As apparent from the title and book-cover itself, the book The Lost World of Ladakh is a collection of century-old photographs of the trans-Himalayan terrain of Ladakh. Tastefully captured by a talented amateur photographer, Claude Rupert Trench Wilmot who was an army officer stationed in India during the British regime in 1930s; the book comprises over 150 black and white photographs of the then Ladakh, when he undertook two different expeditions to the trans-Himalayan territory.
In 1931 and 1934, Wilmot travelled through two of the popular ancient trade routes leading to Ladakh; initially from Kashmir and then from the Kullu Valley. Those were the harsher times when the luxurious option of travelling on trans-Himalayan roads was non-existent. Like others, he travelled on foot with a retinue of servants and guides who carried his luggage and related paraphernalia on pack animals. Much unlike most other travellers of the initial quarter of the previous century, he remained occupied with making photographs and observing the lifestyle of the locals. He later provided informative captions with needed details of his photo records.
Wilmot had engagingly captured the life and times of the people of Ladakh, when the trade still flourished and Leh was the hub of trade routes between Tibet, Kashmir, Kullu and Yarkand. The photographs include portraits of locals, street photography, landscapes as well as some records from monastic ceremonies. The book, in fact, has been compiled by Wilmot’s relatives Nicky Harman as well as Roger Bates, who has digitised the old prints. Published first in 2014 as Volume 31 of Asian Highlands Perspectives, a journal that voices concerns of Tibet and allied geographies, this edition of the book was subsequently published by Stawa Publications of Leh, cultural and administrative headquarters of Ladakh. The edition of the book, which I received last month, has about 135 pages of pure trans-Himalayan love. The book is divided into two parts: the first half detailing the photographs from Wilmot’s journey of 1931 and the second part that showcases the 1934 expedition.
Just before summers of 1931, Wilmot set out on his first journey to Ladakh through the popular trade route – the Treaty Road – via Srinagar and Zoji La in Kashmir. At that time the route, at best a bridle path was passable only on foot. The current highway follows the same route for most part and was opened to vehicular traffic decades later. After reaching Leh, Wilmot made two side-trips, first to the top of the Khardung La on the Karakoram trade route, and then to the monastery at Hemis where he attended the annual Hemis festival as well.
Wilmot undertook the second expedition to Ladakh in the peak of summers of 1934. This time he got himself a new camera – a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex – and travelled south-to-north through the traditional Kullu Valley route to reach Leh. Just as in his previous expedition, this time as well he travelled on foot with pack animals as this route was made motorable much later in 1970s. Both his journeys were significant because of the priceless photographic record it created. Unlike today, during those times, the monks, pilgrims, merchants, peasants and nomads, etc. as documented in the book appear largely as they would have done for hundreds of years.
One thing that unmistakably comes out of the book is the expression of satisfaction and pride even in the otherwise poverty ridden faces of Ladakh. Like most travellers to that part of the trans-Himalayas, Wilmot is particularly enamoured by the streets of Leh bazaar, a thriving hive of not only commercial but cultural activities as well. During those times, travellers visiting Ladakh encountered considerable challenges; something which is made luxurious by present day’s wheeled travelling. Through his photo records, Wilmot has done a remarkable job in portraying traders, nomads, schoolkids, townswomen, herders, farmers and Buddhists monks, etc.
The Ladakh which Wilmot photographed has long since disappeared with the onset of modernisation of trade and transport apart from the political conflict that ensued partition. The book portrays a time when wandering monks, esoteric astrologers, masked dancers and elaborate turquoise headdresses were still common. In bits and pieces, the book brings out the lost folkways of Ladakh when it was still untouched by modernity. The tougher times of mountainous trade that lifted so many of Ladakhis above poverty might have gone but Ladakh still retains the charm that continues to attract travellers from far and wide.
The thing which I don’t like about this edition of the book is its designing. Given the greatness of the content, the layout as well as typeset of the book is actually very pitiful. It seems the local publisher assigned the job of designing the book to a newbie who didn’t even have an access to modern software except for MS Word. I seriously hope that the publisher would rectify this in the next edition. Anyhow, I’d still recommend this book to a devotee of trans-Himalayan travels. The book is currently priced at Rs 630 on Amazon.in