Ladakh is the largest province within the North Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, covering approximately 60,000 square miles (100,000 sq. km). It is surrounded and bisected by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world.
Running in a generally northwest to southeast direction through Ladakh, the great Himalayan Range separates the Vale of Kashmir from Ladakh. Further east, and running in the same direction, the Zanskar Mountains enclose the Zanskar River Valley. Still further east is the Ladakh Range, forming the Indus River Valley, while to the northeast the Karakorum Mountains for the eastern boundary of Nubra Valley. The height of these ranges prevents rain clouds from crossing into Ladakh and as a result, Ladakh receives only about 2 inches (5 cm) of rain per year. The aridity of the area is immediately apparent to the visitor, with Ladakh’s long vistas of mountains without vegetation and valleys with only a few oases of green.
The Indus River runs through Ladakh and the 30-mile (50 km) stretch of the Indus River Valley between Spitok gompa (near Leh airport) and Hemis gompa is the heartland of Ladakh. Here are scattered some of the finest gompas in the region and here also is the town of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The valley lies at an altitude of about 11,350 feet (3,500 m) and some of the surrounding peaks reach heights of 22,500 feet (7,000 m).
Very little is known for certain about Ladakh prior to the 7th century. In the 7th and 8th centuries Tibetanisation of Ladakh began. Still existent chronicles refer to the area of Ladakh as part of Tibet. Ladakh was also influenced by Kashmir, at the time a Buddhist region. Kashmiri artistic influence can still be seen in the wood carvings of the early monasteries at Lamayuru and Alchi, and early Kashmiri Buddhist bronze statues are found in several Ladakh monasteries.
At the end of the 9th century, central Tibetan culture began to heavily influence the history, culture and religious development of Ladakh. Thus, in order to understand Ladakh’s development, it is necessary to first review the events occurring in Tibet. Beginning in the 7th century and continuing into the 9th, Tibet became an increasingly important military power in Central Asia. The rulers of Tibet, known as the Yarlung Dynasty, steadily expanded Tibet’s borders, being strong enough to place a puppet emperor on the Chinese throne in 768 AD. Only when the Islamic kingdom to Tibet’s west allied itself with China was Tibet forced to stop its military expansionism. Increasing tension developed between the followers of Buddhism and those of Tibet’s earlier religious belief – Bon or Bon-Shamanism.
Ralpacan, a strong king and devout Buddhist, initiated measures to support Buddhism, such as levying special taxes to support Buddhist institutions. His assassination in 836 led to his brother, Lang Darma, becoming king. Although Lang Darma was anti-Buddhist, Buddhism had already gained a large following in Tibet. Lang Darma was himself assassinated in 842 by a Buddhist monk, but Buddhism subsequently declined as a state sponsored religion concurrently with the decline of a strong central monarchy in Tibet. With the decline of Tibet’s central government, Ladakh became an independent kingdom under local rulers of whom little is known.
In the 10th century, a direct descendent of Lang Darma, Lha Chen Palgyi-Gon, conquered Ladakh and began the rule known as the Lha Chen Dynasty. Although little is known of this dynasty’s kings, who held power from the 10th to 15th centuries, crucial aspects of Ladakh’s cultural and religious practices were initiated during this period. Under the Lha Chen dynasty, Ladakh’s first texts on Tibetan Buddhism were produced and Buddhism became the state religion – protected and propagated by the monarchy. In order to better understand and implement Buddhism, Ladakh turned toward Tibet and sent its novice monks to Tibetan monasteries for their studies. It was this practice that resulted in the Tibetanisation of Ladakhi Buddhism. However, Ladakh has never consolidated both religious and secular powers in one ruler, as Tibet did when it began the rule of the Dalai Lamas in the 16th century. Tsong-Kha-pa, a famous commentator on Tibetan Buddhism (1357-1419) became the founder of the Gelug pa, or yellow-hat sect in the 14th century. His followers who came to Ladakh at the end of the 15th century, established Spitok, the first Gelug pa gompa in Ladakh. Other gompas already established in Ladakh gradually began to follow this new religious order.
In 1533 new rulers, who became the Namgyal Dynasty, conquered Ladakh. This line originated with Chovang Namgyal, a descendant of the Tibetan royal family. The most important of his successors was Singe Namgyal who ruled during a period of relative peacefulness in the 17th century. He engaged in the extensive building and renovation of Ladakh’s gompas, building Hemis Gompa on behalf of his Tibetan monk protégé, Stagtshang Raspa, and later in his reign, founded Stokna and Chemre gompas. Leh Palace, now undergoing restoration work, was also constructed by Singe Namgyal. The ubiquitous mani walls were also introduced to the area during this great king’s reign.
At his death, Singe Namgyal’s kingdom was divided and the area currently known as Ladakh eventually passed to his grandson Deldan Namgyal (ca. 1675-1705). This ruler erected the golden Buddha at Shey, the largest Buddha statue in Ladakh until Thiksey gompa installed a larger one in the 1970s, and still the largest metal statue in Ladakh. Deldan Namgyal became involved in various alternating wars and alliances with both the Tibetan government and the Moslem kings of Kashmir (Kashmir having previously converted from Buddhism to Islam). In return for Kashmiri assistance against Tibet Deldan Namgyal promised, among other things, to build a mosque in Leh. The king kept his promise and the mosque, at the end of Leh’s main street, is still in use. Later, after the Mughals had left Ladakh, Tibet invaded the area and imposed other conditions, including that of an annual tribute being sent to Tibet. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Ladakh engaged in internal consolidation under a series of weak kings. Tibetan influence produced some innovations: primogeniture was introduced to determine succession to the Ladakhi throne, and younger brothers of the king were sent to monasteries.
In the early 18th century, the king began appointing village elders to assist in ruling. This practice was probably the basis of the village headman tradition that is still current. Printing presses to produce religious texts were also introduced at this time. All religious texts are still written in Tibetan: further testimony to Tibetan influence in Ladakh.
In the 18th century Sikh rule was established over Jammu and Kashmir. A general in the Jammu army, Zorawar Singh, invaded Ladakh in what became known as the Dogra Invasion of 1834. Leh Palace was heavily damaged and the King of Ladakh retreated to Stok, where the family still lives (the most recent king was crowned in 1992).
With the coming of the British Raj, Ladakh was placed in the newly created State of Jammu and Kashmir under the supervision of the Maharajah of Kashmir. The Ladakhi king thus became a vassal of this Maharajah. The most recent king was crowned in 1992.
Ladakhis are Tibetan-Mongoloid in appearance although traces of Kashmiri Moslem influence can also be seen. It is most likely that early in its history, Ladakh was settled by the Mon and Dard groups of people.
The Mon, a term applied by Tibetan-speaking peoples to valley-dwellers, are probably the builders of many of the castles found in Ladakh, particularly those in the Zanskar Valley. The Mon were early Buddhists who derived their religion directly from India; thus, their form of Buddhism does not show the Chinese or Tibetan Tantric influences so prevalent in the later monasteries of Ladakh. Today the Mon are musicians in many Ladakhi villages, providing musical accompaniment to secular occasions such as social gatherings, parties or marriage ceremonies.
The Dards, also agriculturists like the Mon, similarly arrived in Ladakh sometime before the 7th century and settled primarily in the Dras Valley. Having converted to Islam in the 17th century, little remains of their prior religious practices. Traditionally, the men’s dress is a goncha, a long maroon or brown gown of heavy wool tied with a bright pink sash slightly below the waist, although any men now wear western clothes.
Women do not wear western dress as frequently; their goncha is slightly more fitted than the men’s version, gathered into small pleats near the waist and worn with a brocade or goatskin cape (fur side turned towards the wearer) on the back. Alternatively, women wear a buckoo, a sleeveless wrap-around dress, although this is more typical of Tibetans than Ladakhis.
Women usually wear their hair in two long braids and a Kantop, a sort of top hat with part of the front cut out. The Dard women of Baltistan wear distinctive head-dresses of orange ribbons curled to look like flowers, while Ladakhi women wear peroks – head-dresses with brown fur side flaps and a large band decorated with turquoise and coral reaching from their forehead to part way down their back.