Three women of Ladakh, India

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Matho Monastery is home of the Matho Museum project

How a French Thangka restoration expert, a Buddhist nun and the founder of a women’s fair trade store are reviving Ladakh’s culture

LADAKH IS THE NORTHERN most region of India, a high-altitude desert of stark beauty, arid landscapes, Tibetan influenced culture and mountain passes that can get snowed in almost all year round. It’s a dream destination for photographers, Buddhists, trekkers, motorcyclists, people interested in Tibetan culture and those on the hippie trail. The landscapes are vast, the sky moody and the international borders loom. It’s place that gets seared into the souls of many who make the effort to visit.

I went to Ladakh in September, just at the end of the tourist season, with my eyes open — to witness the beauty of the landscape and discover another face of India. I toured the monasteries and markets, visited chortens and chai shops.

Though I loved what I saw of Leh and Ladakh, it was the women who interested me. I’d heard Ladakh was a good place to be a woman in India; that women have more power and autonomy there than other places “down south.” While I was in Ladakh, I met and interviewed three women, one foreign, two local, who are contributing immensely to the local culture and the livelihood of women.

Preserving the past

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Nelly Rieuf at the Matho Monastery museum site

Nelly Rieuf, Matho Museum Project

My second day in Ladakh. With driver Tenzing and guide Tashi, we drove along a flat, dry desert, ringed with jagged mountains, past lonely chortens, grazing yaks and wild donkeys. I couldn’t breathe deeply because of the high altitude, but I inhaled the austere beauty. It looked like Tibet and felt like the roof of the world.

After about two hours we reached 500-year-old Matho Monastery outside of Leh. Matho Monastery, up a hill above Matho Village, is a small serene place whipped by winds and home to 30 monks. I toured the ornate temple and the museum that contained a snow leopard skin, the hat and mask of an Oracle and religious ornaments made from human bones and skulls, and exulted in the panoramic views of the Indus Valley and distant mountains.

Then, as I was leaving, I noticed some foreign women painting flower pots, and they told me they were volunteers, living at the monastery in a guest house, and part of a restoration and museum project. They pointed to a row of windows above the temple and said I should go up and take a look at the workshop that employed local women and foreign volunteers. So I did. And there I met Nelly Rieuf and her team.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Nelly Rieuf working with one of the local restorers

Nelly is a young woman from France, and though only in her late 20s, she’s already a Thangka restoration expert and has lived and worked in India and Nepal for more than six years. She learned the art of Thangka restoration from her aunt when she was only 18, in Paris. Thangkas are paintings on cotton, or silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity or mandala.

For about four years, Nelly has been spending part of each year here at Matho Monastery, restoring Thangkas with the help of women from Matho village, whom she has trained; and acting as project manager for the Matho Museum initiative. I saw several of the local women, working meticulously on ancient, intricate images. When I asked why women, and not men, Nelly said the women are more reliable. She also employs foreigners, as researchers, and I saw three of them lined up against a wall, working on laptops.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

A local woman restoration expert

Nelly was lured to Matho Monastery from Nepal, where she lives in Mustang with her Nepalese husband, by the promise of treasure. She was told the monastery had six, unopened boxes of art and artifacts. When she opened them, she found, among other things, one of the oldest Thangkas in Ladakh. “It’s Kashmiri style, totally unique, from about 1150,” Nelly told me.

But the Thangka restoration is only part of Nelly’s work at Matho. She is also helping to build a museum, to hold the six boxes of treasures. We walked through the construction site, at the back of the monastery, which Nelly said will be ready by June 2015. Even here some of the workers are local women.

I told Nelly how impressed I was by her work, and her team, and all they are doing to preserve the culture. She’s very passionate about the project, and also realistic about daily life.

“It’s not an easy place to live,” Nelly said. “We have no proper toilet, we have to bathe in the icy cold river and in winter there is very little food, just rice, potatoes and dal. But I am surrounded by the best of people. The women from the village are proud of their work here, they see themselves as protectors of their culture. They have hope and confidence, they are earning, they can now consider buying a sewing machine. It makes me feel emotional, to think I have made a difference.”

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Nelly Rieuf in the restoration workshop at Math Monastery

Nelly walks me part way down the barren hill to where my car is waiting. The wind whips our hair around our faces, and dries our eyes. Mine might otherwise be moist at meeting this energetic, frank and seemingly fearless young woman. Nelly lives in harsh conditions, doing work she loves, and inspiring many people around her to trust in her and her team, to believe in the work and its value, and to join her in helping preserve and protect the unique and beautiful culture of Ladakh. She is giving local women undreamt-of opportunities to learn and earn and, perhaps most of all, leading a life of meaningful work and passion. Such people, such lives, inspire us all.

If you want donate or to get involved, Nelly is looking for volunteers, check the website for more information.

The Matho Museum Project from Luma.Launisch on Vimeo.

Giving women hope

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Tsering Dolma at Ladakh Nature Products

Tsering Dolma, Ladakh Nature Products

It took two or three visits to the main market in Leh before we found Ladakh Nature Products open. It’s not easy to find, especially as the main market was torn apart for roadwork. We walked gingerly on haphazard planks strew across crevasses in the road, past withered ladies in shawls, Israeli hippies in flowing harem pants and bands of Muslim youths raising money to help the Kashmiri flood victims.

The market is a long L-shaped street lined with cafes, street vendors and shops selling the usual assortment of scarves, bangles, bags and turquoise jewelry you find in all Indian tourist towns. Almost none of it is made in Ladakh. Above the street, the imposing 17th century Leh Palace, etched against the mottled sky, gives the scene its distinctive Himalayan atmosphere.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Leh Palace towers over the main market

Finally at the end of the L, we find Ladakh Nature Products. It’s a very small shop, tucked under a sloping roof, and the shelves are jammed with wool products — from hats to shawls, from toys to slippers. All of the products are fair trade, made by rural women using local materials and traditional skills.

Sitting just inside, working with a felting awl on her lap, is Tsering Dolma, a slim, elegant woman who is the driving force behind the store and the Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise.

Tsering founded the Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise in 2012 to help empower Ladakhi women and preserve Ladakhi culture, largely through training women artisans. The store opened in June 2013 to retail the products the women make. Profits are put back into the organization to train and support women artisans across Ladakh.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Some of the fair trade fibre arts on sale at the store

I sat down carefully on a stack of felt to talk to Tsering Dolma about the social enterprise organization she runs, and how it came to be. Through my guide Tashi, who interpreted both my questions and her answers, I learned that she worked for 20 years with rural woman, in ecological development groups, with an organization called Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG).

Tsering has been training Ladakhi women in fibre arts since 2001 — teaching skills such as spinning, knitting, weaving, sewing, felting and natural dyeing. She told me that traditional culture is disappearing rapidly in Ladakh, and without this kind of organized effort it could be lost in a generation.

It seemed only natural to Tsering to start her own organization, and continue to build on the work she was doing with LEDeG. The Ladakhi Rural Women’s Enterprise currently keeps about 70 women, from all over Ladakh, busy making fibre arts to be sold at the Ladakh Nature Products store.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Tsering Dolma holding two pashmina shawls

While Tsering is telling me the story of her social enterprise, she also shows me some of the products. I ask to see pashmina shawls, of course, and she takes two from the shelf, both in natural colours of beige and off-white, very simple, with no embroidery. These are all she has left, and they are expensive — about $150 each.

If you don’t know, pashmina wool comes from the underside of a Himalayan mountain goat, and is closely related to cashmere, a wool that comes from Kashmir, a neighbouring region to Ladakh. Pashmina is said to be a finer wool than cashmere. Unfortunately, the word pashmina has come to be associated with a wide range of shawls — some that have no wool in the mix at all. If someone is trying to sell you a “real pashmina” for $10, it is not a real pashmina. It is just a shawl made from wool, silk, a synthetic fibre, or a blend.

I am very tempted to buy one of the shawls, as I know for sure they are real pashmina, and luxuriously soft to the touch. But I balk at the expenditure and instead buy a pashmina toque for about $20. I also pick up a bottle of apricot oil, for dry skin.

I have to agree with the Ladakh Nature Products website: “Leh is full of souvenir shops, but Ladakh Nature Products stands out as an authentic local gem!” And so does Tsering. It’s heartening to meet women like her, and see how they are bolstering the local economy, giving women opportunities and preserving traditional skills. If you go to Leh, be sure to save your souvenir money, and seek out Ladakh Nature Products.

Gender equality in religion

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Dr. Tsering Palmo, right, with a top student

Dr. Tsering Palmo, Ladakh Nuns Association

Awhile ago, I read a blog post by Shivya Nath of The Shooting Star about her visit to a nunnery near Leh, called Living with the nuns of Ladakh. I loved this post, and wanted to meet the young nuns myself when in Ladakh. But I didn’t note the name of the nunnery, or place, thinking I would look it up on the internet once I was in Ladakh.

I was in for a shock. There was no internet access in Ladakh whatsoever due to the terrible floods ravaging Kashmir, and my prepaid phone was barred from cellular access due to security concerns. I was completely unplugged in Ladakh, living off the communications grid, open to only the people, places, ideas and experiences in front of me. It was exhilarating … but it meant I didn’t get to the Thiksey nunnery Shivya wrote about.

Instead, I went to meet and chat with Dr. Tsering Palmo of the Ladakh Nuns Association about the experience of being a Buddhist nun in Ladakh. She is a cheerful woman with a robust laugh and obvious strength of character. In a quiet, modest way, she instills in the visitor instant respect — much in the same way as the Dalai Lama.

Dr. Palmo founded the Ladakh Nuns Association (LNA) in 1996. It was given encouragement from His Holiness when he visited Ladakh in 1999, and “expressed his support for nuns, and stressed the need for the uplifting of nuns in Ladakh.”

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

The Tibetan Buddhist temple at Matho Monastery

Sitting in her LNA office, in a building that also houses a training centre, Dr. Palmo explained to me that nuns do not get the same opportunities and support that monks receive. The LNA is trying to rectify the imbalance, and both keep the tradition of nunneries alive and give the nuns more opportunities for education, especially in traditional Tibetan medicine.

“We’ve been a neglected group,” Dr. Palmo said. “There were no facilities for nuns, no training, no accommodation at temples (unlike for monks). And many nuns were also exploited. Some families just want one daughter to become a nun so they make her into a housemaid. We established this organization to change these traditions.”

Dr. Palmo said that women in her community traditionally become Tibetan medicine practitioners, and the LNA is encouraging this field of study. They offer training for women and health clinics to the community — and she is especially interested in mental and emotional health.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

Prayer wheels at Matho Monastery

“We are lacking in people who listen from their hearts,” she said. “We want to offer a space for every woman to come and receive treatment for emotional and spiritual health. It is a Buddhist practise to listen. It’s important for us to develop compassion within ourselves, so we can listen to students, and try to transform negative thinking.”

I am very moved by her words, and ask her if the LNA offers any opportunities for foreign volunteers. “Yes, we welcome tourists to share their knowledge and experience,” she responds enthusiastically. “We are interested in having volunteers with medical skills, and softer skills too, to come and teach us. They can also stay in the two-room guesthouse if they want.”

If you want to learn more about the many activities of the vibrant Ladakh Nuns Association, and how you can help (you can donate, volunteer or contribute to a scholarship program), visit the website.

I left Dr. Palmo’s office, and Ladakh, uplifted as much by the soaring hearts and spirits of these three remarkable women as by the crisp mountain air and soaring Himalayan peaks.

Monastery, Ladakh, India, Buddhist, mountain, art, culture, travel, tourist, tourism

View of Indus Valley from Matho Monastery

Note: Thank you to India Tourism for giving me the hospitality to visit the Ladakh region.

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28 Responses to Three women of Ladakh, India

  1. Tushar December 29, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    Ladakh tour pending since two years. Maybe next year with motrobike. Wooo Hoooo.. 🙂

  2. Anita December 29, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    I am very happy to see this ..Your information is good for us.I also try to preserve and giving proper respect to our art and culture..My humble respect convey those ladies..and wish you also…

  3. Anita December 29, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    Nice work.

  4. Praveen December 30, 2014 at 2:39 am #

    Beautiful work and great women

  5. Deepika December 30, 2014 at 2:53 am #

    Some interesting person once I met told me “On your travels, you will meet REAL people.” How true! Isn’t it? 🙂
    Deepika recently posted..[Photo Memory]-A love affair to rememberMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      And sometimes on our travels we meet REAL INTERESTING people 🙂

      Yes, I agree, the people we meet while travelling is about 90% of the experience. Food and beauty make up the other 10%, ha.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Serendipity in Sri LankaMy Profile

  6. tanveer December 30, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    liked reading this post about women who are restoring the thangka in Matho Monastery and preserving the heritage of ladakh. i m proud of Tsering Dolma & all women of ladakh who are very hard working.
    tanveer recently posted..Nomadic travel in ladakhMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks Tanveer, I am proud of them too. There are amazing women all over the world, doing this kind of good work, and so often they are not acknowledged. Thanks for noticing.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Mirabai Expedition 1: Lost in VrindavanMy Profile

  7. bjp purvanchal December 30, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    That is great information.It’s really great post.
    bjp purvanchal recently posted..PM calls the incident, an act of inhumanity which is deeply unfortunateMy Profile

  8. Moon January 2, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    Truly inspirational! Hats off to these three women working in adversities with so little resources available. So much for the love of art and culture! Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories.
    Moon recently posted..Blogging – 2014 in reviewMy Profile

  9. arena leo January 2, 2015 at 8:08 am #

    Its really a great post as it inspire us to be like these women who are still making alive there culture form so long time.Thanks for great post.

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Thanks for your comment Arena. It is inspiring to find out about women like these, who are following their passions, and their consciences. Good luck with your journey.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..My seventh trip to India beginsMy Profile

  10. Shipra Day January 29, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    Nice post. Great job. Really inspiring……………….:)

  11. Rajesh Mishra February 2, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    Great Mariellen.. lovely and inspiring post…
    It helped me a lot to understand to traveler and travel pattern and how we should promote Ladkah..
    we work as a bridge between traveler and tour operator.
    Thanks and Keep it up….

  12. Fahad Amir March 13, 2015 at 4:02 am #

    Empowerment of women in any work is very important to grow their talent. Women play an integral role in cultural building and traditions presentation. Women greatly do this work for others and make their lives fruitful. Your experience of Ladakh India is really tremendous to extract some good ideas. Great work of 3 women, it’s really awesome.

    Fahad Amir recently posted..10 Most Affordable Travel Destinations in the WorldMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

      Thanks so much for your comment Fahad. It has been said many times, and research has proven it — that educating and empowering women is the single best thing you can do to help a community, or region, or country progress and prosper.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo essay: Celebrating the Buddha in IndiaMy Profile

  13. saloni March 30, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    hiii i am saloni from new delhi. i visited ladakh 4 years ago n m truly in love with this place.i really want to learn about ladakhi handlooms and weaving.can u please suggest me something

  14. Pravat April 8, 2015 at 6:03 am #

    I visited Ladak Last time in Winter, It is India Coldest place, It is Beautiful tourist Place.
    Pravat recently posted..Weekend Trip from Delhi Within 300 Km Jim Corbett Nation ParkMy Profile

  15. Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar March 8, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    Wonderful story. Now I know some of the people whom I have to meet when I go to Ladakh 🙂
    Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar recently posted..Unsustainable development, heritage and environment of DamanMy Profile

  16. Shubham Mansingka March 9, 2016 at 5:05 am #

    Great story from Matho. One of the gems of all the monasteries in Ladakh.

  17. Elen Turner April 13, 2016 at 12:42 am #

    Thanks very much for this post–I’m planning on spending the summer in Ladakh, and I’ve been finding it difficult to get much information other than the regular guide book stuff. This post is a great alternative to that.

  18. Aariajohn July 30, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    The tales of the three women is an interesting narrative to read and visit Leh and Ladakh.
    Mariellen, appreciate you for the post by which you have brought their stories into light. And you did it like a CNN journalist.

    Though I came across you blog before, I used simply have a glance. But now, I take time to read( or borrowing Dr. Palmo words, giving ear to listen) your interesting stories of India.

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