Decrypting the lost tribes of Himalayas: Twigs for tweets!
As I unrolled the map of Ladakh, my eyes were certainly intrigued by the quaint little village of Dah-Hanu, nestled on the rugged cliffs of Batalik region. Unlike the insipid, Spartan, cold-desert-like landscape of Ladakh, these villages in the Southern foothills along the quiet Indus river wear a lush green colour with a riot of orange. The colour marks 'Monthu Tho', the perennial flower that signifies the 'Brogpas', who inhabit Garkone, Darchik, Dah and Hanu villages. Not only geographically but culturally too, the Brogpas and Ladakhis are poles apart. The villages have interesting tales behind the naming of each Brogpa village. Dah originated when King 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. Folklore says that Brogpas are the original survivors of the Aryan race and are believed to have migrated via Gilgit during the turmoil of warring chieftains, down the Indus centuries ago from Central Asia in the villages situated on the northern bank along the lower Indus, on the road to Baltistan. Faintly, this village lured a few anthropologists and adventurous travellers – often the only intruders in their world; with claims of their pure Aryan descent.
At first sight, they seem like any other forgotten tribe; some hundreds of people who continue to speak their own language and worship their own gods, isolated from the world. But in the village of the lost tribes, I found a whole new form of language, as distinct as the tribe itself. The ‘Brogpas’ are not just another tribe; they are the last Aryans of Kashmir’s Himalayan highlands. Literally meaning mountain dwellers 'Brog' means a hillock, while 'Pa' stands for an inhabitant, the Brogpas whose community hardly numbers over 2000 are said to be descendants of the 'Dards', of Indo-Aryan stock, who came down the Indus centuries ago.
There are no signboards announcing you’ve reached this nondescript village, so you’ll probably feel a little lost. With a seven hour stretch along the Leh-Kargil road and generous verbal footnotes from people en route, I managed to set my foot on Dah-Hanu. The fact that this is a difficult place to find is a clear indication that it is untouched by the clutches of commercialism and the prying eyes of a large tourist population, thereby enabling you to enjoy the beauty of the place at your own pace. However, with no signs of guest houses in the vicinity, I began my search for a place to retire for the night. I trailed along with a bunch of shy, friendly kids only to be welcomed by Mr. Lundhup Dorjey who runs a small family guest house called Skybapa. The bricked house was nothing like one would expect a guest house to be. It was a home hiding behind Apricot trees and Grapevines, leading you to a farm of home-grown veggies. Climbing a wobbly ladder and jumping across sheetfuls of sun-dried tomatoes, I settled in my room by the terrace. I was just in time to witness the sun brushing up the sky in a crimson hue. As I stood by the edge of the roof nibbling a few sun-dried tomatoes, Lundhup pointed out the natural formations of faces on the mighty Tiger Hill in front of us. By then, the house lady got us bottles of homemade barley ‘Chang’ and Apricot wine. We savoured the drinks over conversations about the origin of Brogpas as the sky jewelled itself with clusters of dazzling stars.
Later on, Lundhup took me through the glorious past of the Aryan lineage over a simple yet delectable meal. He proudly showed off his picture in a copy of a Photo book titled ‘Brogpa’ by a German student-Breton Schwarzenback who lived with them to explore their culture. These so-called purebred descendants of Alexander-the great not only carry the light-eyed, pale-skinned and sharp-nosed European features, but also many Greek and German words in their scriptures. Seen from another plane, Aryans are religious minded people who have laboured hard to preserve manuscripts as old as 25, 000 years, specimens of which are to be found only at the Hemis monastery in Leh. Also, traces of these could be found in their local language Shina. Now, the Brogpas follow a mixture of pre-Buddhist animist-shamanist religion, Bon and Buddhism. They consider the animal ‘Ibex’ as sacred. For everything important, they consult their religious head who is a Lama. Lundhup narrated the age old customs of Brogpas, one of which involved killing babies who were born with dark eyes in order to live up to their racial features. Another one was about their festival 'Bona-na' wherein they practice open sex to scare away gods with morally guilty acts. Yet another one was about men paying dowry to marry women as per Brogpa traditions. Quite evolved, aren’t they? These signify their level of liberation but on the other hand, they are also religious-minded people known for preserving their age-old traditions even today. Whether it is about German women seeking Brogpas for racially pure progeny to satisfy their fantasy of having pure Aryan babies or anthropologists researching their life, these Aryan customs continued to fascinate me even more.
While conversations about the lost tribe of Brogpa who are completely cut off from communication and modernisation bubbled up, I discovered one of their oldest forms of non-verbal communication – the 'Bagbha' sign language. Unlike the usual sign language with movements or expressions, this one’s emoted with a definitive amount of various twigs, grasses, leaves, stems, herbs, flowers and fruits put together or in isolation. This means, a blade of grass and two dandelions paired together is a cryptic code for a sentence or message. Likewise, each flower, stem, leaf, grass or fruit in isolation or combination signified a word or sentence. These bouquets marked their exchanges within the tribe. A form of communication sacred to their tribe, and one that only they could decipher. Legend has it that, it was borrowed from 'Bagbha' tribes who migrated across the world for many generations, making its history tricky to unearth. This was not only a unique form of communication but also a secretive one, aiding the warring genomes of Aryans back in time. As Lundhup unearthed this unique language, not only did my mind challenge the acumen of cryptology in our ever-advancing twenty first century but also the very muscle of oral communication. Indeed, you don’t always need words to communicate!
The following morning began with a breath-taking view of the mountains and a delectable spread of Butter Tea, local bread and homemade Apricot jam. I set out to explore this quaint village in the simplest of ways – just walking, capturing sights and people. As I went further uphill; the pure mountain air truly refreshed my senses. Suddenly, one realises how little they have seen in their own country. The apricot trees, grapevines, tomato farms, wild flowers strewn all over, tiny 'Gompas' and smiling locals are a few of the many things that you’ll find here in abundance. However, there are a few things that only your eyes can capture, even if you are accompanied by the world’s most advanced camera. As I returned from my long hike around the village, a wrinkled lady welcomed me with a smile. Donning heavy metallic earrings through holes pierced in her earlobes sporting pigtails and a flamboyant head dress, 'Kho' – a colourful cap studded with wild flowers and coins; she humbly posed for the shutterbug. The vibrant 'Kho' embodies their spirit abundantly and differs as per their gender, age and marital status. Then Lundhup too, surprised us by wearing the traditional attire of men to complement his grandmother in my frame. By now, even I was tempted to try the beautifully crafted Kho. The fun continued with yet another scrumptious meal with the duo. What touched me was the fact that the Brogpas are content with their apricots, barley and tomatoes. It might be startling, but as Lundhup lightly put it, probably their toughest bet in a day would be to decide what to eat for lunch or dinner. Now that’s what simplicity is all about. Moments flew with these endless conversations and it was already time for me to leave. And I bid goodbye to Dah-Hanu, preserving a leaf literally, from their glorious history in my book of memoirs.