Deep in the mountains of Ladakh are a handful of villages that are home to the Brokpas, the last surviving pure-bloodline of Aryans. Here’s an account of their stories, traditions, practices, and way of life that you’ve probably only read in stories. By Rashi Arora
Around five hours from Leh by road, in the remote valley of Ladakh, is the unexplored village of Garkone. Besides the breathtaking landscape of the place, what makes it unique is the fact that Garkone, along with a handful of other villages in the area, is home to a unique community called Brokpas.
The Brokpas (‘Brok’ means hillock and ‘Pa’ means inhabitant) believe themselves to be the last ‘pure specimens’ of the Aryan blood, and are regarded as the master race by many across the world. Legend has it that Brokpas are the direct descendants of the Dards, of Indo-Aryan stock left behind by Alexander the Great, when he abandoned his mission at the banks of the River Indus in 326 BCE.
It was to document the last remaining Brokpas that I had set off on this trip. The purpose was to collaborate with people from different artistic backgrounds to create a community-based project that aims to document the oral history, folklore, food, language, religion, myths, culture, and traditions of the Brokpa community.
The area inhabited by the Brokpas is laid out as a cluster of four villages—Garkone, Darchik, Dah and Hanu—perched on top of the rugged cliffs of Batalik sector, with the Indus flowing by. Three religions are primarily practised here—Islam, Buddhism, and Bon. Post the Kargil War, only two of the four Aryan villages now fall in the inner line drawn by the Indian Army, and are accessible by civilians after clearance from the Home Ministry. Garkone is about 13 km south from the district headquarter of Kargil and 155 km from Srinagar. It has 90 houses belonging to the seven original families.
It’s in Garkone that I met the beautiful 53-year-old woman named Tamchos Dolma, popularly addressed as Aniley, meaning ‘aunty’. She is the head singer in the Brokpa community, having learned and retained their traditional songs from her parents-in-law, who were also head singers during their times.
Just like them, Aniley too is called upon for weddings, births, festivals, and even deaths in the village. The songs she sings range from descriptions of nature, such as ‘the song of the montu tho flower’, to relationships with parents, siblings and lovers. Aniley tells me that the songs sung today are actually not in the Brokpa language, but in Purkhi and Balti, following the invasion of Genghis Khan. She mentions that she would like to write contemporary songs to tempt the younger generations to be a part of the storytelling tradition that is fast dying in today’s world.
I also happen to meet an elderly couple in Garkone—Tsering Tundup, 75, and his wife Tsering Choqzum, 78. Comparing the old and new lifestyles, Tundup reminisces that in the olden days there were hardly any facilities, but people were happy, kind, and satisfied. The army has had a presence in the area since pre-Partition days, and even the former king of Jammu, Zoravar Singh, visited Garkone but did not maraud it. Tundup used to own around 500 goats, and was thus, largely busy with livestock management, but he always managed to find time for the occasional hunt. Food, along with meat, was cooked in water, and goat butter was consumed separately. Soap came into use only about 40 years ago. “When we were young, we washed with water, ash, and ground apricot kernels. Only barley was grown and cropping of millet, rice, etc. came in much later.”
People preferred joint families since it prevented division of assets. Both men and women had the right to multiple marriages to ensure the carrying on of the family name. Wedding ceremonies lasted a week, and the celebrations involved the entire village, who got together to feast on meat and local wines that were contributed by everyone and prepared together. “The spirit of togetherness is sadly missing in today’s celebrations,” Tundup laments. “Also, illness came in when the way of life changed. Today’s life is contrary to the ancient ways of health and prosperity, although people now have more money and access to better facilities of health care.”
As part of their livelihood, the Brokpas primarily grow apricots. Earlier, they would barter these for salt. But now, commercialisation has fuelled the local economy, and each apricot tree fetches a household about INR30,000/US$419 annually. My diet consists of goat milk, buttermilk, wheat, roasted barley flour, butter made of goat milk, spinach, and sesame. I also try their local drink called chhang, a traditional preparation of barley and salted butter tea, which is usually made on special occasions such as birthdays and weddings.
One of the main festivals here is Bona-na, during which the village headman lives in isolation for a month and purifies himself for the gods. He prays to the good spirits to bless the village. Traditionally, a goat sacrifice used to be made to appease the spirit gods, but today, it has been replaced by a simple offering of prayer to the village Lama.
Losar Festival, the traditional New Year and the most important festival of Ladakh, is the second most important festival for the Aryans. Ladakhi Losar is celebrated in the 11th month of the Tibetan calendar, which is two months before the Tibetan Losar. The Losar celebration is followed by Galdan Namchot, the birth anniversary of Tsongkhapa, a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who introduced the Gelug school of order. To celebrate Namchot in the month of December, people light up their houses, monasteries, and mountainsides with earthen lamps, and make offerings to bring prosperity in the coming year. The festival lasts a month, during which deities, ancestors, and animals are offered food. In some villages, there is a tradition of making an old man and woman out of snow. All family members get together to celebrate it. If anyone is missing, they keep a cup filled with tea by his or her name. Shon and Koshen dances are especially associated with Losar.
In the Brokpa society, polyandry is quite prevalent. As in other tribal societies, it’s the groom who pays the price to the bride. The birth of a child is a momentous occasion. However, child mortality rates in these villages are quite high due to the unavailability of medical facilities. Most women prefer to deliver at home rather than travel to Leh or Kargil and seek medical help. The childbirth rituals require the parents to observe certain strict rules—they cannot meet anyone for four days, nor can they visit a gompa. After four days, the parents of the newborn host a feast called bangri and also offer prayers to Zaman de Gypapo, king of the two ends of the village. Birthdays are celebrated at an interval of every 12 years, as per the Tibetan calendar. Social sanctions and rules are still strong, and that is how this lost army of Alexandar has managed to keep its gene-pool intact till date.
Garkone is a four-hour drive from Leh (197 km). Leh has direct air connectivity from Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai.
When To Go
June to September
Ethnicity defines status for the Brokpas, and it shows in the way they dress. Their flamboyant head-dress called kho, studded with flowers, coins, and silver ornaments, embodies their abundant spirit. The traditional dress of Brokpas is made of sheep’s wool and goat skin. The perennial flower called montu tho is considered pure, and is believed to bring love and prosperity in the community.
Make sure to visit Khakukpa Buddhist Temple and Labdak Museum. Suru Valley (Nun Kun Peaks) is nearly four hours away from Garkone, and Lamayuru Monastery is a two-hour drive from the village. Drass War Memorial, Mulbekh Monastery, and Suru Basin are the places to visit in Kargil (63 km from Garkone). A trip to Leh should include sites like Leh Palace, Shanti Stupa, Hall of Fame, Spituk Gompa, Shey Palace, Leh Market, Thiksey Monastery, Phyang Gompa, Jama Masjid, and Hemis Monastery.