The Visual and Material Culture of Islam in Ladakh

Abeer Gupta

Ladakh is often romanticised as a homogenous Buddhist monoculture, situated around high-altitude monasteries and nomadic pastures. But Ladakh has an Islamic culture that dates back to at least six centuries and today constitutes over fifty percent of its native population. Rare, but with a little effort, a discernable pattern of Islamic visual culture can be found. While Ladakh has never really been cut off from the wider Islamic world, with Haj, visiting preachers and trade, it had largely constructed visible signs of its identity, on the basis of the indigenous local culture.

Over the past two decades, this has changed – partly because of increasing affluence and exposure to the outside world, partly for political reasons1, and partly due to the availability of new technologies in architecture and communications. With television and the Internet there is now rapid import of ideas of visual expressions of Islamic culture from the centre of the Islamic world. But local themes survive, in spite of large-scale material imports (such as cement, aluminum, steel and plastic) from India, indigenous crafts and motifs co-exist with a varying degree of usage. This essay examines some of these contemporary visual and material forms, from home and abroad, indicating the way Islam was perceived, practiced and how it is being constructed.

The religious spaces covered in this research reveal a variety of textile-based objects, like carpets, prayer mats and scrolls. These objects beyond their function were simultaneously used as decorative elements within these spaces. The older textile-based objects – such as carpets and prayer mats made in distant parts of central and west Asia – speak of interconnectivity of these regions in the past2. They also form the basis of an aesthetic inclination, a range of motifs, patters and colours, which became popular and are today part of Ladakhi society across religious lines. Certain patterns like the rgya-nag lcags-ri3 – the brick wall pattern inspired by the Great Wall of China and the yungdrung4 – the interlocking swastika motif – are today widely seen adapted on wood, plastic and paper designs. The secular spaces exhibit the transition from textile-based objects to paper-based formats such as posters and calendars using photo icons – reproductions of iconic figures and spaces. The printed forms are not only cheaper and easily accessible but are often personalized with growing ease of printing technology. The essay explores examples from both groups of objects – those imported and those produced locally – their procurement or production and the way they are used to identify their role within the religious landscape within a contemporary timeframe.

There are two sets of spaces covered in this research. First are the more secular spaces, such as shops and restaurants and second are religious spaces such as mosques, Khanqahs5, and Imambaras. These are spread across the districts of Leh and Kargil in Ladakh. In Leh district there are the bazars and religious buildings in Leh town, as well as villages south of Leh on the banks of the river Indus: Shey, Thikse and Chuchot. Chuchot is a rather large village consisting of Chuchot Gongma, Chuchot Shama and Chuchot Yokma. Also within the district of Leh, deep inside the Nubra Valley are Turtuk and Tyakshi, two small villages just before the Line of Control on the Shyok river before it flows into Baltistan, which is now in Pakistan. Turtuk still bears a distinctive Baltistani culture which is visible in the local architecture, food habits and clothes. Turtuk comprises two small hamlets, Yul and Pharol. Kargil District constitues of Kargil Town, which has today spread into a number of small adjoining hamlets such as Aba Gurung, Goma Kargil, Puyen and Baru. Also south of Kargil, along the banks of the Suru River, are villages such as Saliskote and Trespone. While the main business and administrative institutions are concentrated around Kargil town several old religious buildings are found in the hamlets which are repositories of religious iconography both old and new.


1. Formation of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in 1995 and LAHDC - Kargil was set up in 2003 – ensured better representation and funds of the communities &

2. Janet Rizvi, Trans-Himalayan Caravans: Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh, (Oxford University Press, 2001) – is a detailed account of trade and associated material culture along the Indus and Skyok belt.

3. Page 41, Handmade In IndiaEditors: Aditi Ranjan, M P Ranjan, (Mapin, 2005)

The PDF version of the publication is available at:

4. Page 41, Handmade In IndiaEditors: Aditi Ranjan, M P Ranjan, (Mapin, 2005)

5. Khanqah,

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