Of late, I was wondering what makes living in Ladakh so special. Yes, after two decades I found an opportunity to experience Ladakh in real sense --- witnessing vibrant colors of the four seasons, relishing warmth of the soulful people and living through its harsh winters.
During days of my education, I have lived and experienced many societies across India. In that sense, I have some yardstick to contrast my homeland with that of others. Although, every society has something or other to offer, I was curious what makes Ladakh one of the exclusive places in itself.
This curiosity led me to observe some of unique traits of Ladakh that I found seldom in other places. I have had many competing attributes to choose. Some were ubiquitous, as apparent as that of a mirror; for instance, the mesmerizing landscapes, the mystical monasteries atop precarious screes or the colorful dresses of natives. Others were subtle and inconspicuous, yet those characteristics, in my eyes, form the very bedrock of elating experience of living in Ladakh. Therefore, here I dole out seven well-kept secrets of Ladakh that have won hearts of travelers, tourists and locals, alike me, for generations and generations together.
Everyone smiles. I think these two words have summarized it all for you. Nevertheless, to save myself of being taciturn, and to further this write-up, allow me to proceed. If you start counting people smiling through a sojourn in Ladakh, I am certain you will lose the count. May it be a stroll around the neighborhood, a quick visit to bazaar or an office space, I found people soulful, warm and smiling. I guess the thin air of Ladakh is a catalyst enough for a heartfelt laughter. I marvel if the refreshing chill on rosy cheeks of people triggers an involuntary reflex of an expressive smile. May be, they have mastered the art of living, allowing them to grin amidst the lowest of their phases. I do not know, but it is so easy to flash a smile in Ladakh…so easy!
Those who have been to Ladakh have an idea of my reasons of including ‘Julley’ in this list. I believe, Julley is the most potent of words in whole of Ladakhi (Bhoti) Language. If a survey were to be conducted to ascertain the most used word in Ladakhi language, Julley would surely dominate the colloquial scene. It serves at every opportunity of your encounter with a person. You could greet a relative or a stranger at any time of the day with a simple ‘Julley.’ Moreover, it plays an important role in getting off with a conversation, a very powerful icebreaker especially with strangers. You begin a conversation with a Julley and conclude it with a Julley. It even facilitates the talk, in-between, with a shorter form ‘Ju, Ju.’ Alas, if you come across someone of your interest, you do not have to break your head over a pick-up line. You just use the magic word!
The trademark of a Ladakhi, to me, is his or her humility. In fact, it holds a high status among the qualities that the society celebrates. The children are taught to be humble from initial days of their childhood. I believe, this high regards to humility has prevented our society from many social vices like, caste system, materialistic competition or class system. You would come across many established scholars, professionals and wealthy with a down-to-earth demeanor, despite their accomplishments and endowments. In fact, many visitors have also observed this phenomenon repeatedly, for instance, Janit Razvi in her book ‘Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia’ notes:”A man of humbler classes stands up straight and looks his social superiors in the eye. This basic humanity in the sense of real appreciation of a person’s worth irrespective of their position in terms of class is palpable in the main bazaar at Leh...”
When I watch Ladakhi women stout and confident, their traditional dresses ‘sul Ma’ tied tight to their waists, their hair plaited by hips, I know for sure that the posterity is in hands of compassionate yet dexterous mothers. They exude conviction in their action, frankness in expression and empowerment in gait. One of the charming sights at Leh Bazaar is that of Ladakhi women selling their local vegetable produces by the footpath of main-road, irrespective of their family background or status in the society. When I interact with them, I experience a clarity that eases the conversation, a space that obviates the differences of sexes, a possibility that brings the conversation at an equal footing. No wonder, Ladakh saw women at helm of its state-affairs way back in eighteenth century, when queen Bu-Khrid Wangmo reigned over Ladakh for a decade from 1740 to 1750 AD . No wonder, girls perform at par with boys in every sphere of life. No wonder, the society has shaped up on the ethos of democracy and equity.
In Ladakh, marriage is a cause of celebrations, not of economical burden. It is a big deal in terms of a life event for the newlyweds, but not in terms of wealth exhibition. Moreover, it is not a ‘one family’ affair at all. The web of relatives fully supports the families of the bride or groom. Every relative contributes towards the arrangements and expenses for the day of marriage. In fact, a Ladakhi marriage could end up making the families of newlyweds far well off because of many gifts and assistances from their relatives and friends. There is no dowry system. Although, a growing concern, these days, is that of excessive gifting practice, called sBrags-rtaks in Ladakhi, the socially oriented media and thinkers are making their concern heard in the society. I am confident that the people of Ladakh will respond to it positively, as we have done in many precedents like making Ladakh a polythene free region, building stray dog sanctuaries and curbing corruption in public offices.
Yes, Social network…only this time the real ‘tangible’ one. Ladakh enjoys a very close-knit social relationship. It extends beyond the relatives and friends. The system of Pas-pun is one unique feature of our social life. They are mutually agreed groups of families who share all the important events from births, marriages to deaths --- an example of social ingenuity of the ancestors. During thin phases of life, for instance a recently bereaved family, the Pas-puns own of every activity of the family as well as of funeral proceedings. I have seen many schemes of social security, public and private, however people of Ladakh have one that is affordable, time-tested and true to its purpose.
Last but not the least, one thing that tie all above into a rosary is silence. If silence were a tangible commodity, Ladakh would have been its largest exporter. The vast expenses of mountains and plains enable the silence to prevail. When the winters usher in snow to the valleys, serenity peaks to touch deepest of senses. The immovable mountains affect the people to be still for a moment. Silence, in turn, helps the natives to reflect upon themselves, their lives and that of society. These reflections fuel actions of the people, into constructing the kind of society they want to build, the kind of ethos they want to imbibe, and the kind of lives they want to live.
Of course, my list is only a representative of many such ‘secretive’ properties that Ladakh possesses. I wonder if you have given a thought about them. I would be glad if you could share with me, and with our fellow Ladakhis, what impresses you of our people, our culture, of our land. You could send me your reactions at email@example.com. Wait a minute! I could hear Dha-maan (a traditional musical instrument) notes from afar distance. I must stop here, for otherwise I would miss on their beats. Julley!