Culture of Ladakh Through Its Timeless Traditions And Handicrafts
Words tend to fall short of this magnificent wonder that has been bestowed upon us. If an artist were to have painted it, they’d be criticized for making it too perfect. Reality is prettier than fiction could ever be. Ladakh is a land with a soul, carrying with it a legacy and traditions dating back centuries. The rugged terrain, set against a stunning backdrop of towering Himalayan ranges, is home to stories of peace, valour and the culture of Ladakh is unique to the land. The people of Ladakh, much like their environment, are unique and welcoming. If you manage to take your eyes off the natural scenic beauty of this heavenly place, dig a little deeper and explore the rich heritage and the traditions – there is a lot to learn!
Apart from the usual adventure and natural beauty of Ladakh, let’s explore the handicrafts and traditions that give this place its depth. The arts and handicrafts of Ladakh are not done on a large scale, and thus are not commercialised. On the downside, the indigenous crafts are not well known, and hidden to the rest of the world. Here, we attempt to unravel some of the hidden gems of Ladakhi art and traditions. So, here are 9 unique, untold traditions and indigenous handicrafts which unravel the lifestyle of Ladakh for you.
1. Sand Mandalas at the Diskit Monastery
The oldest and largest Buddhist monastery or Gompa in the Nubra Valley, the Diskit Monastery is a true landmark of Leh Ladakh. Apart from the stunning visuals and the deep history of the monastery, the art of making Sand Mandalas is practiced by the monks here, and it is a visual treat to say the least. A tradition of the monastery, the creation and destruction is a ritual representing the Buddhist belief that all life is transitory and even the most beautiful creations must, in the end leave material life. The Sand Mandalas are beautiful, intricate and made with natural dyed sands, by monks who are taught to practice the art for years. The ceremonial destruction is a big part of the entire process, and one learns so much from these ancient rituals.
2. Metal Works of Chiling
Famous for the works of the metal workmen of the village, Chilling is the place to go if you want to purchase authentic Ladakhi metal crafts. Made from brass, copper or silver, one can find beautiful chang pots, teacups, hookah-bases, bowls, ladles and many more handcrafted items, made by the local craftsmen who have practiced the skill and passed it on for generations. While the other parts of Ladakh rely heavily on imports from Kashmir and Tibet, it is in this village of Chilling where one can find the original Ladakhi workmanship.
3. Pattu, Pashmina and Woven Baskets
Pattu is a rough woolen fabric, traditionally made to keep people warm and protected from harsh weather conditions of this high mountainous region. Pashmina shawls, a tradition seeped in from Kashmir, are the iconic takeaways from the region. The shawls made from the wool of mountain Changthangi goats, which are reared in the harshest conditions and are world famous for its quality of wool.Another locally produced item are the hand-made woven baskets, made out of willow straws and grass. A practical, functional item used to transport fruits, vegetables and sometimes even newborn babies! Apart from the baskets and Pattu, other locally produced handicrafts include leather carved shoes, wooden carved furniture and decoration pieces depicting texts from Buddhism.
Leh markets are filled with such unique artifacts and apparels, that are now world renowned and are showcased in International Fashion Shows around the world; these curios are perfect souvenirs of your foray into Ladakh.
A traditional Buddhist painting on a cotton cloth, a Thangka may not be unique solely to the region of Ladakh, but is an intrinsic part of the Buddhist traditions of the place. Found in Nepal, Tibet and other Buddhist centres, the Thangkas represent the life of Buddha and depict stories of wisdom from Buddhism in the form of art. These art pieces are not framed, but, are rolled up like scrolls and covered with a layer of silk. These delicate paintings require care and need to be stored in dry places. The intricate designs, the fine craftsmanship and the elaborate depictions on the pieces of cloth make Thangkas a unique and magnificent hand-crafted souvenir to carry home. Apart from the obvious beauty of the art pieces, they are also reflective of the immense heritage and wisdom that the region of Ladakh possesses. A noteworthy ceremony involving Thangkas takes place at the Naropa Festival, where the Thangka of Buddha,the largest one in Ladakh, is unfurled amidst the chanting of monks, making it a truly surreal and spiritually overwhelming moment. A deeper understanding of the art will get you a step closer to the spiritual lessons that the stories from Buddhism convey. Remarkable to say the least!
5. The Festivals of Ladakh
A big part of the culture and tradition of Ladakh are the vibrant festivals, when even the barren, serenity of the mountains springs to life with colourful decorations, songs echoing through the rugged mountains and people gathering together to celebrate. One of the most popular of the festivals is the Hemis Festival, which takes place in June and celebrates the birth of the Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. The monks and visitors dress up in robes, there are folk dance performances retelling grand tales of the guru, it is just a colourful manifestation of the legendary figure. The performing artists wear vibrant masks which embody Ladakh’s fascinating history and heritage. The masks are elaborate and have their own distinctive style, diversity of shape, and reflect ancient exquisiteness. Other wonderful festivals of Ladakh are the Dosmochey Festival at the Diskit Monastery, the Matho Nagrang Festival, the Stok Guru Festival, Losar Celebration, the Ladakh Festival and many more. Common themes across all festivals are colourful robes, the beautiful dances and the triumphant stories of good over evil told through music and poetry. Choose to visit the region during a festival and you will unravel the culture of Ladakh as you look beneath its stunning surface.
6. Music, Dance and Oral Literature
Folk music and dance of every part of India tell stories of their past, and the colourful culture that they represent. In Ladakh too, folk songs and dances are ingrained in their local culture, and provide wonderful insights into the history of the place. Songs from different parts within Ladakh tell stories specific to their villages, districts and regions. For instance, the Jabro Dance of the Changthang People that is performed during festivals, especially Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The Tukhstanmo is a dance of the Zanskar and Bakhamul people, the Spao Dance is a warrior dance representing the legendary Gesar, while the Loshon dance is performed during the harvest festival, and many others. The music that is accompanied by the dances is a form of oral literature, which tells stories of the land in the form of poems and songs. The dances are colorful, performed with elaborate costumes, local Ladakhi dresses, and are breath-taking depictions of folk-tales.
7. The Oracles of Ladakh
Oracles, for those who are not familiar with the concept, are spiritual astrologers and healers, who hold an important place in the cultures of Asia, especially Tibet, China and Mongolia. In Ladakh, the oracles are found in almost every village. Before the start of any festival, the Oracle performs a ritual, goes into a trance and opens the festival with this auspicious ceremony. They also work with patients to cure ailments, by going into a trance they perform a fascinating supernatural ritual, connecting with spirits. A matter of faith, it is interesting to observe the 15-20 minute ritual involving chanting, ringing bells, praying and beating drums. Oracles are wise sages, who hold knowledge and experience of the spiritual realm, and connect it with the human realm. Interacting with them is truly an experience out of the world, no pun intended.
8. Ladakhi Jewellery and Attire
Jewellery made by hand is a tradition in many parts of India, and what distinguishes them from each other is the cultural influences these handmade ornaments reflect. Traditional Ladakhi jewellery is mostly silver, with Tibetan designs or are encrusted with turquoise stone found in the Himalayas. Made by local silver-smiths who pass on their skills from generation to generation, the jewellery is intricate, traditional and reminiscent of the local tribal designs. You can buy the most exquisite necklaces, bracelets, earrings, belts, anklets, and pendants. The turquoise stone holds special value, and is supposed to be revered, even more than gold. One of the most popular designs is the Perak, which is a cobra head encrusted in turquoise stone, and is worn as a headpiece for women. The Perak is reflective of the status and wealth of a woman, and the more elaborate it is, the more wealth her family is supposed to be. While on the topic of what women wear, we must talk about the traditional Ladakhi attire, which are elaborate yet functional robes made from wool for both women and men. The attire for men is called the Goncha, and women wear the Kuntop. Both are colourful woollen robes, with an augmentation in the form of Bok for women, which is shawl meant to carry babies. Do try this authentic attire while you’re in Ladakh!
9. Food Traditions
One of the most intrinsic aspects of a culture is the food and the rituals that surround the staple diet of a place. The landscape of Ladakh is possibly one of the harshest, most arid in the country, and at such a high altitude, not all kinds of food can grow and sustain. So, the cuisine that has developed over centuries really values the local produce and makes the best of the ingredients indigenous to the region. Taking influences from Tibetan, Nepali and Kashmiri cuisine, it is based on a lot of soups and broths, just right for the freezing temperatures of the land. Authentic Ladakhi cuisine includes gems like Tingmo , an all-day steamed bread, served with mutton Shapta which is a kind of stew, Butter tea (pinkish boiled tea leaves with yak butter) which is one of the biggest part of the Ladakhi tradition and is also served in monasteries while monks chant in unison. A real conversation starter, Butter Tea is one of the first things a Ladakhi local or a monk will offer you when you visit. The tea helps in overcoming altitude sickness, and it is exclusive to the region, mainly because where else can you find yak butter readily? Thukpa, is a Tibetan noodle soup which bursts of flavours and warmth, while Skyu is a traditional handmade Ladakhi pasta, eaten with meat or vegetables. Other delicacies include Khambir (traditional bread served as a snack with Butter tea), Paba (a staple food made of wheat, barley, buckwheat and peas, served with a dip), and lots more!
The soul of Ladakh lies in its wonderful people, the stories and the traditions passed on to generation after generation. It is a privilege and an honour to be given an insight into this marvelous world. Ladakh is ready to embrace you and bear its soul for you to explore. It’s time to step into this mystical heaven.
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Neha Mathur loves to explore the stories behind places and people. She believes travel is the best form of education, and loses no opportunity to visit a new place. Neha writes to express stories that touch her heart or entice her mind. She’s a foodie and nothing gives her more happiness than delicious local food! She has a deep love for poetry and music, and swears by the artistic genius of Mirza Ghalib and R.D. Burman.