Exquisite and Traditional Perak Headdresses at The Karsha Gustor Festival, Zanskar

Travels With Sheila’s personal highlight of the Karsha Gustor Festival came when two young women were escorted into the courtyard dressed in full Tibetan regalia; wearing the rarely-seen, very heavy, turquoise peraks. Loaded down in Turquoise, Amber, Coral, Pearl, Silver, along with other traditional jewelry, it was a wonder they could even walk without toppling over. Many years ago, I considered buying one of these unique headdresses until told the cost; very expensive and becoming rarer all the time.

A perak traditionally signified the wealth of the mother who then passed it down to the oldest girl in the family when she married and left home to live with her husband. If the family was wealthy, they would make or buy additional headdresses for second and third daughters to have when they married. The more turquoise in a perak, the wealthier the family.

Perak and jewelry on Zanskari woman

jewelry details on Zanskari woman attending Karsha Gu-Stor Festival


These two young women were brides! A traditional bride in Ladakh wears a brocaded cape trimmed in white sheepskin over a burgandy woolen robe, the heavy perak on her head and all the “bling” she owns.  Escorted to a place of honor. they would join in a cultural dance later on.

brides and grooms at Karsha Gu-Stor Festival in Zanskar


A short while later, four young men entered and took their places next to the two brides that were supposedly the bride’s husbands. Everything became very foggy. Were these four men the polyandrous husbands of the two women? Polandry (the practice of having more than one husband at a time) is still practiced in remote pockets of Ladakh. I could not get a clear answer out of Stanzin. All he told me was they were newlyweds and this was sort of a “reception.” Just when I thought the masked dances were over (alas, just a momentary bit of happiness), the four bridegrooms walked into the center and did a little dance while older men draped them with kata after kata around necks. Many of the katas were handed up by Zanskari people in the crowd. (Kata scarves are part of a Buddhist tradition offering scarves as a blessing.)

four bridegrooms draped in "katas" at the Karsha Festival, Zanskar


You could barely see the men’s faces above all the katas before the dance was over.

back view of perak and shaw, Karsha Gu-Stor Festival, Zanskar

another view of newlyweds with peraks in Zanskar


The gorgeous peraks resemble a cobra’s head, and even have special meanings. The huge, hunks of Turquoise signify the status of the wearer. Nine rows for the Queen of Leh; seven rows for the more modern aristocracy; five for the marvels; and three for the lower ranks. Turquoise represents Buddhist deities that protect as well as guide the wearer through a dangerous human world.

Back to more masked dances and I was not the only bored person in the audience. A Zanskari woman on my right fell asleep with her head on the tourist in front of her while the man on my left, just stretched out in the dirt to sleep.

Zanskari local sleeping through the boring parts of the Karsha Festival


That was it. If they could sleep, we could leave. I needed lots of assistance to get off the jam-packed ledge and down the narrow stairs with a backpack on. If it hadn’t been for the very helpful Zanskari women who held on to me with a grip of steel, I would have flattened the crowds below me. Many others left before us, after us, and the dances continued for another hour. Three hours, and 12-15 masked dances are more than enough for non-Buddhists to sit through. (If you ever get a chance, try to attend the Tongren Festival in China. Totally different.)

An early dinner in preparation for the beyond early start tomorrow back to Leh. How does 4:00a sound? Followed by up to a 16-hour ride on those indescribable roads? That’s just Part One of the journey back to Leh… shoot me…


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