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Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India

Date of Submission: 15/04/2015
Criteria: (iii)(v)(vi)(x)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
States of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and Himachal Pradesh (HP)
Coordinates: N 32 01 5 to 36 00 E 75 15 to 80 15 N 31 04 4 to 32 05 9 E 76 04 6 to 78 04 1
Ref.: 6055
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India is situated in the Himalayas and stretches from Ladakh (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, or J&K) in the north to Kinnaur (in the state of Himachal Pradesh, or H.P.) in the south. Administratively, it can be said to comprise the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh division in J&K, Spiti region of the Lahaul and Spiti district in H.P. and a part of Kinnaur District in the state of H.P.

The region constitutes a Cold Desert biome with harsh climatic conditions, which can be attributed to two factors. One is its location on the leeward side of the Himalayas, which makes it a rain-shadow zone inaccessible to the annual south eastern monsoon winds that sweep the rest of the country, thus creating desert conditions with low levels of precipitation[1]. Second is its very high elevation (ranging from 3000 – 5000m ASL)[2] that adds to the coldness in its environment.A huge seasonal variation is seen in the climatic conditions, ranging from short and dry summers with harsh sunlight (maximum temperature reaching upto 36˚C during the day) to long, windy and freezing winters (minimum temperature touching -32˚C at night). Blizzards, snowstorms and avalanches are common. The soil is not very fertile and the climatic conditions allow very short growing seasons making it a bare landscape. Water resources are minimal and comprise glacier-fed streams.

These physiographic peculiarities and ensuing harsh climatic conditions have led to the emergence of a unique Cold Desert ecosystem as well as Culture of the community, which is unlike any other in the world. Within this one geographic unit lie many settlements, scattered across the landscape at locations that provide marginally improved conditions for habitation, nestled within valleys protected from harsh winds and located near rivulets. The settlements are small, isolated, sparsely populated and their planning a testament to the harsh terrain and environment. The population belongs predominantly to the Indo-Mongoloid (Tibetan) race with some parts of western Ladakh occupied by the Dards, who are intermediaries of Ladakhis and Baltis of the neighbouring Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The property displays a distinct Buddhist culture that is similar to the one of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The people are simple folk used to hard labour with colourful customs, myths, beliefs and conventions that contrast with the barren and harsh environment andform the cultural highlight of this region.

Despite a common narrative, two distinct regions of human habitation and culture can be distinguished within this cold desert, namely (1) the Leh-Kargil areas of Ladakh (J&K) and (2) Spiti Valley (H.P.). Although they have been closely linked throughout the ages politically and socially, the two regions have different histories attributable to their isolated geographic locations and separate access routes, from Indian as well as Tibetan sides. While Ladakh lay on the trade routes from Punjab to Kashmir, and beyond to Baltistan (Skardo), Kashgar, Yarqand, Khotan (Eastern Central Asia or Xinjiang), Gartok, Lhasa (in Tibet) with Leh acting as an important trade centre, Spiti valley was more isolated and split into eastern and western valleys, connected with Ladakh & Tibet on eastern side & Kinnaur and Kulu on western side through high passes.

Ladakh (‘land of the passes’) is one of the most elevated (2,900 m to 5,900 m msl), and coldest regions (from -30°C to -70°C) of the earth. In consonance with the above description, its topography is barren and population sparse inhabited along the river banks of different valleys namely Indus, Nubra, Changthang, Zanskar and Suru. The mean annual precipitation is less than 50 mm, received mostly in the form of snowfall during winters. The region faces fast blowing winds 40-60 km/hr mainly in the afternoon hours. The soil moisture remains frozen during winters and with low relative humidity during the summer months.Despite such inhospitable conditions for survival, it is postulated that Ladakh has been occupied by humans since pre-historic times, as evidenced in the discovery of Lower Palaeolithic tools, Petroglyphs and other pre-historic art works that mark the beginning of man’s interaction with this cold desert landscape. Evidence of its continued occupation can be ascertained throughout history since then, which is closely associated with Tibet.[3]

Spiti, locally pronounced as 'Piti', is known as the ‘middle country’ that lies between Tibet and India. Throughout history, it kept changing hands among the various kingdoms of Tibet, Ladakh, Kinnaur, Lahaul and Kullu. Subjugated to successive attacks and influences, many a times the rulers had to pay attributes to one another to keep peace in the region. The archaeological records substantiate that the original inhabitants in these regions were also pastoral nomads who braved harsh climatic conditions of all sorts. For protection, they defied the natural forces and elements, and began to worship them. It is believed that this is how the Naga Cult (cult of snake worship) and others came into existence that revolve around the worship of natural features as tree, rivers, sun, moon et al. The river Spiti originates at the base of the Kunzam range and flows eastward to join the Sutlej at Khab in Kinnaur. Spiti has its sub divisional headquarters at Kaza and is inhabited by over 113 villages, of which 81 are permanent settlements and 32 are temporary. The inhabitants are largely dependent on agriculture, wild resources such as Droh, Gandam (Triticumaestivum), Neh, Jau (Hordeum himalayense) and medicinal plants for their livelihood. About 118 species of the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants are known from the valley. Various activities such as cultivation of medicinal plants, afforestation, ecotourism, land stabilization, etc. are carried out in these zones by the Central and State Government agencies to support the sustenance of its people.

Almost all settlements in the property are associated with Buddhist monasteries known as Gompas[4] with a trademark prayer flag fluttering on top.Built either on flat land or atop the neighbouring hillock depending upon local factors, these shrines are the centers of the people’s cultural life and have influenced their religious beliefs for centuries. Men usually fall back on the social security system of the Trans-Himalayan Gompas. The architecture of the region is an interesting amalgamation of Indian and Tibetan influences, and monastic buildings reflect a deeply Buddhist approach. Important Gompas in the J&K region include Hemis, AlchiChoskhor, Lamayaru, Likir, Thikse and Ridzon. Important Gompas in the H.P. region include Dhankar, Ki, Tabo, Mud, Gungri, Lidang, Hikim, Sagnam, Mane Gogma and Giu.[5] Each settlement and its Gompa have their own unique associationand the predominant culture is intensely introverted.

There are other architectural manifestations unique to this region. One is the Chorten (‘receptacle of worship’), which are remarkable types of stupas, and the Mani walls, long and thick platform-like row of stones, about 1 to 1.25 m high and 1.25 m wide, faced with carved stones inscribed with holy mantras.

The intangible cultural heritage of the property is also exceptional and diverse including agricultural and medicinal practices. The “Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the Trans-Himalayan Ladakh Region, Jammu and Kashmir, India”, has been inscribed since 2012 as one of elements on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Buddhist lamas (priests) in monasteries and villages of Ladakh, Lahul-Spiti and Kinnaur chant sacred texts representing the spirit, philosophy and teachings of the Buddha. The performing arts (traditional dance including mask dance, theater, contemporary plays, folk music), craft-making techniques (thangkas, carpet weaving, pashmina and marino shawls and local quilt weaving, prayer flags of cloth, gold, silver, bronze sculptures, copper objects, wooden furniture including manuscript shelves, stone, stucco and clay), customs (sacred paintings, agriculture farming, kitchen-gardening, culinary, giving birth, wedding, death et al), rituals and beliefs (medicinal ritual called Am-chi), language and literature (heroic accomplishments, folk stories, legends, classical and vernacular language, dialects, songs, poems, ancient scripts), etc. are parts of cultural legacy and well-maintained intangible heritage traditions of the property.

The natural heritage of the property is equally, if not more, unique. As discussed above, the region constitutes a Cold Desert biome with harsh climatic conditions. It displays an extremely fragile ecosystem that shows a complex relationship of the climatic and geomorphological processes, and exhibits very less but highly endemic diversity. Many rare and special varieties of flora and fauna are found here so much so that many national parks and wildlife reserves have been declared here by the Government for their protection. Furthermore, the Cold Desert has been declared as the 16th Biosphere Reserve of India in 2009 that includes Pin Valley National Park and surroundings, Chandratal and Sarchu, and the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in H.P. The Changtang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in district Leh, J&K is another protected habitat for flora and fauna in the region. In H.P., among the floral elements, medicinal and aromatic plants such as Aconitum rotundifolium, Arnebiaeuchroma, Ephedra gerardiana, Ferula jaeschkeana, Hyoscymusniger are very well known, and one of the livelihood options for tribal communities. Among the faunal elements, Woolly Hare, Tibetan Gazzle, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Black Bear, Himalayan Brown Bear, Snow Leopard, Red Fox, Tibetan Wolf, Himalayan Ibex, Himalayan Marmot, Himalayan Blue Sheep, Red Billed Chough, ChukarPatridge, Snow Patridge, Blue Rock Pigeon, Snow Pigeon, Himalayan Snowcock, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Golden Eagle, Rosefinches, et al are found in the area. Presence of these unique cultural and biodiversity elements in the proposed landscape has high significance at regional, national and global levels.


[1]The annual average precipitation for Ladakh and Zanskar (J&K) is only around 100 mm while that of Spiti valley (H.P.) is 170 mm as against the annual national average of 1083 mm.

[2]The elevation of mountains/mountain peaks is much higher.

[3]It is believed that people from the Steppes of Central Asia came to populate these areas between Khazakstan and China during Bronze Age (circa fourth millenium BCE). Remnants of prehistoric art further suggest that early immigrants to these regions were pastoralists who were attracted to the valleys and high mountains of the cold desert for summer transhumance. It is also a popular belief that Buddhism was first introduced to Ladakh about 200 BCE during the reign of Maurya Emperor, Asoka the Great. The first Buddhist temple in Ladakh is believed to have been constructed in the Suru valley near Kargil. The Kanika stupa at Sani in Zanskar is another famous stupa which some believe to have been constructed by the Kushan ruler, Kanishka, in second century CE. Ladakh is also mentioned by the Chinese travelers Fa-Hein (405-411) and Hiuen Tsang (630-645 CE), who passed through this area and referred to it as Kia-Chha and Ma-Lo-Pho respectively. In the eight century CE, during the reign of Tibetan king, Khri-strong-Ide-btsan, the famous Indian scholar, Padmasambhava, also known as U-rgyan-Rinpoche, visited Baltistan and Ladakh. It was Padmasambhava who together with the great BhikhuShantaRakshita (Mkhan-chen-zhi-was-‘tsho) firmly established Buddhism in Ladakh and Tibet. But, origin of historic Ladakh is connected with the decline and fall of Tibetan monarchy in 842 CE. The kings of the First Royal Dynasty of Ladakh kingdom are stated to have ruled the Western Tibet and Ladakh region from around the first millennium CE. Some historians inform that king dPal-gyimGon, a direct descendant of the first king of Tibet, was the real founder of Ladakhi kingdom. After his death, Ladakh region was divided in smaller principalities, and his eldest son, Dpal-gyi-mgon (1000-1025) became the first king of Ladakh. During the rule of successive kings of Ladakh, several important monasteries, palaces, statues, Mani walls, and others, were founded and many of Buddha’s teachings were written in gold ink for paintings, and His acts for thankas. For the first time in Ladakh, a nunnery was founded at Thikse, which preserves finest art work of nunnery created using gold and stone colour: the names of the artists are also recorded on the frescos.

[4]Gompas are constructed at a level ground as well as on higher locations on hills. Established by various kings and scholar lamas throughout history, the monasteries of early period comprising a single large hall or several halls, were enclosed by a boundary wall (Cagas-ri) if constrcuted on plain or low hills. On plan, a simple gompa generally comprises three units: a Lha-Khang (assembly hall containing a statue of the protecting deities), a Du-Khang (a room containing sacred image of Buddhist pantheon, and a chair of the owner of the monastery), and a Gon-Khang (a room for depositing monks’ belongings, including masks and weapons used during festivals).  Besides, the monstery has a Chamara (a forecourt) which is used to perform various rituals including mask dance, and other monastic activites.  In bigger monastic complexes, there may be many more units to serve of the purpose of more chapels, housing Tangyurs (manuscripts), and others. On elevation, the monastic complex may have a single, double, or more stories. In case of old and more popular monasteries, there are Zimshung (His Holiness’s residential room) which is the private room of the Head Lama. Added to it in big monsteries are Tashaks (small dwelling rooms for laity) attached to the main complex of the monasteries.  Tashaks may also be isolated and scattered at a lower level than the monstery. In addition, a monastery may also have a Prayer Wheel, which may be big or small, singular or in a single long row, along the circumambulation path of the monastery for faithfuls to turn the wheels and accumulate merits. Most altars of the big monasteries have on them a neat arragement of silver, jade and amber cups, dorje bells, incense burners which may at times be fashioned like gargyyles, brass and jade figurines, etc. The walls of the monasteries are more or less decorated with frescos depicting Buddhist subjects drawn from Buddha’s life and his ideals. Apart from frescos, walls are also embellished with thankas (paintings on cloth) displaying Jataka stories and other Buddhist themes. An exceptional thanka, believed to be the biggest in the world, having an image of Padmasmbhava in his eight principle forms, and embroider with pearls, is ritually exhibited once in twelve year in the year of “Monkey”, according to the Buddhist Calendar, in Hemis monastery.

[5] The Ki Monastery (4116m), located 12 km north of Kaza above Ki village is the oldest and biggest monastery of the valley and serves the western population of Spiti. It houses beautiful scriptures and paintings of Budha and other goddesses. Lamas practice dance, sing and play on pipes and horns. Many Lamas get religious training here. It has murals and books of high aesthetic value. The ThangYugGompa is located 13km above Kaza in KazaNallah and serving western part of central Spiti. It generally has a Lama from Tibet. There is a long plateau above this Gompa which leads to Shilla peak. The KungriGompa is situated in the Pin valley about 10 kms from Attargo and serves the population of Pin valley. The DhankarMonestery is situated about 25 km east of Kaza and serves eastern part of central Spiti. Dhankar is a big village and erstwhile capital of Spiti Kingdom. On the top of a hill, there is a fort which used to be the prison in olden times. The Monastery has about 100 Lamas and Budhist scriptures in Bhoti language. The Statue of "Vairochana" (DhayanBudha) consisting of 4 complete figures seated back to back is the principal figure. The Tabo Monastery serving the population of eastern side belongs to the tenth century and located 50 km from Kaza. It is a famous Gompa next to TholingGompa in Tibet. It has about 60 Lamas and a large collection of scriptures, wall paintings etc. KyilKhor or Mystic Mandala temple is placed on the backside of the main complex. It is home to some beautiful faded mandalas (frescos). DromtonLhakhang and Maitreya Chapel are the two famous chapels to the north of the temple complex.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India comprises a stunning bare landscape in the north-western part of the country beyond the Greater Himalayas that is dotted with lofty mountains kissing the azure blue sky, clear streams in deep gorges and little vegetation that provides uninterrupted breathtaking views; a setting that receives abundant sunlight and snow but little rainfall. This region, spread across parts of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and Himachal Pradesh (H.P.) has been documented to have a unique Cold Desert ecosystem with rare and endangered varieties of flora and fauna, so much so that many national parks and wildlife reserves have been declared here for their protection. The human settlements are small, isolated, sparsely populated and their planning a testament to the harsh terrain and environment.

The proposed property is a trans-Himalayan marginal plateau land and edge region between the Greater Himalayas of India and the main Tibetan Plateau, which is an unparalleled location both physically and culturally. Rooted in Buddhism, the culture of the region is strongly affiliated with Tibet but traces of Indian influences make it unique and one of its kind, which is also manifest in its architecture and intangible traditions that are already world renowned.

Criteriom (iii): The Cold Desert region has a unique culture of its own which is an amalgamation of Indian and Tibetan influences, is reflective in the form of Buddhism practiced here and further manifest in its art, architecture, lifestyle, food, clothing, dance, music et al. The proposed property provides an exceptional testimony to this cultural tradition which has evolved over centuries and is living.

Criterion (v):  The difficult terrain and climate of the region have shaped the location and nature of settlements that are nestled in valleys near rivulets. With a Gompa atop a neighboring hillock, the settlements follow specific patterns of layout, architectural vocabulary, façade treatments et al that are high representations of human interaction with such a difficult environment. In addition to the already difficult living conditions, phenomena such as global warming and Himalayan glacier melting are adding to the challenges being faced by the community and threatening their whole way of life.

Criterion (vi):  The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India has a large repository of exceptional intangible cultural resources ranging from performing arts, crafts, literary works, customs, myths and beliefs. The “Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the Trans-Himalayan Ladakh Region, Jammu and Kashmir, India”, is already inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Criterion (x): The Cold Desert has been declared a Biosphere Reserve of India and comprises an ecosystem of unusual scientific and natural interest. It is home to several rare and endangered species of flora and fauna, especially the Snow Leopard, Tibetan Antelope and Himalayan Wolf, which are included in the Red List of IUCN as Critically Endangered Species. The variety of flora found here has been used traditionally for various purposes by the community including medicinal, and is deemed to be of Outstanding Universal Value for the purposes of conservation.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The property retains almost all aspects of Authenticity and Integrity. Factors such as high altitude, remoteness, harsh climate, low density of population and strong faith in religious traditions have helped in maintaining Authenticity of the property. Most components of the property such as monasteries, mural paintings, chortens, rock-carvings and bruisings, Mane walls, temples, sculptures, prayer flags, vernacular architecture, trade routes, preparation of dress material, fairs and festivals, dance and music besides intangible heritage elements retain their traditional nature unadulterated from modern interventions, and continue to be used for their original purpose.

Owing to space constraints in hilly terrains, even the locations and layouts of the surrounding agricultural fields and natural environments which sustained populations in the region have not changed much and remain nearly the same. The rigid continuity of old traditions has thus ensured strict inheritance and resultantly preservation of authenticity of entire landscape throughout historical and modern periods.The nominated property is of a sufficiently large area and manifests its cultural diversity in terms of ethnic groups, languages, minor and major cultural denominations, geographic conditions besides others. It includes all the characteristic features in form, material, function and layout in the area of proposed nomination, and fully signifies their architectural and cultural features.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India is a serial property proposed under the category of Mixed property cum Cultural Landscape, for which there are very few comparative case studies. Spread over an area of around 98,98,000 hectares, the property includes a large number of traditional settlements with vernacular culture, pre-historic and historic archaeological areas and natural habitats that are unprecedented in numbers and nature. It is also remarkable for its demonstration of confluence of the cultures of two countries, which has not been acknowledged for any other property so far. Thus, appropriate cases for comparison are few.The following WHC properties are comparable to the Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert Cultural Landscape in different aspects and only reinforce the uniqueness of this property.

  1. Kakadu National Park, Australia; Criteria for inscription (i), (vi), (vii), (ix), (x): A mixed property, Kakadu National Park is a unique archaeological and ethnological reserve inhabited for over 40,000 years, ranging from pre-historic to present Aboriginal occupation. It is a unique example of complex ecosystems, including tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands and plateaux, and provides a habitat for a wide range of rare or endemic species of plants and animals. The Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert is also a mixed property but displays a different OUV. It displays the traditional response devised over generations to the cold desert biome in a manner that is reflective of the confluence of two distinct cultures, Indian and Tibetan.
  2. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia; Criteria for inscription (v), (vi), (vii), (viii): Another mixed property but with different criteria. The Australian property comprises unique geological formations around which the OUV is narrated. The Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert does not have any such geological formations and its OUV stems from resilience, cultural vibrancy and highly endemic ecological diversity.
  3. Konso Cultural Landscape, Ethiopia; Criteria for inscription (iii), (v): Konso is an arid property of walled terraces and fortified settlements occupied for more than 400 years that adapted to its dry, hostile environment. The landscape demonstrates the shared values, social cohesion and engineering knowledge of its communities. The Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert Cultural Landscape demonstrates a similar resilience to cold desert climate. However, its scale is much larger, demonstrates confluence of two national cultures as well as important aspects of natural heritage that are deemed to be of Outstanding Universal Value.
  4. Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, China; Criteria for inscription (iii), (v): The Honghe Hani Rice Terraces show the complex system developed by people over 1300 years to bring down water from forested mountain tops to the man-made terraces used for rice cultivation. It has developed into an integrated farming system and resilient land management systems that demonstrate extraordinary harmony between people and their environment, both visually and ecologically, based on exceptional and long standing social and religious structures. Again, the Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert Cultural Landscape is a much larger property and development of traditional ingenuities in agricultural practices form only one component of it. There are other aspects that add to the OUV of the Indian property such as habitation. Art, architecture. Lifestyle et al. The property also demonstrates OUV for natural criteria that the Rice Terraces do not.
  5. Bassari Country: Bassari, Fula and Bedik Cultural Landscapes, Senegal; Criteria for inscription (iii), (v), (vi): The Bassari Country property is a well-preserved multicultural landscape housing original and still vibrant local cultures. The Bassari, Fula and Bedik peoples settled from the 11th to the 19th centuries and developed specific cultures and habitats symbiotic with their surrounding natural environment. The Bassari landscape is marked by terraces and rice paddies, interspersed with villages, hamlets and archaeological sites.Their inhabitants’ cultural expressions are characterized by original traits of agro-pastoral, social, ritual and spiritual practices, which represent an original response to environmental constraints and human pressures. The site is a well-preserved multicultural landscape housing original and still vibrant local cultures.

The Trans-Himalayan Cold Desert Landscape is a similar property but again, much larger in scale and demonstrates confluence of two national cultures, Indian and Tibetan, which in itself is a unique manifestation.

This comparison underlines the fact that there are no properties similar to the Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India in scale, conditions and human response.