In September, I visited the rugged but spellbinding landscape of India (Ladakh) to attend Naropa festival 2016. Naro Palace, situated 40 kilometers from Leh was the venue of the event. Children with folded hands, monks adorned in maroon robes, spiritually excited people of all ages, locals dressed in traditional attires and expansive mountains made for a lovely sight in the picture-perfect landscape. Naropa festival takes place once in twelve years and thus it claims it fame as the Kumbh Mela of Himalayas. Attending the festival was a unique opportunity for me because it not only introduced me to a legacy of Vajrayana Buddhism but it also gave me a chance to peek into the life and culture of local people. The six-day festival dazzled under a generous doze of enlightening talks, celebrity performances, traditional dances and music but one thing that really got my eye in this cultural extravaganza was the colorful dresses of Ladakhi men and women.
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This is how women dress up in Ladakh!
The truly vibrant dresses and strikingly interesting headdresses worn by the women were the most appealing sight in the expansive pockets of the western Himalayas. Women wore thick belts or “skerak”, gorgeous capes and stone jewelry. I was delighted to learn about “Goncha’, the traditional dress of Ladakh and unique headdress “Perak” which is derived from the Ladakhi word ‘per’ which means turquoise. For the first time when I saw it I thought it looked like a Cobra’s hood which spreads its tail till the back. This attractive headdress is considered to be very precious and is adorned with turquoise stones and metal trinkets. The leather strap that extends from the top of the head to the shoulders makes its look unique and stylish. The most interesting fact that I learnt about Perak was that it has a special significance and it changes hands from mother to daughter. Not just that, it also tells us about the social, marital and economic status of the women wearing it. Nevertheless, married women consider it a valuable possession and love to flaunt it on all special occasions.
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If you thought only women were conscious of their dresses and accessories, I must tell you the men are equally fashionable in their distinct style. They have their own hats and waistcoats in different designs and material. While the monks wear brick red robes, the local men can be identified by their stylish garment. Due to the extreme climate there, they wear a thick woolen robe famously called “Goucha”. This double-breasted calf-length coat is fastened at the neck. The voluminous clothing is pulled through the armpit and tied at the waist along with a colorful sash known as a “Skerag”. The Skerag is about two metres long and 20 cm wide. There is a unique way of tucking it in. It is wound round and round and in a way that it makes some enough space as a pocket to carry small essentials while moving from here and there. Ladakhi Tibetans wear a hat known as the ‘usha par’ which has a circular base and four fur-lined flaps that can be used in the summers as well as winters.
I must confess I was absolutely fascinated by the distinct and stylish dresses and accessories of Ladakhi locals, laced with history and symbolism. Interestingly, every dress worn by the men and the women had a story behind it. The cut and designs were aptly made to suit the weather and their lifestyle. They must be applauded for holding on their fashion for all these years.