Ladakh and Zanskar, part 2, in the land of Chang and…more Chang


I had stopped the last article I wrote about Ladakh and Zanskar at the point where we came back from the trek, ready for the wedding (though I’m not quite sure you can ever be ready for such a thing as a zanskari wedding). This was a 3 days celebration, which is the “shortest long wedding” you can do, some of them last up to 7 days. I don’t know how the people can last so long without passing out, but they indeed seem to have an extraordinary resilience, especially for drinking and dancing.

So here is how a traditional wedding takes place in Zanskar, or as traditional as it can be, when the bride is from Switzerland.

We started, the day before, with the preparation: the women had to prepare at least two chapattis, those flat round breads, (they are much thicker in Zanskar) für every person attending or helping at the wedding. So they started at 4 a.m, building fires in the front yard, and we all sat together (that is, we joined them when we woke up, we are not that strong:-), some of us making the dough, others forming chapatis (or in our case, something vaguely resembling the surface of the moon, with craters, holes and mountains, that made them laugh a lot), the rest of us cooking it on the wooden fire. We also tried to help build up two “party grounds”, outside the groom house and the bride house – actually also one of the houses from the groom family, but an exceptional wedding deserves exceptions – made out of old parachutes from the Indian army, a few strings here and there to keep it standing, and every thing was almost ready, if you include the vast quantities of food being prepared simultaneously to feed the whole village plus every one invited (400, 500 people? Nobody knows exactly) for three days. The alcool, that is Chang, a locally made “beer”made out of barley , slightly sour, and arak, which is Chang once it has been distilled, and tastes like nothing much more than pure alcool, had all been made in advance, you don’t leave such an crucial part of the wedding to the last minute.

The actual wedding started the next morning. In Zanskar, the bride and groom must stay in their respective houses, and 7 men from the groom extended family, or just the village, come to get the bride-to-be and bring her to her husband’s home. They came by horse, all the seven wearing splendid gold dresses and hats, having made a few stops on the way to drink a bit of arak, of course, and we’re preceded by 5 “heplers”, whose role it was to check that everything was in order for their arrival.
When they arrived, they were received by the bride’s father and uncle (plus, in our case, some ladakhi men playing the part of members of the bride’s family, so that at least some of them could speak and sing), with arak and Chang, of course (this is a recurring theme, you’ll have guessed, unless mentioned otherwise you can safely assume we’re always drinking Chang and eating something, no matter what time it is), and all of them started a long song, or psalmody, with questions and answers about the wedding : what has the family of the bride offered, how will the groom treat her, etc,.. all of this while exchanging money for the wedding. We, as friends of the bride, had been given the role to protect her: we could whip the 7 men with branches if they didn’t give enough money (and that we did, I assure you!) and hid with her under a blanket while the men had to find the right one. We were all wearing traditional kontche (a long yak jacket), dresses, and hats, but the bride had the parak, a 10 kg head jewellery piece embroidered with turquoise and silver, so they did manage to find her.

After this, we all joined the party ground, there was eating, drinking, dancing, a blessing of the wedding by buddhist monks, and some more drinking and eating. They all left on horses, the bride, her father, the 7 men, to the groom house, and there, after eating with the same spoon, which meant they’re officially wedded, the singing and dancing and drinking began again.
Now ladakhi dancing, for those who haven’t seen it in their nearest nightclub, is a very slow (and to our western minds not very exciting, after the third hour or more) dance, with small steps and complicated movements of the arms to go with it. We had practiced it on the trek but still we managed to make them laugh a lot, probably not out of sheer surprise at how good our dancing was, and they also asked us for a Swiss dance, which we hadn’t practiced, and indeed didn’t know any traditional dance. So we’ve improvised something that was probably a mix between a valse and la macarena, but fortunately it was far too fast for their liking, and we returned to the ladakhi dance, until the end of the night.

The next two days were again made of much drinking, eating, and dancing, complicated only by rain, which is normally very rare at this time of year in Ladakh – and indeed in any season, this is a dry place – which destroyed the party ground, and it started pouring inside the houses, that aren’t built for that kind of weather. We did some flood-rescue activities while the villagers tended to their harvest, which was still lying in the fields and was threatening to get lost because of the rain, and then started again with the ceremony, only a little taken aback when we went out at the end of the second night to find that rain had become snow, and that everything was covered in 10 centimeters of fresh snow, on September 22. Everybody assured us that rain for a wedding is a sign of luck, so snow even more so, and we continued the dancing, offering of presents (which always come with a “katak”, the white scarf they offer for greetings, so by the end of the night the bride and groom had disappeared under a white mountain of kataks, and we were all struggling to breathe at 300 people in the one small room that hadn’t been turned into a lake by the rain) and drinking, or rather trying to refuse yet another glass of Chang, despite their very insisting offering.

By the third day we had become almost masters in the art of refusing food and chang without sounding too impolite, or so we thought, and we had lots of experience for the after party, because the eating and drinking continued as we were invited by each of the groom’s uncles and relatives, and there was even Chang for breakfast.

After a few days, everybody left again,through the same bumpy road towards Leh, but it was difficult to leave Zanskar, it’s amazing hospitality, and the most impressive wedding we ever assisted to. With any luck though, we’ll be back soon for the one year anniversary!


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