By Suhasini Raj and
n front of a tin-roofed
house with the Himalaya
Mountains rising behind it,
about 300 wedding guests
waited on a big green lawn,
As the couple appeared, the
guests formed a happy scrum
around them, whisking them
through the doorway and into
the house. The rooms smelled of
the coming feast: tandoori chick-
en, salty tea, fresh rolls and suc-
culent goat meat cooked in
yogurt and spices.
But the bride’s entire family
was conspicuously missing from
The bride, Stanzin Saldon, is
from a Buddhist family, and the
groom, Murtaza Agha, is a
Muslim. Both grew up in Ladakh,
a remote region of Jammu and
Kashmir State in India. So what
happens around here when a
Buddhist woman falls for a
Muslim man? Chaos.
The young couple’s romance
has spawned protests, shut down
businesses, caused fistfights and
pitted Muslim and Buddhist leaders against each other. The police
have been forced to intervene,
and so have the courts.
For several days the two even
had to go on the run. They drove
around the nearby Kashmir
Valley, which is crawling with
militants and soldiers, worried
sick about being caught together.
But Saldon, flush with fresh
love, would do it all over again.
“We found peace in a conflict
region,” she said earnestly.
The Ladakh region is widely
considered one of India’s most
charming spots. The main town,
Leh, feels like a glass museum
case of traditional Buddhist culture delicately perched on a shelf
high in the Himalayas. Each year,
thousands of Indian and foreign
tourists come here to stroll
around the old Buddhist monas-teries, take pictures of the saf-fron-robed monks and eat yak-cheese pizza.
In the west lies the mainly
Muslim town of Kargil, where
green-domed mosques rise
behind stores with Arabic names.
Taking Kargil and Leh together,
this region’s population is
around a quarter million, split
roughly in half between
Buddhists and Muslims, along
with a few Hindus.
In Leh, Buddhist women
grumble that there aren’t enough
Buddhist men around because so
many have become monks.
The Buddhist-Muslim divide
seems to be getting sharper in
this part of the world.
Neighboring Bangladesh is strug-
gling to absorb hundreds of thou-
sands of Muslim Rohingyas, an
ethnic group from Myanmar,
who recently fled atrocities by
Myanmar’s military and Buddhist
But to Saldon, 30, and Agha,
32, none of this mattered.
Theirs is a
They met on a
trip to the
They kept in
Agha, a government engineer, and
Saldon, a social
lived in the city
of Jammu, south of Ladakh, and
they couldn’t stop calling each
other for coffee and lunch.
Saldon said she could feel herself
falling in love with the soft-spoken and gentle-mannered Agha.
But she kept it a secret.
After she was nearly killed in a
rickshaw accident, though, she
recalled, “It was Murtaza’s face
that floated before my eyes. I
decided life was too short and I
should confess my love.”
Agha, who grew up in Kargil,
couldn’t have been happier.
But when he told his
family he wanted to
marry a Buddhist girl
from Leh, his father’s
response was: impossible.
“Why marry a Leh
girl?” his family kept
asking. There were so
many more Muslim
In July 2016, with
help from one of Agha’s
uncles, the couple held
a very small private
wedding under a clear
blue sky by one of Kargil’s
sparkling mountain streams.
Then they went back to their
jobs, the world oblivious to their
relationship. They maintained
separate homes, planning to one
But soon their family members found out. While . Agha’s
people took it in stride, Saldon’s
went berserk. They pulled her
out of Jammu and locked her in
the family home in Leh. Her
father spat in her face, and later
called on shamans to perform
ceremonies to try to make her
forget about Agha, she said.
Saldon said she lost 20
pounds. She was heartsick to be
away from Agha and terrified of
her father, who kept screaming
“I was totally cut off from the
outside world,” she said. “I
feared death as my father shout-
ed, ‘Why did you not die no
sooner than you were born?”’
One morning she sneaked out.
She knew her family would chase
her, so she went to court and
won a restraining order demanding that they leave her alone.
But the problem was bigger
than her family now, and things
in Leh were about to get sticky.
The Buddhist community
association was so outraged by
the relationship, and the fact that
Saldon had fled, that it sent
young men stomping through
Leh’s main bazaar, demanding
that all the shopkeepers help
bring her back.
Buddhist toughs threatened
taxi drivers and merchants from
Kargil, telling them they weren’t
allowed to work in Leh. A few
men got into fistfights — all over
a couple most of them didn’t
The Buddhist association tried
to drag in the state government,
sending a letter in September
that read, “We have repeatedly
asked the Muslim community
leaders to sensitize their commu-
nities to stay away from such
wicked and depraved acts which
otherwise will lead to communal
The head of a Muslim organi-
zation in Kargil shot off a counter
letter asking Buddhists to calm
down. The state government
declined to get involved, except
for sending more police officers
to the market.
Leh’s Buddhists remain bitter.
“The Muslims are trying to fin-
ish us off,” said Gushe Konchok
Namgyal, a head lama, as he
slurped a bowl of lentils and rice
in a 500-year-old monastery.
Not only is it crucial that
Buddhists marry Buddhists, he
said, but Buddhist women
should have a dozen children to
match the Muslims or the
Buddhists will “face extinction.”
Harsh Malhotra, chief coordi-
nator for the Love Commandos, a
voluntary Indian organization
that helps couples fight off
arranged marriages and deal with
harassment from their families,
said this case was getting atten-
tion across the country. But he
“Just as the Ganges flows
freely, so, too, lovers of any
caste, creed and sect,” he said.
This Ladakhi version of
Romeo and Juliet was easy to
politicize, he said, because the
couple came from middle-class
backgrounds and were perfect
fodder for “those who consider
themselves to be the self-
appointed guardians of culture
Leh has since calmed down.
But the episode has put a little
extra steam in the quest by some
of Leh’s Buddhists to get more
autonomy for the Ladakh region.
As for the couple, they seem
to have weathered this
unscathed. She is hoping her par-
ents will come around someday
soon and welcome her and her
husband with a hug.
At their long-delayed wedding
reception in September, Ms.
Saldon was beaming as Mr.
Agha’s relatives draped a garland
of Indian rupees around her
She now lives with Agha in an
apartment in Jammu, which is
mostly Hindu and, for this young
couple, considered neutral territory.
And just as the Buddhist leaders feared, she has converted to
— The New York Times
INDIA ABROAD October 27, 2017 31 INDIA
Above, a handout photo of Murtaza
Agha, left, and Stanzin Saldon at a
wedding party hosted by a friend in
Kargil. Left, Agha, left, and Saldon, with
garlands of Indian rupees around their
necks, are greeted by friends and
relatives during their wedding
reception in Kargil, Sept. 21.
“Just as the
freely, so, too,
lovers of any