A woman’s headdress in Ladakh, called a perak, is often a stunning artistic achievement, and it provides a statement of her status, wealth, artistic sense, and history. Ravina Aggarwal, who wrote an outstanding book three years ago about the violence fostered by international conflicts in the region, has now written an article on Ladakhi headdresses which appears as a chapter in a fine, colorful book about the material culture of the district.
She writes eloquently about the variations in perak styles across Ladakh, what they have come to mean, and how their uses have changed over the past 30 years. “Like the turquoise of the river Indus that winds through the ochre deserts in the months of autumn and winter, the headdress stands out in stunning relief against the sober earthen-dyes of Ladakhi women’s robes” (p.57), she says.
Headdresses are used throughout Ladakh, though the names for them and their shapes vary in different areas. They are typically put together from pieces of dark fabric or leather, on which long rows of turquoise are stitched. The turquoise stones, trade items formerly gotten from sources in China, Tibet, and the Khotan area of Central Asia, are now obtained from markets in India. Turquoise stones were also fabricated by goldsmiths who were able to produce the most highly valued gems from gold, silver, copper, glass, and saltpeter. The number of rows of turquoise stones also may vary in different areas.
Rows of turquoise are often enhanced by a prominent ga’u, an amulet box sewed onto the center of the headdress. The outfit is further beautified by adding separate segments of decorated cloth. The perak is fastened onto a hairpiece made out of woolen braids, and the whole headdress is held in place on the owner’s head by silver chains and stiff ear-flaps.
The perak traditionally signified the wealth of the mother, which was passed along to her daughter when she married and left home to live with her husband. The family would make additional headdresses for second and third daughters when they married. In central Ladakh, a traditional bride was outfitted in white bangles, amber jewelry, conch shells, a brocaded cape, embroidered shoes, silver thigh ornaments, and the headdress draped over her body. Aggarwal provides numerous pictures, including one of a bride dressed for her wedding.
The headdress indicates the rank and economic status of the wearer. During the earlier period of the monarchy, the queens in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, wore headdresses with nine rows of turquoise beads, while today a woman with seven rows in Leh has a lot of status. In the smaller towns, headdresses with five rows are marvels, and lower ranking women often have three-row peraks. The quality of the brooch worn in the center of the headdress is another indicator of relative status: the queens in the past had brooches of gold.
In the traditional Ladakhi belief system, jewels propitiated the deities symbolically, and they provided abstract representations of the Buddha. The headdresses thus had important symbolic and ritual significance. The perak, according to Aggarwal, identifies the woman’s body with the lu, the subterranean, serpentine deities that protect the human world. Since the headdresses channel divine protection to humanity, their owners had to wear them at public and ceremonial functions, particularly when they visited festivals or monasteries.
The women carried their personal wealth on their heads; they only took them off at night, though they still kept on their braids and earflaps while they slept. The braids were only undone once a month when another woman, a specialist in performing proper rituals, came to unwind, wash and clean hair. The Ladakhis believed that the headdresses should be worn whenever women crossed streams or even went outdoors during the growing season, so the soil and woods would not be harmed. Loose, exposed hair on a woman was considered to be a sign of overt sexuality, something women avoided.
The perak is still worn by Ladakhi women as a symbol of traditional culture. Public performances, cultural exhibits, and photos prepared for tourists often emphasize the women wearing their headdresses with their ornate turquoise ornamentation. Some villages require women to wear them at celebrations and festivals, and women who own them, but come without wearing them, can be fined. The author comments on the fact that the burden of exhibiting the cultural legacy seems to fall more heavily on the women.
Aggarwal emphasizes that in Ladakhi Buddhist households, the custom of wearing a perak still prevails to some extent. When the material of a headdress wears out, the owner will make a new one by sewing the turquoise bits onto new fabric. Women in the Muslim households now wear veils rather than peraks. The small population of Christians in Leh wore peraks until the 1960s, and in a few Muslim villages women continued wearing them up to the 1980s.
But customs are changing. Except in a few remote villages, young women no longer receive peraks as soon as families can afford them. Young women may have them, but wear them only on special occasions. Women who no longer live in polyandrous households and are employed outside the home have no need to wear their wealth on their heads. Primogeniture laws have changed, more women live in nuclear families, and a headdress is no longer a woman’s most valuable possession.
Women who are increasingly influenced by the outside media wear their hair in contemporary styles that conform to changed, modern living patterns. While the perak no longer represents the wealth of Ladakhi women, the rows of turquoise still display “their hopes and aspirations, their heartaches, their travails, their social bonds and fractures” (p.64).
The large-format, colorful book containing Aggarwal’s essay has eleven photos of peraks, and it is easy to find additional photos of them by doing an image search on a Web search engine.
Aggarwal, Ravina. 2005. “The Turquoise Headdress of Ladakh.” In Ladakh: Culture at the Crossroads, edited by Monisha Ahmed and Clare Harris, p.56-65. Mumbai: Marg Publications