Although there are many inequalities in rural Ladakh, the Ladakhi villagers have a variety of social institutions that try to minimize the stresses that differing social statuses can produce.
A chapter by Fernanda Pirie in a recent book on Ladakh explores the role of power and politics in rural villages, particularly the implications of the dral-go, the way villagers line themselves according to rank on most social occasions. Some studies of the dral-go have prompted observers to assume that the Ladakhis have a highly stratified society. Pirie argues to the contrary. In most villages there are few, if any, members of the traditional aristocracy or the traditional outcaste groups, and the remaining people, the drongpa majority, line up in the dral-go according to age and gender.
The village that the author studied, Photoksar in rural central Kadakh, has 200 residents, all of whom are drongpa. In the typical social line-up (preparing for a dance, gathering at a home for socializing, whatever), the onpo, the astrologer, normally is at the head of the line. He is followed by the amchi, the Tibetan medicine practitioner, then the goba, the headman of the village. They are followed by a line for men and the one for women with people arranged strictly according to age. The relative wealth of the villagers is ignored.
Thus the dral-go suggests that while order is imposed on all social occasions, universal ideas of age and gender are much more important than any kinds of inequalities. The richer and poorer households are not acknowledged in the village line-up, so the richer households do not gain status on social occasions. Furthermore, the author maintains, poorer households have the same obligations as richer ones.
Gender differences do exist within the households. Men go to village meetings and women do not; older members of the households have more responsibilities than younger ones. The oldest man in each household has his own special responsibilities. But the day to day differences are not terribly significant in the life of the household, and while some tasks are gendered, everyone is likely to help out when necessary. Household work is fairly evenly divided between men and women, and women are free to speak out on any subject. There is little expression of superiority or authority.
At the level of village politics, the onpo and the amchi exert no particular influence over village meetings and have no special political authority. The goba organizes the meetings and represents the village to outsiders, but his position requires no special qualifications. It is rotated among households and is considered a duty for men in the village. Every household must take its turn.
There is, of course, special respect for certain individuals who are more influential and have more effective things to say at meetings. The amchi in Photoksar, who served as goba, was clever and talented in his work for the village, but he strongly resisted attempts to get him to retain his leadership role. “It was someone else’s turn,” he protested (p.383).
The adult men, the yulpa, represent the political authority of the village. In their meetings, they decide on village taxes, festivals, new rules, and water rotation matters. If the goba cannot settle a dispute, the conflict goes to the yulpa. As part of conflict settlements, meetings might impose fines on individuals who have fought. The yulpa seeks to ensure that good relations are restored after conflicts have been resolved. Votes can be taken, but in practice they rarely are—decisions are made by consensus of the adult males.
Pirie suggests that anti-hierarchical structures in the village and the practice of rotating power so it can’t be concentrated on single individuals are similar to the approaches of other societies in the greater Tibetan region. While those other Tibetan societies, such as in Mustang and among the Tromo, have different political processes, they similarly devalue status and hierarchy.
Analyzing the history of rural Ladakh, she argues that the era of the kings and aristocracy never really penetrated to the village level. Although the monarchy established an overall social and political stability, the villages tended to reject the power of local leaders. The villagers, during the period of the monarchy, retained control over their own lives and prevented the rise of dominating minorities from within.
Pirie emphasizes that the resolution of disputes and the exercise of power is seen as a local matter in Ladakh. People do not view central law courts as being important sources of justice. Conflict resolution and justice are local village matters.
Villagers also tend to disregard outside influence and suggestions as interference. They are happy to take money offered by government agencies and NGOs, but they resist the development work of the NGOs. They firmly, if passively, avoid making changes suggested by development workers. People “refuse to recognize the authority of the development workers as specialists who can tell them how to live their lives,” the author indicates (p.391).
Pirie makes it clear that changes are occurring in the remote Ladakhi villages—but slowly. She personally got involved in a local issue when she encouraged a village man with advanced educational qualifications to apply for a position as a teacher in the community school. At first the people of Photoksar seemed enthusiastic about one of their own enjoying a good position, but within a few weeks the villagers were complaining about him on very trivial grounds. Apparently they were jealous of his position, a higher one than their own, a factor that threatened to disturb the traditional social equality.
Pirie, Fernanda. 2005. “The Impermanence of Power: Village Politics in Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet.” In Ladakhi Histories: Local and Regional Perspectives, edited by John Bray, p.379-394. Leiden and Boston: Brill