People & LifeStyle

People & LifeStyle The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The people of Ladakh are predominantly Buddhist and practice Mahayana Buddhism influenced with the old Bon animistic faith and Tantric Hinduism. Bon religion and Tantrism involved rituals to fulfill the wishes and so they were very popular before Mahayana Buddhism dominated. The people of Ladakh are very hardy and tough like the rugged mountains and also very soft and plain. With round faces, short noses, and chinki eyes they resemble more to the people of Tibet and central Asia. The original population is believed to have been that of Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But over years, a huge influx from Tibet overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern and central Ladakh, there are Tibetans. Further west, in and around Kargil, there is much in the people's appearance that suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization is the "Arghon", a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants. There are four main groups of people. The Mons who are of Aryan stock are usually professional entertainers, often musicians. The Dards are found along the Indus valley, many converted to Islam, though some remained Buddhist. Tibetans form the bulk of the population in Central and Eastern Ladakh, though they have assumed the Ladakhi identity over generations. The Baltis who are thought to have originated in Central Asia, mostly live in the Kargil region. The Ladakhis are cheerful and live close to nature. The Ladakhis wore the goncha which is a loose woollen robe tied at the waist with a wide coloured band. Buddhists usually wear dark red while Muslims and nomadic tribes often use undyed material.

Influence of Buddhism in Ladakh Buddhism reached Tibet from India via Ladakh, and there are ancient Buddhist frock engravings all over the region, even in areas like Drass and the lower Suru valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population.

The approach to a Buddhist Village is invariably marked by 'Mani' walls, which are ling chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the Mantra "Om Mane Padme Hum" and by 'Chorten', commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-posts. Many villages are crowned with a 'Gompa' or monastery, which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks' dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home to a solitary Lama.




Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of the 'Shia' sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the Sub-rulers of Drass, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, 'Mani' walls and Chorten are replaced by mosques often-small unpretentious buildings, or 'Imambaras' imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.

Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of the 'Shia' sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the Sub-rulers of Drass, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, 'Mani' walls and Chorten are replaced by mosques often-small unpretentious buildings, or 'Imambaras' imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.

Traditional Rituals The ladakhis are predominantly an agricultural people. This, and the religion they practice, Buddhism, has deeply impacted their customs and traditions. Their family and social organizations reflect the values of a people dependent on the land and scarce land at that for their sustenance and for all their resources. The practice of inheritance by primogeniture, ‘fraternal polyandry’ and the withdrawal of the older members of the family as soon as the eldest son is mature enough and ready to take on the family responsibilities, are all examples of the same. The custom of inheritance by primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherits the fathers property also ensures that the land is not carved up in ever decreasing portions, making it unprofitable to cultivate. The younger sons have to accept the suzerainty of the eldest if they continue to live with him. They also share the wife of the eldest brother so that the number of progeny is limited. Any brother who wishes to marry on his own must set up a separate establishment and he has no share in the ancestral property. Today these are only practiced in remote villages deep interior.

The ladakhis also have a very strong sense of community. Sowing and reaping for instance are community activities in which all members of a village will participate irrespective of whose field is being ploughed.

Traditional Rituals Ladakhi culture is similar to Tibetan culture. Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being Thukpa, noodle soup; and Tsumpa, known in Ladakhi as Ngampe, roasted barley flour, eatable without cooking it makes useful, if dull trekking food. A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables. As Ladakh moves toward a less sustainable, cash based economy, foods from the plains of India are becoming more common.

Like in other parts of Central Asia, tea in Ladakh is traditionally made with strong black tea, butter, and salt, it is mixed in a large churn and known as gurgur cha, due to the sound of mixing it. Sweet tea (cha ngarmo) is common now, made Indian style with milk and sugar. Chang, an alcoholic beverage, is made from barley, and has a yeasty taste slightly similar to sake.


Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of 'Surna' and 'Daman' (Oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as "Mons".

The first year of childbirth is marked by celebrations at different intervals of time, Beginning with a function held after 15 days, then after one month, and then again at the end of year. All relatives, neighbors and friends are invited and served with 'Tsampa', butter and sugar, along with tea by the family in which the child is born.

Wedding Process of Ladakh There is a mix of music and dance, joy and laughter, in the air whenever a marriage is held. The first day is spent in feasting at the bride's house, the second at the groom's place. The bride goes to live in the house of bridegroom after marriage. Boys are usually married or promised for marriage at about 16, girls at about 12. To make a proposal a relative of the boy goes to the house of the girl and gives a ring together with presents of butter, tea and 'Chang'. If the gifts are accepted then the marriage follows some months later. The boy offers a necklace and clothes to the girl. The parents of the girl give the couple clothes, animals and land if they are rich. These gifts are known as a "Raqtqaq" or dowry.






When the father of the family dies his place is taken by the eldest brother. The other brothers must obey the eldest brother. All inheritance of the family goes to the eldest brother and then to the next brother when he dies. If the family consists of all girls, then the father will bring the husband of the eldest daughter into the house and all land stays in the daughter's name and passes to her first son. Both sets of parents must accept the proposal of the boy for the girl. Usually the marriage is set by both sets of parents, who will choose a suitable partner for their child on the basis of manner, health and ability to earn income and look after a house.

Leisure Activities Polo and archery are the two favourite past times. In Leh, and may of the villages, archery festivals are held during the summer months, with a lot of fun and fanfare. Different teams from surrounding villages compete with each other in these archery festivals, and the shooting takes place according to strict etiquette, to the accompaniment of the music of surna and daman (oboe and drum). As important as the archery are the interludes of dancing and other entertainment. Chang, the local barley beer, flows freely, but there is rarely any rowdiness. Unlike the international game, Polo in Ladakh is not exclusively for the rich. Traditionally, almost every village had its polo-ground, and even today it is played with verve in many places.Probably introduced into Ladakh in the mid-17th century by King Sengge Namgyal, Polo played here differs in many respects from the international game. Here, each team consists of six players,and the game lasts for an hour with a ten minute break. Altitude notwithstanding, the hardy local ponies - the best of which come from Zanskar- scarcely seem to suffer, though play can be fast and furious. Each goal is greeted by a bust of music from surna and daman ; and the players often show extraordinary skill. For example, when starting play after a goal the scorer gallops up to midfield holding ball and mallet in the right hand, and throws the ball, hitting it in the same movement towards the opposite goal.

The lamas are the vital intermediaries between the human and the spirit worlds. Not only do they perform the rites necessary to propitiate the gods, they also often take on the role of astrologers and oracles who can predict the auspicious time for starting any enterprise, whether ploughing the fields, arranging a marriage or going on a journey. The most famous monk-oracles are those of Matho Gompa. Chosen every three years by a traditional procedure, two monks spend several months in a rigorous regimen of prayer and fasting to prepare and purify themselves for their arduous role. When the time comes they are possessed by the deity, whose spirit enables them to perform feats that would be impossible to anyone in a normal state such as cutting themselves with knives, or sprinting along the gompa's topmost parapet. In this condition, they will answer questions put to them concerning individual and public welfare. However, the spirit is said to be able to detect questions asked by sceptical observers with the intention of testing him, and to react with frenzied anger.