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Juniper – The Sacred Conifer

Shukpa or Juniper (Juniperus spp.)  is a distinct evergreen tree, sometimes a shrubby tree, that belongs to the conifer group of gymnosperms. Known to grow at the highest elevations on earth, juniper is well distributed all over the Northern Hemisphere from Arctic to the tropics, and most abundantly in the temperate regions of Europe, North America and Himalayan ranges in Asia. 

Ecologically, juniper is an important species in the fragile cold desert ecosystem. It survives freezing temperatures and grows luxuriantly in the cold arid climate, on rugged high-altitude slopes of Ladakh. Juniper plays a significant role in supporting different life-forms of the cold desert ecosystem including crawling insects, chirping birds and busy rodents. Juniper berries and leaves are food for many. It acts as soil binding agent preventing soil erosion. The blooming juniper growing along jagged terrain of the Himalaya gives an enchanting green hue to the stark cold desert landscape, otherwise barren and snow covered for most part of the year.

Ladakh is one of the few places in India to find junipers. All three species are locally known as Shukpa among the Buddhist communities and Chilgi among the Brokpa tribes of Ladakh. Of the three flourishing junipers, the Himalayan Pencil Cedar has immense socio-cultural and religious significance for the people of Ladakh and is considered a sacred tree among the Buddhists. The rich culture, tradition and festivals, especially Losar – traditional New Year in Ladakh witnesses use of the fragrant juniper. Some important uses of juniper, particularly the Himalayan Pencil Cedar in Ladakh include:

Ladakh is bestowed with three species of the genus Juniperus i.e.  J. polycarpos (Himalayan Pencil Cedar), J. recurva (Weeping Blue Juniper) and J. communis (Common Juniper). Juniper species have a sparse distribution in Ladakh. Among the three species, Himalayan Pencil Cedar is characterised by its 2 to 5 seeded, bluish-black cone and is restricted to high mountain valleys of Sham and Nubra region in Leh district at an altitude of 7,000-14,000 ft. The Common Juniper having 3 seeded blue-black cones is found abundantly along Zojila and Batalik hills (5,400-14,000ft.), while the Weeping Blue Juniper, which is popular for its one seeded brown-purple cone, is found along the alpine slopes of Kargil at 7,500-12,500 feet.

A sacred Lha-to in Nubra Valley; Photo by Konchok Dorjay

Juniper for decorating Lha-thos:

People of Ladakh and Tibet used green twigs of junipers to decorate Lha-thos, a typical structure comprising of a bunch of juniper twigs – Lha-shuk fixed in between the rock edges or in a small square wall made of clay, bricks or/and stone, at the elevated top of a hill or roof. 

The term Lha-thos is derived from the words Lha that stands for a divine spirit or deity and thos meaning a square wall. As per Buddhist mythology, people consider Lha-thos to be a shrine of divine beings that reside there and protect people from evil spirits and undesired incidents. Lha-thos are decorated annually during Losar that usually falls in the month of December. During this event, it is customary to replace old juniper twigs at Lha-thos with fresh bunches. The Lha-thos and Lha-shings are subsequently worshiped by offering phoks – juniper incense and kalcholr – a sacred barley drink and the illumination of earthen lamps containing apricot oil.

Juniper used as incense; Illustration by Nawang Tankhe

People are prohibited from any sort of unhygienic or unlawful activity around these structures. It is commonly believed that Lha-thos and its surrounding areas must be kept clean, as infuriating a Lha could bring bad luck on the polluter. In the event of a defilement, local people rush to call the local priests – Lamas, who then perform exceptional prayers known as Lhabsangs to purify the guilty from their sins and to sanitize the area.


Juniper as incense:

Owing to the pleasant aroma of juniper twigs, they are commonly used as an incense. Raw coal or dried dung cakes are placed in an earthen bowl locally called as phokspor specially designed for this purpose. Dried, crushed leaves and twigs of shukpa are put over the burning coal which produces a distinct smell. It is now known that this aromatic fragrance is due to presence of essential oils, terpenoids, diterpenoids and some phenolic compounds. People mix shukpa with several other plant products such as khampa (Tanacetum sp.), palu (Waldheimia glabra) and siyah mentok (flowers of Rosa foetida and R. webbiana) to use as an incense.

Cultural Heritage:


Cultural heritage and sacredness of Juniper is depicted in several ladakhi folk songs that describe its value. For instance a stanza from a popular folk song goes:

Ka langtakh yahgi ni tsamsteh ruhh

Pa lalu rulugsteh ruh chehnn

Ka langtakh yahgi ni tsamsteh ruhh

Yah lalu rulugsteh ruh chehnn

Pa lalu Yalu tahng majalahh

La lashing shkpa tangh jaal 

La lashing shukpa weh tuludpa woh 

Stang chhogi Layul lang jung

La lashing shukpa weh tuludpa woh       

Yog djugs ki luyul lang jung 

La lashing shukpa weh tuludpa woh

Par choggs ki charms yul lanh jung

Along the foothills of huge mountains

Went in search of Palu (aromatic plant)

Along the foothills of huge mountains

Went in search of Yalu (a plant)

Palu and Yalu could not be found

The tree of Juniper appeared  

The fragrant smoke of trees, Juniper

Spread to the upper world (heaven) of god

The fragrant smoke of trees, Juniper

Spread to the god of under-earth

The fragrant smoke of trees, Juniper

Spread to the middle world (earth) 

Juniper in Buddhist Monasteries:

The sun dried and finely powdered twigs and leaves of juniper along with other material including some precious stones locally known as yuh, churu and motig are used to fill the inner hollow space of Buddhist statues or idols made from special local clay called markalaga. This amalgam is known as zungs.

Medicinal use of juniper:

Local healers use juniper in the traditional Amchi system of medicine. The whole plant is used in treatment of nervous disorders, heart related diseases and kidney disorders. The plant is also used as an antibiotic for animals and for repelling flies.

Photo by Konchok Dorjay

Photo by Konchok Dorjay

Juniper as timber:

Juniper wood is carved out for making Lak-shing, a wooden plate for covering Buddhist manuscripts. The Lak-shing is usually rectangular with an average length of 30-60 and 12-20 cm width. These are varnished or painted and/or decorated with some sacred paintings. Since juniper wood is believed to be strong, durable and highly resistant, large wooden logs of shukpa were historically used in erecting pillars, making door and window frames in monasteries.

Juniper in making of household articles:

Twigs of juniper are used for making nose-ring locally called sNachu for yaks. Similarly, its wood is carved out to make a multi-purpose container, locally called zem used for storing barley wine, curd and wheat flour.

Threats and conservation status

It is unfortunate that despite its significance the sacred juniper is under threat. Multiple uses of juniper have led to a continuous demand in cultural, traditional and religious rituals. The Himalayan Pencil Cedar is placed under the Least Concerned (LC) category for conservation but was reported as declining in its natural habitat with severely fragmented populations in 2011.


One of the most potent threats is, perhaps, the use of juniper leaves and twigs in religious and cultural rituals. The extensive use of juniper as an aromatic incense is common with collection peaking on the eve of Losar for decoration of Lha-thos. Other biotic pressures include damage to young seedlings from livestock grazing, especially during winter when plants enter senescence. This pressure is compounded by the fact that juniper shows very poor regeneration, extremely low seed viability and long seed dormancy. These factors are barriers in its propagation and growth.

There is scope for better planning and management if we wish to improve the status of juniper population in Ladakh. While everyone expresses concern over the conservation, propagation and management of juniper, there is little action backing this concern. Irresponsible collection of wild junipers is rampant as Losar approaches each year. There is hardly any effort to monitor collection or any legal action taken against those in violation of wildlife protection laws. A combination of anthropogenic pressures, abiotic factors arising from changing climate, and the local socio-cultural significance of juniper, makes it necessary to prioritise the conservation of juniper patches across Ladakh. Junipers share a deep link with Ladakh’s indigenous culture, religion and ecology. There is an urgent need to better understand the status of local populations of juniper, degree of anthropogenic pressure, and future prospects and propagation techniques if we are to protect this cultural keystone.

How can we conserve our junipers?


  1. Design and enforce strict communal laws to monitor and prevent irresponsible collection and sale of juniper twigs, especially during Losar. 

  2. Organise workshops, conferences and campaigns in both rural and urban areas to educate and create awareness among people.

  3. Increase research to improve our understanding of seed germination and juniper propagation techniques.

  4. Develop and implement an effective management plan backed with adequate support for propagation of juniper trees. 


As individuals we must,

  1. Limit merciless cutting and selling of juniper twigs and encourage others for the same

  2. Remain careful when our livestock grazes in juniper forest and surrounding areas

  3. Educate and aware our friends, relatives, neighbours and villagers about the importance of juniper in our religion, culture and its role in fragile ecology. Discuss the values of juniper in Ladakhi society among the youth, especially in schools.

About the Storyteller 

Prof KD.jpg

Dr. Konchok Dorjey

Dr. Konchok Dorjey is a botanist, a mycologist and a teacher, presently working as Assistant Professor of Botany at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College Leh, University of Ladakh. He has over 13 research papers and 7 articles to his credit. He is co-author of Plants of Ladakh: A Photographic Guide which was published in 2021.

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