Ladakhi from Indian Tibet consider decorations to be the best protection from evil forces

Ladakhi from Indian Tibet consider decorations to be the best protection from evil forces
September 11, 2012 19:57

I first visited Ladakh in 2010. Two greatest impressions I had were the following ones: inexpressible scale of the local “lunar” scenery and the live folk culture of the natives. People there still wore ancient costumes, the most expressive components of which were jewelry.

Lady of the drok-pa tribe in an “everyday” decoration

Ladies of the drok-pa tribe used to bring turnips and potatoes to the nearest city called Leh which is situated more than a hundred kilometers away and sell them at the market wearing chimeric compositions of silver and flowers – both artificial and alive — on their heads (by the way, such compositions used to be worn by men, too). Drok-pa did not allow for their pictures to be taken because they believed that together with the photograph one could take a piece of the soul of the portrayed person. Inhabitants of the Nubra valley, both men and women, did not leave their houses without gorgeous necklaces, bracelets and earrings, complementing their costumes with head-dresses called gondas. This women’s head-dress replaced the previous one called perak which used to be very popular in those parts.

Ladakh necklaces make one crave for them. Ladakhi’s love for corals makes their necklaces very similar to Ukrainian ones that is why one of them organically complemented my Ukrainian costume. So, when I visited Ladakh for the second time I wished to write something about their jewelry.

Symbolism of stones

I did not have any intention to make photographs of the jewelry but when I had a look at photographs of ordinary people I found out that all of them even the poorest ones wore jewelry of precious or semi-precious materials. Jewelry is worn both during work days and holidays and it bears a double function: it indicates the person’s status and protects from any evil in the world as a strong amulet.

Ladies from Beima village are waiting for a bus


A lady from a nomadic Tibetan tribe tsag-shan is spinning a thread in an “everyday” decoration, in a settlement close to the Tso Moriri Lake

Two stones are dominating: corals and turquoise. A bit less popular stones are pearls, lapis lazuli, amber and quarts crystals. Beads from etched agate which is called dzi by the locals are used separately. Most often all of them are mounted in silver or sometimes in gold. It happens jewelry has bone or bronze components as well.

Ladakhis believe in strength of both separate stones and their compositions. They also believe that each individual can amplify or weaken the stone’s action. Here, turquoise has been popular starting from the 7-9 centuries and it used to be considered not a stone but something much more valuable and it was sold at the price of gold. “Turquoise” entered the folklore as epithet to every beautiful thing regardless of its color. Small turquoise pieces were used as cash; large ones were saved and presented as valuable gifts to senior lamas or as ransom for divinities and demons – to be cured from illnesses. Turquoise used to be considered as the primary means for poison detection, which is why upper parts of tea cups were decorated with it… and if turquoise changed its color then the cup contained poison. Turquoise also used to serve as blood cleaner; protection from bad dreams, evil eye and demon tricks. It was considered to be “alive” and having its own lifetime. “Dead” turquoise loses its color and becomes greenish and even black later. It can go through hard times with its owner but a stone of good quality will always shine with color.

Turquoise is worn in bracelets, necklaces (combined with corals), finger-rings; but its main place is on the women’s head dress called perak.

At present traditional Ladakh head-dresses can be seen only in showcases of antiquaries or at local wakes.


A necklace of silver and turquoise

Turquoise got to Ladakh long ago, when Naxi had to pay duty to Ladakh kings in the form of these stones. But they differed in their color from deep-blue Iranian stones. A folk legend says that “Iranian” stones were brought from Tibet by an epic character Gesar Khan, who won a war there and got them as ransom. Afterwards stones from the Gesar treasure were dispersed around the mountains.

Coral necklace

Corals are “women’s” stones because they help women during their periods and normalize blood pressure. Ms. Tsering, who makes simple decorations from beads tells us that this stone is “warm” and sunny and should be combined with “moon” and “cold” pearls. Pearls are responsible for women’s fertility and they are good for the eyes. “Corals used to come here from Italy till the 18th century – I mean the entire region – Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh. Our kings used to have close relationship with Italy and strong commercial connections. Until present we have been using corals from those times; they are included in old necklaces. The redder they are the better. Those you see in new necklaces are Chinese imitations.”

The strongest and the most mystical stone is dzi, etched agate. Local traders are convinced that patterns on real stones are not handmade. Ancient finds from Indus valley show stones of different colors and patterns: abstract, with stripes or dots. Most of beads especially valued by collectors belong to late Harappan period and were made in 1900—1000 BC. Modern dzi are black stones with white ornament. “Such stones can cost thousands USD each, and those you see at the local market are nothing but glass imitation” – Ms. Tsering says. – Because no one will sell a real stone: when worn, it will give enormous luck and strength to its owner, when stored at home, it will bring wealth and richness to the family.

“These stones are found in the mountains. They come from underground. In general, people who have found real dzi, say that it was moving… It’s as if they are sacred insects which live under the ground. Few people succeed in seeing them. To make them immovable, one has to take a shoe off quickly and to throw it at this thing. Then it stops and turns into a stone.” Belief in the fact that dzi are “sacred” worms or insects is rather spread at the location. Ladakh (the same as Tibetans) believe that dzi live in “nests”. To catch them, one can also throw dust at them or spit at them. Though, to my mind it is easier to get them with a shoe than with spittle. In addition, when a slightly damaged stone is found then people believe that it’s because Gods throw away useless stones. By the way, the stone is very good for protection from evil spirits, so if it suddenly cracks it means that it has performed its function and cannot be used any more.

Variety of jewelry

Jewelry in these parts has acquired multitudes of kinds and shapes. Though Indian researches believe that Ladakh had had no visual arts before it was “ameliorated” by Kashmir, Ladakh belongs to the single “Tibetan” area of the Himalayas to which Great Tibet and Nepal also belong. Usually all cultural influences together with the art of processing of precious metal and stones and fashions for different art styles used to come from Lhasa through Nepal to Ladakh. At least Tibetan, Nepalese and Ladakh decorations to my amateur eyes have much more in common than decoration from lowland regions of Indian states Jammu and Kashmir (to which Ladakh belongs).

Beside traditional finger-rings, bracelets, ear-rings and necklaces, local jewelry has other kinds that are not familiar to us. For example, the principle “the master’s wealth is on his belt” is working here; though expensive belts on which swords and sabers used to be worn have become things of the past, precious boxes for amulets – ga’u – remain. They have always been indicating the owner’s status. Similarly, fire-steels made of silver and gold with rich inlays and delicate ornaments had been widespread till the middle of the ХХ century. These fire-steels are so beautiful that I couldn’t help buying one though I can’t think of a way I could use it. Purses used for carrying coins when there were no paper notes yet were similar to fire-steels in their shapes. In contrast to men, ladies wear their riches on their heads. In general, the entire Tibet region is notable for unusual head-dresses; the only difference is that in most parts the accent is made on pearls (the greater the number of pearls on a woman’s head-dress, the richer she is); but in Ladakh turquoise dominates. Perak head-dress a meter long resembles a cobra; its “head” starts from the forehead and comes down the back of the head as a “body”. This “cobra” is in an attacking position that is why the “head” also has black “ears” at the sides which intensify the impression. In accordance with ancient beliefs, women originate from the Ihu underworld, where, certainly, there are a lot of different snakes and lizards. So there’s nothing to wonder at.

Traditional head-dresses of Ladakhis


Traditional Ladakh head-dresses peraks. Left shoulder has a decoration symbolizing the married status. A card. Photographer -Ravinder Kalra.

Perak (from per – a local name for turquoise) is a symbol of the lady’s status and the family wealth. Making it was men’s prerogative as Ladakh has sex taboo laid on some occupations and activity kinds. People invest into peraks generation after generation adding new turquoise stones on the brown or red leather base until the head-dress weighs about 3 kilograms… And though small girls starting from the age of five might also weak peraks they were rather cheap imitations. A real perak went as a heritage from the mother to the elder daughter when she married. Turquoise stones are arranged closely in rows. In difficult situations women were able to sell several stones from peraks to have some money. The wife of the Ladakh’s ruler wore 450 turquoise stones on her head. It is said that in the old days women used to go to bed taking off only the turquoise part of the head-dress leaving the “ears”; they were disentangled from the hair only for hair wash (i.e. once in a month). I didn’t manage to see this head-dress on somebody because none of my two visits coincided with the festival days when women wear them. But already in the middle of the 1980th Ramesh Bedi, the author of books about Ladakh wrote that no one of Ladakh women left home without this head dress because it was considered a bad form. In addition, in accordance with information which John Clark, an investigator of decorations of Himalaya region is obtained by conducting a survey, people in the 1980th said that women were especially vulnerable to some evil spirits in the morning so they couldn’t do without peraks.

At present peraks are worn for holidays and a lot of them have ended in antiquaries or jewelers’.

Among other shapes which are not known to us (not counting temple decorations which used to be popular in Ukraine as well) is branshil, a symbol of marriage which is worn on the left shoulder. Actually, it is a long silver decoration made of many chains and bells which are combined in delicate patterns and go down to the waist.

A Drok-pa lady in a holiday costume. A card. Photographer: Nick Eakins.

Earrings in Ladakh are usually different kinds of rings. A widespread shape is crescent, which also used to be popular in our parts and was called “lunnitsa”. This shape is also popular with women of Baltistan – Ladakh Muslim inhabitants of Aryan origin. “Colt” shapes can also be found here: they are circles with three figured spheres of the same size. Ear-rings are often flat with delicate ornaments and tiny jingles which hang from chains. Ladakh men wear one ear-ring without decoration or with a simple ornament with maybe one or two stones, most often – turquoise. But a lot of men have a piercing in the other ear in which they wear “nails” of some kind of stone. This custom is connected with the belief coming from pre-Buddhist religion which later was in many ways absorbed by the local Buddhism in that a person without ear piercing will most likely be reborn into some unpleasant animal, such as a donkey.

Bracelets are usually massive and made of silver, the same as finger-rings; the accent is placed on metal rather than on stones. Most often bracelets have three large stones. They are worn by men, women and children. Children’s decorations are notable for their simplicity. Practically every child has a thin metal bracelet on a wrist and a simple one-thread necklace.

I was curious to know who makes decorations for sale. It turned out that each Ladakh woman made simple necklaces and earrings for herself. No one teaches these women but they seem to carry this sense of the local design in their blood. Some of them take handiworks for sale. Glass imitations of stones are used most often. “Practically all the goods are coming to Ladakh from Tibetans of Nepal and China. Here you can see ear-rings of my own design; I find beautiful beads and try to combine them in different interesting ways. It happens people from the nearby villages come here to sell the decorations they have had from their youth when they don’t have money. They used to wear these decorations to weddings or wakes but at present they ask me to help them and to buy these things. But in general both local souvenirs and decorations are of Chinese manufacture”.

A necklace of silver and pearls. Traditional design of the Naxi tribe, Himachal Pradesh Himalaya foothills.

Staffs of elite jewelers’ are not so eager to talk or to “submit” contacts of jewelers they work with. “It’s made here, in Ladakh. — Where exactly? – In villages. – What villages. Oh, they are far, far from Leh…“– the seller shakes his head evidently not wanting me to go and buy the necklaces directly from their makers. Even my assurance in my entirely journalistic interest does not convince the seller. Seller Zahur’s brother is a jeweler.” But in reply to the request to introduce us to each other the man shakes his head again: his brother lives on Goa. “And makes Ladakh’s jewelry anyway” I ask him. “Well, he has people of different nationalities among his clients – Americans, French, Russians... He makes the designs they order. As long as I have a shop here in Ladakh, he has mastered the Ladakh design as well.”

They say in the old days jewelers used to work right in the streets and the manufacturing technology had remained the same from time immemorial. Unfortunately, there are no jewelers either in Leh or in Srinagar or Jammu. Maybe they “moved” to their patios. The only thing known is that they work by preliminary orders having received a model to follow or suggesting their own design. Clients pay by pieces but some time ago they usually provided the master with food in addition.

Anyway, Ladakh decorations have not become things of the past yet; they live with their masters protecting them from evil forces and this fact really inspires and impresses even people who are wide of jewelers’ art and are simply ordinary people fond of beauty.

Nastya Melnychenko wearing a traditional Ladakh coral necklace – an organic complement for the Ukrainian folk costume


Anastasiya Melnychenko for “Rukotvory”

Translated by Olena Guda

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