan mayapples), whose cancer-fighting properties are currently being investigated.
A lovely blue orchid, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, is again critically endangered, but has long been used in Ayurveda for its aphrodisiac properties. An insubstantial weed-like plant turns out to be shahi-jeera, the cumin of kings, or Carum carvi.
The mood in the valley is mellow. Summer is coming to an end and most of the hard work of harvesting has been gotten out of the way. In a few weeks, temperatures will start to drop precipitously, and in no time at all, winter will arrive. Human and plant life must batten down their hatches. (This is not a land of supermarkets.)
A family feasting in a tent calls out a greeting to us, and Gulzar bullies them into offering us some of their lamb biryani. Gulzar and Sharif, our driver, play with green- and blue-eyed children who want their photos taken. Then they jostle each other to look into the camera’s viewfinder.
“Our lamb is the best in the world,” boasts Fayaz.
I try, but fail, to explain to him how I have mixed feelings about my cosmopolitan existence. In his rootedness, he cannot understand my rootlessness.
Nor does he consider that the economic development he yearns for might come at the cost of all of this: the beauty of a life lived in harmony with nature’s cycles, just as it has been for thousands of years.
I know it will, because it happened to my tribe, not even that far away from here and not even that long ago.