On the evening of September 21, Shifah set off from a hotel in Kargil with henna on her hands, for her first visit to her in-laws’ house in Drass. Her friends had arranged for her henna at the hotel, while another friend, Ali, performed the duties of a bride’s brother and drove her there. Buddhist brides don’t apply mehndi, but Shifah’s dress was what what all Ladakhi brides, irrespective of faith, wear — a red sulma. She would rather not talk about where she got the dress from, she says, not wanting to hurt her family more.
Given the controversy around Shifah’s marriage with their son, Murtaza Agha, her in-laws wanted the wedding reception to be a small event. “But with us being in the news, more than a hundred people came to express their solidarity, and our journey home became a cavalcade,” smiles the 29-year-old. Around 7 pm, as twilight descended on the hills of Drass, about 40 cars, with friends, family and strangers, drove into the Agha home.
In the drawing room of the wooden structure, decorated with flowers, the beaming Shifah alias Stanzin Saldon and Murtaza Agha had their formal wedding reception — eight days after it was to take place originally, and three weeks after their marriage first raised a storm in Ladakh. As the evening turned to night, and the temperature fell, the celebrations continued, with Shifah’s friends, about 10 of whom had come from Srinagar and Leh, acting as her aunts and uncles to sing traditional wedding songs ‘kaseedas’, to the clapping of hands.
No one from her Buddhist family was present. Sitting by the Jhelum in Srinagar — they hope to return to Murtaza’s place of work in Jammu soon — Shifah and Murtaza joke about how their ages were misquoted in the first posts about them that came out on social media. “I was yet to turn 32 and they said I was 32. Shifah is yet to turn 30 but she was made a year older too,” smiles Murtaza. “We drove about 8,000 km in those 15 days (of the controversy). Going from place to place and town to town.”
“It was our honeymoon in hiding,” Shifah laughs. The climax of their love story was almost as “filmy” — as Shifah calls it — as the beginning. The two met for the first time in 2010 at an adventure camp in Kargil, through Murtaza’s older brother, Syed Sajad. Murtaza is an engineer from Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi and Shifah had just dropped out of the MBBS course that she was pursuing in Jammu. They became friends immediately and kept in touch over the following months.
Shifah says she had started getting interested in Islam by then, and that after reading everything about the religion that she could lay her hands on, wanted to convert. Then, late in 2015, Shifah had an accident on her way back from an interview in Delhi. As Murtaza blushes, Shifah says, “I almost died that day and the only thought on my mind was Murtaza. I went to his home and told him I loved him and proposed to him.”
The couple admit they were aware of the likely repercussions of their decision, and anticipated that they would face resistance because of being from different faiths. “But then we realised we wanted to be together, and Murtaza spoke to his family,” Shifah says. They said no. In April 2016, Saldon legally converted to Islam in Bengaluru, where she worked, and took on the name Shifah.
In June that year, the couple and two of their friends approached Agha’s uncle Syed Bakir at his house in Drass — “we kidnapped him,” they laugh — and took him to an open meadow to officiate their nikah. The Aghas are a family of religious scholars and Murtaza’s uncle, like his father, leads prayers at the local mosque. They were married “among the mountains, the river and the yaks”, the two smile.
Murtaza begged his uncle not to tell anyone about the wedding other than his father. But after Murtaza’s father came to know, the news spread. “In the winter, my mother came to visit me in Jammu and I put her in the same room as Shifah and told her, ‘Meet your nama (the word in Purgi, the language that Murtaza speaks, for daughter-in-law)’.” Once they met, he says, the resistance ended.
Soon, news also reached Shifah’s family in Leh that their daughter had married a Muslim man without their consent. As her family reacted in anger, she decided to try convince them in person. “Last December, I went to Leh to meet them and confront them about my decision, but their reaction was so strong I left. I decided that I had to take this call on my own,” she says. According to Shifah, her family got almost violent and began cursing her.
“Shifah was taken to religious leaders, they thought the priests could change her mind,” Murtaza adds. Shifah says she is not sure what irked them more — her decision to convert or her decision to marry Murtaza. “I think it was both,” the 29-year-old says.
Aware of Muslim-Buddhist weddings being annulled in the past, the couple decided to legalise their marriage and on July 22, registered it in court. “I told my family more than a month later, in September,” she adds, post which her parents went to the police, and the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) issued its ultimatum to the people of Kargil “to return the girl or face consequences”.
The couple say that despite Shifah’s family’s objections, they never imagined a deeply personal matter would take such communal colour, and raise tensions across Ladakh. Murtaza points out that he never even recommends a religious book to Shifah to read, and that her choices are her own. “It’s I who recommend books to him sometimes and push him to pray,” interjects Shifah.
She adds that she continues to conform to both Buddhism and Islam, and that being born in one faith opened her up to another. “Buddha helped me take this call. Because I understood what his teachings meant and he asks us to open ourselves and accept others and learn from other religions. Prophet Mohammad and Buddha are the same enlightened men to me. There is no clear divide for me where I stopped being Buddhist and turned into a Muslim. Both philosophies feed my soul,” says Shifah, adding that her practice of Islam is self-taught and that she finds peace praying and reading about it.
Eventually, she hopes, her family will come around to realising that too. Buddhist Ladakhi brides wear a kind of headgear on their wedding day called perak. Shifah misses not having worn that, while all else at the hastily arranged reception was “in place”. “I had been planning my wedding for three years. This was just the culmination of all our efforts,” she sighs.
It’s been months now since she met her family, and Shifah knows it may be a while before they can meet again. But, she hopes, it will happen. “I wish I could get married one more time with all of them (her family) present.”
Then, her family would see, Shifah believes.
People opposed to their relationship said things like “What did you see in Drass? What was missing in Leh that you had to go all the way to Drass to find love?”, she says. Glancing across at Murtaza, she smiles. “It is their misfortune, they haven’t been in love.”