Ladakh’s Social Class Structure: A Native’s perspective

Ladakh today is best recalled as a great destination for travellers worldwide. Its cold mountain peaks reflects a beauty so raw and rare that has captured the lens of many photographers national as well as global. In essence, Ladakh, over the years has overseen tremendous growth in terms of tourism and subtantive global exposure. Quite a bit of literature can be found on Ladakh exploring various aspects of this cold desert in the majestic Himalayas, the last thriving remnant of the Himalayan kingdom. Ladakh is very different from the two other regions of the state: Jammu and Kashmir in terms of culture, climate and geography. History has aligned it with the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where it forms its third and largest region in terms of area. Ladakh has came a long away since the opening of its doors to the world in the year 1974.
A great deal of foreign and indic scholarship has been recorded on its ancient monasteries, maniwalls and religious manuscripts, besides a great many travelogues and blogs exploring the culture and natural beauty of Ladakh. Many articles are abound describing the social narrative of Ladakh predominantly highlighting Buddhist narratives and folklore, for a modern native however, Ladakh captures so much more. Travellers and scholars who have contributed significantly in carving a literature of Ladakh still, however cannot fully comprehend or live the social class milieu of Ladakh. Ladakh’s social reality is far removed from the staple Ladakhi culture and customs projected in glittery travel print journals.
Broadly, there are three different ethnic groups and religions practiced in the Ladakh region: Buddhism, Islam and a small fraction of Ladakhis also practice Christianity. Mahayana Buddhism underlining Tibetan Tantric traditions is practiced in most Buddhist Ladakhi households, while the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam is followed in most Muslim Ladakhi homes. There is a little known community of Christians who come under the patronage of the Moravian missionaries set up by Germans who had travelled to Ladakh in the twentieth century. Buddhism and Islam hold religious monopoly over the social pulse of Ladakh. With the army influence spanning more than sixty years now, a shared ideologue of ‘Indianness’ has also emerged. Hindustani is spoken fluently by most Ladakhis because of the army presence and the Ladakhis themselves becoming exposed to the outside world. The isolation of Ladakh to a great extent, has been bridged through the fast growth of tourism in Leh, Kargil and other areas of Ladakh. This feeling of ‘Indianness’ also is a result of Ladakh’s strong positioning in the old Himalayan silk route trade. Ladakh’s unique geo-positioning brought in a lot of wealth and trade assets. Many scholars have described Ladakh as a place where gold washing used to occur. It was a meeting point between travellers and traders from the Himalayan belt and other parts of pre-independent India. Prior to its alignment with India under the treaty of accession of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, carried open trade with Punjab, Kashmir, Pakistan, Bhutan, Central Asia, Tibet and China. All these trade alliances and cultural exchanges have contributed significantly in the composite and vibrant culture of Ladakh.
The social and cultural life of Ladakhis bear allegiance to the social structure laid down by the kingdom of Ladakh. The Leh palace that was beautifully restored recently by the ASI(Archaeological Survey of India) evokes memory of a social reality that pervaded across Ladakh. There was a marked social class and caste hierarchy that is followed till today. This social division was done on the basis of labour and occupation. For instance, a ‘thangka painter’,/’spon'(thangka paintings is a unique art/painting practiced in the monasteries of Ladakh) and his subsequent progeny was defined by the painting occupation. A ‘kalon’ or ‘lonpo'(person of noble birth, aristrocratic lineage) would carry a superior class bearing. Designated village households would hold this royal entitlement, similarly one would have ‘amchis’ (local doctors), ‘tongpas'(zamindars), farmers and other professions that would come under the broad commoner section. There is a common saying that in Ladakh one is known by the name of their household that was preserved and carried forward from the Kingdom days of Ladakh. At social gatherings, the aristocrats sit in the first rows or in a separate seating box in a ‘tal'(seating arrangement) followed by the rest. This hierarchy is observed till this date. Traditional dances that are performed at these gatherings are often led by the nobles and aristocrats. However, after the advent of modern education this feudal arrangement is giving way to a more democratic and inclusive social setup. Besides the above mentioned social groups, there also exists three other communities who come in the lowest strata of the Ladakhi societal setup. They are the ‘mon’, ‘beda’ and ‘gara’. These groups comprise the musicians who play the local instruments, ‘daman'(drums) and ‘surna'(long flute) and also the blacksmiths who used to make agricultural and farming equipments. The ‘mons’ are believed to have migrated from Nepal and who were master craftsmen during the kingship period. The monastic community plays a vital role in the religious and social customs of Ladakh. The laity of Ladakh have deep ties with the monastic settlement of Ladakh. The fact that people from these three communities find it difficult to attain a high monastic title confirm their marginal status in society. Another marked instance of the divide prevails on the question of marriage of a common Ladakhi within these communities which is considered a taboo. The ‘mon’, ‘gara’ and ‘beda’ communities since centuries have infused music, life and vigour in the traditions of Ladakh. Ladakh is known for its rich Buddhist heritage, but in practice, the ameliorating nature of Buddhism has not been truly successful in eradicating this feudal divide.
This land has taken on several hues from its original inhabitants comprising the ‘dardic’ race who are believed to be of Aryan origin. Ladakh has been gifted with a unique racial ancestry ranging from the Tibetan-Mongoloid to the Indo-Iranian and Aryan racial heritages. This eclectic ancestry is Ladakh’s USP. Modern Ladakh carries with it the values, social customs of old Ladakh. This unique social, cultural and religious blend continues to regale travellers who trek towards a distant land nestled at the top of the Indian map.
Sonam Angmo
(The author is an Assistant Professor at Govt. Degree College Samba, J&K)