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Ladakh Culture

Ladakhi culture is similar to Tibetan culture. Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being Thukpa, noodle soup; and Tsumpa, known in Ladakhi as Ngampe, roasted barley flour, eatable without cooking it makes useful, if dull trekking food. A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables. As Ladakh moves toward a less sustainable, cash based economy, foods from the plains of India are becoming more common.

Like in other parts of Central Asia, tea in Ladakh is traditionally made with strong black tea, butter, and salt, it is mixed in a large churn and known as gurgur cha, due to the sound of mixing it. Sweet tea (cha ngarmo) is common now, made Indian style with milk and sugar. Chang, an alcoholic beverage, is made from barley, and has a yeasty taste slightly similar to sake.

The language of Ladakh is Ladakhi, a Tibetan dialect that is different enough from Tibetan that Ladakhis and Tibetans often speak Hindi or English when they need to communicate. Urban Ladakhis usually know Hindi/Urdu and often English.

The architecture of Ladakh contains Tibetan and Indian influences, and reflects a deeply Buddhist approach. The Buddhist wheel, along with two dragons, is a common feature on every Gompa. The Chorten have four-sided walls in Ladakh, as opposed to round walls in parts of Tibet. Many of the houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south, and are often made out a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth.

Traditional Ladakhi music, like Tibetan music, often involves religious chanting in Tibetan or Sanskrit, as an integral part of the religion. These chants are complex, often recitations of sacred texts or in celebration of various festivals. Yang chanting, performed without metrical timing, is accompanied by resonant drums and low, sustained syllables.

Religious mask dances are an important part of Ladakh's cultural life. The Hemis monastery, a leading centre of Drugpa Buddhism, is a centre for an annual masked dance festival. The dances typically narrate a story of fight between good and evil, ending with the eventual victory of the former. Weaving is an important part of traditional life in eastern Ladakh. Both women and men weave, on a different loom. Typical costumes include Gonchas of velvet, elaborately embroidered waistcoats and boots, and gonads or hats.

Archery is a popular sport in Ladakh. Archery festivals are held during the summer months in villages. These are competitive events, to which all the surrounding villages send their teams. The sport is conducted with strict etiquette, to the accompaniment of the music of surna and daman (oboe and drum). Polo, the other traditional sport of Ladakh is indigenous to Baltistan and Gilgit, and was probably introduced into Ladakh in the mid-17th century by King Singge Namgyal, whose mother was a Balti princess.

The Ladakh festival is held every year in September. The people, adorned with gold and silver ornaments and turquoise headgears throng the streets. Monks wear colourful masks and dance to the rhythm of cymbals, flutes and trumpets. The Yak, Lion and Tashishpa dances depict the many legends and fables of Ladakh. Buddhist monasteries sporting prayer flags, display of 'tankhas', archery competitions, a mock marriage, and horse-polo are the some highlights of this festival.

A feature of Ladakhi society that distinguishes it from the rest of the state is the high status and complete emancipation enjoyed by women. A related feature is the absence of a caste system, although class distinctions do exist. Fraternal polyandry and inheritance by primogeniture were actively practiced in Ladakh until the early 1940s, when these were made illegal by the then government of Jammu and Kashmir, although they still exist in remote areas. Another custom was known as khang-bu, or 'little house', in which the elders of a family, as soon as the eldest son has reached years of discretion, retire from participation in affairs, and taking only enough of the property for their own sustenance, yielding the headship of the family to him.


Adventure tourism in Ladakh started in the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for British officials to undertake the 14 stage trek from Srinagar to Leh as part of their annual leave. Agencies were set up in Srinagar and Shimla to specialise sport related activities - hunting, fishing and trekking. This era is recorded in Arthur Neves The Tourist's Guide to Kashmir, Ladakh and Skardo, first published in 1911. Today, about 18,000 tourists visit Ladakh every year. Bounded by two mighty mountain ranges, it is a popular place for adventure tourism. The well-preserved Tibetan-Buddhist culture makes it even more attractive.

Among the popular places of tourist interest include Leh, Drass valley, Suru valley, Kargil, Zanskar, Zangla, Rangdum, Padum, Phugthal, Sani, Stongdey, Shyok Valley, Sankoo, Salt Valley and several popular trek routes like Manali to Ladakh, the Nubra valley, the Indus valley etc.


Ladakh was the connection point of Central Asia and South Asia when the Silk Road was in use. The sixty-day journey on the Ladakh route connecting Amritsar and Yarkand through eleven passes was frequently undertaken by traders till the third quarter of the 19th century. Another common route in regular use was the Kalimpong route between Leh and Lhasa via Gartok, the administrative centre of western Tibet. Gartok could be reached either straight up the Indus in winter, or through either the Taglang la or the Chang la. Beyond Gartok, the Cherko la brought travelers to the Manasarovar and Rakshastal lakes, and then to Barka, which is connected to the main Lhasa road. These traditional routes have been closed since the Ladakh-Tibet border has been sealed by the Chinese government. Other less used routes connected Ladakh to Hunza and Chitral.

In present times, the only two land routes to Ladakh in use are from Srinagar and Manali. Travelers from Srinagar start their journey from Sonamarg, through the Zoji la pass (3,450 m, 11,320 ft) via Dras and Kargil (2,750 m, 9,022 ft) passing through Namika la (3,700 m, 12,140 ft) and Fatu la (4,100 m, 13,450 ft.) This has been the main traditional gateway to Ladakh since historical times. However, with the rise of militancy in Kashmir, the main corridor for accessing the area has shifted from the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh route through Zoji la, to the high altitude Manali-Leh Highway from Himachal Pradesh. The highway crosses four passes, Rohtang la (3,978 m, 13,050 ft), Baralacha la (4,892 m, 16,050 ft), Lungalacha la (5,059 m, 16,600 ft), Tangtang la (5,325 m, 17,470 ft) and is open only between July and September, when snow is cleared from the road. There is one airport, situated at Leh, from which there are multiple daily flights to Delhi on Jet Airways and Indian, and weekly flights to Srinagar.

Buses run from Leh to the surrounding villages. There is about 1800 km of roads in Ladakh, of which 800 km is surfaced. The Manali-Leh-Srinagar road makes up about half of that, the remainder being spurs off it. Ladakh is criss-crossed by a complex network of mountain trails which, even today provide the only link between the majority of valleys, villages and high pastures. For the traveler with a number of months it is possible to trek from one end of Ladakh to the other, or even from places in Himachal Pradesh. The large number of trails and the limited number of roads allows one to string together routes that have road access often enough to restock supplies, but avoid walking on motor roads almost entirely.