Mixed marriage thrills couple; others ... uh, no
Romance of pair with Muslim, Hindu roots spurs protests, fisticuffs
LADAKH REGION, India — In front of a tin-roofed house with the Himalaya Mountains rising behind it, about 300 wedding guests waited on a big green lawn, eager for the arrival of the bride and groom.
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 chicken, salty tea, fresh rolls and succulent goat meat cooked in yogurt and spices.
But the bride’s entire family was conspicuously missing from the party.
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, set off fistfights and pitted Muslim and Buddhist leaders against one another. 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 Buddhist-muslim divide seems to be getting sharper in this part of the world. Neighboring Bangladesh is struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas, an ethnic group from Myanmar, who recently fled atrocities by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist majority.
But to Saldon, 30, and Agha, 32, none of this mattered.
Theirs is a Ladakh love affair, through and through. They met on a college trekking trip to the Himalayas. They kept in touch. Agha, a government engineer, and Saldon, a social worker, both 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 softspoken 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 options.
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 day unite.
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.
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. A few men got into fistfights — all over a couple most of them didn’t even know.
As for the couple, they seem to have weathered this unscathed.
Saldon 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 Islam.
Murtaza Agha, who is Muslim, and his bride, Stanzin Saldon, were all smiles at their post-wedding party. Her Hindu family was so mortified that they skipped the event.