Ladakh News

A brief history of education in Ladakh (Part 1)

By Abdul Ghani Sheikh, Stawa 11-19

See Part 2


Student in school uniform, Lamdon school in Leh, Ladakh

Student in school uniform, Lamdon school in Leh, Ladakh


The history of education in Ladakh is long and interesting. It can be divided into three main periods: Independent Ladakh under the Namgyal dynasty, the Dogra period, and the post-independence period.


Independent Ladakh under the Namgyal dynasty:

There were no secular schools in Ladakh to impart education during the rule of the Namgyal dynasty. Ordinary Buddhist families would send a son to a monastery to become a monk. From the Twelfth century onwards, during the reign of Lhachen Murup Gon, novice monks from Ladakh started travelling to Tibet to receive religious education. After completion of their education, they would serve in different monasteries in Ladakh as per their training. This system of travelling to Tibet continued till the 1940s-50s. During this period, people in Ladakh manufactured paper using a grass called shuktsa (grass to make paper). This paper was easy to mould and had a rough texture.

Many people managed to achieve a workable knowledge of yige (Tibetan script) in Ladakh. This included traders and shepherds who needed to maintain accounts of their goods and records of their livestock. They would generally acquire this skill from a monk or a person who knew the script.

In the Muslim community, many traders had learnt yige. However, two well-known figures in the community, Baba Qadir Ali and Baba Ghulam Rassul are known to have learnt classical Ladakhi (Tibetan). The former was an Amchi and latter was a veterinarian. They studied classical Tibetan texts related to medical science and treatment of cattle respectively.

Illiterate people, including lenders and debtors, would keep accounts using a system based on the numerical one (1) written with charcoal on the wall of their home. Another interesting but complex system was to carve dealings using the numerical one (1) in double on flat pieces of wood. This was then ait in the middle and one piece remained with Tender, while the other was kept by the debtor till the loan was repaid.

In the 10th century, a virtuous ruler by the name of Lama Ishey established a religious university at Nerma, 16 kms from Leh. It had a thousand students from different parts of Ladakh including Zangskar and Spiti. The great translator and scholar, Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo was its Principal. I have so far not found any records of what happened to this university in due course.

In Purig (present-day Kargil) there was a time when recitation of the Holy Quran and basic teachings of Islam was taught in local Maktab. East India Company veterinarian, William Moorcroft writes in 1820-21 that at least one or two persons in each village knew Persian, Hindustani or both.

Dogra period:

In the Dogra period, Ladakh included Leh, Kargil and Skardo tehsils. In this period the Muslims of Leh opened a Maktab. This was opened after some Muslims were produced in the court of Wazir Wazarat, Syed Akbar Mi (1866-1871) as witnesses in a litigation case. The Wazir asked them to recite Kalima, the Muslim creed to ascertain their statement. He was astonished that none of them were able to recite the Kalima, which is one of the basic tenets of Islam. Syed Akbar Mi then asked the Imam of Jama Masjid, Leh to open a Maktab to impart basic religious education.

In 1874, a Sanskrit school was opened by the Dogra administration. A Kashmiri Pandit was appointed as its teacher and only imparted education in Sanskrit. However, it never gained popularity as people were not inclined towards education in general but also because no one was using Sanskrit. At the time, people preferred learning Urdu as Ladakhis were constantly interacting with Punjabi and Kashmiri traders who spoke Urdu. Also, there was a lingering suspicion that the king was trying to impose his language and culture on the people of Ladakh. In 1882, British Joint Commissioner reported that Sanskrit school had practically ceased to function and only three students were attending. Finally, the school was shut down.

In 1888, Roman Catholic missionary, Fr Danial Kelty started to teach some local children at his residence in Leh. In time this became a school and was called St. Peter's Mission. Then in the spring of 1889, he fell ill and passed away at the age of 34, which resulted in the closure of the school.

The Moravian mission, a German missionary opened the first school at Leh in 1887. However, very few children took admission in the school and it remained virtually shut for two years.

It reopened in 1889. Pundit Radha Krishan was the Wazir Wazarat at the time and he issued an order that every family must send at least one child to the school. However, people were reluctant. They feared that their children would be sent to England and converted to Christianity. They also feared that after receiving education their children would shirk manual labour. Kushok Staktsang Raspa of Hemis monastery actually visited each bouse in Leh to advise parents to send their children to Mission school and many acted on his advice. Initially, the school operated out of a room in Leh bazaar but on account of the commotion created, it was soon shifted to the premises of the church. The school syllabus included Urdu, English, Ladakhi, Geography, Natural study, Science and Geometry. Study of the Bible was voluntary.

A report of the mission reports that only a small section of Ladakhi society understood the value of education. Most people still subscribed to the traditional view that those who did not learn reading of books turned out to be good farmers.

Rassul Galwan, an adventurous traveller from Ladakh, writes in his book Servant of sahibs, "When school was opened, I said to my mother to send me to school. Mother said, "Reading and writing are the way and practice of rich men, not for poor like us." Rassul would have been around 19 years when mission school opened in Leh.

British traveller Isabella L. Bishop visited Ladakh in the late 1880s and writes in her book, Among the Tibetans that parents were apprehensive that their children would be converted to Christianity. She mentions that their fears were calmed only after the head of the mission, Fr Redslob and Dr Marx visited the parents and explained the matter. She writes that this resulted in the attendance rising to 60. The sudden demise of Fr Redslob and Dr Marx from typhus in 1891 was a severe setback to the school and the attendance fell to 10.

Moravian Mission reports claim that the main cause of low enrolment was indifference of parents. However, the location of the school in the premises of the church was also a major obstacle. Most children were engaged in agricultural work and parents would sometimes ask for monetary compensation to send their children to school.

Meanwhile, a youth named Abdul Ghafar opened a school at Leh. He had received education at Tyndale Biscoe School, Srinagar. He approached every household in Leh to persuade to them to enrol their children in the school and the roll rose to 16. Dr. A. H. Francke and Fr S.H. Ribach wanted to employ Abdul Ghafar in a school they planned to start in Shey village. In 1892 when Fr Ribach approached the villagers to start this school in Shey, the elders of the village opposed it strongly. There were rumours that the school was being opened by the government to prepare their children for recruitment in the army. After prolonged discussion Fr Ribach was able to clear the misunderstanding and a room was given for the school, which had vine students on its roll. Once Fr Ribach took a football to school, which aroused interest among other children and the school's roll increased to 18 by the end of the game. Abdul Ghafar signed up as a teacher in Government Primary School, Kargil in 1902.

The Dogra government opened its first school in Leh in 1892 with the appointment of its first teacher. The autocratic government was reluctant to spend money on education though it earned more than Rs 100,000 from trade duty and land revenue each year. In subsequent years, the school provided candidates for the post of Patwari and teacher in Ladakh, which reduced the expenses of the government as they no longer had to send officials from outside.

The J&K and Ladakh Gazetteer reports that in 1900 government school enrolment was 48 in Kargil, 14 in Leh and 20 in Skardo. In contrast, a total of 275 students enrolled in the three schools run by the Moravian Mission in Leh, Keylong, and Ru.

Dr Francke writes that the condition of the [government] school is not good. "According to school records, the roll of students is 20 but not more than 10 children turn up in school. We are not allowed to visit the school, but we know about it, as teachers come to us to seek help...The government does not release salary regularly." He also writes that in the Maktab, the students are only taught to recite the Holy Quran.

Francke wanted to introduce spoken Ladakhi in the school. He used to say that once students gain proficiency in colloquial Ladakhi, they could opt for classical Ladakhi. He was also in favour of adopting Hindustani as a medium of instruction and wanted his colleagues to learn it.