Elisa Read’s Travels in Ladakh and Baltistan in the 1920s and 1930s
The men are wearing the round homespun caps that are distinctive to Baltistan: men’s caps and clothes were left in the natural colour of the wool, but women’s hats and dresses were normally dyed. The top of the men’s heads is closely shaved whereas they carry long sidelocks over their ears: this hairstyle was commonplace in the first half of the 20th Century, but has since died out.
The Zoji La is the mountain pass that connects—or separates—the Kashmir Valley and the Dras region of Ladakh. At 3,500m it is relatively low by Himalayan standards, but it is notorious for heavy snow in winter. Even today it is closed to traffic for several months a year. This picture, which was taken near the western end of the pass, illustrates its precipitous nature. It also points to the effort that was required to maintain the road in the face of regular landslides. Successive British Joint Commissioners spent the summer months in Ladakh from 1871 to 1946 and, together with the Kashmir authorities, they shared responsibility for maintaining what was then one of the main arterial routes from the Indian plains to Central Asia (Rizvi 1999). The journey from Srinagar to Leh took approximately two weeks. From there the road continued to the north over the Karakoram mountains to Yarkand, Khotan and Kashgar in what was then known as Chinese Turkestan, now Xinjiang.
This photograph was taken in the Dras valley, just inside Ladakh from the Zoji pass. In this part of the route, mules and horses served as the main beasts of burden. Providing transport and portering services was an important source of income for villagers living near the road. It was also a source of oppression. Under the res (Tib,‘turn’) system they were obliged to take turns to provide transport for government officials and others provided with official permits. They received payment, but at relatively low rates, and they were obliged to provide this service even at times when labour was badly needed for agricultural work, for example during the harvest season.
This scene is from Kargil, Ladakh’s second town, which is approximately the same distance—eight days’ march in earlier times—from Leh, Srinagar and Skardu (Baltistan). The majority of its inhabitants are Shia Muslims. To judge by their clothing, the people in this image represent a variety of different groups. The man facing the camera in the middle distance may be a Buddhist. The figures behind him are wearing white turbans and may be traders from the Indian plains. Note the girl’s bare feet. She’s not the only one to have no shoes. One of the men sitting on the left—we can only see his legs—is in a similar condition.
This is the Balkhang gate at the entrance to Leh bazaar, which was demolished in the 1970s. The Jama Masjid, the main mosque of Leh, which dates back to the mid-17th century, is visible at the far end of the bazaar. The old man appears to be spinning wool as he walks. In the middle distance, we can see sun-dried bricks laid out in preparation for building work. On the left there is a pile of stones, presumably set aside for the same purpose. The British army officer Rupert Wilmot (Wilmot et al. 2014: 40) took a similar picture in 1931.
Moravian missionaries, originally from Germany, first visited Leh in 1855 and established a permanent station there in 1885 (see Bezterda 2014). This photograph was taken outside the old church building in Leh, which still exists, although there is now a larger modern church building beside it. The European figure at the top left is Bishop F.E. Peter (d. 1945), a Swiss missionary who served in the Himalaya from 1898 to 1936. The Ladakhi Christian scholar Joseph Gergan (1878-1946) is standing in the middle of the back row, carrying two books in his left hand. Gergan is best known for his contribution to the translation of the Bible into Tibetan. He also wrote a major work on the history of Ladakh. The European lady at the bottom left may be Julie Trumpler, also from the Central Asian mission, who stayed in Leh at the same time as Elisa Read. Together they helped out in the infant school and the mission dispensary for several months in 1927-1928 while the regular Moravian missionaries were on furlough. Note the traditional Ladakh headdresses (perag, be rag) worn by the three ladies standing below and to the right of Bishop Peter. A perag with a large number of turquoises served as a sign of status among Christian women as well as among Buddhists.
This scene is from Spituk (dPe thub) monastery, five miles from Leh, and shows part of the annual Gustor (dgu gtor) festival which takes place in the 11th month of the Tibetan year (Marko 1994). Over two days the Spituk monks perform cham (’cham) religious dances. A monk dressed in elaborate ceremonial robes is about to descend from the main temple into the courtyard for the Black Hat Dance (zhwa nag rnga’cham). On all sides crowds of villagers wait expectantly. To the right one can see the tall mast that stands in the center of all monastic courtyards, with a long prayer flag hanging from it.
These men are taking part in the Gochak (mgo phyag, lit. ‘head prostration’) procession, which takes place in the eighth, ninth, and tenth days of the lunar New Year. Pilgrims prostrate themselves on to the ground, then move forward, placing their feet at the place where their head had been. They then repeat the prostration, chanting as they do so, slowly moving forward. The procession follows a set route round the Namgyal Tsemo (rNam rgyal rtse mo), a 15th century temple standing on a hill above Leh Palace. It takes three days to complete the entire route. Note the homespun goncha (gon chas, robes) worn by the men. They may also be wearing rough aprons to protect their clothes as they lie on the ground. The earth in the foreground looks as though it has been ‘raked’, presumably by the movement of their bodies. The same ritual still takes place every year, and nowadays many hundreds of people take part, including women. Historically, individuals or small groups of pilgrims would cover vast distances across the Tibetan plateau in this manner, sometimes taking years to reach Lhasa or some other sacred site.
Two-humped Bactrian camels were valued for their strength and sure-footedness, and often used on the mountain routes from Ladakh and Baltistan across the Karakoram to Central Asia. These animals and their riders are representative of generations of Central Asian traders who travelled across the 5,500m Karakoram Pass to Ladakh. However, in an interview recorded in September 2019, John Read identified them with a particular group of Kazakh refugees who originated in Xinjiang and crossed into Ladakh via Tibet in the early 1940s. Many of these refugees subsequently migrated further to Turkey. There are still a few Bactrian camels in Nubra. Nowadays they carry tourists posing for their own photographs rather than more substantial loads.
From their distinctive headgear, we can see that these men belong to one of the Brokpa (’Brog pa, ‘Dard’) villages of Dah, Hanu, or Garkhon, which today lie close to the Line of Control between Indian- and Pakistani-administered territory. The Brokpa speak a distinct language that belongs to the Indo-European group of languages rather than a Tibetan-related dialect. These men are Buddhists, as we can see from the amulet worn by the man in the middle, but some neighbouring Brokpa communities are Muslim. It seems as though they are resting in the course of a journey. To the right we can see a ‘hookah’ pipe for smoking tobacco. They may have been carrying grain submitted to a nearby regional centre as a form of taxation.
Rafts made of inflated animal skins linked together with tree branches were used to cross the river Shyok opposite Khapalu. Similar rafts were still in use in the late 1980s when John Bray visited Khapalu, although by that time the animal skins were supplemented by inner tubes from lorry tires.
During the colonial period, and perhaps long before, one of the main exports from Baltistan was human labour. This Balti porter therefore represents a type that would have been familiar right across the Western Himalaya and Karakoram region, not only in Baltistan and Ladakh, but also in Kashmir and in British Indian hill stations such as Simla and Mussoorie. Balti men would often take on labouring jobs in these towns, especially during the winters when they had no agricultural work at home. According to an entry in a photo album belonging to the Read family, this man’s name is Ghulam Hussein. He appears to be carrying a wooden chest, bound to his back by ropes, a much less convenient arrangement that a modern rucksack.
This image shows the conditions with which the porters had to contend. Particularly during the winters, pack animals would have found it difficult to walk on snow, and human labour therefore remained essential. This picture was taken on the Deosai plateau between Baltistan and the Kashmir valley.
Our final image shows the Reads’ two children, John and Marguerite. Each child is wearing a solar topi, a form of protection that was then considered essential, especially in the more intense sunlight that one encounters at high altitudes. The scene is near the Reads’ home in Khapalu. In the background we can see the Hushe valley together with the Masherbrum mountain peak. The picture must have been taken in the early spring because we can see the first blades of wheat sprouting up in the field next to the two children. The small ridges in the field are designed to assist irrigation. In both Baltistan and Ladakh the distribution of water from mountain streams is carefully regulated by village leaders. The two children grew up speaking Balti and Urdu and, many decades later, John Read still remembers many of the words in these languages that he learnt as a child.
by John Bray, James Crowden, Hugh Rayner
These photographs were taken by the British missionary Elisa Henriette Read (née Messaz, 1898-1986) who served with the London-based Central Asian Mission in Northwest India between 1925 and 1945.
Elisa was born in Switzerland but served as a nurse in Austria at the end of World War One and then undertook further training in Guy’s Hospital in London. From mid-1927 until May 1928, she was attached as a volunteer to the Moravian Mission in Leh, Ladakh. Later in 1928 she married Alfred Read (1907-1978), who was also from the Central Asian Mission, in Srinagar (Kashmir). The couple then stayed briefly in Kargil, which lies half-way between Leh and Srinagar, before spending many years in Khapalu (Baltistan) together with their two children, John (b. 1931) and Marguerite (b. 1933). A third child, Kenneth, died in infancy.
Alfred had also studied in Guy’s Hospital and the couple combined missionary work with medical relief. At the same time, Alfred conducted pioneering research into the Balti language, and was the author of a book on Balti grammar (1934a), as well as a short collection of Balti proverbs (1934b).
Baltistan and Ladakh have much in common. Their mountainous landscapes are similar, and they are connected by the Indus and Shyok rivers. In both regions the spoken language is related to Tibetan, and they share an overlapping oral literature of songs, folk stories, and proverbs. From the 15th century CE onwards the people of Baltistan converted to Islam. During the pre-colonial period, the Buddhist kings of Ladakh fought a series of wars with the rulers of Baltistan. However, they also formed alliances and intermarried with the families of the same rulers. After 1846, both regions were governed as part of the combined princely state of Jammu & Kashmir within Britain’s Indian Empire. Since 1947 they have again been divided: Baltistan is administered by Pakistan, whereas Ladakh is now a Union Territory within the modern state of India.
The images presented here come from a set of 64 glass slides that were probably used to illustrate missionary lectures, and came up for auction in the UK in March 2019. John Bray, James Crowden, and Hugh Rayner made a joint purchase of the slides so that they could be made available to researchers. Hugh Rayner was subsequently able to meet John Read and we are grateful to him for further background information.
In this selection we present the photographs in a rough chronological sequence, starting with Elisa’s stay in Ladakh and continuing with images of Baltistan. We have chosen the images to illustrate the cultural diversity of these regions, as well as to highlight the many characteristics that they share in common.
John Bray ([email protected]) is an independent scholar currently based in Singapore. His areas of expertise include the 19th and 20th century history of Ladakh, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, with a particular focus on Christian missionaries, international diplomacy, and trade. He was President of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) from 2007 to 2015.
James Crowden ([email protected]), born 1954, first visited Ladakh in 1976 and spent a winter in Zanskar. He has been interested in Himalayan matters ever since. In 1974 he crossed the Hindu Kush on foot from Badakshan and traversed Nuristan. He is now a full-time writer and lives in Somerset (UK).
Hugh Rayner ([email protected]) is a photographer, publisher, antiquarian oriental bookseller, and photographic historian. He has travelled extensively in India, Nepal, Tibet, and the wider Himalayan regions for over 40 years, and is an obsessive collector of early Indian & Himalayan photography.
We are grateful to John Read for sharing information on his family’s life and work in Ladakh and Baltistan. We thank Dr Ken MacDonald for his detailed comments on the pictures taken in Baltistan.
Beszterda, Rafał. 2014. The Moravian Brethren and Himalayan Cultures. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Marko, Ana. 1994. ’Cham: Ritual as Myth in a Ladakhi Gompa. In Tantra and Popular Religion in Tibet. Edited by Geoffrey Samuel, Hamish Gregor and Elisabeth Stutchbury. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
Read, A.F.C. 1934a. Balti Grammar. London: Royal Asiatic Society
Read, A.F.C. 1934b. Balti Proverbs. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 7: 499-502.
Rizvi, Janet. 1999. Trans-Himalayan Caravans. Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Wilmot, Rupert, Roger Bates, and Nicky Harman. 2014. The Lost World of Ladakh: Early Photographic Journeys through Indian Himalaya, 1931-1934. Leh: Stawa Publications.