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Ladak formerly was part of Great Thibet. The powerful invading forces from the north which traversed the country to conquer Kachmyr, and the wars of which Ladak was the theatre, not only reduced it to misery, but eventually subtracted it from the political domination of Lhassa, and made it the prey of one conqueror after another. The Musselmen, who seized Kachmyr and Ladak at a remote epoch, converted by force the poor inhabitants of old Thibet to the faith of Islam. The political existence of Ladak ended with the annexation of this country to Kachmyr by the sëiks, which, however, permitted the Ladakians to return to their ancient beliefs. Two-thirds of the inhabitants took advantage of this opportunity to rebuild their gonpas and take up their past life anew. Only the Baltistans remained Musselman schüttes—a sect to which the conquerors of the country had belonged. They, however, have only conserved a vague shadow of Islamism, the character of which manifests itself in their ceremonials and in the polygamy which they practice. Some lamas affirmed to me that they did not despair of one day bringing them back to the faith of their ancestors.
From the religious point of view Ladak is a dependency of Lhassa, the capital of Thibet and the place of residence of the Dalai-Lama. In Lhassa are located the principal Khoutoukhtes, or Supreme Lamas, and the Chogzots, or administrators. Politically, it is under the authority of the Maharadja of Kachmyr, who is represented there by a governor.
The inhabitants of Ladak belong to the Chinese-Touranian race, and are divided into Ladakians and Tchampas. The former lead a sedentary existence, building villages of two-story houses along the narrow valleys, are cleanly in their habits, and cultivators of the soil. They are excessively ugly; thin, with stooping figures and small heads set deep between their shoulders; their cheek bones salient, foreheads narrow, eyes black and brilliant, as are those of all the Mongol race; noses flat, mouths large and thin-lipped; and from their small chins, very thinly garnished by a few hairs, deep wrinkles extend upward furrowing their hollow cheeks. To all this, add a close-shaven head with only a little bristling fringe of hair, and you will have the general type, not alone of Ladak, but of entire Thibet.
The women are also of small stature, and have exceedingly prominent cheek bones, but seem to be of much more robust constitution. A healthy red tinges their cheeks and sympathetic smiles linger upon their lips. They have good dispositions, joyous inclinations, and are fond of laughing.
The severity of the climate and rudeness of the country, do not permit to the Ladakians much latitude in quality and colors of costume. They wear gowns of simple gray linen and coarse dull-hued clothing of their own manufacture. The pantaloons of the men only descend to their knees. People in good circumstances wear, in addition to the ordinary dress, the "choga," a sort of overcoat which is draped on the back when not wrapped around the figure. In winter they wear fur caps, with big ear flaps, and in summer cover their heads with a sort of cloth hood, the top of which dangles on one side, like a Phrygian cap. Their shoes are made of felt and covered with leather. A whole arsenal of little things hangs down from their belts, among which you will find a needle case, a knife, a pen and inkstand, a tobacco pouch, a pipe, and a diminutive specimen of the omnipresent prayer-cylinder.
The Thibetan men are generally so lazy, that if a braid of hair happens to become loose, it is not tressed up again for three months, and when once a shirt is put on the body, it is not again taken off until it falls to pieces. Their overcoats are always unclean, and, on the back, one may contemplate a long oily stripe imprinted by the braid of hair, which is carefully greased every day. They wash themselves once a year, but even then do not do so voluntarily, but because compelled by law. They emit such a terrible stench that one avoids, as much as possible, being near them.
The Thibetan women, on the contrary, are very fond of cleanliness and order. They wash themselves daily and as often as may be needful. Short and clean chemises hide their dazzling white necks. The Thibetan woman throws on her round shoulders a red jacket, the flaps of which are covered by tight pantaloons of green or red cloth, made in such a manner as to puff up and so protect the legs against the cold. She wears embroidered red half boots, trimmed and lined with fur. A large cloth petticoat with numerous folds completes her home toilet. Her hair is arranged in thin braids, to which, by means of pins, a large piece of floating cloth is attached,—which reminds one of the headdress so common in Italy. Underneath this sort of veil are suspended a variety of various colored pebbles, coins and pieces of metal. The ears are covered by flaps made of cloth or fur. A furred sheepskin covers the back, poor women contenting themselves with a simple plain skin of the animal, while wealthy ladies wear veritable cloaks, lined with red cloth and adorned with gold fringes.
The Ladak woman, whether walking in the streets or visiting her neighbors, always carries upon her back a conical basket, the smaller end of which is toward the ground. They fill it with the dung of horses or cows, which constitute the combustible of the country. Every woman has money of her own, and spends it for jewelry. Generally she purchases, at a small expense, large pieces of turquoise, which are added to the bizarre ornaments of her headdress. I have seen pieces so worn which weighed nearly five pounds. The Ladak woman occupies a social position for which she is envied by all women of the Orient. She is free and respected. With the exception of some rural work, she passes the greatest part of her time in visiting. It must, however, be added that women's gossip is here a perfectly unknown thing.
The settled population of Ladak is engaged in agriculture, but they own so little land (the share of each may amount to about eight acres) that the revenue drawn from it is insufficient to provide them with the barest necessities and does not permit them to pay taxes. Manual occupations are generally despised. Artisans and musicians form the lowest class of society. The name by which they are designated is Bem, and people are very careful not to contract any alliance with them. The hours of leisure left by rural work are spent in hunting the wild sheep of Thibet, the skins of which are highly valued in India. The poorest, i.e., those who have not the means to purchase arms for hunting, hire themselves as coolies. This is also an occupation of women, who are very capable of enduring arduous toil. They are healthier than their husbands, whose laziness goes so far that, careless of cold or heat, they are capable of spending a whole night in the open air on a bed of stones rather than take the trouble to go to bed.
Polyandry (which I shall treat later more fully) causes the formation of very large families, who, in common, cultivate their jointly possessed lands, with the assistance of yaks, zos and zomos (oxen and cows). A member of a family cannot detach himself from it, and when he dies, his share reverts to the survivors in common.
They sow but little wheat and the grain is very small, owing to the severity of the climate. They also harvest barley, which they pulverize before selling. When work in the field is ended, all male inhabitants go to gather on the mountain a wild herb called "enoriota," and large thorn bushes or "dama," which are used as fuel, since combustibles are scarce in Ladak. You see there neither trees nor gardens, and only exceptionally thin clumps of willows and poplars grow on the shores of the rivers. Near the villages are also found some aspen trees; but, on account of the unfertility of the ground, arboriculture is unknown and gardening is little successful.
The absence of wood is especially noticeable in the buildings, which are made of sun-dried bricks, or, more frequently, of stones of medium size which are agglomerated with a kind of mortar composed of clay and chopped straw. The houses of the settled inhabitants are two stories high, their fronts whitewashed, and their window-sashes painted with lively colors. The flat roof forms a terrace which is decorated with wild flowers, and here, during good weather, the inhabitants spend much of their time contemplating nature, or turning their prayer-wheels. Every dwelling-house is composed of many rooms; among them always one of superior size, the walls of which are decorated with superb fur-skins, and which is reserved for visitors. In the other rooms are beds and other furniture. Rich people possess, moreover, a special room filled with all kinds of idols, and set apart as a place of worship.
Life here is very regular. They eat anything attainable, without much choice; the principal nourishment of the Ladak people, however, being exceedingly simple. Their breakfast consists of a piece of rye bread. At dinner, they serve on the table a bowl with meal into which lukewarm water is stirred with little rods until the mixture assumes the consistency of thick paste. From this, small portions are scooped out and eaten with milk. In the evening, bread and tea are served. Meat is a superfluous luxury. Only the hunters introduce some variety in their alimentation, by eating the meat of wild sheep, eagles or pheasants, which are very common in this country.
During the day, on every excuse and opportunity, they drink "tchang," a kind of pale, unfermented beer.
If it happens that a Ladakian, mounted on a pony (such privileged people are very rare), goes to seek work in the surrounding country, he provides himself with a small stock of meal; when dinner time comes, he descends to a river or spring, mixes with water, in a wooden cup that he always has with him, some of the meal, swallows the simple refreshment and washes it down with water.
The Tchampas, or nomads, who constitute the other part of Ladak's population, are rougher, and much poorer than the settled population. They are, for the most part, hunters, who completely neglect agriculture. Although they profess the Buddhistic religion, they never frequent the cloisters unless in want of meal, which they obtain in exchange for their venison. They mostly camp in tents on the summits of the mountains, where the cold is very great. While the properly called Ladakians are peaceable, very desirous of learning, of an incarnated laziness, and are never known to tell untruth; the Tchampas, on the contrary, are very irascible, extremely lively, great liars and profess a great disdain for the convents.
Among them lives the small population of Khombas, wanderers from the vicinity of Lhassa, who lead the miserable existence of a troupe of begging gipsies on the highways. Incapable of any work whatever, speaking a language not spoken in the country where they beg for their subsistence, they are the objects of general contempt, and are only tolerated out of pity for their deplorable condition, when hunger drives their mendicant bands to seek alms in the villages.
Polyandry, which is universally prevalent here, of course interested my curiosity. This institution is, by the way, not the outcome of Buddha's doctrines. Polyandry existed long before the advent of Buddha. It assumed considerable proportions in India, where it constituted one of the most effective means for checking the growth of a population which tends to constant increase, an economic danger which is even yet combatted by the abominable custom of killing newborn female children, which causes terrible ravages in the child-life of India. The efforts made by the English in their enactments against the suppression of the future mothers have proved futile and fruitless. Manu himself established polyandry as a law, and Buddhist preachers, who had renounced Brahminism and preached the use of opium, imported this custom into Ceylon, Thibet, Corea, and the country of the Moguls. For a long time suppressed in China, polyandry, which flourishes in Thibet and Ceylon, is also met with among the Kalmonks, between Todas in Southern India, and Nairs on the coast of Malabar. Traces of this strange constitution of the family are also to be found with the Tasmanians and the Irquois Indians in North America.
Polyandry, by the way, has even flourished in Europe, if we may believe Cæsar, who, in his De Bello Gallico, book V., page 17, writes: "Uxores habent deni duodenique inter se communes, et maxime fratres cum fratribus et parentes cum liberis."
In view of all this it is impossible to hold any religion responsible for the existence of the institution of polyandry. In Thibet it can be explained by motives of an economical nature; the small quantity of arable land falling to the share of each inhabitant. In order to support the 1,500,000 inhabitants distributed in Thibet, upon a surface of 1,200,000 square kilometres, the Buddhists were forced to adopt polyandry. Moreover, each family is bound to enter one of its members in a religious order. The firstborn is consecrated to a gonpa, which is inevitably found upon an elevation, at the entrance of every village. As soon as the child attains the age of eighteen years, he is entrusted to the caravans which pass Lhassa, where he remains from eight to fifteen years as a novice, in one of the gonpas which are near the city. There he learns to read and write, is taught the religious rites and studies the sacred parchments written in the Pali language—which formerly used to be the language of the country of Maguada, where, according to tradition, Buddha was born.
The oldest brother remaining in a family chooses a wife, who becomes common to his brothers. The choice of the bride and the nuptial ceremonies are most rudimentary. When a wife and her husband have decided upon the marriage of a son, the brother who possesses the right of choice, pays a visit to a neighboring family in which there is a marriageable daughter.
The first and second visits are spent in more or less indifferent conversations, blended with frequent libations of tchang, and on the third visit only does the young man declare his intention to take a wife. Upon this the girl is formally introduced to him. She is generally not unknown to the wooer, as, in Ladak, women never veil their faces.
A girl cannot be married without her consent. When the young man is accepted, he takes his bride to his house, and she becomes his wife and also the wife of all his brothers. A family which has an only son sends him to a woman who has no more than two or three husbands, and he offers himself to her as a fourth husband. Such an offer is seldom declined, and the young man settles in the new family.
The newly married remain with the parents of the husbands, until the young wife bears her first child. The day after that event, the grandparents of the infant make over the bulk of their fortune to the new family, and, abandoning the old home to them, seek other shelter.
Sometimes marriages are contracted between youth who have not reached a marriageable age, but in such event, the married couple are made to live apart, until they have attained and even passed the age required. An unmarried girl who becomes enceinte, far from being exposed to the scorn of every one, is shown the highest respect; for she is demonstrated fruitful, and men eagerly seek her in marriage. A wife has the unquestioned right of having an unlimited number of husbands and lovers. If she likes a young man, she takes him home, announces that he has been chosen by her as a "jingtuh" (a lover), and endows him with all the personal rights of a husband, which situation is accepted by her temporarily supplanted husbands with a certain philosophic pleasure, which is the more pronounced if their wife has proved sterile during the three first years of her marriage.
They certainly have here not even a vague idea of jealousy. The Thibetan's blood is too cold to know love, which, for him, would be almost an anachronism; if indeed he were not conscious that the sentiment of the entire community would be against him, as a flagrant violator of popular usage and established rights, in restraining the freedom of the women. The selfish enjoyment of love would be, in their eyes, an unjustifiable luxury.
In case of a husband's absence, his place may be offered to a bachelor or a widower. The latter are here in the minority, since the wife generally survives her feeble husbands. Sometimes a Buddhist traveller, whom his affairs bring to the village, is chosen for this office. A husband who travels, or seeks for work in the neighboring country, at every stop takes advantage of his co-religionists' hospitality, who offer him their own wives. The husbands of a sterile woman exert themselves to find opportunities for hospitality, which may happily eventuate in a change in her condition, that they may be made happy fathers.
The wife enjoys the general esteem, is ever of a cheerful disposition, takes part in everything that is going on, goes and comes without any restriction, anywhere and everywhere she pleases, with the exception of the principal prayer-room of the monastery, entrance into which is formally prohibited to her.
Children know only their mother, and do not feel the least affection for their fathers, for the simple reason that they have so many. Without approving polyandry, I could not well blame Thibet for this institution, since without it, the population would prodigiously increase. Famine and misery would fall upon the whole nation, with all the sinister sequellæ of murder and theft, crimes so far absolutely unknown in the whole country.
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