Ladakhi culture is heavily influenced by Tibetan culture, in fact it is quite similar. There are more Buddhists than Muslims in certain areas and the ratio changes as we move towards Zanskar valley.
Festivals of Ladakh are an important part of life there which mark several occasions such as harvesting, commemoration of the head Lamas of the founding monastery, New Year etc. The festivals of Ladakh conducted by various monasteries often have religious masked dances which are an important part of Ladakh's culture. The dances typically narrate a story between good and evil , which typically end up in victory of the former.
Hemis Festival :
The most famous of all monastic festivals in June (a three day affair) to commemorate birth of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. The sacred dance drama of the life and mission is performed wearing facial masks and colorful brocades robes. The monkey year festival is a special treat which comes at a cycle of 12 yrs. The four-storey Thanka of Guru Padmasambhava is displayed during the festival. Thiksey, Karsha and Spituk.
Gustors takes place all the three monasteries at different times of the year. A two day celebration, to mark the victory of good over evil. Gustor literally means "Sacrifice of the 29th day" and it ends with burning of effigies representing evil.
Celebrated with much fervor and delight in the month of February at the courtyards of majestic Leh Palace. Masked Lamas from different monasteries perform the Chams every year turn by turn. This festival is also celebrated at the Diskit monastery and the Likir with great enthusiasm. The start and end of the Tibetian calendar marks the occasion.
Matho Monastery of Leh Ladakh hosts the Matho Nagrang Festival, on an annual basis. The festival takes place on the 14th and 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. All the monks participate in the sacred dances, performed at this annual event. The festival is famous because of appearance of the two oracles during the festival after a full month of meditation in complete isolation. Matho Monastery also boasts of housing an amazingly rich collection of four hundred years old Thankas.
Stok Guru Tsechu :
Also held in February, a week before the Matho Nagrang. Monks from Stok monastery perform masked dances, but the highlight being appearance of two oracles who are laymen prepared and cleansed by the lamas to receive the spirit of the deities.
Phyang Tsedup :
This festival is held in the Phyang monastery in July/August. The monks as usual perform the Chams but the festival gets its popularity from the huge Thanka of Skyoba Giksten Gonbo hung during the celebrations. Yuru Kabgyat: The two day festival is celebrated at the Lamaruyu monastery in the month of July. The lamas perform the masked dance or the Chams with great zeal .
Losar celebration :
Losar stands for the Tibetian new year. The Losar festival is celebrated in the eleventh month of Tibetan calendar, two months ahead of Tibetan New Year. In early 17th century, King Jamyang Namgyal decided to lead an expedition against the Baltistan forces in winter; therefore he decided to celebrate the festival two months before. Later it became a tradition and being celebrated in the eleventh month. It lasts for over a month when Gods, deities, ancestors and even animals are fed without fail. Everyone in the family joins in for the celebration and if anyone is missing, they will have a cup of tea filled in their name.
From September 1st to 15th every year in Leh and in the villages around, the Ladakh festival is celebrated in the grandest style. With cultural troupes performing from different parts of Leh, forming the part of the procession which leads to the Polo ground, for the big inauguration. Regular programs are held at the nearby villages during the 15 day period.
Sindhu Darshan: Sindhu Darshan is a three-day festival held from 1st to 3rd June, in Shey Manla around 8 kms. from Leh on the bank of Indus river (Sindhu Ghat). For the first time it was organized in October 1997, as a symbol of unity and communal harmony and national integration.
Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the and tsampa, known in Ladakhi as ngampe (roasted barley flour). A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables. As currency started making its place in the economy of Ladakh, food from the Indian plains gained popularity.
Tea in Ladakh is traditionally made with strong green tea, butter, and salt. It is mixed in a large churn and known as gurgur cha(Butter Tea), after the sound it makes when mixed. The milk and sugar based sweet tea made in Indian style is also common now.
It is one of the favourite cuisines of Ladakh, which is a thick soup with vegetables that provides a complete meal. Most prominent foods being thukpa (noodle soup) .
Momos or steamed dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables consumed with a sweltering chili sauce. Staple foods Ladakh is also famous for the staple food like `Sku`, `Thukpa`, `Pava`, `tsampa`, or parched barley flour and `khambir`. `Thukpa` is made of wheat flour, `Pava` is made of `sattu` and `khambir` is the local bread. The people of Ladakh relish the breads with Apricot Jam.
Folk music & dances
Ladakh has a rich heritage of folk dance. The dances are elaborate, colourful, and majestic, with mostly slow and gentle movements matched by the richly adorned peraks (head dress), and music. Among the folk dances .They have been composed during different periods, shedding considerable light on prevailing cultural styles, attitudes and personalities of the time in this small western Himalayan Buddhist kingdom. Folk songs and dance were composed in honor of Pious Kings, Rinpoche (holy priest) and popular leaders. Jabro Dances The Jabro Dance of the Changthang people performed during festive occasions. It is an integral part of Losar (Tibetan New Year), and the Jabro songs are sung to the accompaniment of the Damian, a guitar-like instrument, and the flute.The nomads live in tents at high altitude pastures in vast stretches of Changthang wilderness with their livestock including Yaks, Sheep and goats. The relatively fast movement in their dance helps them warm up during celebration.. Spao dance, Spao dance is dedicated to famous epic hero Gyalam Kesar and other outstanding warriors.
was extraordinary and brave mythological hero with his courageous feats protects the Buddhist Kingdoms from invaders. In between the story tellers, the narrator would sing the songs depicting the brave deeds of Kesar and his eighteen brave's friends. With listeners becoming very excited and even participating in singing and dancing. Shoudol dance, The only dance that involves backward steps.In ancient times this dance form used to be performed by "Takshosma", women dancers of the royal court to praise and greet the King and his family. Since then this dance form has been maintained and is now performed by the female artists on every special occasion and during social functions dressed in a uniform traditional dress decorated with heavy sets of jewellery. .
CHARTSES DANCE :
In Ladakh numerous migratory birds are found. The arrival of migratory birds in highlands of Ladakh is considered auspicious. The dance of Chartses (birds dance) signifies the arrival of migratory birds and is performed in appreciation to these birds. This dance form is performed by females choreographed with movements like birds.
MENTOK STANMO DANCE
Mentok Stanmo dance is one of the popular dances in the Ladakh and dance to celebrate arrival of summer season after a long and harsh winter. In ancient times youth of the villages go to the mountains and collect wild flowers and maidens of the village would welcome the groups of youth upon their arrival, and bunches of flowers are the offer to the monastery with singing and dancing.The Mentoq Stanmo dance, a flower dance and recitation of songs, of Deskit and Dha Hanu. The Shon dance, a legacy of the royalty of Ladakh. Originally a dance presented in honour of the kings of Ladakh, now without restriction. The Koshan dance of Leh, whicha is preceded by a horse race. One of the most important aspects of Ladakhi culture is the rich oral literature of songs and poems for each occasion. The religious dance performed by the lamas (monks) is called Chhams and is related to monastic festivals, where it is performed to the music of the Monastic orchestra. Each monastery has its own orchestra. The dancers wear elaborate masks ranging from the fearsome and grotesque to the pleasing, and fine silk costumes representing various divinities from the Buddhist pantheon. Chhams are not meant for amusement but are spiritual, invoking blessings in order to wars off evil The music accompanying the Chhams is generally slow and haunting, and the musical instruments involved are the Dungchen (long horn), Gyaling (oboe), Nga (drums), Silnyen/bubjal (cymbals), kangling (shinbone trumpets), dung (conch shells), Damaru (skull drums) and Drilbu (bells). The masked dancers move around very slowly; the vital part of the dance being the mask, not the dance. All dances end with good triumphing over evil. The dances are performed not only to symbolize destruction of evil but as offerings to the monastery deity.
When it comes to talk of handicraft, Ladakh pose a unique place for its exquisite craftsmanship There is little tradition of artistic craftsmanship in Ladakh, most luxury articles in the past having been obtained through imports.. Wool is sheared from goats twice a year and maximum wool do come locally from the tribals of Ladakh.
Handicraft of Ladakh
The metal workers of Ladakh are said to be the descendants of artisans brought from Nepal in the 17th century to build the gigantic Buddha. Presently, these people are considered experts in making idols of Gods/Goddesses, sculptures,small furniture and showpieces of various metals. Local artisans also use silver, brass and copper to design items for domestic and religious use including tea pots, teacup-stands and lids, hookah- bases, ladles and religious idols.
Ladakhis shear wool from goats and sheep twice a year. They are good in knitting Pattu (a rough, warm, woolen material made from locally produced wool). The District Handicrafts Centre at Leh and the Tibetan Refugee Centre at Choglamsar are popular for a few special items like pashmina shawl, carpets, woolen garments, locally handmade woolen socks, gloves, caps and sweaters. Winter blankets, goncha (a long robe of cotton or wool for men), perak(embroidered headgear) etc are also the specialties of Ladakh.
Tibetan silver jewellery and traditional Ladakhi jewellery attract a number of tourists. These jewellery items are specially designed and moulded by the local Ladakhi silver-smiths.
Wooden and Bamboo Items
Woodwork is limited to household items only. It comprises of low carved tables or Chog-tse, chairs, pillars, beds, curdles for babies etc. Ladakhi bamboo work is known for the finest of baskets.
Other Items and Artwork
Ladakh is known for the vast variety of traditional crafts and fine works. One can find colorful and bustling bazaars (like the Tibetan Market off Old Leh Road and Moti Market near the Leh bus stand) where he/she can purchase different varieties of curios and souvenirs. There are several unique items in Ladakh which attract the tourists. These items include the bowls and cooking pots for the kitchens, thangka paintings, murals etc.