With the harvest over, the fields empty and livestock taken up to higher pastures for grazing, life in Ladakh comes to a quiet standstill in the wintertime. Although this was more the case 50 years ago, winter in Ladakh even today takes one more than a few years back into the past. A much different scene from the bustling summer months, the streets now are empty of tourists, whirring cars, and all shops selling jewellery and Pashmina Shawls have been shut and locked. Even the locals seem to have disappeared as many of them have gone on pilgrimages to various religious cities in and outside India. Others simply go away to escape the cold. The hundreds of migrant labourers too go back to their homes in warmer places like Jammu and Bihar, after working hard all summer. For those that remain it is the time to renew friendships, prepare for weddings, and celebrate.
Old Town, being the former residence of the royal family, was where many festivals and events took place. These ranged from small community gatherings to more complex ones, involving elaborate religious ceremonies, sport competitions, music and dance performances. Although crammed with houses and narrow pathways, Old Town still managed to provide space for these celebrations. With time some of the celebrations and the spaces used for them have undergone changes while others have entirely come to a stop.
The festival probably associated the most with the Palace and Old Town is Dosmoche. This is a three-day festival celebrated in honour of the king’s life. During the three days of the festival, a Dos, an effigy made of colourful threads which is prepared during several days of prayers and rituals by monks is made. This effigy is later burnt in a concluding ceremony to ward off evil. The religious ceremonies for this festival always began at the Palace and ended at Katpa, an empty space where the burning of the Dos took place. The journey of the Dos from the Palace, to the Katpa, followed a fixed route that covered almost all the pathways and lanes of Old Town. This gave everyone, from the old to the young, religious head to farmer, an opportunity to take part. Dosmoche is largely celebrated the same way today, however the location where the Dos was burned has changed from the former Katpa area (where the Indoor Stadium now stands) to the empty space beside it.
A less elaborate ceremony compared to Dosmoche, Storlok was celebrated in honour of the long life of the King. Storlok is said to have been adopted from Tibet by Ladakhi Kings during the time of Padmasambhava (7th Century) in Tibet. The Maharaja carried on this tradition during the Dogra reign.
Like Dosmoche, Storlok too, involved burning of effigies for the kingdom’s prosperity, harmony and to ward off evil, disease and natural calamities. The largest and grandest of effigies amongst the many prepared was known as ‘Apo Garam Singh’ a nickname given by the local people.
The historic recollection of the Storlok ceremonies goes back to the Maharaja’s time. Dogra soldiers went with guns and fire cannons from the Zorawar Fort to the Katpa. Cannons were fired at ‘Apo Garam Singh’ until it was destroyed. Next, guns were fired at targets made of goat horns, filled with blood, and hung across a rope. After an accident when a soldier was killed in a misfire, in which others were also injured, the tradition of celebrating Storlok was stopped. Today the effigies are simply taken to the Katpa and burned.
Dartsess is the famous Archery Festival that used to take place every spring to mark the beginning of the New Year. Celebrations were held for almost a week and although it was mostly men who participated in the archery, women and children too would be part of all the dancing and feasting that took place around the archery displays and competitions. Each village had their own Dartsess celebration, the one, which, took place in Leh’s Old Town was known as Arghon Dartsess. This was probably the most well known Dartsess in Ladakh and was held at a site known as the Galdan Katpa, where today’s Delite Cinema Hall now stands. Arghon Dartsess has not been celebrated in Leh for the last 30 years. Apart from the construction of the cinema hall, parts of Galdan Katpa have been encroached upon while the rest of the area gets waterlogged from the drains that run into its ground.
Stapolok, along with Dartsess was the other major sport in Leh. Believed to have originated in Baltistan, Stapolok was popular in most parts of Ladakh including Batalik, Drass, Kargil, Wakha, Mulbek and Nubra. It was especially played in celebration of the Muslim and Buddhist New Year.
In Leh, Stapolok was played on the road (which was much wider in the past) of the main bazaar as well as the old Shagaran (Polo Ground) where the Sabzi Mandi (Vegetable Market) now stands. Leh bazaar was always an important space in Old Town in terms of hosting not only trade activities but also events such as this. Playing Stapolok in the market stopped around the 1960s as it was declared too dangerous after a few accidents occurred. In the 1970s a new Polo Ground was built near the administrative offices, a little away from the main bazaar, which became the new space for all sports activities.
Stapolok now referred to as Polo by most people is still played in Ladakh, although not with the same enthusiasm and involvement as in earlier times – owing to the fact that the practice of owning or using horses has stopped, and only those with access to horses get the opportunity to play. The only formal polo team that exists now is the Army team who has its practice ground near Zorawar Fort as the space provides care and shelter for the team’s horses. Nowadays, the general public gets to see Polo being played on occasions such as the Ladakh Festival.
Sasa ura bala dur
Sasa ura bala dur (an urdu phrase which roughly translates to ‘evil will go away’) was an event celebrated by the Goba (chief) and the general public at the Lal Chowk (the town square in front of the Mosque). The event was to mark the welfare of the town, its residing community, as well as Ladakh in general. Thukpa (noodles) would be prepared by the community and distributed to everyone gathered there. Sasa ura bala dur was held to celebrate the spirit of the community more than anything else, even though it was not celebrated on a very grand scale, it brought together the young and old of all religions to share sentiments and good wishes over warm thukpa. Although fondly remembered by those who were ever involved in its festivities no one knows exactly why or when Sasa ura bala dur died out.
Lal Chowk has always been an important space for the people of Leh. After 1947 till around 1960 or 1970 all public meetings were held there. The area was also known as Masjid Chowk (Mosque Square) because of its proximity to the Jama Masjid. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Lal Chowk three times, each time to give a speech. The first Indian Independence Day celebrated in Ladakh, and the unfurling of the Indian flag, took place here.
Stories from Old Town
Apart from large events and festivals involving the entire town of Leh, smaller gatherings and get-togethers at the household level were also popular. Back when radio and television had not come to Ladakh, storytelling and singing occupied much of the long, cold, winter evenings of many families. Food and fire would be shared, as neighbours, friends and relatives would gather around in the kitchen, women would be occupied with chores such as mending clothes and the men would spin wool while taking turns in telling stories. What made the ordinary evenings in Leh (especially the old town of Leh), even more special are the heroes, ghosts, myths and stories which originate from the area itself. The shade of a large Willow Tree or a comfortable doorstep of a house would also make for the perfect spot for chatting and storytelling for those working outdoors on a hot summer’s day. With its ancient houses, ruins, mysterious passageways, dark corners and the Palace, no story or song could sound as real as when told and sung in Old Leh Town.
Old Town Today
Much has changed in Old Leh Town today. Over time, with many more Hindus and Sikhs now living in the neighbourhood, residents also participate in festivals like Diwali and Dussera. Storytelling has been replaced by television and the internet. Other festivals are shorter or have died out altogether. But the physical nature of Old Town still remains intact, and with it, the potential to revive old ways of celebrating and living.