36 hours with the Brokpas of Ladakh

Nehchal Sandhu

Interdicted during a road journey at Khaltsi, in Western Ladakh, by a message, which diluted the urgency of my mission and put it off by a couple of weeks, my plans underwent a pleasant change. The unquenched temptation of visiting the proximate restricted area downstream, along the Indus, was too sinewy to resist. And so I ventured along what was then an unfrequented and narrow track along the Indus, abandoning the scheduled route through the switchback-laden Handroo curves, and wind-blown loamy loesses of Lamayuru, referred to as ‘moonscape’ by tourists, onto Kargil.

The azure blue Indus, no longer languid, flowed into a narrow gorge. The few flatlands between taluses that the steep hillsides countenanced had mature willow trees and some poplars. Only at the mouths of ravines on both sides of the river was there scope for habitation. There, narrow watered terraces had flourishing barley crops, overshadowed by apple, apricot and mulberry trees. About an hour of travel and 25 km downstream came Skurbachan, the last Development Block along the Indus before it enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, situated at the threshold of my destination for the day — ‘Aryan territory’.

Other than steep and barren acclivities on the two sides, there was no remarkable feature for another 20 km until Hanuthang revealed itself after a sharp westerly crook. Belying its epithet “Thang”, meaning plateau, Hanu, in its two parts (Yogma — lower, and Goma — upper), accommodating about a thousand residents in mud huts, was strung along an ascending re-entrant. It is the largest of the four ‘Aryan villages’ — the others being Dah, Garkhun and Darchik. Together, these four habitations house about 2,500 souls.

Tall and sturdy, endowed with fair complexions, sharp noses, high cheekbones, deep almond-shaped green blue eyes, and light brown hair, these ‘Aryans’, known locally as Brokpas (highland herdsmen in Tibetan language), bear no resemblance to the Mongoloid features of other residents of the Indus valley. While Islam is practiced by residents of hamlets in the vicinity, and in Kargil and its circumjacent areas, the Brokpas are Buddhists.

Residents of this unique ‘islanded micro-civilisation’ claim to be descendants of stragglers from Alexander’s demoralised, mutinying and retreating army (325 BC) who chose to stay back. This claim is contested by anthropologists who liken this population to the (Islamic) Dards of Gilgit-Baltistan and the animistic Kalashas of Chitral and suggest that all are pastoralist migrants from the Central Asian Steppe. But the Brokpas still call themselves “Minaro” (meaning ‘pure’ Aryans).

Consciousness of this uniqueness has led to a distinct effort to keep ‘genetic pollution’ at bay. Polyandry has been the mechanism for preventing disaggregation of holdings. And yet, mercifully, ill-effects of inbreeding have not been reported in any significant measure there. Among the settled traditions of this close-knit community is Bona-na, a triennial festival to celebrate God’s munificence. Much like the ghotul, which is part of Gond and Muria culture in Chhattisgarh, this festival, celebrated exclusively by the locals, is said to provide an opportunity for transient sexual associations, which could, and mostly do, subsequently mature into marriages.

The claim of this community to Aryan heritage has been a draw for Germans; lore has it that two German women came to the area in 1938 to get impregnated with the “Aryan seed”. During my tenure in 1979, the police intercepted two German women on their way to these villages with a similar objective. In an interview recorded by New York Film School graduate Sanjeev Sivan for his 2007 film ‘Achtung Baby: In search of purity’, a nubile German woman makes no secret of entertaining such a thought. In the first of his follow up documentaries titled ‘The Aryan Saga’ (2009) and ‘A Superior Race’ (2015), one Swang Dorje of the area, who, though happily married to a Brokpa woman and having three children, claims to be making a living out of hosting paid ‘insemination seminars’ for Teutonic clients.

Later that day, I was graciously hosted by the Army unit at Batalik even though I had arrived unannounced. Despite the short notice, the Commanding Officer set up a cultural event in the evening. And who but Brokpas trooped in for a traditional dance. While MunthoTho or Shoklo, orange flowers of a perennial plant of the area, adorned the tepis (hats) of both men and women, the men did not match the ribbon and coin embellishments, multi-coloured beads, and silver and turquoise finery that bedecked the women.

To the accompaniment of music produced by traditional instruments, the ensemble gyrated and advanced to a torpid cadence, like Ladakhis. Only towards the finale, 30 minutes later, did the pace pick up a bit. I was told that the faint scent of juniper that wafted across the helipad (and venue of the performance) was from the women who had burnt juniper twigs and let the smoke and scent come over them and into their clothes; a ritual usually reserved for feast days. The hearty meal to follow after the show was not what prompted them to do so, but the slated appearance before government functionaries.

Like his predecessors, the Commanding Officer was sanguinely aware that this distinctive populace would not prosper without employment being provided to the men as porters for carrying stores and materiel to Army posts, along the Indus and on strategically located heights, like Chorbat la, well above Hanu Goma. And so that was what he was doing.

The return journey to Leh next morning was again along the Indus, only this time upstream. I tarried at Garkhun to pick up apricot kernels (almonds), oil thereof, and a small willow log, which was later fashioned into a replacement butt for my shotgun. It was a truly interesting 36 hours!

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