Situated in the high mountain valleys between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh is divided into the primarily Muslim district of Kargil and the primarily Buddhist one of Leh. The terrain is inhospitable, with severe winter cutting off the region from the rest of India.
I have been a student of Ladakh since my first visit as a young reporter in 1987 for The Telegraph, when the political climate was quite different. Over the years, through a series of visits, I got to know the place better.
The Muslim community of Ladakh, a place famous for its practice of Buddhism, constitutes almost 50% of its close to 300,000-strong populace. Muslims and Buddhists live amicably in Ladakh. The 1979 political division of Ladakh along communal lines into the Kargil (the south and west) and Leh (the north and east) districts, and the subsequent insensitivity in handling the situation, did lead to inter-community violence between 1989 and 1993. But since then the two have come together on a common platform.
In my long association with the place and its people, I have observed that Ladakhi Muslims, no less religious than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have, to a considerable extent, been influenced by Buddhism, and have utmost respect for the Dalai Lama. In fact, the Ladakhi life and way of thought have been moulded by Buddhism for centuries, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. Major crimes are unknown, aggression and arguments rare, and traditional social systems minimize deviant behaviour such as theft. In her 1991 book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, Helena Norberg-Hodge, a long-term resident of Ladakh, indicates that in one village people told her “there has been no fighting in the village in living memory”.
The Muslims in Ladakh are a mixed community, the majority being Shia. There are a small number of Sunnis, most of them in Leh. They trace their ancestry to people from Baltistan and Yarkand, as well as Kashmir. In a coincidental parallel with the Buddhists and the way the monks seek their higher religious qualifications from the spiritual authorities of Tibet, the majority of Ladakhi Muslims too look abroad—Iran—for their religious education. These once highly orthodox people no longer insist on women keeping their faces covered, or hold out against their education. Now it is common practice to send girls to Iran for higher education under scholarships from the Iranian government.
The Leh bazaar perhaps best exemplifies the symbiotic relationship of the two communities. Butchers in Ladakh are mostly Muslims as Buddhism prohibits the killing of animals. Ironically, Ladakhi Buddhists are meat eaters and it was they who encouraged the trade centuries ago. That kind of social osmosis still pervades. While militancy continues to take lives in other parts of the state, Ladakh stands as an oasis of peace and tolerance.
Kushal Ray is a Kolkata-based journalist-turned-photographer. He has been documenting communities in Ladakh for 15 years. Works from his Ladakh series are part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Photographs by Kushal Ray