Ladakh’s Ice Café: The art of Chilling!

A climate change activist and advocate for responsible travel checks out the new artistic attraction in Chilling, Ladakh, which has been created with the purpose of driving conversations about climate change.

In the frozen north of our country’s Ladakh territory lies Chilling village, an aptly named settlement located at 10,978 feet above sea level. Just last month, this unassuming village, with a meager population of approximately 31 households, played host to a ground-breaking sustainable tourism initiative, the likes of which have never been seen before in our nation.

The brainchild of the Kangsing Collective, Chilling has been transformed into the site of an artistic initiative for climate change awareness and sustainability, made entirely from ice blocks. Located at the starting point of the famed Chadar trek (a seven-day adventure traversing the frozen Zanskar river), the Ice Cafe is an initiative designed to boost tourism to the area and serve as an artistic metaphor for the dangers of rapid climate change, and the impermanence of our current state of life.

Ice cafe, chilling, ladakh, kangisng collective, climate change
Drone’s eye view of the Ice Cafe in Chilling, Ladakh. Image: Aakash Ranison.

The art and the artists — The Kangsing Collective

A land of many artists and artisans, Ladakh is home to a variety of art forms, some of which date back to the golden ages of our ancestors.

“In Ladakh, artists tend to work within their own spaces, they never come together on a single platform, explains Norden Otser, Head Advisor and Coordinator for the project, in an exclusive interview. “Most of the artists in Ladakh follow the traditional path and make sculptures in monasteries thangka painters, woodcarvers, and more. These days, we also have a lot of young people who have done their graduation in the arts. Ladakhi people don’t consider art to be a job, only a hobby. This means that people are struggling to gain recognition and appreciation within their communities,” he observes.

Founded by Chemet Dorjay and Tsering Gurmet Kungyam, the Kangsing Collective is a collaborative initiative to unite the artists of Ladakh under the same banner and lends credence to the perception of art as more than just a hobby. The group, now 19 members strong, inaugurated the Collective as a collaborative initiative, as well as an alternative means of income for local artists.

A land of unforgiving weather conditions, winter temperatures in Ladakh can drop to -20°C. For approximately six months out of the year, the valley is effectively isolated from nearby settlements and major economic hubs, due to blockages on the few meandering roads. In these conditions, traditional ceramic and clay artists are left without income, with their mediums and tools freezing up in the cold. To put it more emphatically, being a traditional artist in Ladakh has traditionally been considered a non-profitable career choice. The Ice Cafe, therefore, becomes an effective medium through which the artists may continue working, showcasing their skills over the six-month long winter.

One of Ladakh’s first-ever contemporary artists, Kungyam is known for his influence over the local landscape. Dorjay, an artist who employs metal and fire as his tools, is similarly known for his vision and global style. Having worked with every material known to man, including marble, clay, metal, and more, the two turned their gaze to a new medium ice.

Chain for change: The Ice Cafe

Located at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level, the Ice Cafe is a modest, but impressive installation in Chilling made with large blocks of ice sourced from the nearby Zanskar River.

Complete with a functional café that serves momos, Maggi, and chai, the attraction features furniture made of ice and a functional sauna, with walls arranged in concentric circles around the main attraction an ice sculpture of the mythical Snow Lion (originating in native folklore surrounding the elusive snow leopard).

Inspired by the Ice Festival at Harbin in China and the famed Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, the project, in Norden’s words, was meant to be “10 times bigger”. With plans to build an elaborate Ice Coliseum, the project is a means to attract tourists and visitors by the hundreds and have a positive influence on winter tourism in Chilling, as well as the rest of Ladakh. However, due to a lack of funding, logistical issues, and a rapidly approaching summer, the project took on its current form as a teaser of bigger things to come.

Ice cafe, chilling, ladakh, kangisng collective, climate change
The beautiful ice structure glistens in the sunlight, a beacon of hope for climate change awareness. Image: Aakash Ranison.

As Norden explains, the project was set in motion around December 20, 2021. The fine artists, sculptors, and multi-disciplinary artisans gathered at the site and pitched their tents in sub-zero temperatures. Every morning, braving the frigid winds, they would haul water from the Zanskar to the site, and build the base. Layer upon layer, the water was poured, with many bucketfuls absorbed by the sandy riverbank. With every subsequent bucket, however, the base began to take shape. Twenty days later, the artists had successfully solidified the groundwork for the rest of the installation in Chilling.

Lacking the high-tech snow machines and tools required to bring such an ambitious project to life, the artists turned to traditional chisels, fuel-driven chainsaws, and tile-cutting blades with which to cut, maneouver, and sculpt blocks of ice that measured at least 28 inches by 15 inches. Artists turned hard-working labourers, the group chopped, heaved, and transported the ice from the river to the site of the installation for a gruelling two months of constant work in Chilling.

With modest funding, local support came from the Ladakh Police, Ladakh Union Territory (UT) Administration, Contractor Association of Ladakh, All Ladakh Hotel and Guest House Association, Department of Tourism, and the Ladakh Scouts regiment of the Indian Army. While initial funding was lacking, the installation in Chilling has attracted national and international attention, with the local Governor hoping to expand the initiative to all four major regions of the area, namely the valleys of Zanskar, Indus, Nubra, and Chantal, in the coming years.

With an economy largely dependent upon tourism, Ladakh faces an economic crunch in the harsh winter months. While adventure-seekers and adrenaline junkies may indeed flock to Zanskar to undertake the perilous Chadar trek or brave the freezing cold in search of the seldom-sighted snow leopard, winter tourism to Ladakh is not for the faint of heart.

The coming editions of the initiative seek to change this narrative, by offering tourists a relatively low-risk, responsible travel attraction for which to travel to the abundant frozen land of Chilling.

Ice cafe, chilling, ladakh, kangisng collective, climate change
The Ice Cafe on the banks of the Zanskar river. Drawing attention to climate change or merely drawing tourists? Image: Aakash Ranison.

A climate conundrum — what do we really know?

I arrived at the site of the attraction in Chilling with an open mind, without expectations, and excited about the myriad experiences a nomadic life has to offer. An artistic commentary threatened by rapid climate change, the impermanence of the installation, which opened to the public on February 10, was meant to be one of its main attractions.

The impact of climate change is a pressing issue in coastal areas and settlements located at higher altitudes, and Ladakh is no stranger to the adverse effects of our unstable climatic conditions. From changes in regular snow and rainfall cycles to droughts, cloudbursts, and subsequent flash floods, the natives of Leh, Ladakh and the Spiti valley are all too familiar with the apocalyptic consequences of unsustainable human practices.

The Ice Café is an attempt to illustrate this issue, and while the project fell short of its initial vision due to numerous challenges faced by those on the ground, in my opinion, there were a few gaping flaws to the narrative being built around climate change and sustainability.

While I have advocated for climate change awareness for years, I can still remember the day I took my first true step towards living a sustainable life. After happening upon the ground-breaking documentary, Cowspiracy, a startling account of the harsh realities of animal agriculture and its effects on our environment, I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Today, veganism is a part of who I am and is a driving force behind my advocacy.

Imagine my surprise then, sitting amidst this enchanting work of art, when my companions at the cafe were presented with cups of milky chai, and a piping hot plate of chicken momos. While the methane generated from animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, generating a whopping 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the café, a living metaphor for rapid climate change and one of the installation’s major attractions, served dishes made with dairy products and animal meat.

I found myself faced with an unsettling question how much do we really know about climate change?

Over my 30-minute conversation with Norden, I communicated my concerns and was glad to see that he accepted my criticism without the air of egocentrism I have come to expect. With a heavy heart, he explained to me that while the budget for the initial plans had been estimated at Rs 80 lakh, the project was only able to attract a modest Rs 10.5 lakh of funding. This monetary crunch meant that the Chilling project lacked a scientific advisor or an environmental advisor.

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Visitors throng the Ice Cafe. Image: Aakash Ranison.

With a focus on revenue due to the unprecedented circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisers admitted that they had to cut a few corners when it came to sustainably developing this homage to our changing climate. With no alternatives at hand, the team was forced to employ fossil-fuel-powered chainsaws with which to chop ice. While the original plans for the installation included a sustainability seminar on climate change, the opening day also marked the first-ever traffic jam in Chilling valley’s history, as over 40,000 visitors flocked to the banks of the Zanskar to witness the momentous occasion.

The team behind the project was acutely aware of these issues. While they hoped to illustrate the harsh realities of climate change in a visceral form, and spread awareness by means of their art, they were unable to tackle some of the underlying logistical issues that presented themselves as the project was developed in Chilling.

I have high hopes for the next edition of the attraction and am positive that with the right funding and resources at their disposal, the artisans of Kangsing Collective will influence and contribute a great deal not just to the cultural and artistic fabric of Ladakh but also towards raising awareness for the causes that matter.

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