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Ladakh (Culture at the Crossroads)

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About the Book   Situated in the high desert reaches of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and frequently presented as a remote and isolated part of the world, Ladakh has actually been a crossroads for the transmission of goods and ideas for at least a thousand years. From the 10th century it was an independent country ruled by the Buddhist Namgyal dynasty until 1834 when it was annexed by the Dogras, the Hindu rulers of Jammu. ...

About the Book


Situated in the high desert reaches of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and frequently presented as a remote and isolated part of the world, Ladakh has actually been a crossroads for the transmission of goods and ideas for at least a thousand years. From the 10th century it was an independent country ruled by the Buddhist Namgyal dynasty until 1834 when it was annexed by the Dogras, the Hindu rulers of Jammu. Well into the 20th century Ladakh was a key staging post on Central and South Asian trade routes and the region hosted visitors hailing from Srinagar to Yarkand. This cosmopolitanism is reflected in the arts and material heritage, where indigenous Ladakhi expression is often intermixed with Tibetan, Kashmiri, and Central Asian elements. Some art forms display considerable continuities with the past while others are distinguished by the unique cultural practices of subregional communities, such as the textiles of nomadic pastoralists inhabiting the northeastern parts of Ladakh.


This is the first volume to combine essays on the history and ongoing production of art in Ladakh and to recognize both Buddhist and Islamic contributions to the cultural environment. Drawing on recent research in the region, this book covers subjects ranging from the analysis of key sites and prominent contemporary artists, through to the interpretation of metalwork, jewellery, and textiles. The essays are written by internationally acknowledged experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines including historians and anthropologists. Richly illustrated, this publication will appeal to those with an interest in the Himalayas, art, Buddhism, and Islam.


About the Author


Monisha Ahmed, one of the editors of the volume, is an independent researcher based in Mumbai. She has been visiting and writing about the Himalayan region of Ladakh since 1987. She has a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford. The subject of her dissertation developed into the book Living Fabric - Weaving Among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya (Orchid Press, 2002), which won the 2003 R.L. Shep award of the Textile Society of America for the year’s best book on ethnic textiles. She spends several months of every year in Ladakh, continuing her research on the region’s material culture.


Clare Harris, the other editor of the volume, is Curator for Asia at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Lecturer in the School of Anthropology and Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. She is the author of a prize-winning book, In the Image of Tibet: Tibetan Painting after 1959 (Reaktion Books, 1999), and edited Seeing Lhasa: British Depictions of the Tibetan Capital 1936-1947 (Serindia, 2003) in conjunction with the exhibition (of the same name) she curated in Oxford. She is currently the director of a major research project, “Tibet Visual History Online”, and continues to conduct research in the Himalayas.




India’s high altitude border region, Ladakh, is perhaps best known for its extraordinary landscape where the bare rock of the Himalayas appears to thrust through flat expanses of desert to create a dazzling backdrop of peaks and crags. The rivers Indus and Zanskar meander through the valleys of central Ladakh but provide little relief for the parched earth (figure 1). Instead a complex system of irrigation channels traverses the desert, bringing water from the glaciers to feed oases where human settlement becomes possible. This environment is also famously punctuated by man-made structures such as mani (prayer) walls, chortens/stupas, carvings in the rock face, wayside shrines, religious buildings, and other distinctively Ladakhi cultural markers (figure 2). The impression of an organic fusion between the land and these features reflects the technologies and aesthetics of Ladakh’s inhabitants.


Covering an area of nearly 82,000 square kilometres, nowhere else in India is so large a space so sparsely populated as Ladakh. Administratively the area is now subdivided into two main districts; Leh and Kargil. According to the 2004 census the population of Ladakh was 2, 32, 864, divided almost equally between Buddhists (who are concentrated mainly in Leh district) and Muslims (mainly in Kargil district). There is also a very small percentage of Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians. Ladakh is bordered to the north and east by Tibet and in the west by Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Its southern most reaches lead down into the plains of India via long established trade routes through Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Despite its harsh terrain and remoteness from urban centres, Ladakh has long been a location where people, commerce, and cultures intermingled and its art forms therefore reflect influences from many other places.


There is little textual or archaeological evidence to reconstruct the history of Ladakh during the first millennium of the Common Era.1 While it is generally believed that Buddhism entered Ladakh from the east via Tibet, in fact the more likely source was the west during the early centuries of the Common Era under the rule of the Kushan dynasty. Gandhara (as the area straddling today’s border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is known) was the springboard for the spread of Buddhism into Central Asia and beyond and Kashmir is where the Kushan emperor Kanishka (early 2nd century CE) is said to have held the 2nd (or 3rd7) Buddhist Council. The fact that Ladakh and Kashmir have been closely connected in every sense was noted by Aurel Stein when discussing the famous 11, 300-foot pass between the two regions: “The route leading over the Zoji-La undoubtedly has been already in ancient times a most important thoroughfare. It connects Kasmir and Ladakh and thence with Tibet and China. ,,2 It is not surprising therefore that the concrete evidence of Kashmiri influence is visible today in the deep relief rock engravings with Buddhist deities found at Dras, Mulbekh, and Leh (figure 3) which may date from the 8th century when the warrior- king Lalitaditya-Muktapida exerted his power throughout the Kashmir valley and beyond.


However, in the early 10th century, Nyima Gon founded an independent kingdom in western Tibet, probably including Ladakh. Nyima Gon is said to have been a descendant of Langdarma (of the Tibetan Yarlung lineage) who was assassinated in the 9th century.” His three sons are said to have ruled Guge, Purang, and Ladakh respectively and promoted Tibetan religious practices. Thereafter Buddhism received royal patronage throughout Ladakh and the construction of monasteries began in earnest. By the 13th century, the complex of Buddhist buildings at Alchi was completed in a style that combined Kashmiri and Central Asian artistic traditions (figure 4) This contrasts with the later monasteries, mostly built after the 15th century, such as Hemis, Thikse, and Ridzong, where Tibetan cultural influences are more dominant (figure 5). By this time direct connections with the schools of Central Tibetan Buddhism were in place.


It is not known precisely when Islam first came to the region, but some sources suggest it was in the late 14th century and that a mosque built at Shey confirms this dating. However, other scholars claim that it took several more centuries until the Muslim community was fully established and their presence made evident with the construction of a mosque at Leh in the 17th century. At around the same time the Ladakhi royal family moved their residence from Shey to Leh, and commissioned a Muslim architect to design the nine-storey palace that still dominates Leh town (figure 6) (see Ghani Sheikh, this volume). King Senge Namgyal found Leh a more advantageous location than Shey mainly because it lay at a crossroads for the trade routes from Central Asia and northern India.


In 1834, Ladakh was annexed by the Dogras, the Hindu rulers of Jammu, and continued under their jurisdiction until 1947. After India’s independence, it became a part of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh’s geographical position made it strategically important in India’s relationship with both Pakistan and China, and as a sensitive frontier district it remained a restricted area until 1974.






Monisha Ahmed and Clare Harris


House and Fortress: Traditional Building in Buddhist Ladakh


John Harrison


Islamic Architecture in Ladakh


Abdul Ghani Sheikh


Metalworking in Ladakh


John Clarke


The Turquoise Headdress of Ladakh Ravina Aggarwal


Textile Arts of Ladakh:


Nomadic Weaves to Silk-Brocades Monisha Ahmed


Reshaping Tradition: The Life and Work of Nawang Tsering


Clare Hams


A Short Biography of a Contemporary Buddhist Painter


Erberto Lo Sue


Recent Painting Traditions of Ladakh: Central Tibetan Styles in Far Western Tibet


David Jackson





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Item Code: NAJ264 Author: Monisha Ahmed and Clare Harris Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2005 Publisher: Marg Publications ISBN: 9788185026718 Language: English Size: 12 inch X 9.5 inch Pages: 124 (Throughout B/W and Color Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 1.1 kg
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