For the 1,40,000 strong community that spends half of its time doing nothing due to extreme cold weather, Ladakhis are changing. Slowly though.
The Mongoloid inhabitants of India's snow desert are trying to adopt modern ways even as they keep their traditional lifestyles intact.
Morup Namgyal, 52, is a farmer in Leh but with a modern outlook. "Gone are the days when the a average number of children in a family were twelve or nine," he says, noting that three of his children are being educated outside, to help them stand on their own feet and not become tillers of land, as he is.
The sentiment is echoed by 17-year-old Dede Kounjang, studying at present in Chandigarh, who wants to become a teacher and open a school in Ladakh.
Women are taking interest in education and the men are joining the army, says Namgyal.
Among the other visible signs of change and development are several green houses that grow vegetables off season vegetables and sprouting hotels to cater to increasing inflow of tourists.
While tourism industry has listed Ladakh as a potential area, there has not been much infrastructural development, says Namgyal, who cites it as the reason for many of the youth going outside the region to study.
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A generally peace loving Buddhist community, most of them are either farmers or animal herdsmen, for whom dancing and other rituals form an important part of their life.
A typical day in the mountains starts with feeding the animals - yak and goats after which they are milked and pujas performed. Then they are sent off to the mountains for grazing, says Yanchan Dolma, who lives in Leh.
Anytime of the year, the pleasant sun invites most of the people to sit on their Lamyuthpa or rooftops, where women sew while the men just laze around, some even indulge in gambling or while around "gobar ki aag".
Women work harder in the house, tilling the land and even tending to the animals on the mountains, says Dolma. Another interesting feature among the Ladakhis is that members of the same family do not use the same name. Neither is the second name representative of the family. For instance, Morup Namgyal's daughter does not have Namgyal for her surname. "O but it is not official or written in records," says Namgyal. The community name serves as the official surname. And it's the community that's the pivot of all social customs and celebrations.
Songs, dances and rituals are an integral part of all festive occasions be it heralding the new year called "Losar", at the end of every 11 months or 'Leh dosmoche', celebrated in Leh every summer, says Chhemet Igzes, an artist.
Marriages, birth of children and welcoming certain migratory birds in Changthang, are among other auspicious occasions, that are celebrated in a big way. Marriages are strictly a seven-day affair. "The whole period is one of festivity, filled with dances, songs, 'Cholu' or gambling and drinking of `Chang', barley beer," says Namgyal. "Unlike other cultures, the bridegroom stays in the house and the bride goes to the groom's house where marriage is solemnised by drinking of `Chang' from the same cup and white scarf or `khataka' is exchanged."
The couple then goes into the puja room to take the blessings of the presiding deity. Men and women, both young and old take part in the dance irrespective of their age, says Dolma. Tshering says, `Even ghazals - a combination of Urdu language and baltiare sung by the pocket of Muslims Ladakhis,' said to be descendants of the princess of Baltistan. "We even composed Vande Mataram in Ladakhi for the heroes of Kargil," says Dene, a young Muslim singer.
While intercaste marriages of Ladakhis are rare, they are not averse to the concept of marrying outside the tribes. But a few tribes fear extinction of their clan as a result of outside influences and intercaste marriages, says Chhemet. "Most do not mind marriage outside the community. Marriages with Tibetans is common due to the similarity of lifestyle & culture, says a local resident.
But all is not honky dory in the lives of these residents who brave the extremes of climate that defy human endurance. "Water is a major problem. In the winters there is no water as the hydel project gets jammed and nobody is doing anything to solve the problem," alleges Namgyal. Even during summers, electricity is available only from six in the morning to 11 at night, says Dene.
Information: Courtesy Govt of India
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.