Twelve centuries after the Buddha attained 'nirvana' the Tibetan King Songstsen Gampo (Sron-bTsan Sgam-Po) who ruled from 618 to 649 AD, married Wen Chen from the court of China's Tang dynasty and Bkrikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess. Under their influence, Buddhism slowly developed in the Central Himalayan and Trans Himalayan regions of Tibet, Spiti, Lahaul and Ladakh till it became the predominant faith.
Buddhism is the way of life in Ladakh. There are ancient Buddhist rock engravings all over the region, even in areas like Dras and the lower Suru Valley which today are inhabited by an exclusively Muslim population. The divide between Muslim, and Buddhist Ladakh passes through leh (on the Kargil-Leh road) and between the villages of Parkachick and Rangdum in the Suru Valley, though there are pockets of Muslim population further east, in Padum (Zanskar), in Nubra Valley and in and around Leh. The approach to Buddhist village is invariable marked by mani walls which are long chest-high structures faced with engraved stones bearing the mantra in mane paddle hum and by shorten, commemorative cairns, like stone pepper-pots.
Many villagers are crowned with a gompa or monastery which may be anything from an imposing complex of temples, prayer halls and monks dwellings, to a tiny hermitage housing a single image and home to solitary lama. Islam too came from the west. A peaceful penetration of the Shia sect spearheaded by missionaries, its success was guaranteed by the early conversion of the sub-rulers of Dras, Kargil and the Suru Valley. In these areas, mani walls and shorten are placed by mosques, often small unpretentious buildings, or Imambaras imposing structures in the Islamic style, surmounted by domes of sheet metal that gleam cheerfully in the sun.
The traveler from India will look in vain for similarities between the land and people he has left and those he encounters in Ladakh. The faces and physique of the Ladakhis, and the clothes they wear, are more akin to those of Tibet and Central Asia than of India. The original population may have been Dards, an Indo-Aryan race from down the Indus. But immigration from Tibet, perhaps a millennium or so ago, largely overwhelmed the culture of the Dards and obliterated their racial characteristics.
In eastern and central Ladakh, today's population seems to be mostly of Tibetan origin. Further west, in and around Kargil, there is much in the people's appearance that suggests a mixed origin. The exception to this generalization are the Afghans, a community of Muslims in Leh, the descendants of marriages between local women and Kashmiri or Central Asian merchants.
The demeanor of the people is affected by their religion, especially among the women. Among the Buddhists, as also the Muslims of the Leh area, women not only work in the house and field, but also do business and interact freely with men other that their own relations. In Kargil and its adjoining regions on the other hand, it is only in the last few years that women are emerging from semi-seclusion and taking jobs other than traditional ones like farming and house -keeping.
The natural joie-de-vivre of the Ladakhis is given free rein by the ancient traditions of the region. Monastic and other religious festivals, many of which fall in winter, provide the excuse for convivial gatherings. Summer pastimes all over the region are archery and polo. Among the Buddhists, these often develop into open-air parties accompanied by dance and song, at which Chang, the local brew made from fermented barley, flows freely.
Of the secular culture, the most important element is the rich oral literature of songs and poems for every occasion, as well as local versions of the Kesar Saga, the Tibetan national epic. Buddhists and Muslims. In fact, the most highly developed versions of the Kesar Saga and some of the most exuberant and lyrical songs are said to be found in Shakar-Chigtan, an area of the western Kargil district exclusively inhabited by Muslims, unfortunately not freely open to tourists yet. Ceremonial and public events are accompanied by the characteristic music of surna and daman (oboe and drum), originally introduced into Ladakh from Muslim Baltistan, but now played only by Buddhist musicians known as Mons