A visit to the Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Museum, and looking for precious stones and crystals amid the precarious boulders of the region
Standing unsteadily on a ledge high above the Zanskar river, I tried to tell myself it would be all right. After all the person who had brought me there, Phunchok Angchok, was not only standing farther along the same ledge, but had even found a stable enough perch to get out his rock hammer and chisel. And there was the remote possibility of finding gold. I held on to a crevice with one hand, hoped for the best and got out my phone to take a picture. The undocumented risk is not worth taking.
I had met Angchok, 56, a few days earlier at the Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Museum in Leh, which he founded in 2014. The museum felt extraordinary—a room full of crystals, fossils, rocks and meteorites, all collected by him over the years. I had been in Ladakh for a few days and no matter how often one has visited, or how inured one is to the charm of landscapes, the place takes your breath away. Sometimes literally so, since it’s so high up. The air is cold and dry and thin, the light sharp. The views vast and humbling, sometimes maddeningly pretty, sometimes hauntingly bare and bleak. Ladakh looks like it has been forged in some tremendous cosmic struggle.
Which it, kind of, has.
A chart at the museum gives a ground report spanning tens of millions of years: the Indian tectonic plate ploughed into and under the Eurasian plate, something it continues to do, a few centimetres every year. In the process, a sea was closed, volcanoes erupted, vast quantities of earth were scraped off, piled up and folded, forming what we know as the Himalaya. Ladakh is one of the places where the complex traces of these geological tumults are visible on the surface. The ammonite fossils at the museum, the volcanic rocks, the green-streaked serpentinite formed when a seabed goes under, all speak to this past. Then wind, water and ice have done their thing, knifing through rock and scooping out valleys. If Ladakh feels otherworldly and crystalline, this museum is all that enclosed in a single room. When I compliment Angchok on his creation he tells me: “All of Ladakh is a museum”. I ask him if he’ll show me.
We set out in the morning in Angchok’s car, driving west out of Leh in the direction of Kargil. Our first stop is the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, run by the Indian Army. The focal point of this gurdwara is a boulder with a cavity shaped like a seated person. A plaque informs that Guru Nanak was here in 1517, that a demon making a general nuisance of himself in these parts rolled down a boulder to finish off the meditating saint. But the rock turned soft on meeting Guru Nanak, leaving behind his impression for posterity. Among the devout at the gurdwara are several Buddhist monks, which is puzzling until Angchok explains that Ladakhis believe this exact legend, but in their telling it is the eighth-century Buddhist master Padmasambhava rather than Nanak. The cavity also looks quite a lot like textbook pictures of wind-eroded boulders. It makes perfect sense to bow in front a rock before setting out to find more.
We stop at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. A spectacular view by any reasonable standard, but the standards in Ladakh are not remotely reasonable. Not bad, I say, and we turn southwards and drive along the Zanskar valley road with the river to our left and steep crags and slopes of scree on either side. Angchok points out signs of digging at some places along the river, probably by people hoping to get lucky by finding gold, which apparently turns up now and then.
Angchok says he has been keen on rocks since he was a boy. Growing up in Saspol, some 65km from Leh, he would bring home any rock that looked interesting. He began working after finishing secondary school—first as a teacher posted to various places in Ladakh, then as a touring LIC agent. Everywhere he went, he took time to look for rocks. Over the years, he met visitors, mostly from outside the country, who came to Ladakh looking for rocks and precious stones. One woman returned deliriously happy from an expedition, saying she would never have to work again. Angchok is not sure what exactly she found but the incident made a deep impression on him.
He began buying books to learn about minerals and the region’s geology. He accompanied a German geologist and gemmologist on his field trips and learnt more. Playing in his mind, he says, was also a parable he had heard from a Buddhist teacher: a man lived in poverty all his life, in a hut, cooking his frugal meals on a wood-fire built on three stones, and when he died people realised that those stones, crusted with soot, were actually gold. Perhaps reading the parable more literally than the teacher intended, Angchok says he thought, “We Ladakhis are like that poor man.” They were sitting on stones whose value they didn’t realise.
Angchok stops his car on seeing something high on the slope rising to our right. A quartz vein, he explains, which sometimes has interesting things in it, like gold and copper nuggets. We clamber up the sheer pile of shale fragments to the narrow ledge. No gold in sight, but there is a pocket in the vein, which yields quartz crystals, though nothing as impressive as those in the museum. Angchok suggests going higher but I have hung on long enough and am already descending. Much of Angchok’s rock hunting takes him deeper and higher into the mountains, often for several days at a time. He once fell into a crevasse while looking for sapphire and was frostbitten by the time help arrived.
Over the years Angchok had collected so many rocks, some weighing a couple of hundred kilos, that his house began to fill up. He doesn’t seem to have minded, but his wife certainly did. “Missus ko to gussa aayega na (The missus will get angry, no),” he says. Having presumably stubbed her toe once too often, she led a campaign to rid the house of rocks, which gave Angchok an idea. He would rent a place and turn his collection into a museum. This would be a place to see all of the mineral riches of Ladakh. The museum now holds around 300 exhibits.
Our next stop is at one of Angchok’s favourite spots. A sandy bank of the Zanskar with large boulders and rounded rocks. This is where he found the large chunk of copper exhibited in the museum. He holds up rocks one after the other. Limonite. Peridotite. Aragonite.
In the museum, the rocks and minerals are mostly labelled and classified as we do these days, in terms of composition and use. But there are surprises. Next to obsidian and feldspar is the supposedly all-purpose elixir shilajit, which Angchok, knowing the mountains as well as he does, collects, processes and sells at the museum. Though his sources are more pristine, Angchok says that mountain rats, perhaps picas, eat shilajit and the substance can be extracted and purified from their droppings, which are relatively easy to find. Next to the shilajit are male and female boji stones, used in traditional healing for balancing energies. Somewhere else lie minerals used in Ladakhi traditional medicine. The museum has a small lab where Angchok tests and identifies what he collects in the field, but he also believes that rocks and crystals have a certain mystical power to them beyond mere physics and chemistry.
The museum has personality and it contains more of Ladakh than just its sampled terrain. Admission is free for students; ₹50 for everyone else. Angchok says the museum’s finances are precarious with him having to pay rent and a caretaker’s salary. “If I find something one day that is worth lakhs or crores, I can make a good museum,” he says. Perhaps it is more realistic that an institution or governmental agency will partner with him, but that has not happened yet.
From my day out with Angchok, I kept a pebble of serpentinite to remind me of what had gone on in this terrain. And I kept some golden cubes of pyrite, which we pried out from a dark hillside of crumbling rock. It’s fool’s gold, of course, but worth keeping anyway to remember that the real deal is all around it, and not just in the ground.
Srinath Perur is the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai and the translator, most recently, of Sakina’s Kiss.