Crafting a Legacy
Amay bomo nang dzom-pa’i gYu-zhung mGo-gang yod
Ches-pa’i Kunzes nang dzom-pa’i Thug-dMar mGo-gang yod
gYu-zhung mGo-gang taks-te lama tso mJal-de ru chen
Thug-dmar mGo-gang taks-te sang-ryyas tsho mJal-de ru chen
Lus la na-tsha ma-sal rTsa-ba’i lama mKhyen
Tshe-’dir bar-chhad ma-sal Ngari Tsang sPrul-sku mKhyen
(To suit the honour of mother’s daughter, [she] has a head full of turquoise
To suit the honour of lovely Yangzes, [she] has a head full of the precious stones of Thugmar
With head full of turquoise, I go to see the Lama
With head full of Thugmar, I go to see the Buddha
May my body be free of diseases, [my] root teacher!
May there be no hindrance to my life, the exalted Ngari Tsang Tulku)
Sixty-five-year-old Tsering Dolker sings this song while diligently working on a thick red fabric (zurlen) covered with chunky turquoise stones. She pokes hard at it with a needle while sitting at a client’s home at Housing Colony in Leh, where I meet her on a cold January evening. In Ladakhi culture, the perak — a traditional ornamental headdress for a woman — signifies her social status and is meant to add to her grace: it is customary for a bride to wear one on her wedding day. The hooded forepart and elongated back of the perak make women’s silhouettes snake-like, merging with the slender curves of the sulma (traditional women’s overdress) and symbolising their connection to the serpent protectors.
Dolker comes from Mangyu village in the Sham region of Ladakh. When she was a young girl, apart from singing and dancing whenever she could, she collected pebbles of the same size and colour every time she took the family’s livestock to graze in the mountains. She would then carefully arrange the pebbles on rock surfaces according to their similarities. Her creations would invariably be destroyed by the young boys and shepherds who passed by the pastures.
Dolker first learned the art of assembling turquoise pieces into symmetrical lines from her mother, Sonam Putith, and she began making peraks professionally at the age of 33. Since then, she has prepared a record 1,414 of them.
She explains, “On average, it takes around 315 turquoise pieces of different sizes and shapes to make one perak. These are usually arranged in seven lines from the side of the forehead to the end of the spine. Nowadays, you do not get quality turquoise, or even if the texture and colour is okay, you know by the weight that it has been produced with coloured flour and kneaded into the required shape.” To illustrate, she runs her fingers through the bright blue lines of the perak that she is renewing. She then points to the stones that she has removed because of their lower quality. Her face creases into an expression of bafflement as she inspects the poor workmanship and the cardboard (instead of a hardened paste of boiled leather) at the base. Finally, she says, “How do you expect somebody to wear a perak made with cardboard? It’s shameful and disgraceful.” Dolker fondly recalls the superb-quality lining and turquoise of the finest perak she has finished — it was for the wife of a prominent Rinpoche of Ladakh.
The turquoise is always organised into an odd number of lines, which (along with the size), vary according to the woman’s age and position in society. By the mid-20th century, the queen’s had nine rows. The “face” of the perak begins with the dhunhyu or frontal turquoise piece, which is the largest one. As you move down the rows, you will see a box amulet with a silver cover, usually plated in gold, hanging from either side. In the centre, a striking kau (or a flat pentagonal amulet made of gold or gold-plated silver and sometimes encrusted with other precious stones) is placed right above the fold where the perak bends over the head. Long, wool braids (lanbu) are attached to the sides to hold the headgear in place. In the past, thinly braided yak hair would be sewn directly into the base to allow the wearer to adjust it to her convenience. An oversized black flap, or tsaru, is attached to either side of the perak. They serve two primary functions: protecting the ears and adding a touch of elegance. The tsaru is made from lambskin, with the woolly part on the outside. The wearer’s ears are also usually embellished with delicate lines of strung pearls (along).
Dolker informs me that a perak worn before marriage is known as a pandap. A woman who has married off her daughters holds on to the leftover, unused turquoise pieces from the preparation of the garment that has been passed down — to her eldest daughter in most cases. These gemstones are then laid in three rows, to create a smaller perak or yuktil.
There’s a twinge of disappointment in Dolker’s voice as she says, “Nowadays, women do not mind or care about going bare-headed and bare-backed while passing monasteries where deities are housed. In the past, they would be criticised for being so ‘poorly dressed’ in the vicinity of a monastery. That’s why only women who wear the perak and bok (a cape made of goat skin or silk) are allowed to welcome great monks or personalities.”
Dolker points to the various tools she uses, including copper binding wire, the metal gear to protect the pointer finger, cutter for the boiled animal skin which binds the lambskin to the base of the tsaru and the perak, nylon wool and scissors. Each turquoise piece needs to be bound or pecked six times to ensure that it remains firmly in place for several generations. I wonder if she intends to pass on this art to her daughters, and she tells me that she wants to teach anyone who is willing to learn — her daughters find it interesting but lack the patience to perform the necessary tasks. A single perak can take her quite a bit of time to make. She clarifies: “A person learning to assemble a perak must be curious and very patient. If it’s a summer month, two whole days are consumed in assembling it. And in the winter, it stretches to three or four days since the cold does not favour solitude for focused work alone.”
Dolker’s client and host offers us tea with khura (a sweetened noodle snack that is also called khapsay in Tibetan). She shows us a red polythene bag holding the batch of substandard turquoise that had been on the perak now being reworked. The colour difference indicates quality: the deeper green stones are inferior to the more sea-green turquoise. Dolker explains that the lady has only one daughter and wants to give her the best.
I am about to leave, when I hear Dolker humming a folk song called Zangsti Saljap by Sonam Kunzom. It is the expression of a woman’s desire to fall in love with a caravan-trader who has stopped at one of the caravanserais in Zangsti. Earlier, I could not help but ask about her enthralling voice, and I learn that she has been singing folk songs on All India Radio for over 30 years. She instinctively hums while her hands work the needle on the red carpet of turquoise.
The words linger in my ears as I walk away….
Gobo ta snonmo chokan bo Lala bo ta skuten khormed
Gobo la snonmo chokan bo Lala Bishan* skuten khormed
Skebo ta karpo chokan bo Lala bo ta Skuten Khormed
Skebo ta karpo chokan bo Lala Bishan Skuten khormed
(I am grateful to Lala for letting my head turn green with lines of turquoise
This girl is grateful to Lala Bishan* for letting her head turn green with lines of turquoise
I am grateful to Lala for letting my chest adorn in white with pearls
This girl is grateful to Lala Bishan for letting her chest adorn in white with pearls)
*Lala Bishan was a famous trader for spices, jewellery, and other items.