Friday, November 25, 2011


A ladakhi Wedding

 Kashmir Jammu state is in the northwest fist shaped section of India, bordered by Pakistan and on the west and Tibet on the east.  In the southeastern part of this state on the Tibetan border is India’s autonomous region of Ladakh, a mountainous moon-like landscape geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau.  It has about a four month summer, then it gets progressive colder until it is minus 34 digresses Celsius in the winter with no access to the out side world except by air.

A Ladakhi Wedding is more than the joining of two wonderful young people.  It is the coming together of a community for the common good of the charming young couple in effort, mind, and spirit.

In Ladakh, like much of India, most marriages are arranged. *  In Ladakh, once a couple is introduced, they court for a year.  If they feel theirs is a good match, the marriage ensues.   My friends, Jigment and Angmo had crushes on one anther since grade school, which developed into love.  Unlike most Ladakhi couples, they asked their families to arrange a marriage between the two of them, and both families agreed.  Angmo is 27 and Jigment 29, and yet he giggled with happiness throughout most of the ceremony, and she, although extremely serious during the entire event, told me that yes, she was as madly in love as he, and that even in grade school, “he was the smartest boy in the class.”  Now that’s true love.

As soon as I was emailed the date (September 19th), I cashed in my train ticket to Bangalore and rushed back to Delhi to search for the perfect gift.  Previously, I had decided upon a bed cover. After much searching, I bought a hand blocked somewhat geometric design on hand spun material in red and black at The Shoppe, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with my choice.  Then Ajeed, my favorite auto rickshaw driver dropped me at one of the stores that give drivers a gas chit if they bring a patron who spends at least fifteen minutes in their shop. The very first coverlet I saw was an emerald green silk, imbedded on the sides with two bands of gold design and on the top yellow cornflowers with musically shaped embroidered red stems. Previously, I had seen Angmo, the bride, wearing these exact colors at a party, and she looked stunning.  This was it.  But I let them show me a few more covers so I would not seem too eager.  Finally I stopped my charade and negotiated the price. 

Because of concern for cloud cover over the mountains, most flights in and out of Leh are in the early morning, so my arrival at Jigment Guesthouse at 7:00 AM was not surprising.  I had arrived two days early, so I could adjust to the altitude.   But this time, I had taken altitude sickness medicine two days before flying, so I had very little need to be inactive for the first two days like I did during my visit earlier in July. 

When I arose midmorning from a much-needed rest, I went down, greeted everyone, and had butter tea with the family.  After Tering Dalkar*, Jigment’s sister went off to work, Disket Tsomo, his other sister, his mother, Tsewang Dolma and I went up to decide if either of my gifts was adequate.  If not, I would have to go to the market with Disket and find something more suitable.  This was the moment of truth.  I had brought both covers.  I opened the hand printed cotton one and there was an obvious lack of enthusiasm.  Then with baited breath, I opened the emerald green silk.  It was a smash hit.  Disket wanted to know the price, and Dolma exclaimed that even with all the lovely Kashmiri items found in the Local shops, there was nothing quite like it for sale in Leh.  Later in the day Jigment’s sisters told me to give him the gift at 7 PM on the evening of the wedding.

Now that my anxiety about the gift was abated, I got out of everyone’s way and went to the post office to mail home the rejected bed cover to be used in my own home as a summer substitute. The local post office computers were down because of no electricity, so I trekked off to the main local market, crowded into a jitney taxi for ten rupees (about 20 cents) with the locals and headed for the main post office on the edge of town.  There, they boxed and mailed my package. Then I returned to town and stopped by to see my friend Karma Dolma in her shop.  Ever enthusiastic, she was thrilled to see me and ordered tea.  The rest of my day was spent wandering through Leh, where I found many shops were already shuttered for the season.  Finally, I went to the local’s market and bought a new backpack.   There I could get a great pack for 500 Rps, around $10 dollars. Whereas on main street where the tourists shopped, I could buy nothing for less than 1800 Rps, about $36, and most backpacks were much more expensive. 

The next morning when I got up, the garden was abuzz with activity. All of Jigment Guesthouse’s friends, neighbors and relatives were already hard at work preparing for the big day.   Religion was not a barrier, as both the Christian and Moslem neighbors were there working with this Buddhist family.  Jigment was one of the neighborhood children whom they had watched grow and mature from small tot to adulthood. Besides it was going to be a big party of 250 people with all the neighbors invited. 

 As I was a guest, I was not allowed to help.  But I watched as vegetables were being chopped, veggie treats, called Pakada, were being fried and Pappadrums, and Ladakhi bread were cooking in the back kitchen.  Five or six women had come the day before and made hundreds of cookies, and all of this food were just the pre- dinner snacks.

Several men were butchering a sheep in one of the grassy gardens, which would be part of the main dinner.  Dell, Tering Dolkar’s husband, had already begun preparing doe the main buffet at the outdoor kitchen in another part of the garden. Men were stringing lights outside, and moving small tables and Tibetan rugs into the new hotel dining room.  Meanwhile on one side two ladies were squishing water out of strips of newly carded and crushed wool, and in another back garden an old man was stomping sheep’s wool and water in a bucket much like the bare foot crushing of grapes in a tub.   I wandered off again.  After my daily visit with Karma and her shopkeeper neighbor Nazir from Kashmir, I headed out on a long country walk past Shanti Stupa, and ate a late lunch at a charming bistro on the edge of Leh.  When I returned Jigment and his best man, Shakya, were trying on Jiggie’s wedding togs, first one and then the other tried on the royal purple robe.   A sound system had been installed, and then during the late afternoon all work stopped.  A monk* had arrived and everyone sat on the rugs in the new dinning room and listened to his teachings. 

A Ladakhi wedding consists of two separate events.  The marriage evening, which is centered around a small family event/party of 250 at Jigment’s home and a party of about 350 at Angmo’s home.  She had the bigger family, I was told.   Then on a later date in October, the groom’s family will have a larger dinner for 1500 guests with dancing all night in an open field nearby. Although invited, I missed this event, which when described to me sounded much like a village scene from a Breughel painting.  Each of these events must happen only on an ‘Auspicious’ day determined by a ‘monk’ oracle.   Jigment and Angmo’s wedding was on September nineteenth, and their second party was to be held on October thirteenth.  This was the same auspicious day as Bhutan’s king Wangchuk (the meaning of his name is ‘king’) married his new queen.  Obviously ‘Auspicious’ days are declared yearly for the whole of the Tibetan Buddhist world; the form of Buddhism the Ladakhis follow.

On the wedding evening at exactly 7:00 PM, I gave Jegment his present.  A half hour later the party began.  Everyone was dressed in classic Ladakhi clothes, including me.  The women guests and most of the young people were either eating pre-dinner snacks in the new dining room or dancing and socializing in the garden.  It was in the traditional old Ladakhi kitchen, a large charming room with an ancient stove and shelves stocked with old cooking and serving utensils, where the ceremony would eventually take place.  Around the edges are low seats, where all the family members sleep in the dead of winter when the temperatures reach minus 34 degrees Celsius.  Yet tonight, this old kitchen was a room of ceremony, where about 20 men of the Jigment’s family were seated cross-legged on the low cushioned Tibetan style rugs.  On low tables placed in front of them, they were served the local bread and butter tea, sustenance obviously for the laborious evening ahead.  Soon the family patriarch, who wore a peaked white hat, began a ceremony in which two children held significant mementos of importance. After, the men enthusiastically sang a number of times what I was later told was the traditional wedding song.  Then they rushed off, jumping into cars and driving to the bride’s party to eventually pick up Angmo, the bride, and bring her back to the groom’s abode after much drinking, partying, and eating at her family’s party.  Meanwhile, the party got into full swing at Jigment’s with food, dancing and the consumption of lots of chang, the local beer made from fermented barley, which is reputed to be extremely potent.

 Dinner was served around 10:00 PM at both parties, but they were still serving at 2:00 AM at Angmo’s.  The partying never stopped and some of Jigment’s young friends got happily drunk on chang, which actually made them more fun. At both parties everyone ate, drank and danced. They danced both modern and Ladakhi dances.  All of it was fun, and because of the cold of the evening, I was glad I had bought a winter wool ladakhi dress instead of one made of the lighter materials used in summer.

As far as I could see from the videos of the two parties, the bride and groom just hung around, appendages of the whole affair waiting for all the brue ha ha to end, so they could finally be married.  Eventually it was time for each to dress in their traditional wedding ‘attire.’  Angmo told me it took her only a half hour to put on the layers of wedding clothes she was required to wear.  As she had on two beautiful dresses, one her bridal dress and over that a lovely dress which was a gift from the groom’s mother, a mass amount of beautiful gold and diamond jewelry and a monstrously heavy turquoise and gold headdress, called a Payrak, which is passed down through the families from mother to daughter.  With all that she was wearing, it seemed to me that getting dressed would certainly have taken much longer. 

As the time neared to bring the bride to her new home, the men of the groom’s family passed out 50 rupee notes to the well-wishers at the brides home then carried her off to the groom’s (by car of course.)  Upon arrival at the Jigment’s, Angmo was seated in a chair outside in the street and a monk (there were four monks from Tsemo Monastery at the wedding ‘to do prayer’) read to her the dates of auspicious days in the future. 

Meanwhile the men of the wedding party passed out 50 rupee notes to the well-wishers greeting her if they were holding an auspicious item; something with butter swiped on top.  I had an empty liquor bottle box marked with butter on top and acquired three 50-rupee notes.  Later everyone laughed that my box was really empty, and I was told I did very well in the rupee department.  Long reach, I guess. 

By now Jigment was in his long purple wedding robe and waiting for his new bride.  She was then led into the traditional kitchen.  The men again sat in their low seats. Jigment’s father summoned me to a front row seat. Except for the one picture I got, of a somber Jigment, he giggled with happiness throughout the whole ceremony, while Angmo, who was told to be serious, looked so serious I thought she was scared, which wasn’t the case at all.   And as the couple knelt before a small Ladakh table, the family patriarch stood behind and recited a few words in Ladakhi and the wedding was almost finished.  The guests went back to their dancing, drinking and eating, while Angmo and Jigment were squired to a small upstairs temple where he genuflected two times before the altar of Buddha and she bowed her head.  With the weight her clothes and headdress, Angmo would never had been able to get up if she had tried to kneel down.  Then the two were taken to the Buddhist temple in Leh for what I was told, was a brief, ceremony and the deed was finally done.  The time was about 4:00 AM.  All the guests had left and the bride was taken to Jigment and Angmo’s new private apartment at the far side of Jigment Guesthouse.  It had been recently designed especially for them.  There, her Aunt, who had come as a representative of the her family helped her remove her Payrak, jewelry and her outer layer of clothing, while about five of her close girl friends chatted and watched.  By now all the gardens were quiet and as we all left, the groom entered.  About 8:30 the next morning, a band of four were seated in the garden and played their drums and flutes until the bride was awakened and joined the family for breakfast. 

During the next few days, Angmo’s Aunt stayed to see that all was well. On the second day after the wedding, about 12 oversized gunnysacks of gifts were opened from well-wishers and each gift with the giver’s name(s) and address was recorded.  It took a whole morning even with the help of everyone in the family. In four days, there would be a small dinner of the two families at the brides’ home.  Then life would return to normal until the big night on October 13th

After hugs and Jigment’s father’s and my secret handshake, I headed off over land (something I said I would never do – see previous blog entry: Leh to Srinagar) to Srinagar.   My instincts of course were correct and I doubt I will ever take that road again. After Srinagar, I returned to Dharmsala and McLeod Ganj, for four days of teachings by the Dali Lama.  Then I headed off to Delhi to meet Nancy Jo, a Boca Raton, Florida, friend for a three-week travel adventure in India and Nepal.  How good is that?   Wonderful.   What is also really great is that Angmo and Jigment are planning a trip to visit me in Florida, in the winter of 12013.

*Indian marriages:  Up until recently all Indian marriages were arranged.  Of late, because of higher education causing more women to enter the workplace, there has been a change, mainly among this more highly educated group.  As couples make their own choices, there has been a rise in detective agencies hired by families to check the credentials and background of their child’s future mate.

*Name note:  Each Tibetan Buddhist child can bbe given their two names by their family but generally at least one and often both names are given to them by a famous Lama/ Rimpoche (religious lama leader), Karmapa, or in my case the office of the Dalai Lama.  This means there are no last or what we call family names.  There is no Smith or Jones family as we have in the west.  But just a distinctive combination of two names that relate to their individual person at their time of birth.  I cannot tell you what each name means but I do know that Jigment is actually Jigment Stobgais and Angmo is Sonam Angmo.  Disket’s name means someone who is happy, and she is. 

*Family monk: Each Buddhist family in Ladakh is assigned a monk from a local monastery who must visit the family for mandatory teachings in Buddhists at least once a month for a two-year period.  Then a new monk is assigned to the family and the other one moves on (I think to another family).  The family is required to pay the monk in some tender.  The Jigment Guesthouse gives their visiting family monk clothes and food, where as Angmo told me that her family gave their visiting monk money.

This program of religious education is somewhat resented by some (but not all) of the Buddhist families as they feel that their donations to the Ladakh Buddhist Monasteries should be enough support toward their religious community.  I have been told the Rimpoche who is the religious head of the Ladakh ‘Red Hat’ Monasteries is enormously rich and has a house in New Delhi, the Manali area, and also in Europe.  Is this truth or hearsay?  I got the information from a truly excellent source, but would like to recheck it.  Catch you later on this last bit of information.