Imperial Hotel Part 2 — The Ivory Question

Click here to read Imperial Hotel Part 1 — Reflections on Independence.

I land at New Delhi in July, 1997, spend a day dodging beggars and seeing sights, then fly to the 10,000-foot airstrip at Leh, Ladakh, west of Tibet, hugging the east flank of the Zanskar range, looking down on the Indus River. The motel is at 13,000 feet. The priority of this trip is to tour Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist farming communities at extreme altitudes.

In 1997, I was shooting film. I crisscrossed the cabin in the under-crowded Airbus 300, shooting the 22,000-plus-foot peaks and clouds as we crossed the India-Kashmir border. Oops, was this politically incorrect? I did not see any Indian or Chinese military facilities out the window, but, oh boy, I might have. First, the flight attendants went ballistic, then the pilot left the controls to come chew me out. OK, I got cussed out but they did not strip the film out of the camera.

These were pretty good pics of high peaks which I still have.

We land at the military/commercial airstrip at Leh, the highest in the world. (Until I got to Tibet, but that airstrip at 13,000 feet was strictly military.)

We get a taxi to the motel and unpack. My roommate has altitude sickness and my big bag full of medical supplies is still in New Delhi. Being unable to do more than empathize, I take my leave, deciding that strolling up and down the dirt streets would provide good altitudinal and cultural acclimation.

Ladakh, geographically, is a mountainous area bordering Tibet, historically inhabited by Buddhist subsistence farmers and dotted by Buddhist monasteries. It is crossed by the historic Silk Road. Barbaric invaders rumbled through here every few centuries, stealing treasures and looting monasteries. The Buddhist culture, here from long before Columbus started exploring, survives, partly ripped-off, but still vibrant.

Ladakh, politically, is a Buddhist enclave within a Muslim province (Jammu & Kashmir) of a Hindu country. India protects Ladakh by prohibiting transfer of ownership and restricting commerce to people who live in Jammu & Kashmir. Ladakhis are not very commerce-oriented, but their Muslim neighbors jump into the vacuum. Kashmiri street vendors and shopkeepers are ubiquitous.

As I was acclimating my American tourist butt to 13,000 feet, I wandered the (few) streets of Leh, photographing shops and trucks — but mainly the many colorful people. This activity placed me frequently in front of shops, all of which were owned by Muslim entrepreneurs. The shopkeepers wasted no time; when they saw this tourist with an expensive camera walking past the door, they would rush shouting into the street to try to cajole me into frequenting their shop. One of these characters, too good to pass up, talked me into his “front” shop and then dragged me into a dark, dusty, hidden, back room to show me a collection of carved ivory which would have been the featured centerpiece of any museum collection (at prices a fraction of their value). Intricate balls within balls, six- and eight-inch elephant tusks with elaborate carvings — pieces small and large. Most were yellowed with age; much too heavy to be plastic. I was holding forbidden treasures in my own little hands. OMG.

The dealer reassured me, with broken, earnest and enthusiastic English, that I would have no problems with customs. Yeah, right. Not his problem, just mine. Who would know whether he might drop the dime on me and collect a reward? I have never been so tempted and yet so confident that buying these pieces would be a huge mistake.

When I returned to New Delhi, I struck up a discussion with an art dealer who tended a lovely display case at the Imperial Hotel , filled with jewelry and heirlooms. To me, an apparently trustworthy person, he vouchsafed that he had trunks full of ivory in the hotel attic; the inventory was frozen in time by international bans on trading ivory. His ivory (according to him) had all been acquired legally. The trunks were locked and sealed by the government.

I bought no ivory. Instead I bought bronze statuary of the Buddha and jewelry.

Customs did not open my bags.

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