People of Ladakh, their culture, and religion.
The faces, physique, and clothes Ladakhis wear are more akin to that of Tibet and Central Asia than that of India. The Ladakhis are predominantly Buddhist who practices Mahayana Buddhism that is influenced by the old animistic Bon religion along with Tantric Hinduism. Bon religion and Tantrism, which involves rituals, was followed before the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism. The people of Ladakh are tough and hardy just like the mountains that surround their land yet at the same time very soft-spoken and hospitable. Their facial features have a resemblance to Tibetans and Central Asians. The original inhabitants are believed to have been the Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus civilization. However, with the massive influx of traders from Tibet, Central Asia, and mixed racial marriages have changed their looks over the centuries. There are Tibetan descendants in the Eastern and Central parts of Ladakh while further west in Kargil, the people have a mixed appearance. There is an exception to this generalization is a community called “Arghon” consisting of Muslims in Leh. They are the descendants of Kashmiri and central Asian traders who married local women. There are four main groups of people in Ladakh. The Mons are of Aryan stock are often musicians and entertainers. The Dards are settled around the Indus valley, and many of them have converted to Islam. The descendants of the Tibetans form the majority population of Central and Eastern Ladakh. The Baltis believed to have originated from Central Asia live around the Kargil region. The Ladakhi’s traditional dress is called the Gonchas; it is a loose woolen robe that is tied at the waist using a broad colored band. The Buddhists usually don this dress that is dark red while the Muslims and nomads wear this traditional dress that isn’t dyed
Influence of Buddhism in Ladakh
Theravada Buddhism was practiced in Ladakh before the Muslim influence reached Kashmir. This was when they turned to Tibet for spiritual guidance, and that is when Mahayana Buddhism became the prevalent religion. Ancient Buddhist frock engravings can be found all over the region, even in areas like Drass and the lower Suru valley that is inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population these days. This is proof that Theravada Buddhism was practiced before Islam.
The approach to a Buddhist Village is usually marked by 'Mani' walls, which are about chest-high structures with engraved stones bearing the Mantra "Om Mane Padme Hung" and by 'Chortens,' commemorative Cairns, like stone pepper-posts. Many villages have a 'Gompa' or monastery. It can either be an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls, and monks' dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home to a solitary Lama.
The Muslim Inhabitants
Islam came from the west. The Shia sect made a peaceful penetration that was spearheaded by missionaries. Its success was guaranteed by the early conversions of the Sub-rulers of Drass, Kargil and Suru Valley. The ‘Mani walls and Chrotens have been replaced by mosques or Imambaras that are imposing structures in the Islamic style that is traditionally surmounted with domes and sheet metal.
The Ladakhis depend predominantly on agriculture. Agriculture and Buddhism have impacted their traditions and culture profoundly. The family and social organizations reflect the values of the people that are dependant on the limited arable land.
The eldest son takes over the family responsibilities as soon as he is mature while his father steps down. To keep the limited fertile land, they practice fraternal polyandry. This practice ensures that the property isn’t carved up in an ever decreasing proportion, making it unsustainable for the family to survive in agriculture. The younger sons have to accept the domain of the eldest brother if they wish to continue to live with him. They also share the wife of the eldest brother so that the land stays intact within the family. Any brother who wishes to wed on his own must give up his ancestral property and establish a separate way of income. This practice is only practiced in very remote areas these days.
The Ladakhi have a powerful sense of community. Sowing and reaping of crops are community activities in which all members of a village participate irrespective of whose field is being worked on.
Ladakhi food is quite similar to Tibetan cuisine; the prominent staple is Thukpa (noodle soup), momo, chow mien, and Tsampa, it is known as Ngempe in Ladakhi which is roasted barley flour. It is edible as it has been roasted, it is either mixed in the butter tea or fermented drink call Chang or with butter. A dish that isn't similar to Tibetan food is Skyu; it is a substantial pasta stew that is cooked with root vegetables and meat. However, with modernization and tourism food from plains of India and International cuisine can be found in Leh during the summer tourist season.
Like in most parts of Central Asia, tea is traditionally made from strong tea leaves, butter, and salt. It is mixed in a considerable churn and is called "gurgur cha" named after the sound it makes while it is being made. Sweet milk tea has become more common these days. Chang is a fermented alcoholic beverage that is made from barley used to be the drink of choice. However these days they prefer Indian beer or liquor.
Public Events and ceremonies are accompanied by the original music of 'Surna' and 'Daman' (Oboe and drum). These instruments were initially introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as "Mons."
A child's first year of birth is marked with celebrations at different periods. It begins with a function that is held in 15 days, a month and once again at the end of a year. Traditionally all relatives, neighbors, and friends were invited and served ‘Tsampa", butter and sugar along with tea by the celebrating family.
Wedding Process of Ladakh
There is a mixture of music and dance, joy and laughter, in the air whenever a marriage is being held. Their first day's feast is held at the bride's home followed by at the groom's. The bride goes to live at the groom's house after the marriage. Traditionally boys were either promised the hand or the girl or got married at the age of 16 and girls would have been about 12. However, this practice is illegal by Indian law. A relative of the boy would go to the house of the girl to give a ring along with gifts of butter, tea, and Chang. If the girls family accepted the gifts, then the wedding would follow some months later. The boy offers a necklace made from corals, turquoise, and clothes for the girl. The girl's parents gift the young couple with clothes, animals and even land if they are rich.
Rules of Inheritance
The Eldest son becomes the head of the family when the father dies. The eldest son inherits the family property. When he passes away, the next elder brother becomes the family head. If a family has only daughters, then the father will find a husband who is willing to live in their home for the eldest daughter. The eldest daughter will inherit the family property, which goes to her first son.
Usually, the marriage is set by both sets of parents, who will choose a suitable partner for their child depending on the manner, health, income and ability to take care of the house.
Favorite sports in Ladakh.
Polo and archery are the two favorite past times. In Leh and many villages, archery festivals are held during the summer months. It is celebrated with a lot of fun and fanfare. Teams from neighboring communities compete with each other. During this festival, strict rules are followed and accompanied by the music of traditional musical instruments called Surna and Daman (oboe and drums). Chang flows freely and like everywhere in the world, merrymaking begins followed by dancing and singing. Despite the free flow of Chang, rarely do fight and scuffles break out.
Polo is another sport that was introduced from Baltistan that was welcomed by King Sengge during the 17th century. This sport isn't exclusively for the rich, unlike the international game. Almost every village had a polo ground in the past. If you happen to witness a polo game in Leh, you will notice the players are full of vigor and passion. The teams consist of 6 players, and the game lasts for an hour with a ten-minute break in the middle. The hardy ponies perform exceptionally well despite the high altitude. It is believed the best polo ponies come from the Zanskar region of Ladakh. A burst of music from the traditional instruments greets each goal. One is amazed at the skills of the players.
Astrologers and Oracles of Ladakh
Ladakhis believe that the lamas are the vital intermediaries between the human and the spirit worlds. They not only perform the rites necessary to appease the gods, but they also take on the role
of astrologers and oracles who can predict the auspicious time for starting any occasions, whether to plow the fields, arrange marriage or to go on a journey. The most famous monk-oracles are those of Matho Gompa. A traditional procedure chooses them every three years; two monks spend several months in a rigorous regimen of prayer while fasting to prepare and purify themselves for this challenging role. During a ceremony, the spirit of a deity that enables them to perform feats that aren’t humanly possible possesses them. When in a trance the oracles cut themselves with a knife or sprint on the parapet of the monastery’s top floor. It is believed that the spirits are doing such feats by going into the body of these oracles. It is also thought that the spirits can detect skeptics amongst the observers.
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