Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Stephen Blum

Committee Members

John Graziano

Peter Manuel

Lozang Jamspal

Subject Categories

Music | South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies


Himalayas, Tibet, Buddhism, Ladakh


This dissertation examines the place of traditional songs in the Tibetan Buddhist culture of the former Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. I look at how Buddhism and pre-Buddhist religion informed the texts and performance contexts of traditional songs, and how Ladakhi songs represent cultural self-images through associated musical, textual, and visual tropes. Many songs of the past, both from the old royal house and the rural Buddhist populations, reflect the socio-political structure of Ladakhi society. Some songs reflect a pan-Tibetan identity, connecting the former Namgyal dynasty to both the legendary King Gesar and Nyatri Tsangpo, the historical founder of the Tibetan Yarlung dynasty. Nevertheless, a distinct Ladakhi identity is consistently asserted. A number of songs contain texts that evoke a mandala or symbolic representation of the world according to Vajrayana Buddhist iconography, ritual and meditative visualization practices. These mandala descriptions depict the social order of the kingdom, descending from the heavens, to the Buddhist clergy, to the king and nobles, to the common folk.

As the region has become more integrated into modern India, Ladakhi music has moved into modern media space, being variously portrayed through scholarly works, concerts, mass media, and the internet. An examination of contemporary representations of "tradition" and ethnic identity in traditional music shows how Ladakhis from various walks of life view the music and song texts, both as producers and consumers.

Situated as it was on the caravan routes between India, Tibet, China, and Central Asia, Ladakhi culture developed distinctive hybrid characteristics, including in its musical styles. Analysis of the performance practices, musical structures, form, and textual content of songs clearly indicates a fusion of characteristics of Middle Eastern, Balti, Central Asian, and Tibetan origin. Looking at songs associated with the Namgyal dynasty court, I have found them to be part of a continuum of Tibetan high literary culture, combined with complex instrumental music practices. As such, I make the argument that these genres should be considered to be art music.