Ladakhi folk music may have its roots in West Central Asia but was later influenced by South Asian traditions. Today it is still embellishing old music with new ideas.
Ladakh’s Matho monastery stands on a rocky outcrop above the place where the Matho River meets the Indus. It’s winter, and the monastery is packed. People squeeze together in the courtyard and on the flat rooftops, leaning over parapets to catch a glimpse. Suddenly a great roar goes up from the crowd, Ki ki so so lha ge lo, “may the Gods be victorious”. Two figures emerge from the main temple, brandishing swords, leopard skins around their waists, running, running. And as they run, drums beat out an insistent rhythm like the pounding of sea surf, rising and falling. Sometimes the figures pause for a moment, screaming a prophecy for the coming year, or slashing arms and tongues with their naked blades. Flecks of blood cover the white scarves, katak, which people have offered them. These are the Gods of Matho, the Rongtsan or “spirits of the gorge”. They were brought here, so the story goes, from Eastern Tibet by the founder of Matho monastery, sworn to protect Matho and Buddhism. They belong to a pre-Buddhist age of Ladakhi and Tibetan history when the Gods ruled all; Gods of the gorge, the pass, the village, the hearth.
The musicians who drum for the Gods are not monks, but village musicians. And the rhythms are ancient. Mark Trewin, a musicologist from the City University, London, has been studying Ladakhi music since 1985. “The idea that we still find in Ladakh, of playing music to invoke deities and spirits, I think this has much older roots, dating back to an age before the arrival of Buddhism. It was probably regularly used at village level for actually inducing trance, inviting deities to the village.”Trewin believes that the rhythms used in the Matho ceremony to accompany the Gods are similar to rhythms used by the Brogpa, the Dards, probably the original inhabitants of Ladakh, before the arrival of the Tibetans. To beat out this rhythm, Dards still use one of the oldest of drum forms, the barrel drum, a hollowed piece of wood with skin stretched over the ends. The drum is also still used for the New Year ceremony, Losar, in Leh, Ladakh’s capital. It’s also to be found among the Kafirs of northern Pakistan, Nurestan and Afghanistan, believed to be related to the Dards, of pre-Islamic, Iranian heritage.
One of the Matho Gods is sprinting ever faster around the central flag pole in the monastery courtyard. Suddenly the drumming stops. The timing is perfect. He leaps onto the pair of daman, kettle drums, used by the musicians. The rhythms may be Dardic, but these drums date from a later musical phase in Ladakh’s history. They were most likely introduced into Ladakh from Baltistan in the 17th Century when Laciakh was an independent kingdom. According to the Ladakhi chronicles, King Jamyang Namgyal of Ladakh launched a surprise winter attack on Skardu, the Muslim Balti capital of Ali Mir Sherkhan (circa 1595-1616). The attack failed and the King was captured. As part of the peace settlement, Jamyang Namgyal married Ali Mir Sherkhan’s daughter, whose dowry included a troop of Balti musicians. They became the royal musicians of Ladakh, the Karmon. Along with daman, they brought with them a kind of oboe, also to be seen and heard in the Matho courtyard, alongside the drums. In fact, there are two kinds of oboe here in the courtyard. One, the surna, is played by village musicians, the other, the gyaling, now silent while the gods are present, is a purely monastic instrument. Ladakhi monastic musk and folk music are separate and have very different origins. The monastic music came largely from Tibet. So, although the folk and monastic oboes look alike, their tuning and tones are very different. The gyaling has a much softer sound, whereas the surna sounds strident, more appropriate for outdoor playing. Both instruments probably originated from Arabia in the 9th-Century, but reached Ladakh by different routes. The surna came to Ladakh via Ali Mir Sherkhan’s Baltistan, whereas it is generally assumed that the gyaling came from India via Tibet, along with Buddhism.
Blacksmiths and Kettle Drums
The God stands one foot on each kettle drum, screaming out his blessing to the musicians. Then his naked sword falls hard and flat with a resounding thwack onto the drummer’s back. These village musicians are known as Mon, a Tibetan word for people from the southern slopes of the Himalaya, often from Himachal Pradesh. In many Ladakhi villages, especially those in the Indus valley around Leh, there are one or two Mon families who supply music to the village, for festivals, offerings to local Gods and for visiting dignitaries and parties. They may originally have been wandering musicians who came up from the south, hence their name, and were offered land in return for their musical services. Although Buddhism is not supposed to entertain caste differences and despite the Dalai Lama’s strong condemnation of such discrimination, the Ladakhi Mon are considered, along with the Gara, the blacksmiths, to be lower caste. The Mon still, worship a Hindu protective deity, their caste God, Akhten Narayan. In neighbouring Zanskar, according to anthropologist James Crowden, the village blacksmith family is often also the village musician family, underlining the craft origins of the Indian caste system, and the fact that musicians and related craft skills often migrated together – you need a blacksmith to make a kettle drum.
The Indian origins of the Mon have left their musical mark. There’s one characteristic of Ladakhi folk songs which differentiates them from the Tibetan folk tradition and was very likely brought to Ladakh by the Mon. Mark Trewin explains: “If you look at Ladakhi folk song melodies, the way the melody goes up is very much stepwise, from one note to the next, whereas coming down they move in much more elaborate ways, using interlocking patterns. It’s a sort of tumbling on the way down, in Western terms, within fourths, rather than a simple stepwise motion. You don’t find that in Tibetan music”.
There’s another group of Ladakhi musicians who, in caste or class terms, are often considered inferior to the Mon. They are the Bheda meaning “difference” in Sanskrit. Bheda is also a Garhwali caste word for a family of itinerant musicians and dancers who go from village to village singing and collecting money – exactly what the Bedas do in Ladakh. They almost certainly came to Ladakh later than the Mon, most likely from the Kashmir side, since they are mainly Muslims. Until recently, they were not settled in villages but kept on the move, probably because the Mon had already filled the niche of specialised village musicians. There are still Bheda groups living this itinerant lifestyle in Ladakh. For many, their existence is little better than that of beggars. In recent years, however, especially around Leh, Mon families have sought to escape their lower-caste status by abandoning music as a craft skill. Bheda groups have then moved in to fill the gap and have taken on the role traditionally associated with Mon.
While it is possible to recognise influences that have coalesced to create contemporary Ladakhi music, audibly distinct from the music of its nearest neighbours, the sometimes contradictory intermingling of all these different traditions can create some surprising paradoxes. Mark Trewin came across one example recently.
Every year, Phyang monastery, near Leh, holds a festival at which local Mon as well as monastic musicians play. The lead daman player at this sacred Buddhist festival, who also plays the surna, is in fact a Muslim. Trewin traced this man’s ancestors back through several generations. He was probably a descendant of the troop of musicians who accompanied Jamyang Namgyal’s queen from Baltistan in the 17th Century, These court musicians, Karmon, were given rights to own land in Phyang, and eventually became village Mon after the fall of the Ladakhi monarchy. It’s also not historically uncommon for intermarriage to occur between Buddhist and Muslim musician families, a practice that has virtually disappeared since the communalism of the late 1980s.
Between Bombay and Leh
The Phyang daman player and his son, one of Ladakh’s finest surna players, have both been employed by All India Radio in Leh. Radio and television, both Indian and satellite, are adding the latest ingredients to the pot pourri which is Ladakhi music. Leh Radio has adopted an enlightened music policy. It plays traditional Ladakhi folk music as well as music with more Tibetan folk origins employing the limbu (flute) and the damyan (lute); and some music influenced by Hindi films and Western rock. The best-known modern Ladakhi exponent of this mixed genre, who has received considerable air time on Leh Radio as well as Indian TV is Phonsok Ladakhi, a graduate of the Film and TV Institute of India. He’s a successful actor and singer who divides his time between Bombay and Leh. A cassette he produced some years back of the Buddhist mantra, Om Mane Padme Hum, set to his own Hindi-film influenced melody was played incessantly in shops, taxis, buses, hotels, restaurants and guest houses throughout Ladakh. His most recent work, a song of praise to the Dalai Lama, is in Hindi. Phonsok has been able to achieve that hardest of musical goals, to produce songs with messages that also achieve wide popularity. He’s just finished recording a series of songs for the Ladakh-based Leh Nutrition Project, promoting the importance of breast feeding babies, of vaccinating children, valuing girl children, not smoking and valuing local food as against exotic, imported food. Last summer, he gave an impromptu performance in Leh. Outside the tent where he sang was a children’s playground. Children squeezed together on top of a slide to catch a glimpse inside the tent. They knew every word:
Oh my little brothers and sisters of Ladakh,
Please listen to the words of your wandering big brother,
LearnyourABC, but don´tforget your kha, ga,
If you give up your kha, ga, you will lose the
heart of your knowledge,
Dance the rock and roll but don´t forget your folk dances.
If you forget your folk dances, you will lose the essence of your grace.
That is characteristic of Ladakh’s musical tradition, to integrate the new into the old. Children are still learning the old dance steps and songs, especially in the villages, despite serious neglect of the Ladakhi language, the kha, ga, in schools. There are some fine Ladakhi musicians, those assembled around Leh Radio for instance, aware of the value of both old and new. All traditions need cherishing and constant renewal if they are not to ossify and die. The children on the picture would suggest this one is still alive and dancing.
Malyon is a freelance writer and photographer. This article was written by him with information inputs from Ladakhi scholar Tashi Rabgyas arid musicologist Mark Trewin.