Ladakh News

The Perak-maker from Sham

By N. Angmo, Stawa 03-20

Tsering Dolker, the Perak-maker from Sham, Ladakh

Tsering Dolker, the Perak-maker from Sham, Ladakh

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 sPrulsku 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 working on a red sheet full of turquoise. She pokes hard at her perak at a client's home in Housing Colony, Leh where I met her on a cold January evening. Her mother, Sonam Putith taught her the art of assembling turquoise pieces in lines. A perak determines the social status of a woman and adds to her grace. It is mandatory for a bride to wear a perak on her wedding day. Apart from singing and dancing whenever she could, Dolker used to collect pebbles of the same size and colour when she took their livestock to graze in the mountains. There she would assemble the pebbles on rock surfaces according to their symmetry. Her artwork would invariably be destroyed by young boys and shepherds who also visited the pastures.

A Perak is a headgear that gives a woman's silhouette the figure of a snake with slender moves and curves of her sulma (traditional women's dress in Ladakh). It is one ornament that every Ladakhi woman is supposed to possess.

Tsering Dolker started assembling peraks professionally at the age of 33. She hails from Mangyu village in the Sham region of Ladakh. She had experienced her fair share of poverty, prosperity and change in Ladakh. Till date, she has assembled or prepared a record 1,414 peraks over the last three decades.

When asked about peraks she explained, "On an average, it takes around 315 turquoise pieces of different sizes and shapes to make one perak. They are arranged in seven lines from the forehead side till the end of the spine. Nowadays, you do not get good quality turquoise or even if the quality is ok, you know that it has been prepared with coloured flour and kneaded into the required shape." To illustrate her point she ran her fingers through the turquoise lines on the perak that she is making. She then pointed to the previous turquoise stones that she had removed as they are of inferior quality. Her face creased into an expression of bafflement as she inspected the poor workmanship and the carton at the base of the perak. Finally she said, "How do you expect somebody to wear perak made with cartons. It's shameful and disgraceful for the wearer!?"

I was curious about the most exquisite perak she has made till today in her journey of making 1400+ peraks, she tells us about the finest perak she assembled for the wife of a prominent Rinpoche of Ladakh where the lining and quality of the turquoise was superb. When asked about the duration taken to assemble a single perak along with the tsaru (the side flaps to cover the ears), she says, "It depends! If it's a summer month 2 whole days are consumed in assembling a perak and in winter it stretches to 3-4 days since cold does not favour solitude for focussed work alone."

I could not help but ask about her enthralling voice. She responded that she has been singing folk songs for All India Radio for more than 30 years along with other singers. She invariably hums while her hands work the needle on the red carpet of turquoise.

Dolker pointed to the various tools she uses to make a perak including the copper binding wire, the metal gear to protect the pointer finger, cutter for the boiled animal skin to bind the lambskin with the base of the Tsaru and the perak, nylon wool, and scissors. Each turquoise on a perak needs to be bound or pecked six times to ensure that it remains firm for several generations.

I could not help but wonder if she intended to pass this art to her daughters or anyone else. She responded that she wants to teach this art to anyone who is willing to learn. She added that her daughters find it interesting but lack the patience to perform the necessary tasks. She explained, "A person learning to assemble a perak must be curious and very patient."

As I questioned her, I learnt that turquoise pieces are always organised in an odd number of lines. The face or the perak begins with the Dhunhyu or the front turquoise. As you go down the rows, there is an amulet on each side enclosed in a silver cover that is usually dyed with golden ink. In the middle of the Perak, a Kau or two are placed right above the fold where the perak bends. A Kau is a pentagon-shaped amulet made from gold or silver covered with golden ink. Braids are attached to the perak to hold it in place. In the past, thinly-braided hair would be sewn to the base of the perak to allow the wearer to adjust it to their convenience. The size and number of lines on the perak vary according to age. Dolker explained that when a young girl had to wear a perak before her wedding, it was called a Pandap. On the other hand, a lady who has married off all her daughters would keep three lines of leftover turquoise pieces from the turquoise given in most cases to her elder daughter. This small perak is called a Yuktil.

The two black flaps or Tsaru covering the ears are attached on both sides of the perak to serve two primary functions; first to protect the ears and second, for aesthetical reasons as wearing a Tsaru adds elegance to the perak. The Tsaru is made from lamb skin with the woolly part outside. The ears are covered with lines of pearl known as Along.

There was a tinge of disappointment in Dolker's voice when she said, "Nowadays, women do not mind or care about going bare-headed and bare-backed when 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 you only see women with perak and Bok (a cape made of goat skin or silk) are allowed to welcome great monks or personalities."

Just as I was about to take my leave, Dolker's current client-cum-host offered us tea with c (sweetened noodle snacks that is also called Khapsay in Tibetan). She showed us the batch of inferior turquoise kept in a red polythene bag that had been used earlier on the perak that Dolker had dismantled. Dolker pointed out the colour difference of the turquoise stones. She explained that the greener ones are inferior to the sea-greenish turquoise stones. Dolker emphasised the quality difference of the batch of sea-green coloured turquoise stones she was using. She explained that the lady had just one daughter and wanted to give her the best.

We finished out tea and Khura and took our leave. As we left the house, we could hear Dolker humming a folk song called Zangsti Saljap. This song was written by Sonam Kunzom and is an expression of a lady's desire to fall in love with one of the caravan traders who has stopped at one of the caravan serai in Zangsti. Her words lingered in my ears as I left.

mGo-bo ta sNgon-mo Byed-mKhan (chokan) bo Lala bo ta sKu-drin 'Khor-med
mGo-bo la sNgon-mo Byed-mKhan (chokan) bo Lala Bishan* sKu-drin 'Khormed
Ske-bo ta dKar-po Byed-mKhan (chokan) bo Lala bo ta sKu-drin 'Khormed
Ske-bo ta dKar-po Byed-mKhan (chokan) bo Lala Bishan sKu-drin 'Khormed

(One who made my head blue/green (with turquoise) was the kind Lala.
One who made my head blue/green (with turquoise) was the kind Lala Bishan.
One who made my neck white (with pearls) was the kind Lala
One who made my neck white (with pearls) was the kind Lala Bishan.)

(According to local sources, Lala Bishan was a famous trader in Leh market who sold jewellery and turquoise).

The English photographer Jimmy Nelson, known for his portraits of tribal and indigenous people, has photographed Ladakhi women with perak.

Jimmy Nelson, Ladakhi woman wearing a perak
Jimmy Nelson, Ladakhi woman wearing a perak, view from back
Jimmy Nelson, Ladakhi woman wearing a perak
Jimmy Nelson, Ladakhi woman wearing a perak