Cultural aspects of the Baltis in the Kargil region 

Cultural aspects of the Baltis in the Kargil region 

Balti is a common term that the Ladakh Buddhists regularly use, in particular, to refer to all Shia Muslims in the region (Grist 1998). And the Baltis are a distinct community whose ancestors had moved from Baltistan to Kargil and Leh prior to the Partition. Most of Baltis came to Kargil as merchants, and are now known as Hatti-Pa (shop keepers). Below is a brief introduction to the Cultural Aspects of Baltis in the Kargil region.

By analyzing different material and cultural aspects of the past, it is concluded that the Kargil area of Pakistan and India is part of the historic Silk Route that emerged as a transit point for caravans that paved the way for the exchange of ideas leading to the transformation of society.

By studying various material and cultural aspects of the past, it is concluded that the Kargil region of Pakistan and India is part of the historic Silk Route that emerged as a transit point for caravans that paved the way for the exchange of ideas that transformed society in addition, modern education brought about change that led to the elimination of earlier beliefs in fourfold social stratification.

The religious elements of the region influenced the way of life and a profound impact on the art and architecture of the region. It took a long art from Buddhism, Kashmiri, Tibato, and Gandhara, while it introduced Persian, Indo-Islamic art to Islam.

Kargil as a whole became known in the early days under the name Purig. Various authors have varying definitions of how the term is applied. A.H Francke maintained that the brave stock, Burig, is the original term’s extorted form.

Another renowned historian, Hashmatullah Khan, writes in his treatise that it was derived from two root words pot and rigs, meaning Tibetan stocks, and the general opinion is that the word Purig means the tube in the local language and from all four points rightly signifies its tubular valley structures.

Now the whole region is popularly known by the name of Kargil, Gar-Rkhil distorted form means staying anywhere. Once it had been a transit camp for caravans from Khotan, Yarkand, Leh, Skardu, Zanskar & Kashmir and vice-Versa.

With the passage of time, this place was gaining importance and popularity due to its strategic location. There are four rivers flowing through the district into Pakistan, i.e. Indus, Suru, Wakha, The Rivers of Shungo. Throughout winter the rivers freeze and form natural paths, such as the world-famous Chadar path.

These people do not adhere to the earlier four-fold stratification of the society in Kargil-like that of the Vedic period, even though that still exists in the area. We find here, compared to that stratification; Chho-Wazir, Mala-Lama, Sagyadpa, and Mon-Garba, who demarcated the people from one another, wherein:

Cho and Wazir

Cho and Wazir were the society’s ruling class which was considered a socially elevated party. Their job was to protect their territory and assure the protection of their subjects. Kacho, the descendant of this ruling class, was entrusted by Dogra rulers with the duties of Zildars, and after 1950 the duties of Nambardar were assigned to the villages concerned and are still found in villages like Chiktan, Pashkum, Soth, Wakha and Mulbekh.

While their social status is not comparatively as respectable as that of the past, the word “Kacho” is prefixed with their names and sometimes suffixed with “Wazir.”

Mala Lama

Mala-Lama belonged to the priestly class in charge of carrying out religious duties such as weddings, birth ceremonies, death ceremonies, etc. They still maintain their status within society. Sheiks, Mulanas, and Aghas are the primary components of this class today, serving as advisors or as Qazis settling Sharia-based disputes among the masses.

We have now also switched to politics and combined their religious position with governance because of the support they receive from their followers.


As a shopkeeper, ironsmith, carpenter, cobbler, weaver, mason, etc., Sagyadpa were the farmers, artisans, and traders. They have elevated their socio-economic status and are seen by dint of their education and merit in almost every government department holding key positions.

Mon and Garba

Mon-Garba belonged to a class of blacksmith and musicians, employed as drummers and blacksmiths. They were viewed as an inferior class and treated with little respect, but not as that of the ancient Hindu community, where Shudras had to represent the upper three classes and often had to be ill-treated.

Here in the Darbars, Mon community used to sing, marriage occasions and other ritualistic occasions, as well as polo games at the same time, and used their profession for their living.

With the advent of Islam, they shifted their lifestyle, their occupation to agriculture, and other common means of subsistence. Apart from that concept of social equality and the right to education also allowed them to change to seek jobs in government.

Especially with the advent of Islam, social mobility was seen, in some cases, one can see that a Syed (priest) may be labor, carpenter, contractor, shopkeeper, but vice versa could not happen as a laborer, etc. was not permitted to become a priest. Besides that, the population is split on the basis of their religious faith; the majority community follows Islam, while the others follow Buddhism.


In the 14th-15th century, numerous Central Asian religious scholars such as Syed Ali Hamdani, Syed Mohd Norbakshah, and Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi visited Kashmir for Islamic propagation. They had converted a large number of people to Islam during their stay in Kashmir.

In Kargil, Chhos Bom lday and rGyalbom lday, who had adopted Islam during a temporary stay in Kashmir in 1373, first propagated and promulgated it in Suru-Kartse and brought some Muslim Ulemas to this area and provided them with the permanent settlement at Mulbekh and founded a mosque there known as Khachy Masjid.

Syed Muhammad Nurbaksh

Later, on his way back to Baltistan, Syed Nurbaksh proselytized the majority of Kargil ‘s population into Islam, which later came to be known as the Norbaksh sect and also founded mosques. Once Mir Shamsudin Iraqi introduced his missionary program to Kargil, he was shown great respect by Habib Chho the ruler of the city.

He succeeded in propagating his philosophy and succeeded in transforming Norbakhshia and Buddhism into the Shia order of Islam because of it that Shiaism flourished in this area as in the rule of Konga Namgyal, in the first half of the 15th century, converted his son Thi Namgyal into Islam who invited Syed Mir Hashim from Srinagar to the religious spread.

Where after, Shaism is believed to have flourished in a very short period predominating in the region. Sheiks and Aagas spreading the Islamic message birthed Islamic calligraphy, Persian art, Arabic along with Persian literature, domes, minarets, and arches.

The remarkable feature of Islamic architecture, Persian style of buildings in the form of mosques and Imam Bargahs and tombs that dot nearly every nook and corner of the district thus presenting Islamic faith supremacy there. Citizens throng these on a regular basis and pledge their devotion to their religion on ritualistic occasions, almost without any change.


Before Islam, Buddhist faith prevailed in the region that is still practiced in various pockets of the district by considerable numbers. Even though there are divergent views of its origin in Ladakh, the fact remains that its tantric form is present in the region where Lamas and Chomos dominate the social order among Ladakh’s Buddhists.

For centuries there existed the custom of dedicating at least one boy and one girl of the family to the monasteries to lead the celibacy life altogether. The men who are so committed will become the Lamas and the women will become Chomos. Every village of any importance has its monastery (Gompa) which stands at the highest site available and some distance from the village.

Separate Gompas exist for the Chomos. The Lamas and Chomos reside in those Gompas which contain the usual Buddhist adoration appendages.

In addition, a large number of Buddha and Bodhisattvas sculptures are found carved and worshipped at various sites, such as other monastic establishments such as the Kanika stupa at Zankar, Bodhistavas statues at Mulbekh, Tumail, Karchy, and Drass.


As far as art and architecture are concerned, there is a long tradition of Ladakh’s political-cultural relationships with other neighboring states such as Kashmir, Tibet, and Baltistan, as well as trade relations with Yarkand, Khotan, and Kashgar.

Because of these relationships, the region’s art and architecture were heavily influenced. Kashmiri, Tibetan, and Gandharan art are commonly found in Buddhist monasteries (Gonpa) and Stupas (Chorten), along with fresco paintings on monastery walls depicting Buddha’s Jataka stories.

In addition, Buddha and Bodhisattvas bronze, copper and gold statues are found in large numbers in monasteries such as Fotang at Bodkharbu and Wakha, Karcha monastery at Zanskar, Mulbek monastery at Mulbekh and Chorten (stupa), and many others.

Rock Carvings 

Maitreya (future Buddha) rock carved sculptures from the 6th -7th century CE are located in all four directions of the area at Mulbek, Karchay, Tumail, and Drass. Among these, the 41 m high Sculpture at Mulbekh is the top-ranked first in terms of height followed by at Karchy. In addition, a number of Kanika stupas at Sani, Zanskar add magnificence to the district’s Buddhist thinking.

Before Buddhism 

There was a prevalent religious belief in Bon earlier to Buddhism. In the region, there are a number of Bon religious remains throughout Ladakh, such as Youn-Drung Gonpa or the Mystic Cross Monastery, Alters of Bon in several places, Bon-Yul and many superstitious rituals and customs associated with the faith. It is believed that before the Buddhist faith became common, this faith spread out from Tibet.

They were called Ponchhos or Bonchhos or “the sacred circle,” they are called Ling Chhos by Francke. Its followers called themselves Tirthakars, were in principle atheistic, believed in the spirit of water, and were superstitious, which is still traced in the existing society.

Given the pluralism of the belief system, people of all walks used to intermingle in social and religious rituals only a few years ago and to amuse themselves in various ways, such as singing folk songs, dancing and drinking, and so on.

They practice the same customs and traditions. Both communities used to have no more practiced marriage relationships now. As this polyandry, once traditional among Buddhists, was abandoned, in which each family, the eldest brother’s wife was shared as common property by other brothers.

It was seen as a theory for testing population growth as well as not dividing the inadequate agricultural land for its development was not enough for its inhabitants. Now, it just prevails in the smaller pockets.

Dressing patterns

At times, dressing patterns seem to be inspired by religious feelings, from the past as Buddhist and Muslim cultures” displayed variations in everyday routine life in general and social or religious ceremonies in particular. The general pattern showed Goncha (long cloak), Tipi (headgear), Papu (shoes), Ltsakpa (Hairy back cover made of animal skin) with bits of regional variations in common usage.

The Goncha used to be color, White. A person colored in marron (dark red) seems to have been a decent person in society. The shoes were made of cattle leather known as Papu, the top and the bottom is known as Kradpa.

Locally woven Goncha, piece of woolen laces, Skeraks over the Goncha and pants, Sngamia or Dhorma of the same cloth formed the common dress most of the time. A piece of woolen fabric, called Fingma or Fingtoh, often used around the legs to escape the extreme cold. Hat, Tipi, knitted from the fur, was used too.

Later, clothing from other parts of the country in this region began to flourish. Another curious tradition that we have had in the recent past was that unmarried girls used to wear white pants showing their purity and non-responsibility for household activities. No, one never finds the tradition today. Although Goncha ‘s tradition of wearing continues in day-to-day life by a married lady.

Silk Route

In the early 20th century, foreign merchants such as Yarkandis, Khotanis, etc. entered Kargil via the ancient Silk Road, which then became a caravan transit center. The traders came from there to Kargil via Karakoram pass to Leh, and then to Skardu and Kashmir.

They brought with them new kinds of stuff like cotton and silk clothes, rice and other basic amenities in this region. The presence at Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum Kargil of a large number of mercantile items and other historically important artifacts particularly of Central Asia and British shows the region’s economic awakening in the modern sense. The presence of high standard luxury items such as opium, Gillette blade and branded soaps suggests both long inland trade and its use.

The citizens obey customary laws because of a deep belief in Shia faith. Some of them have been abandoned although others are still going. The criminal and civil disputes have been settled in accordance with traditional law.

It is said that if such laws were not able to settle the conflict, the ruler of the area gathered the village leader and unanimously sought a solution to the pending case and the same solution later became the customary law and often the same solution was engraved on the surrounding rocks in order to record the statute.

If any case had to be solved at any time then usually the reference of the said rock engraving was given. On a rock at Pashkum, popularly known by the name of Pashkum Brakbo rGya, evidence of the rock inscription is found. The framed customary law could not be abolished by people of the region or even ruler himself by any other.


Commonly, marriages were patrilocal and matrilocal. In both cases, the person who left the parents ‘house lost his / her right to the parents’ property where polyandry was not practiced the father’s property after his death passed on to his elder son and the younger ones were given their sole share of polyandry among Buddhists.

In the event that the boy had no offspring, the property went to the daughter and the property right to daughter was restricted. They were only having the right over their Stridana. In the case of no male heirs, the property right has been granted to the female heir. Even today the same pattern still persists.

Read also: The Chaqchan Mosque of Khaplu Baltistan


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