Abdul Ghani Sheikh single-handedly conceptualises a museum in Leh that celebrates Ladakh's cosmopolitan heritage.
In popular perception, the Ladakh of today is considered a remote area, cut-off from the rest of the world for six months and a tribal society romanticised by tourists. But it was not very long ago that Ladakh was a centre of cultural exchange, says Abdul Ghani Sheikh, a prominent historian and writer based in Leh. “‘What Port Said is to the Suez Canal, Leh is to the Central Asian Trade road,' this is what a British Joint Commissioner, R.L. Kennion, posted in Ladakh at the turn of the 19th century,” Sheikh says.
To showcase the rich heritage that resulted from this cultural exchange, Sheikh conceptualised the idea of a Central Asian Museum. The Museum partially opened to the public in August last year. “Not very long ago, the whole world was open to Ladakh. We were connected by trade routes to Yarkhand in Central Asia, towards Tibet in the East and Baltistan, which falls in Pakistan now, was in fact a part of Ladakh. The Leh Trade Route was linked with the historical Silk Route,” said Sheikh, also an acclaimed Urdu writer.
Ladakhi art, food, costume and language were all partially influenced by Central Asia. “The word ‘Momo', the most popular food of Ladakh today, is derived from Yarkhand. It was only in 1947 after the political boundaries between nations were demarcated that Ladakh fell into isolation, both geographically and culturally. Traders in their caravans came from Punjab, Yarkhand, Afghanistan, Russia and even Siberia and sold their wares on the streets here,” said Sheikh. “The Leh bazaar was considered a listening post by the British in the 19th century. Polo, horse-riding and football matches took place in the bazaar and drama troupes from Tibet and Himachal Pradesh would come to perform here during Loser (the Ladakhi New Year). The British suspected that Russia wanted to capture Ladakh so a Joint Commissioner was posted here in the guise of monitoring the trade here. However, his main job was to monitor spies,” said Sheikh. Some of the shops in the Leh market still belong to descendents of Punjabi traders who settled down in Leh during those days.
The Central Asian Museum is located right in the centre of Leh town. It is built in the Tsas Soma Gardens, the land where the caravans used to camp. The Ladakhi king Senge Namgyal gave permission to some traders to build Leh's first mosque on these grounds. “Ladakh and Baltistan are like the members of family divided by the exigencies of time. Now there are only two roads to Ladakh through Srinagar and Manali but earlier, people travelled through Skardo and Gilgit to Rawalpindi. There was another route from Leh to Lhasa from where people could cross over to Sikkim and to Kolkata thereafter. This route was open even till 1960 when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet,” said Sheikh who donated his personal collection of books on Ladakh and Central Asia for the Museum library.
The Changthang plateau, which is cut-off even from the rest of Ladakh in winters now, is the worst affected by the closing of borders. Located five kilometres above sea level, Changthang was earlier a part of the vast Tibetan plateau and the only way to reach Tibet. “The nomads, mainly pastoralists, exchanged their Pashmina wool, butter and cheese for pots and spices with traders passing through the plateau. There would be fares at Gartok, the summer capital and Rudok, the winter capital which falls in the part of the plateau occupied by China now. Still, there are huge rocks in Tang-Tse, a major resting place for traders before crossing over to Tibet that bear inscriptions in more than ten languages.”
Besides business, people from Ladakh also went to Tibet for academic pursuits. “Records show that there was no Buddhism in Tibet till 727 AD. A Chinese monk travelled from Leh to Central Asia that year and wrote that he saw Buddhism in Ladakh but not in Tibet. It was Ashoka who brought Hinayana Buddhism to Ladakh through his emissaries. The king of Western Tibet (Changthang) sent his son to Kashmir to study Buddhism. That's why the earlier monasteries like Alchi have Kashmiri influence. However, after Islam came to Kashmir, people started looking up to Tibet for Buddhist teachings and monks were sent to Lhasa to study. In the 13th century, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism from Tibet had spread in Ladakh and it continues to remain so till date,” says Sheikh.
Islam made its advent in Ladakh because of trade. The relations between the Buddhist and Muslim communities always remained cordial until the late 20th century. “Inter-marriages were common. The 17th century king, Jamyang Namgyal married a Balti princess Gyal Khatun, who remained a Muslim till death. Earlier, ‘Loser' and Eid were celebrated together but not anymore,” said Sheikh who is an Argon, a community of Muslims traders who settled down in Leh and intermarried with Buddhists.
Despite the impact of trade, the Ladakhiness remained intact. "The Mongolians were considered ‘Yamdoots'; who would get angry at the slightest of instances. Ladakhis have always been a peace-loving community who were confident of their cultural ethos. We had our own folk songs and dances. For instance, there are 360 songs for the marriage ceremony alone in Ladakhi,” Sheikh said.
The trade interactions could not shake the foundations of the Ladakhi culture but the wave of western education and tourism did. “The kind of interaction that is happening now, has never happened in ages. Records show that once, in an year, there were just four tourists. This year, there have been more tourists than the population of Ladakh itself,” said Sheikh. However, he is optimistic about this change. “There were superstitions like a woman could not get out of the house for a month after child-birth. We should move on from these things now,” said Sheikh.
Ravleen Kaur is a media fellow with the National Foundation of India working in Ladakh.