Goncha of Ladakh

The Tibetan and Ladakhi costumes are very similar. Tibetan clothing, like the Goncha or Sulma of Ladakh, was made of finely woven Nambu. It is the main dress worn by both males and females in all communities in Ladakh, and it is accompanied by a fabric waistband tied around their waist. By the mid-seventh century, ordinary Tibetan cloth was made of Nambu, according to Trimley Chodrak and Kesang Tashi’s ‘Of wool and loom.’ Nambu suggests an ancient connection to Persian dress because Chuba is close to Juba, the Turkish word for the robe, in both colloquial and literary Tibetan.

In Ladakh, the female Goncha is called mogo or sulma which implies ‘pleated’. It is a full sleeve robe with front flaps overlapping, it is gathered and sewn at the waist which results in a flared skirt below (Fig. 1). The female garments do not have buttons; instead, a belt is worn at the waist above the pleats to keep it in place. The Goncha is about an inch above the ankle in length. Slits can be found on both sides. Traditionally the female Gonchas did not have gathers, but several Kalis narrow from the end which comes at the waist and broader at the hemlines (Fig.2 & 3). Goncha was made by Nambu ( woven in natural colour wool, usually whites, sometimes black) fabric. Nambu used was sometimes resisted with tying or thigma techniques. The technique of thigma dyeing traditionally seems to have Tibetan roots. But the exact origin is difficult to trace.  The garment made from tie-dyed Nambu is called thigma goncha (Fig.8). This kind of Goncha is said to have been worn by queens and royal people, then later it became popular amongst the local people. Usually, local people use to wear them in marriage ceremonies.

Fig.1.A women’s thigma Goncha, early 20th-century

The male Goncha is a front open, straight and full sleeve robe. It is like Angrakha and called Phogos (Fig.9). In the front, a flap from the right goes over to the left side covering it completely. Brass buttons or tupuchi and loops are used to fasten them on the left side, which also give beautiful detail to the male goncha. The collar is usually Chinese or sometimes also just one diagonal over the other. Slits on either side are called Chutpu. A cotton or polyester piping or dil is used on all the edges. Above the skerekh (fabric waistband), a flap is formed which functions as a pocket for men to carry various items like cups, apricots and daily need items.

All men and women wear Skerekh. It is a waistband of cloth that holds Goncha in its place.  A Skerekh is usually ten inches wide and two and a half meters long. Different kinds of skerekh are used by Ladakhis. The commonest of them is a woollen one, which is tied and dyed also called thigma skerekh. The thigma dyeing is done by a female craftsperson. Raw silk skerekh is also common that is usually in pink or green colour. These were brought by traders from Bhutan in the olden days, the tradition continues. There is a special way to tie it around the waist (Fig. 4, 5, 6 & 7).

Nambu cutting and stitching is a male-dominated activity. Men weave Nambus in central and western Ladakh, whereas women weave them on backstrap looms in eastern Ladakh. Men weave on frame looms, which are made locally by putting together wooden pieces. A Goncha made from handwoven Nambus strips must be stitched and patterned in a specific way. The width of the industrially made cloth is about 36 inches to 45 inches, and it is not cut in the same way as the traditional nambu for a Goncha, leading to the advent of polyester and velvet in Leh. Despite the popularity of new materials, one has to wear goncha made of handwoven Nambus to survive the winter.

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