The Ladakhis are a Tibetan Buddhist people that inhabit Ladakh, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir state but shares a 1,500 mile border with Tibet. Tibet and Ladakh share a similar culture and climate, and vie for the honor of having the highest roads and villages in the world. The region of Ladakh is isolated in the Himalayas and differs radically from the rest of Jammu-Kashmir state in that the majority of the population is culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically close to Tibet not Muslim Kashmir. There also is a Muslim minority. The region has no interest in the separatist and Islamicist sentiments of the Vale of Kashmir.

Ladakhis that live above 18,000 feet suffer discomfort when the descend to Ladakh capital of Leh at 11,550 feet. The temperatures in Ladakh frequently drop below minus 30 degrees F in the winter time and sometimes there is not enough dung, firewood or fuel to heat their mud and stone homes. It is no surprise then that many Ladakhi Buddhists believe that hell is a bitterly cold place and they rarely take baths. On the positive side Ladakh is so cold that few germs can survive and the most common illnesses are eye and respiratory problems caused by smoke and dust in their sealed homes. In the summer the temperatures often rise above 100 degrees , and the extremes of hot and cold are enough to break up the granite mountains and produce a lot dust

Ladakhis have been described as "extraordinarily warm, open, cheerful, pleasure-loving people." The like playing polo, doing archery, drinking barely beer, doing slow ritualistic dances, and partying at weddings. Crime is not a problem. Nobody can remember when a murder was committed and theft is unheard of.

See Tibet: . Click Tibet.

Ladakhi History

Buddhism is said to have arrived in Ladakh from India in 200 B.C. Padma Sambhava was the eighth century founder of lamanism in Ladakh. According to “It is not clear when the first Buddhist communities were established in Ladakh. The site of His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, writes that “Starting about the 3rd century, Buddhism began to grow and spread outside India, adjusting to local cultures and the varying conditions of different countries. Buddhism began to take root in different countries in Asia as they came in contact with Buddhism from the early 2nd century B.C.E. Buddhism became nearly extinct in India, the country of its origin.” [Source: ><]

“History books concede that after the eastward propagation of Buddhism in the 7th century, Ladakh and its neighbours were overrun by those fleeing westwards from the early Tibetan Tubo Kings. The chiefs of the Tubo Empire in Yarlung (which is situated in Central Tibet) had established an aristocracy and displaced the native inhabitants who had an independent state with its own language, literature, and culture; these people continue living in remote areas of Zhang Zhung in West Tibet proper, Kashmir, Ladakh, Zanskar, and the Himalayan regions of Nepal. Under the patronage of King Trison Detsen, Khenpo Shantarakshita from India established a monastic order in Tibet by ordaining the first seven monks at Samye Monastery in the year 791. He called Guru Rinpoche to vanquish all obstructions impeding the construction and to help establish Buddhism on the Tibetan Plateau.” ><

The first plane landed in Ladakh in 1948. Some Ladakhis thought it was animal and brought it hay. Some even thought the jeeps that were loaded from it were its babies, and the jeeps would later grow wings and fly like their mother. Queen Diskit Wnagmo, a descendant of the ruling lamas, became the states leader and a member of the Indian parliament in the late 1970s.

Following several years of discontent and agitation about the position of Ladakh District in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the central government passed the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils Act in May 1995. The 1995 act established councils for the Leh and Kargil subdistricts and allotted them powers for economic development, land use, and taxation. Elections for the Leh council were held in August 1995. Congress (I) won all twenty-two elective seats unopposed; the governor of Jammu and Kashmir was authorized to appoint four members from among minorities and women. [Source: Library of Congress]

War Between India and China in Ladakh

The border area between Ladakh-India and Tibet-China, some of the world's most inhospitable and unlivable land, is disputed by the Indian and Chinese governments. In 1962, the world's two most populous nations went to war over it. Mao was leader of China and Nehru was the Prime Minister of India. Mao made a mockery of Nehru declaration that “Indians and Chinese are brothers” Zhou Enlai said the aim of the war was to “teach India a lesson.”

In the late fifties, after China invaded Tibet, China built outpost on the edge of Ladakh and a road that connected the region with Tibet and the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. In 1958 an Indian patrol was captured and Nehru sent soldiers into the Aksai, a desolate 8000-square-mile plateau occupied by China. China answered back with an offensive during October and November, 1962 and captured 2000 more square miles before a cease-fire was called.

It was tense time, with the world's two most popular nations at war. Trenches were dug in Calcutta and Delhi, and the Hindu festival of Lights was canceled out of fear that the lit up cities would be easy targets for Chinese air raids. Up until that time India had been a neutral country like Switzerland. During the fighting more men died of altitude-induced heart failure and brain hemorrhages than gun shot wounds. Helicopters carried victims that were in such bad shape their skin had decayed away leaving only bones. Chinese soldiers were better prepared than their Indian counterparts. They had spent a year in Tibet getting acclimated to the cold and altitude. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic May 1963]

The war was a boon for many Ladakhi farmers who made a lot of money feeding the Indian army. But ultimately Ladakh suffered when the war forced the Karakoram Pass to close down, shutting off trade between Ladakh and Tibet and western China. Trade with these regions was the main source of income for this poor, primarily agricultural region. The shushsuk, Ladakh's head lama, was visiting Lhasa when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 and he was taken prisoner. Ladakhis were worried because the lama was a young man when he was captured which meant the Ladakhis would either have to wait until he returned or died to have their leader on Ladakhi soil.

Ladakhi Religious Life and Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in Ladakh. It evolved around 1,000 years ago. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the Himalayas in the 8th century, some 1,200 years after Buddha’s death, by Indian missionaries who were said to have battled thousand of demons and converted them to their religions. That is one reason why Tibetan Buddhist worship pagan gods as well as follow the teachings of Buddha. [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic March 1978]

Most Ladakhi festivals are in the winter when villages have lots of time and there isn't much else they can do. If an abnormally high number of hardships has transpired at one house a lama may be called in to exorcize demons. He does this by luring the demons into a dish. After praying the dish is cast into a fire. In other kinds of exorcisms, food and offerings are given to the gods and a lama makes an mandala on an alter with sand and a fire of yak dung and kindling. The food is thrown on the fire.

Chortens are Tibetan Buddhist stupas. They are built for rich supplicants. Offerings of miniature chortens and votive tablets molded from ashes of the dead are left as offerings.

Ladakhi Home Temples and Prayer Stones

Many Ladakhi homes have a chapel on the roof or in a shed-like temple near the home. Inside the chapel there is often a golden Buddha statue or a shrouded statue of Yamanataka, a god with eight arms and the head of bull, that is so horrible that no one should look at it, especially women. Yak butter lamps are lit and offering are made to Buddha and Yamanataka to ward off evil spirits. Car accidents and illness are often blamed houses that are not properly protected against these spirits.

Prayer wheels are used in Ladakh as they are in Tibet. They vary in size and can be turned by wind, water or a rotating hand. The wheels contain many prayers, sometimes thousands, and each revolution of the wheel transports them to heaven. The more prayers one offers the better one’s chances are of receiving a higher reincarnation and eventually achieving nirvana.

Alongside trails around Tibetan-style monasteries you often see prayers walls composed of mani stones. Travelers always pass these walls on the left and each stone is inscribed with a prayer written in Tibetan that is reads " om mani padme hum ". This mean "I invoke this path to experience the universality, so the jewel-like luminosity of my immortal mind will be unfolded within the depths of the lotus-center of awakened consciousness and I be wafted by ecstacy of breaking through all bonds and horizons." Mani means "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus." The stones are carved Buddhist devotees to earn merit. Because people generally move in two directions on mountains trails but travelers are required to prayer walls on the left most prayer walls have trails on both sides.

Ladakhi Lamas and Monasteries

Many Ladakhi families have at least one son who is a monk and Ladakhi life often revolves around lamas and lamaseries (monasteries). Thomas Ambercrombie wrote in National Geographic, Tibetan Buddhism’s "wrathful deities police a Ladakhi's conscience; its benign spirits comfort him. Much of what education he has comes from lamas, who also bless his birth, consecrate his wedding, interpret his future, cure his ills, and—when the trials of the present incarnation cease—cremate his remains. His social life is tuned to the lively festivals held at lamaseries."

Ladakh's head lama is called the shushsuk. Monasteries own large chunks of land which the lease out to farmers. Until relatively recently they were the only places in Ladakh with schools. The dukhang is an assembly hall in a lamasery. It is a common custom when visiting a lamasery to leave a prayer scarf to honor the founding lama. Many of the founding lamas arrived over a thousand years and, it is said, flew from mountaintop to mountaintop building several lamaseries in one night.

Lamas have few possessions. Among them are ceremonial bowls, sometimes made from human skulls, silver charms to keep away biting dogs and disease and a three edged ritual dagger to keep away the ignorance, passion and aggression. Certain auspicious signs usually indicate a llama at birth. A high lama is then called in to confirm the signs. Training at a monastery begins at the age of six. These days, lamaseries have a hard time getting now recruits. Many have become dependent on the generosity of tourists to survive.

Ladakhi Marriage and Life

Until recently polyandry was practiced widely in Ladakh and many people said they had two fathers. If an eldest daughter married an eldest son, the next oldest brother of the son also married the girl. The eldest brother was the head of the household but if he left on a caravan or to herd sheep he was replaced by next brother. If their was a third son he remained single, became a monk, or married a widow or the daughter a family with no sons.

Property and family names traditionally have been handed down mother to daughter and a wife could sometimes divorce her husband by giving him a sheep and shooing him out the door. One Ladakhi man said "Polyandry was good for Ladakh because we have a poor country and it kept our population from growing too large." In 1941 the practice was brought to an end with the "Buddhist Polyandrous Marriages prohibition Act." After the act was instituted the population started growing at a rate of 16 percent.

Donkeys, sheep and cattle are kept in a stable below the house in part to provide warmth. Most houses heated by dung fires. Wood is scarce and used mainly to make barrels for churning butter or making chang, or as a construction material. During the winter, Ladakhis spend much of their time sitting around yak-dung fires. Until the 1950s most Ladakhis did not have matches, gunpowder or wheels (other than those used for praying). Fires were lit with a flint and tinder.

Ladakhi women are generally regarded as equal with men. Instead of wearing diapers many young Ladakhi children wear trousers with a big hole cut in seat. Ladakh is known for its reed-and-drum music.

Ladakhi Food and Clothes

The mainstays of the Ladakhi diet are tsampa, a gruel made from parched barley, and soupy tea made with butter and salt. Yoghurt, butter and cheese are made mostly from the milk of cow-yak crossbreeds known as dzos or dzomos. Barley is poured into a funnel and ground by a small millstone turned by the water from a nearby stream. The ladakhis favorite alcoholic drink is chang, a kind of barely beer.

Men in traditional Ladakhi clothing wear thick felt trousers under course woolen coats with leather sashes. Their knitted boots have turned up toes like elves slippers. Many men carry charm boxes attached to thread sashes with tweezers for removing thorns and a flint. Some men shave the front of their head and have long curls running down the back, a hair popularized in the 9th century by the Tibetan king Langdarma. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic May 1963 ^^]

Older Ladakhi women sometimes wear traditional stovepipe hats adorned with Chinese good-luck symbols, knee-length coats and hairy goat skin capes. Unmarried girls wear a hood-like peryrak with floppy ears and a broad leather strap with silver, cowrie shells and turquoise that show of the girl's family wealth so suitors can estimate the dowry they will receive. Men sometimes wear stovepipe hats too. ^^

Ladakh Buddhist Art

Because so much Tibetan art in Tibet was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, Ladakh— a Tibetan-Himalayan region of northern India—is one of the best places to see old Tibetan art and one of the best places to see Ladakhi Tibetan art is Alchi. Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Alchi lies 10,500 feet up in the Indian Himalayas, nestled in a crook alongside the cold jade waters of the Indus River, sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar mountains, From a point on the opposing bank, Alchi’s two-story white stucco buildings and domed stupas resemble a crop of mushrooms sprouting from a small, verdant patch amid an otherwise barren landscape of rock, sand and ice. [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010 \=\]

“Getting here entails flying from New Delhi to the town of Leh, sited at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, followed by a 90-minute drive along the Indus River valley. Several hundred inhabitants live in traditional mud and thatch houses. Many women wearing customary Ladakhi pleated robes (gonchas), brocaded silk capes and felt hats work in the barley fields and apricot groves. Alchi’s status as a backwater, located on the opposite bank of the Indus from the routes invading armies traveled in the past and commercial truckers use today, has helped preserve the murals. “It is a kind of benign neglect,” says Nawang Tsering, head of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, based in Leh. “Alchi was too small, so [the invaders] didn’t touch it. All the monasteries along the highway were looted hundreds of times, but Alchi nobody touched.” \=\

Although Alchi’s existence is popularly attributed to Rinchen Zangpo, a translator who helped promulgate Buddhism throughout Tibet in the early 11th century, most scholars believe the monastic complex was founded nearly a century later by Kalden Sherab and Tshulthim O, Buddhist priests from the region’s powerful Dro clan. Sherab studied at Nyarma Monastery (which Zangpo had founded), where, according to an inscription in Alchi’s prayer hall, “like a bee, he gathered the essence of wise men’s thoughts, which were filled with virtue as a flower is with nectar.” As a member of a wealthy clan, Sherab likely commissioned the artists who painted Alchi’s oldest murals. \=\

“Researchers aren’t sure why the temples were built facing southeast, when Buddhist temples customarily face east, as the Buddha was said to have done when he found enlightenment. Nor is it known why the image of the Buddhist goddess Tara—a green-skinned, many-armed protector—was accorded such prominence in the Sumtsek paintings. Much about Alchi remains baffling. Alchi is still a living temple under religious control of the nearby Likir Monastery, currently headed by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal. Monks from Likir serve as Alchi’s caretakers. At the same time, responsibility for preserving Alchi as a historic site rests with the government’s Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

See Tibetan Art

Preservation Efforts at Alchi Monastery in Ladakh

Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Relations between the ASI and the Likir monks have long been fraught. The monks are wary of government intrusion into religious matters; the ASI worries the monks will undertake restorations that damage the Alchi murals. The result is a stalemate that has thwarted conservation efforts.” [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010 \=\]

“Fifteen miles from Alchi is an example of a successful melding of tourism and conservation. In Basgo, a town on the Indus that was once the capital of Ladakh, three ancient Buddhist temples and a fort have been renovated through a village cooperative, the Basgo Welfare Committee. As in Alchi, the Basgo temples are considered living monasteries—in this case under the religious jurisdiction of Hemis, like Likir, a major Tibetan Buddhist “mother church.” But in Basgo, the Hemis monastery, the ASI and international conservation experts have cooperated to save the endangered heritage. The project has received support from the New York-based World Monuments Fund as well as global art foundations. International experts have trained Basgo’s villagers in conservation methods using local materials, such as mud brick and stone-based pigments.” \=\

Ladakhi Economic Life and Agriculture

Many Ladakhi women still twist armfuls of loose wool into yarn by hand with a distaff, the same method employed by the ancient Greeks. Every home has a loom and, traditionally, most of the garments that people wore were made at home.

Most crops are grown on terraces wedged into hillsides nourished by water channeled from glacier-fed streams. The soil is hoed with long-handled wooden spades to take advantage of every drop of water, and weeds are collected by hand and given to animals as food. Ladakhis also grow turnips, radishes and cabbage. Fruit trees grow in some places.

Ladakhi Trade

and Karakoram Pass

The caravans that passed through the 18,290-foot-high Karakoram Pass in Ladakh used to carry wool, cotton, pearls, indigo, brocades dyes, spices and household products from Leh to Yarkand and Kashgar in Xinjiang in western China and return with silk, tea, gold, musk, medicines. and carpets. Between 30 and 100 horses, Bactrian camels, yaks and sheep were used to transport goods on the 30-to-40-day, one-way journey. The caravans continued until the hostilities between India and China closed the Karakoram Pass in the early 1960s. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic May 1963 ^^]

The caravaneers said they were seldom bothered by bandits. In fact they would often ferry their loads to the pass and leave them there unguarded until the snow on the pass cleared. Then they would ferry their goods down the other side. Sometimes some of their merchandise was left unattended for an entire year.

The caravan trails was so demanding that noses of some of the mules and ponies had to be slit open to allow them to breath better. "But there was no danger of getting lost," one of the last caravaneers Hajji Tokta told National Geographic. "Bleached bones of animals and men regularly marked the trail. It is only by the grace of God my own are not strewn there with them. In a bad fall near the pass I broke my hip. Luckily, a companion stayed behind with me. It was a month until I could be moved. We nearly starved." While he was recuperating in Leh the pass was closed and he never saw his wife or family again. Ladakh suffered when the pass was closed. It was the only source of income for many in this poor, primarily agricultural region.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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