Ladakh, the northern-most part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, occupies almost two-thirds of its territory but accounts for just 2.7 % of its population. Ladakh consists of two districts: Kargil and Leh. Both the districts have a roughly equal population of a little more than a hundred thousand people. The majority of the population of Kargil, some 85 per cent, are ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa Muslims, most of whom belong to the Balti ethnic community. The remainder are mainly Buddhists, in the Zanskar valley, with a small minority of Sunni Muslims in Padum and Nurbakshi Muslims in the Dras area. In Leh, the overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist, with a minority of Sunni, ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa Balti and Nurbakshi Muslims, who account for roughly 15 per cent of the population. Muslims are found in 25 out of the 112 villages of Leh district. In most of these villages they form scattered minorities, although in some villages near Leh and in the Nubra Valley they account for a substantial proportion of the population.
Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Leh: A Historical Background
According to a leading Ladakhi historian from Leh, Abdul Ghani Sheikh, IslamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first contact with Ladakh goes back to the eighth century, when Arab soldiers and traders began entering the area. He writes that by the mid-seventh century Arab armies had already conquered large parts of central Asia, which had close historical ties with Ladakh. In the late eighth century, during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mahdi (775-85), Arab armies reached as far as Tibet and had demanded tribute from the Tibetans. It is probable, Sheikh argues, that some Arab soldiers entered Ladakh at this time, although the available documentary evidence is fragmentary. Local legend has it that the Persian Kubrawi Sufi, Mir Sayyed Ã¢â‚¬ËœAli Hamadani, who played an important role in the introduction of Islam in Kashmir, passed through Ladakh in 1381/2. He is said to have built a mosque at Shey, then the capital of Ladakh, and at Padum, in Zanskar, although this is disputed. Not long after his visit, some Muslim mystics of the Rishi order, such as Baba Zainuddin Rishi and Baba Nasiruddin Ghazi, are said to have travelled to Ladakh and Baltistan, and are credited with having made some converts to Islam in the area. The spread of Islam in Ladakh is said to have further accelerated after the conversion to Islam of the Ladakhi Buddhist ruler of Kashmir, Lha-chen-dngros-grub in the early fourteenth century, who later went on to take the name of Rinchen Shah.
New mosque in Leh
Ladakh witnessed a new influx of Muslims from the sixteenth century onwards, as Sunni Muslim traders from Kashmir began settling in the region. They were key players in the trans-Himalayan trade network along the Silk Route connecting West Asia with Tibet and China. They were welcomed by the Ladakhi Rajas, who saw them as playing a valuable role in the local economy. They were allotted their own special quarters in the capital city and lands to construct mosques. They married local Buddhist women, and the Argon community of Sunni Muslims in Leh today are descended from these unions. The Sunni community in Ladakh was further augmented after Ladakh became a vassal of the Mughals in the reign of Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. Ladakhi rulers invited a number of Kashmiri Muslims to join their court as scribes to conduct official correspondence, in Persian, with the Mughal governors of Kashmir, and also to help run the royal mint. At this time Sunni Muslims also began settling in small numbers in the Zanskar area in Kargil, as assistants to the local Buddhist rulers as well as traders.
The Sunni Muslims are the largest religious minority in Leh today. They form around 6 % of the districtÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s population, and are almost entirely of mixed Kashmiri-Ladakhi background. This explains why they are often referred to as Argons or Ã¢â‚¬Ëœmixed raceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢. They are more commonly known as Khacha Pa, the wordKhacha Yul meaning Ã¢â‚¬ËœKashmirÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ in the Ladakhi language. In addition to the Kashmiri element, some Argons also claim Turkestani and Central Asian descent.
The ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœas of Leh are almost all of Balti stock, ethnically similar to the Buddhist Ladakhis and the western Tibetans. They trace their conversion to the sixteenth century Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi, who is credited with introducing ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa Islam in Kashmir and Baltistan. He and his disciples are said to have been responsible for the conversion of a number of Balti Buddhist princes to the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa faith. Many of the local ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœas, it is said, are descendants of migrants from Baltistan. They claim that they settled in Leh in the early seventeenth century, when the Ladakhi Buddhist ruler Jamyang Namgyal (1555-1610) married Gyal Khatun, daughter of Yebgo Sher Ghazi, the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa prince of Khaplu. Gyal Khatun is said to have brought along with her a number of Balti ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœas in her retinue. They were later accompanied by another group of Baltis who shifted to Ladakh following a devastating flood in Baltistan. Their descendants are now to be found in fairly sizeable numbers in Phyang, Shey, Chushot, Thiksey and Leh town.
A third Muslim community in Ladakh are the Nurbakshis, followers of the fifteenth century Persian mystic Sayyed Muhammad Nurbaksh. NurbakshÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own sectarian affiliation is disputed. Some claim that he was a Sunni of the ShafiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ school and a Kubrawi Sufi. Others insist that he was a ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa who concealed his faith out of fear of Sunni persecution. The Nurbakshis in Ladakh are today found chiefly in the Nubra Valley and in some villages near Dras, in Kargil. Larger numbers of Nurbakshis lives across the border in Baltistan, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Today, they are increasingly being targeted by Sunni and ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa missionary groups, who are now engaged in a fierce competition to bring them to their respective folds.
Although the consciousness of adhering to different religious systems remained strong, Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh historically shared a broadly similar culture. The local Muslims spoke Ladakhi and wore the same dress, often with minor differences. Food habits were, to an extent, similar, except for the consumption of alcohol and carrion, which are forbidden in Islamic law. Given the Buddhist prohibition of killing animals, all the butchers in Ladakh were Muslims, and many Buddhist communities specially imported Muslim butchers from Kashmir and Baltistan to settle in their villages. At the popular level there was, in some cases, a blurring of religious boundaries. For instance, in several outlying areas Muslims would visit Buddhist oracles and healers for cures, and some Buddhists would attend the Balti mourning rituals for Imam Husain. Another revealing example in this regard is that of the royal ceremonies on the occasion of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The Raja would pass through Leh at the head of a large procession, followed by his cavalry. The Buddhist head of the cavalry would visit the Sunni mosque in the town, offer oil for the lamps in the mosque, and ask for the blessings of the local Imam.
Intermarriage between Argons, Baltis and Buddhists in Ladakh was fairly common until recently. Such marriages occurred among both Ã¢â‚¬ËœordinaryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ people as well as among the royalty. Thus, for instance, as mentioned above, the seventeenth century ruler of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal, married Gyal Khatun, daughter of the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa ruler of Khaplu. Gyal Khatun remained a Muslim till her death, but she was regarded by many Buddhists as an incarnation of the White Tara, probably because her son, Singe Namgyal, rose to become the most famous ruler of Ladakh, playing a crucial role in the expansion of both Buddhism and the geographical boundaries of the Ladakhi kingdom. Another Ladakhi Raja, Nima Namgyal, was married to a Muslim princess, Zizi Khatun, who is said to have exercised a major role in running the affairs of the kingdom. Raja Pirang Namgyal married Begum Wangmu, daughter of a small ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa principality in Kargil. The son of the last independent ruler of Ladakh, Thundup Namgyal, also had a Muslim queen. Likewise, Hurchu Khan, the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa ruler of a principality in Kargil, married a Ladakhi Buddhist princess.
The historical records speak of numerous wars were between the Ladakhi Buddhist kings and the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa Muslim rulers of various small principalities in Baltistan. At the same time, they also mention a large number of marriages between the ShiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa and Ladakhi ruling houses. Political alliances often cut across religious boundaries. Thus, for instance, when Ladakh was invaded by a joint Tibetan-Mongolian army in 1681, the Ladakhi ruler appealed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for help. In response to this request, the Mughal army, under Nawab Fidai Khan, entered Ladakh and, along with the Ladakhis, inflicted a heavy defeat on the invaders. In gratitude for this assistance, the Ladakhi ruler allotted a plot of land just below his palace in Leh to the Sunni Muslims of the town for a mosque. The mosque, which still stands, is now the central or JamiÃ¢â‚¬Ëœa mosque of the Sunnis of Ladakh. In other words, one cannot speak in terms of a history of any inherent antagonism between Muslims and Buddhists, as entire communities, in the region. Ladakh has never known the sort of communal violence that many other parts of India have witnessed.