Sir Francis Younghusband, the famous British explorer who travelled widely in the Himalayas at the turn of the 20th century, once remarked:
“If, while still impressed with the immensity of things as witnessed by the mountains and the stars, we turn our attention to the tiny gentian at our feet, we are moved by the tender graciousness which could have produced so fine a delicacy of beauty from such austere and terrible surroundings.”
“Children of Zanskar” documents the lives of the youngest inhabitants of Lingshed, one of the most isolated settlements in the world. Perched 13,000 feet above the sea, and nestled within a vast cauldron of mountains deep in the Indian Himalayas, Lingshed offers a view not easily forgotten. Strewn with picturesque, terraced fields, carefully watered by a network of intricate canals and rivulets carrying fresh meltwater from nearby glaciers, and dotted on all sides with traditional Ladakhi houses, the land seems like a veritable oasis of life, hidden in the heart of a barren mountain desert.
Of course, life is not simple here. There are no roads leading to the village, which means that during wintertime, when the only approach along the frozen Zanskar river becomes impassable, the entire valley is cut off from the world for six months. Yet this isolation has undoubtedly helped preserve Lingshed’s unique way of life, with its tightly-knit community of Buddhist monks and farmers. While the community is able to survive on subsistence farming, their daily existence is one marked by hardship and sacrifice.
It is in this setting that I first encountered the small population of children to whom this project is dedicated. They attend the only school in the region: Lingshed Middle School, an educational institution that is run by a small team of dedicated teachers. Above the entrance to the school a hand-painted sign reads: “Enter to learn, leave to serve.” Indeed, the school is the only way for most of these students to gain knowledge about the outside world. For those who are eager to explore it, attending school is also the only way for them to prepare for a life outside their little valley—in the big, rapidly changing world.
Hardened by the harsh climate and rugged geography of their environment, and animated by the simple joy of life, the children of Lingshed Middle School display a wonderful mixture of curiosity, spontaneity, tactful shyness, rowdy courage, and a brimming, positive energy. Their hardiness is matched only by their enterprising spirit and discipline, which allow them to thrive despite the difficulties endured throughout the year.
As a result of our encounters over the past two years, “Children of Zanskar” expanded into a photography book, bearing record to the beauties of Lingshed and the exceptional lives of its youngest inhabitants.
If you’re curious to see more of this work, Kotomski recently published a book containing the entire project.