The villages of Ladakh’s Suru valley come alive during the summer months. Streams gurgle through lush green fields, where wildflowers grow with abandon and snow-capped mountains surround. The day sky is a beautiful blue, and you can spot the milky way in the night sky.
Children in this valley, in Kargil district, share a sensorial relationship with their environment. In Tai Suru village, where these photos were taken in 2021, the girls climb rocks, collect flowers in summer, or snow in winter, and jump in the streams. Playing in the barley fields is a favourite summertime activity.
Kargil is remote, and far removed from the popular tourist destination of Leh, the only other district of the union territory of Ladakh.
Elsewhere, many people confuse Kargil to be in Kashmir valley, but it is crucially not. And unlike in Kashmir where Sunni Muslims are predominant, the faith of the majority of Kargil’s people is Shia Islam.
Shia Muslims in Suru valley regard Tai Suru, which is 70 kilometres south of Kargil town, as an important religious centre. For the people here, the first month of the Islamic new year – Muharram – is a period of intense mourning for Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad. He was killed along with 72 of his companions in the Battle of Karbala (in modern-day Iraq) on October 10, 680 CE.
Both men and women take part in the rituals commemorating the event during Muharram. Processions, called juloos or dasta , are taken out on several days. The largest of these happens on Ashura – the tenth day of Muharram – when Hussain and his entourage were massacred in Karbala. Some men practice the ritual of self-flagellation ( qama zani ) with chains and blades, and everyone beats their chests ( seena zani ).
On the night before Ashura, women take out a procession from the masjid to the imambara (congregation hall), chanting marsiya and noha (lamentations and elegies) all the way. (Ashura falls on August 8-9 this year.)
Everyone gathers for
(religious gathering), held twice a day in the imambara during Muharram, to remember the resistance and sacrifice of Hussain and the others. Sitting in separate spaces in the hall, men (and boys) and women listen to the
(religious head) narrate episodes from the Karbala battle and related events.
But on the floor above the hall is a meshed balcony that the girls occupy. The space offers them a vantage view of the goings-on below. Called ‘
’, or cage, the word evokes confinement and a sense of suffocation. For the girls, however, the space gives them room for freedom and play.
During a point when the grieving becomes more pronounced in the imambara, the mood suddenly shifts and the girls put their heads down and weep as well – but not for long.
Though Muharram is a month of mourning, in the children’s world it is their chance to meet their friends and spend hours together, even late into the night. While some boys self-flagellate, the ritual is forbidden for girls. The girls largely bear witness to what everyone else does.
Often, descriptions of Muharram observances focus on the self-flagellation and blood shed by men. But there is also another way of grieving, the women’s way – solemn and sorrowful.