Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


A weaver in Benaras sits at his pit loom meticulously creating a textile piece of Mahakala, the god of protection for Buddhists.

A lama at the festival (’cham) at Hemis monastery performs the religious dance, the Mahakala image on his apron (pang-kheb) gazing out at the devotees as he pirouettes around the courtyard.

The two descriptions given above demonstrate the beginning and end of the journey of silkbrocades from Benaras to Leh. This paper looks at the historical context of the trade in silkbrocades from Benaras to Leh, and discusses how this trade first started. It presents how these fabrics are made in Benaras and discusses their various uses in Ladakh. Finally, it examines the contemporary status of the trade and the continued importance of silk-brocades in the lives of Buddhist Ladakhis.

Silk-brocade in Ladakh

Ladakh lies embedded in the mountains of the Karakoram in the north-west, the Himalaya in the south-west, and the Trans-Himalaya at its core. From the tenth century the Namgyal dynasty ruled over Ladakh, till the country was annexed by Zorawar Singh in 1834 and came under the jurisdiction of the Dogras, the Hindu rulers of Jammu. Ladakh was ruled by the Dogras up to 1947, and was never directly governed by the British. After India’s independence, Ladakh became a part of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The two main towns of Ladakh are Leh and Kargil. Buddhist Ladakhis are concentrated in Leh District, Muslims in Kargil District.

Lying at the crossroads of high Asia, Ladakh was situated squarely between some of the great mercantile towns of south and central Asia (Rizvi 1983: 75). Trade flourished there, from the time the Namgyal dynasty was established in Ladakh to modern times. Silk-brocades were among the most prestigious of textiles that entered Ladakh through trade. The high cost of these fabrics made them luxury textiles. As symbols of status their use was restricted to the royal family, nobility and the clergy.