On the Run for Love: Meet the Buddhist-Muslim Couple Whose Marriage lead to Massive Protests in J&K
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, 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 Ms. 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 monasteries, take pictures of the saffron-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 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 Ms. Saldon, 30, and Mr. 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. Mr. Agha, a government engineer, and Ms. 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. Ms. Saldon said she could feel herself falling in love with the soft-spoken and gentle-mannered Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Agha’s people took it in stride, Ms. 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 Mr. Agha, she said.
Ms. Saldon said she lost 20 pounds. She was heartsick to be away from Mr. Agha and terrified of her father, who kept screaming at her.