An archaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, Quentin Devers has been obsessed with Tibetan history for as long as he can remember. It is this fascination that brought him to one of the most awe-inspiring regions of India—Ladakh—in 2007. Since then, he has been combing the rugged terrain, uncovering ruins of forts and temples in the process. In a candid chat, Devers reveals why he decided to stick around in one of the highest regions in the world, so far away from home. By Sushmita Srivastav
What brought you to India?
The history of Tibet and the Himalayas has fascinated me since childhood, which is why I decided to study archaeology. The high mountains of Ladakh were a corridor for Silk Route merchants, adventurers, bandits, and armies of all kinds. I was excited to get an opportunity to explore a region with such rich history, one that lies at the intersection of India, Tibet, and Central Asia. I have been spending my time documenting the mindbending heritage of the region, bringing to light hundreds of forgotten fortresses, temple ruins, rock carvings, caves, stone Buddha statues, etc.
What was your first impression?
The first words that came to my mind when I arrived in Leh were ‘I am home’. And that’s what Ladakh has been for me ever since: home.
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View of the fortified complex of Mulbek. It is the fortress with the strongest defences of the Wakha-Mulbek-Phokhar area. It seems to have rose to prominence under the Ngari Skorsum period (10th-13th century), when the monumental carving of Chamba (Maitreya) was made nearby. Numerous rock carvings of chortens were also engraved on the cliffs of the fortress during this general period. The fortress was later probably conquered by Beg Darskyabs, the powerful king of Wanla toward the end of the 13th century, who created a kingdom that extended from Namsuru to Changthang. A century later, it was in turn conquered by the king of Phokhar, who ruled over an area extending from Kharul (near Kargil) to Bod Kharbu (we can know that thanks to the great work of Nils Martin on the inscriptions of the temple Nyima Lhakhang in Mulbek which will be published soon). #ladakharchaeology #ladakh #fort #archaeology #purig #CNRS #CRCAO #TBACT
You have been living and working here for 13 years now. How would you describe life in India?
Life in Ladakh is both rough and surprisingly comfortable. Winters are long, cold, and isolated. But Ladakh is also quite a developed mountainous region with many schools, hospitals, dispensaries, and colleges, considering it is one of the most rugged and scarcely populated lands in the world. There isn’t a single homeless person in the entire region— and that is exceptional.
What have been your most bewildering discoveries in Ladakh?
There have been so many amazing finds! The spookiest, however, is a cave situated at an altitude of 3,960 metres called the ‘Old Lady Huntsman’ or ‘Old Lady Spider’. After the first room, one has to go through a tunnel in order to reach a second room, where the floor is covered with human bones! In spite of being probably over 1,000 years old, some bones still have tissue on them, due to the incredibly dry and cold climate of Ladakh.
Other than Ladakh, which is your favourite destination in India?
I think I enjoy Pune the most. I regularly go to the city to work with a colleague at the Deccan College, where several Ladakhi students who are passionate about archaeology are enrolled.
Has living in this country offered any lessons?
I’ve learned that nothing ever goes according to plan here, and it’s easier to accept that and go along with it.
Where else would you like to travel in India?
Kolkata, to experience its popular food culture.
Your travel essentials?
I prefer to pack minimal and tend to get the essentials from the place I am visiting.
Any word of advice for foreign travellers visiting India?
Just be ready to accept the differences. Also, accept that you’ll never know how to negotiate for the right prices!