People Religion & Culture of Ladakh

The traveller from India will look in vain for similarities between the land & people he has left and those he encounters in Ladakh. The faces physique of the Ladakhis and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet & Central Asia than of India. The original population may have been Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But immigration from Tibet, perhaps a millennium or so ago, largely overwhelmed the culture of the Dards & obliterated their racial characteristics. In eastern & central ladakh, today's population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further west, in and around Kargil, there is much in the people's apperance that suggests a mixed origin . The exception to this generalization is the Arghons, a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women & kashmiri or Central Asian merchants.

The approach to a Buddhist village is invariably marked by mani walls which are long chest -high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the mantra om mane padme hum and by chorten, commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-pots. Many villages are crowned with a gompa or monastery which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples , prayer halls & monk's dwellings, to a tiny hermittage housing a single image & home to a solitary lama.

Islam too came from the west.A peaceful penetration of the shai sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the sub-rulers of Dras, kargil and the Suru valley. In these areas, mani walls nd 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.

The demeanour of the people is affected by their religion, especially among the women. Among the budhists, as also the muslims of the Leh area, women not only work in the house and field , but also do business & interact freely with men other than their own relations. In Kargil and its adjoining regions on the other hand, it is only in the last few years that women are emerging from semi-seclusion and taking jobs other than traditional ones like farming and house-keeping . The natural joie-de-vivre of the Ladakhis is given free rein by the ancient traditions of the region . Monastic and other religious festivals, many of which fall in winter, provide the excuse for convivial gatherings. summer pastimes all over the region are archery and polo. Among the Buddhists, these often develop into open-air parties accompanied by dance and song. at which chang, the local brew made from fermented barley, flows freely.

Of the secular culture, the most important of songs & poems for every occasion, as well as local versions of the Kesar saga, the Tibetan national epic.This literature is common to both Buddhists & Muslims. Infact, the most highly developed versions of the Kesar Saga, and some of the most exuberant and lyrical songs are said to be found in Shakar-Chigtan, an area of the western Kargil, unfortunately not freely open to tourist yet. 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.