About 130 km north-east of Kargil, in the only fertile valley of Ladakh in Kashmir, there are isolated villages inhabited by a fair skinned, green and blue eyed and exceptionally tall community. With their distinct features and having lived in isolation for many centuries, there are many questions surrounding their background. Legend has it that the Brokpa of India are the direct descendants of the troops left behind by Alexander the Great when he abandoned his mission at the banks of River Indus in 326 BC. Even more widely spread is the notion of them being pure bred Aryans, which is a strenuous theory due to recent history. Whichever may be true or false, both theories seem to be popularly intertwined and have sparked much interest for the 2000 strong Brokpa community and an increased influx of tourists from Europe to come into these Himalayan villages since they were opened to people from outside a couple of years ago.
Given the inhospitable terrain, for thousands of years the valley where they live remained out of bounds and the seclusion of the Brokpa people preserved their original look, which is totally different from others in the region of Ladakh and Kashmir, whose appearance has been more heavily influenced by Tibetan Mongoloid ethnicity. Strangely, there isn’t any evidence for the true background of these people and DNA research into the validity of the Brokpa’s Aryan ancestry has proven almost impossible. Indo-Aryan migrations seems to have come from the direction of ancient Greece towards India, but it is more a language group that gave, and still gives, identity to a somewhat upper nobility, with Persian and Sanskrit being the most well-known products of it. Claims of the Brokpa being purebred Aryan, be it with or without evidence, will therefor automatically give them a distinguished status.
So how close can we trace back the Brokpa’s identity? Historians have called these people Dard rather than Brokpa because they are said to have migrated from a place called Dardistan, which is now in Pakistan. The word ‘Dard’ is derived from Sanskrit and means ‘people who live on the hill side’. When Alexander the Great left his troops behind, it was right around this area, suggesting they might have wandered around as nomads across Dardistan, Purig, Zanskar and Nubra before permanently settling in the valley of Ladakh. The same thing is suggested by the meaning of the name used for them by the Ladahkhi people; ‘Brokpa’ means ‘people moving from place to place with their cattle in search for a pasture’, which they eventually found on the slopes high above the River Indus. The migration route they took is clearly described in their folk songs and they still sing those songs during their New Year and harvest festivities.
All the sensationalism surrounding the background of Brokpa people put aside, they maintain a very fascinating and highly unique traditional culture for many other reasons than their descent. They take a lot of pride in their ancestry and genetic uniqueness, which is preserved through strong social rules with an emphasis, or maybe you could even call it an obsession, for purity. Very important is their belief that marrying or having children outside of the community is forbidden, to ensure the purity of their ancestry. They even practice polyandry, meaning couples within the tribe who can not conceive choose other partners for producing offspring and women are allowed to have sexual interactions with multiple men, as long as they are within the same village. Even more so, women in general enjoy more freedom and respect within their family and tribal constellations because they ensure perpetuation of the blood line, creating an overall atmosphere of peace and lust for life.
The sheer abundance and beauty, which is yet again closely related to their desire for purity, translates in many other aspects of daily life in the ‘Aryan valley’. There, where the natural world sparks their ornamentation, there is no need for the likes of lipstick, perfume and mascara, the women of the Brokpa people decorate themselves with beautiful headdresses made from rows of coins, colorful ribbons and flowers from the only strip of fertile ground in the region. Despite the Borkpa people formally having converted to Tibetan Buddhism, they still abhor to an animist worldview which is considered a predecessor of Buddhism, called Bon. The first symbol of the Bon religion is the swastika, rotated in a counter clockwise direction, which represents mans’ eternal struggle with the elements and the world beyond.
The Brokpa belief the world is divided in three spheres, a white and pure one – which is the realm of the gods, the red one – which is the realm of the people, and a blue one -the lower realm of the water spirits. The three worlds are connected by a universal tree which grows from top to bodem and makes it possible to communicate between them. To reach the realm of the gods in this earthly life, it is encouraged to avoid any kind of pollution and consume only off the ground, which also makes them advent vegetarians (and sometimes even vegans) and amazing agrarians of organic fruits, oats and vegetables. Brokpa are well-known for their barley, potatoes, apricot, walnut and grape produce, and the art of making red and white wine, leaving cows-milk strictly out of their diet for many centuries.
Despite the over 2000 years long tradition of veganism, recent developments have forced the Brokpa to take up alternative diets, comprising milk, eggs and meat. Even high up on the Himalayas, climate change has made summers longer and winters warmer, bringing on pests and jeopardizing the health of the soil. Crops are not as prosperous as they used to be, potatoes or barley don’t grow as well above certain temperatures, causing the introduction of more fruits and less carbs into their diets. The shortages caused by this are more and more often complimented by cow meat, butter and milk. Changes within the culture are also propelled by the influx of tourists, emphasizing the importance of their identity over spirituality or social structures. In an article by Shubhangi Swarup in the Open Magazine, he points out the dangers of too many tourists into the Brokpa communities:
‘Among Brokpas themselves, an awareness of their ‘Aryanness’ has spread far and wide with the influx of tourists and others drawn by the tag. Within just decades, the process of exoticising is firmly and disturbingly in place. Aware of Aryan looks and cultural traits, Brokpas are now seen to seek these out in themselves.’
The process described above is creating a culture in which the Brokpa emphasize their ‘Aryanness’ by looking outside of their own traditions. For example, they have introduced different words into their dialect, as well as a more western dress, whereby abhoring to the fantasies of Europeans wanting to get a glimpse of what their ancestors might have looked like. Researcher of Brokpa culture and former teacher at Ladakhi schools Tashi Namgyal tells about his experience of the loss of tradition and local dialect by the following account (2015):
” Amazingly when I was serving as teacher at Dha in the year 1997-98, the children used to call their father and mother bo and aye respectively in their language but when I was posted there again in the year 2013, I came to know that the children now don’t know these two words in their dialect. Now they called the father ‘Aba’ and the mother as ‘Mummy’. This is only an example to show how their dialect gets vulnerable to abolish gradually.”
The question is, however, whether these developments is really jeopardizing the Brokpa culture in the longterm or whether it’s ‘simply’ a culture growing in new and different directions. Outside attention is also bringing focus to the beauty and sheer possibility of living completely in balance within a matriarchal society, growing and eating straight out of the ground (as much as possible) and thus maintaining a healthy and balanced life in accordance with the elements, with or without climate change. The Brokpa are a resilient and adaptive people. On top of that, associations with the nobility of the Aryans has sparked additional pride for their ancestry, which might cause them to hold on to exactly those aspects of their culture which make them resilient.
Picture used for this article was taken by Yamuna Flaherty