The culture of Ladakh is heavily influenced by Tibetan culture. There are more Buddhists than Muslims in certain areas and the ratio changes as one moves southwards towards the Zanskar Range. Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, with the most popular foods being thukpa (noodle soup) and tsampa, known in Ladakhi as ngampe (roasted barley flour). A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables. As currency started making its place in the economy of Ladakh, food from the Indian plains gained popularity. Tea in Ladakh is traditionally made with strong green tea, butter, and salt. It is mixed in a large churn and known as gurgur cha (Butter Tea), after the sound it makes when mixed. The milk and sugar based sweet tea made in Indian style is also common now. Most of the surplus barley that is produced is fermented into chang, an alcoholic beverage drunk especially on festive occasions.
The architecture in Ladakh resembles heavily that in Tibet and the rest of India. The monastic architecture reflects a deeply rooted Buddhist approach. The Buddhist wheel, along with two dragons, is a common feature on almost every gimp, including the likes of Hemis and Thiksey. The clothing of Ladaki people is often colourful and richly embroidered. Their social ceremonies such as weddings, and the annual September harvest festival could last for days or even weeks at a time.
There are many festivals in Ladakh and they are an important part of life. The festivals mark several occasions such as harvesting, New Year, and the commemoration of the head Lamas of the founding monasteries. The festivals of Ladakh are conducted by various monasteries and often have religious masked dances, which are an important part of Ladakh’s culture. The dances typically narrate a story between good and evil, which typically end up in victory of the former. One festival we managed to see was in Phyang valley – a bizarre but interesting event.
Ladakhis are very fond of ice hockey, which is generally played in the month of January on natural ice. Archery is a traditional sport and many villages still conduct archery festivals, which also include drinking, dancing and gambling. Polo is another traditional sport of Ladakh.
The first week was spent in Ladakh exploring the surroundings and getting accustomed to the environmental conditions, local culture and food. We also confirmed logistics plans and acquired supplies through our contact in the field, Fidda Hussein. After landing in Leh (3500m) we needed to acclimatize with rest and drinking large quantities of water for the first two days. Oxygen concentrations were much lower than in the lowlands of New Delhi and consequently we all felt rather dazed. Later as we began to acclimatize, we visited some of the old Buddhist monasteries known as gompas. These are skillfully constructed on jagged peaks, silently guarding the human settlements below like the citadels of the medieval times.
One of these, Hemis, is considered to be oldest and wealthiest monastery in India and it is famous for its rich collection of ancient remnants like Buddha statues made of copper, and numerous stupas (burial mounds) made of gold and silver. The Tibetan style architecture of the monastery is very colourful and attractive. The monastery is divided into two parts – the assembly hall known as Dukhang and the temple, which is called Tshogkhang. There are many monasteries in Ladakh of which we managed to visit Spituk, Stok, Leh, Thiksey and Rangdum – where we participated at a full Buddhist puja. Puja is a Pali word, which encompasses honour, worship and devotional attention. The elements involved in a puja ceremony include offerings, bowing, lights, chanting and meditation.
Schools have appeared all over, taking children out of their homes to place them in classrooms. Unfortunately the majority of what they learn is of questionable value, or only suitable for placing them in hard-to-find jobs in the consumer economy. Instead of learning practical, appropriate skills from parents, grandparents and siblings, young Ladakhis are now isolated into classes of their own age bracket, learning lessons which have little value for their cultural and ecological context. Thankfully, initiatives such as the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) aim to reform the educational system. Students attending SECMOL learn useful sustainability concepts and practices, which in turn will help them to face challenges such as climate change, cultural degradation and unemployment.