A chosen people

The Brogpas are said to be of Indo-Aryan stock and came down the Indus centuries ago. Whether it is German women who seek Brogpas for racially pure progeny or anthropologists researching their life, these Aryans continue to fascinate. Aditi Tandon reports from Ladakh.

A Brogpa woman
A Brogpa woman

High cheek bones and sharp features distinguish the Brogpas
High cheek bones and sharp features distinguish the Brogpas.

Dullness of the cold desert fades away as you enter the Southern foothills of the Ladakh range. Perched on the rugged cliffs of Batalik sector is a cluster of four villages that have captured the world’s imagination with claims of their pure Aryan descent. Across these villages the Indus flows quietly, enhancing the romance of a landscape that suddenly abandons all austerity and bursts into a riot of orange. The colour marks Monthu Tho, the perennial flower that signifies the Brogpas, who inhabit Garkone, Darchik, Dah and Hanu villages.

Literally meaning mountain dwellers (Brog means a hillock, while Pa stands for an inhabitant), the Brogpas are said to be descendants of the Dards, of Indo-Aryan stock, who came down the Indus centuries ago. For years they have been guarding their purity by preventing inter-caste marriages that are considered dangerous for the cultural health of the race. They have also been religiously pursued by foreigners who are crazy about a pure Aryan progeny. Off and on there have been reports of German women sneaking into the area in the hope that a Brogpa would seer her child. Invariably they have had to return dejected, at least so say the local police and Army authorities. What makes Ladakh’s "pure blooded Aryans" so special? One is cautioned by a Army man, "Don’t pester them too much with queries about their lineage. There are no records to prove their claims but they firmly believe in their Aryan origin. Often, they inspire a similar belief in others. This pure Aryan cluster is visited more by researchers and besotted foreigners than by domestic tourists."

 Torn between reasoning and faith, researchers from the world over have been flocking to the area to study the unique physical and cultural characteristics of "Aryans." For long now, the mystique of this "pure Aryan race" has thrilled visitors as well as ethnologists and social anthropologists. At any time of the year, at least four researchers camp in the area, to read the psyche of these reticent people who view outsiders as "intruders". No wonder some villagers admit to have turned down sexual passes made at them by German women yearning for a pure Aryan progeny. Post-Kargil, the influx of foreigners to this area has been largely curtailed due to the strict policies of the Indian government. Of the four Aryan villages, Darchik and Garkone (Leh district) can be accessed only after a clearance from the Home Ministry. These villages fall in the inner line drawn by the Army for security purposes. They are very close to the LOC.

But despite restricted entry, there have been rumours about foreigners entering Darchik to establish sexual liaison with Brogpa men. Dismissing these rumours as baseless, Army authorities maintain that any visitor entering these villages must get security clearance from the Army Headquarters. However, some village elders tell that earlier few children were adopted by Germans on the promise of good upbringing. They add that German women are hugely smitten by Brogpa men. This attraction is understandable not only for Hitler’s legendary fondness for the race but also for the Brogpas’ physical characteristics which reinforce one’s belief in their pure Aryan descent. People here are taller, fairer, with high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes. Says an Army officer, "They render their folk traditions once every three years during a special celebration in the Bona-na festival. This event is a testimony to Brogpas’ rich historical antecedents which they seemingly trace from Central Rome."


Film maker Sukhwant Dhadda (of Ek Chadar Maili Si fame), who is making a documentary on the festivals and traditions of Brogpas, confirms the view. "Bona-na is a freak festival. It signifies the level of liberation these villagers have achieved. They have long been known to practice polyandry to save their small land holdings from further division. But they also practice open sex, especially during the Bona na, in which they kiss in the open and indulge in free sex. The folk rendition tells us that they do all this to scare away the Gods by indulging in morally reprehensible acts."

Another observation is made by Mona Bhan, a Rutgers University student from the University of New Jersey, USA, who has been visiting Brogpa villages for four years for her PhD on the pure-blooded Aryans, "I am studying cultural anthropology and what better subject for research than the Brogpas? Their pure Aryan identity has been taken for granted by most who believe that the Brogpas have maintained their purity by discouraging mixing up of races. In my opinion, the Brogpa identity has not developed in isolation. Further, scientifically speaking, affinity in races is an outdated concept. I am deconstructing the notion of pure identity and studying the factors that have created this notion in the first place."

While researchers debate the issue, locals maintain their age-old belief in racial purity. They add that observation of festivals like the Bona-na is obligatory in nature as it forms part of the centuries-old Brogpa tradition. Seen from another plane, "Aryans" are religious minded people who have laboured hard to preserve manuscripts as old as 25, 000 years. Specimens of these manuscripts are to be found only in the Hemis monastery. Chieftain of Darchik village Tashi Dava, says, "We are Buddhists by religion. We drink goat’s milk, and eat plain barley and saag. For everything important we consult our religious head who is a lama. As far as economy is concerned, we are fortunate to be part of the Batalik Sector which is one of the green belts of Ladakh region."

The four Aryan villages are thus a fertile zone in an otherwise rainless Ladakh. Agro-pastoralists by nature, the Brogpas grow apricots in plenty. In the past they used to barter apricots for salt. But now, commercialisation has fuelled local economy and each apricot tree is fetching a household around Rs 30,000 annually.

Fertile habitat

Of total earnings, it is mandatory for each household to supply goats and a fixed amount of rice to the village kotwal who functions under the local chieftain, also called the nambardar. Says Tashi Dava, the nambardar of Darchik, "The stocks are maintained in anticipation of the arrival of guests. If none comes, the kotwal can consume everything." The authority of the nambardar is considered supreme in Brogpa community. Traditionally, Brogpas have been peace-loving and vibrant people. Their flamboyant head dress, "kho" embodies their spirit abundantly. It is studded with flowers and coins. Married women wear the Monthu Tho in their head dress. It signifies marital status. They also adorn themselves with silver ornaments. Traditional dress of Brogpas is made of sheep’s wool. Says Tsering Dolma, a Dah resident who got married recently, "We wear flowers all over our body. We also grow them in plenty in our houses. Our food habits are simple. Although traditionally we are wheat and barley eaters, nowadays other preparations have also become part of our kitchen menu. We drink Chhang, a traditional drink prepared from barley."


Polyandry is still practiced
Polyandry is still practiced

Birth of a child is the most momentous occasion in the life of any Brogpa couple. Unfortunately, child survival rates in these villages are very poor due to inaccessibility to medical facilities. Most women prefer to deliver at homes rather than traveling nine hours down to Leh to seek medical help. Explaining the child birth ritual, Sonam Dolma says, "Parents of a newborn have to observe certain strict rules. They cannot meet anyone for four days, nor can they visit a gompa. After four days, the parents of a newborn host a feast called, "Bangri." We celebrate birthdays at an interval of every 12 years, as per the Tibetan calendar."

The custom of marriage is also unique. Some households still practice polyandry. As in the other tribal societies, it is the groom who pays the bride price. Women have rights of divorce. Over the recent past, women of the area have begun to assert their rights. Many young girls have enrolled for vocational courses at the Women’s Empowerment Centre being run at Darchik by the Army under Operation Sadbhavana. Says Tashi Nardi, one of the students here, "We are free to seek divorce, but in that case we must return the husband’s property which mainly includes silver jewellery. Since we follow Buddhism, we enjoy the right to snap ties with our men if we feel we can no longer coexist peacefully. Traditionally, however, we enjoy lesser rights."


The traditional Brogpa dress is made of sheep’s wool
The traditional Brogpa dress is made of sheep’s wool.

THE four Brogpa villages were divided when Ladakh was fragmented into Leh and Kargil districts in 1978. While Garkone and Darchik now fall under the administrative control of Kargil, Dah and Hanu come under Leh. Out of the four villages, Dah is considered the cultural centre of Buddhist Dard culture because it is open to tourists also. As for the migratory route, Brogpas claim it starts from Gilgit and ends in Ganex passing through the various destinations of Tirmukh, Rome-Skardu, Kareix, Sixaur, Parkuta, Shigar and Gavis. Interestingly, the story of Brogpa villages revolves around three brothers, Dulo, Melo and Galo, who earlier settled in Dah and later in Garkone, Darchik and Hanu. Tashi Tsering, a village elder from Garkone tells, "There are interesting tales behind the naming of each Brogpa village. Dah originated when Dulo shot an arrow from a hillock. Water sprang from the point where the arrow hit. The village was called Dah because Dah in Brogpa parlance means arrow.

Garkone is named after another brother Galo. "Darchik" in our language means terraced area. The village’s name befits its terraced settlement."

— Photos by the writer