Ladakh was originally a part of Greater Tibet. Frequent raids of conquerors from the north, who crossed this country to conquer Kashmir and fought here, not only brought Ladakh to poverty, but as a result of them, passing from the hands of some conquerors to the hands of others, it lost the political domination of Lassa.
The Muslims who ruled Kashmir and Ladakh in a distant era by force turned the population of Little Tibet, who was unable to resist, to Islam. The political existence of Ladakh ended when the Sikhs annexed this country to Kashmir, which allowed the people of Ladakh to return to their ancient beliefs.
Two-thirds of the population took advantage of these circumstances to re-erect their gonps and return to their old way of life. Only the Baltis remained Shiite Muslims, to whom their conquerors belonged. However, despite this, only a vague similarity with Islam remained, which was mainly manifested in the customs and practice of polygamy. Some lamas told me that they still do not give up the hope of returning these people one day to the faith of their ancestors.
In a religious sense, Ladakh was subordinate to Laos, the capital of Tibet and the seat of the Dalai Lama. It is in Laos that the chief hutukhtu, or lama-high priests, like the Chogzots, or administrators, are elected. Politically, the country is subject to the Maharaja of Kashmir, who is represented by the governor.
The population of Ladakh belongs to the Sino-Turanian race and is divided into Ladaks and Tsampov. Ladakhs are sedentary, building villages along their narrow valleys, living in two-story houses that are kept tidy, and cultivating large tracts of land.
They are exceptionally ugly, small in stature, thin and stooped, with small heads, narrow sloping foreheads, prominent cheekbones and small black eyes of the Mongol race, with flat noses, large thin-lipped mouths, weak sparse beard chins and sunken cheeks, thick wrinkled wrinkles. Add to all this a shaved head, from which a narrow pigtail hangs, and you get the main type not only of the inhabitants of Ladakh, but of all of Tibet.
The women are just as small and have the same wide cheekbones. But they are more robust, and their faces are lit up with pleasant smiles. They have a joyful and calm disposition, and they tend to have fun.
The severity of the climate does not allow Ladakhians to wear rich or colorful clothes. Their dress is made from plain gray linen fabric they make themselves, and their knickers, which reach only to the knees, are made from the same material.
Middle-class people wear choga (a type of cloak). In winter, fur hats with headphones are worn, while in summer the head is protected by a cloth cap, the top of which hangs down on one side. Their shoes are made of felt and covered with leather, and a whole arsenal of small gizmos hangs from their belts – needle beds, knives, fountain pens, inkpots, tobacco pouches, pipes and constant prayer girouettes.
Tibetans, as a rule, are of such a lazy disposition that a pigtail, which eventually unravels, does not intertwine, then, for at least three months, the dress does not change until it falls off the body in rags. The capes they wear are so dirty and are usually marked on the back by a large greasy spot left by their braids, which are thoroughly greased with lard every day. They bathe once a year, and not of their own free will, but because it is prescribed by law. For this reason, it is easy to understand that their close proximity should be avoided.
Women, on the contrary, are great connoisseurs of cleanliness and order. They wash themselves daily and for the slightest reason. Their costume consists of a short snow-white shirt-front, which hides the dazzling whiteness of their skin, and, draped over beautiful rounded shoulders, a red jacket, the edges of which are tucked into pantaloons of red or green linen. This final garment appears to be inflated with air for protection from the cold. They also wear red embroidered shoes, trimmed with fur, and home clothes are complemented by a wide layered skirt.
The hair is braided tightly, and long pieces of hanging fabric are attached to the head with hairpins, reminiscent of the fashion of Italian women. Various colored stones, coins and pieces of engraved metal are fancifully suspended from this headdress.
The ears are covered with cloth or fur earmuffs, and sheepskins are also used to protect only the back. Poor women are content with ordinary animal skins, while wealthy women wear beautiful capes of red cloth, lined with fur and embroidered with gold trim.
Walking the streets or visiting girlfriends, women invariably carry cone-shaped baskets filled with peat behind their backs, the narrow bottoms of which are turned to the ground, while peat is the main fuel of the country.
Each woman has a certain amount of money that rightfully belongs to her, and she usually spends it on jewelry, buying cheap large pieces of turquoise, which she adds to various decorations of her hair.
Ladakh women have a social position that is the envy of all women in the East, since they are not only free, but also highly respected.
With the exception of small field work, they spend most of their time hiking around guests. And here, let me point out that idle gossip is unfamiliar to them.
The sedentary population of Ladakh devotes themselves to agriculture, but has so little land (each of them rarely exceeds ten acres) that the income received from it is insufficient to cover the payment of taxes and basic necessities of life. The attitude towards physical work is contemptuous. The lower class of society is called Boehm, and communication with a person of this class is diligently avoided.
During leisure hours after working in the fields, residents indulge in the hunt for Tibetan goats, whose wool is highly prized in India. The poorest of the population – those who cannot afford to buy hunting equipment – are hired to work as coolies.
This work is also performed by women who tolerate fatigue very well and have much better health than their husbands, whose laziness is such that they are able to spend a whole night in the open air, despite the heat and cold, stretching out on a pile of stones, as long as nothing make.
Polyandry, which I will tell you about in more detail) is a means of preserving the unity of the people. It creates large families that cultivate the land with yaks, zo and zomo (bulls and cows) for the common good. A family member cannot separate from her, and if he dies, his share is returned to the community.
A little more income is provided by crops of wheat, the grains of which are very small due to the harsh climate. Barley is also grown and ground before being sold.
As soon as all the field work is over, the men set off to collect the enoriote grass in the mountains, as well as the large thorny plant called the lady. They are used to make fuel, which is so scarce in Ladakh, where you will not see either trees or gardens, only occasionally you can find scanty poplar or willow bushes on the banks of the river. Aspen can also be found near the villages; but due to the lack of fertile soil, gardening is difficult.
The lack of wood is noticeable, moreover, in the dwellings, which are sometimes built of bricks dried in the sun, but more often of medium-sized stones held together by a kind of mortar made of clay and chopped straw. These are two-storey buildings, carefully whitewashed from the facade, with brightly painted window frames. Their flat roofs form terraces, usually decorated with wild flowers, and here, in the warm season, residents kill time by contemplating nature and turning their prayer wheels.
Each building has several rooms, and among them there is always one for guests, the walls of which are decorated with luxurious fur skins. The rest of the rooms have beds and furniture. Rich people also have chapels filled with idols.
Life here is very measured. As far as food is concerned, the choice is limited. Ladakh’s menu is very simple. Breakfast consists of a slice of rye bread. At noon, a wooden bowl of flour is placed on the table, to which warm water is poured. This mixture is beaten with small sticks until it reaches the consistency of a thick paste, and then in the form of small balls it is eaten together with milk.
Bread and tea are served in the evenings. Meat is considered an excessive luxury. Only hunters add a small variety to the menu in the form of wild goat meat, op shy; fishing and ptarmigan, which the country abounds in. Throughout the day, for any reason they drink tsang, a semblance of light, untouched beer.
If it happens that a Ladak, riding a pony (such privileged persons are very rare), go on the road in search of work in the district, he stocks up on a small amount of food. Dinner time comes, he dismounts near a river or stream, fills a small wooden cup (from which he never leaves) a little flour, whips it with water, and finally absorbs this food.
Tsampas, nomads who make up another part of the population of Ladakh, are much poorer and at the same time less civilized than the sedentary Ladakhs. For the most part, they are hunters and completely neglect farming. Although the Tsampas are Buddhist, they never visit monasteries, except perhaps in search of food, which they exchange for game.
They usually camp on the mountain tops, where the extreme cold is. While the Ladakhs themselves are scrupulously truthful, they love to learn, but are hopelessly lazy, the tsampas, on the contrary, are very hot-tempered, overly mobile and great liars, moreover, they have an arrogant contempt for monasteries.
In addition to them, there is a small Khamba people who came from the outskirts of Lassa and ek out a miserable existence in camps wandering along the big roads. Unsuitable for any work, speaking a language other than the language of the country in which they found refuge, they are the subject of universal ridicule; they are tolerated only out of pity for their deplorable state, when hunger drives them together to search for food in the villages.
The polyandry prevalent in all Tibetan families piqued my curiosity greatly. It does not in any way follow from the doctrines of the Buddha, since it existed long before his coming. It has taken on a tangible size in India and is a powerful factor of restraining, within certain limits, the incessant growth of the population, which is also achieved through the disgusting custom of suffocating female newborn babies; attempts by the British to fight against the extermination of these future mothers were fruitless.
Manu himself proclaimed polyandry as a law, and some Buddhist preachers who renounced Brahmanism carried this custom to Ceylon, Tibet, Mongolia and Korea. Long suppressed in China, polyandry flourished in Tibet and Ceylon, and also occurs among the Kalmyks, between the Todas in southern India and the nairas on the banks of the Malabar. Traces of this eccentric family custom can be found among the Tasmanians and in the North America among the Iroquois.
According to Caesar, polyandry also flourished in Europe, which we can read about in the book “On the Gallic War”: “Wives are divided between ten or twelve men, mainly between brothers and between fathers and sons.”
As a result of all this, polyandry cannot be considered a purely religious tradition. In Tibet, given the insignificance of the allotments of arable land per inhabitant, this custom is better explained by economic motives. In order to save the 1,500,000 inhabitants settled in Tibet on an area of 1,200,000 square kilometers, Buddhists were forced to adopt polyandry – every family, among other things, is obliged to devote one of its members to the service of God.
The firstborn son is always given to the gonpa, which invariably rises at the entrance to every village. As soon as the child reaches the age of eight, he is entrusted to the care of a caravan passing by on the way to Lassa, where the child brought there lives for seven years as a novice in one of the city’s gonpas.
There he learns to read and write, studies religious rituals, gets acquainted with the sacred scrolls written in Pali, in the past – the language of the country of Magadha, the alleged birthplace of Gautama Buddha.
The eldest brother in the family chooses a wife, who becomes common to all members of his household. Matchmaking and marriage ceremony are of the most primitive character.
As soon as the wife and her husbands decide to marry one of their sons, the oldest of them is sent to visit one of the neighbors who have a daughter to be married. The first and second visits take place in more or less banal conversations, accompanied by frequent libations of the collet, and only on the third visit does the young man announce his intention to take a wife. Then he is shown the daughter of the family, who, as a rule, knows the groom – in Ladakh, women never cover their faces.
A girl is not married off without her consent. If she wants this, then she leaves with the groom and becomes a wife to him and his brothers.
An only son, as a rule, is sent to a woman who already has two or three husbands, and he offers himself to her as another spouse. Such an offer is rarely rejected, and the young man immediately settles in his new family.
Parents of newlyweds usually live with them until the birth of their first child. The day after the birth of a new family member, grandfather and grandmother leave all their fortune to the young couple and go to live in a small house separately from them.
Marriages also occur between real children who live separately until they reach adulthood. A woman is entitled to an unlimited number of husbands and lovers. As for the latter, if she meets a young man she likes, she brings him into the house, gives all her husbands a kong and lives with her chosen one, announcing that she has got a jing-tuh (“lover”), news that with perfect self-control is accepted by husbands.
They have the most vague ideas about jealousy. The Tibetan is too cold-blooded to acknowledge love. Such a feeling would have been an anachronism for him, even if he had not discerned in it a flagrant violation of the routine. In a word, love in his eyes would appear as unjustified selfishness.
In the absence of one of the husbands, his place is offered to a bachelor or widower. The latter are very rare in Ladakh; wives usually outlive their frail husbands. Sometimes a wandering Buddhist is chosen who has been detained by business in this village. In the same way, a husband who travels in search of work in neighboring areas, at every stop, enjoys the same hospitality of his fellow believers, whose generosity, however, is not always manifested due to ulterior motives.
Despite the specifics of their position, women enjoy great respect and complete freedom in choosing their husbands and lovers. They are always good-natured, interested in everything that happens and are free to go wherever they want, except for the main prayer halls in monasteries, access to which is strictly prohibited for them.
Children only respect their mothers. They have no affection for their fathers for the obvious reason that there are too many of them.
Not for a moment disapproving of polyandry, I cannot condemn it in Tibet, because without it the population would have increased tremendously, hunger and poverty would have swept the nation, leading a series of vices: theft, murder and other crimes, hitherto completely unknown in this country.