The enigmatic tales of the elusive Brokpas, a 5,000-year-old tribe of Ladakh, believed to be the last of the ‘original Aryan race’, have drawn curious travellers to the remote region.
Jaipur-based photographer and writer Shubham Mansingka, who took to travelling after a seven-year struggle with asthma, found himself fascinated with a guest house owner's stories about the tribe, after narrowly escaping a snowstorm atop Khardung La in January 2015.
Mansingka, who had given up his family business, decided to investigate.
"Even though it was the peak of winter, I wasn’t too worried about food and accommodation knowing the helping nature of the mountain people,” he told HuffPost India. “Frozen roads, freezing temperatures… they only piqued my fascination of living and knowing life in the winter of an elusive and ancient tribe,” he said.
The Brokpa tribe is limited to 2,000 people in four villages (Hanu, Dah, Garkon and Darchiks) that rest in green Ladakhi pastures, and probably were the earliest settlers in the region. Mansingka fell deeply and immediately in love with the rustic settings of the villages with homes made of mud and stone against the stark and wintery landscape.
“The trees have lost all their leaves and the colour is a shade of crimson and fold. With fading sunlight across the emerald-coloured highway, it is a sight to behold,” he said. “After Khaltse on the main highway from Leh-Srinagar, the road passes the walnut growing village of Domkhar and a ruined fort at Skurbuchan. There are rock engravings and petroglyphs from the 6th century at different places along the way.”
“Legend says there were four brothers, of whom one settled in Gilgit (across the border from Pakistan), and the other three settled in these villages,” said Mansingka. “It is claimed that they are the last of the pure Aryans, but they themselves do not know if they are Aryans or not.”
Mansingka’s first encounter with a member of the Brokpa tribe was in a bus he had boarded (the only one to leave at 7am from Achinathang). “I was startled to see a woman wearing sheepskin… she was also wearing orange flowers, silver jewellery and looked ethnically different from the Ladakhis. On questioning, I found out from an elderly gentleman that this was a traditional Brokpa dress. He even invited me to stay with him giving me confidence that the tribe was not as shut-off and unwelcoming as myths had suggested.”
Mansingka uncovered many other facts, along with this surprising revelation. He described the people as “sturdy, tall and fair with distinct European features: high cheekbones, deep almond shaped blue-green eyes, and light brown hair.” He claimed that inter-mixing with outsiders by way of marriage and kinship was forbidden to maintain their racial purity over centuries.
“Even though these Dards (Brokpa people) claim to be Buddhists, they predominantly seem to be practising an animist religion called Bön, which is even older than Buddhism,” said Mansingka who was also welcomed to the tribe’s place of worship that featured a deity in the form of the horns of Ibex piled upon each other against a rock formation.
He also confirmed that the practise of polyandry, though slowly dying, did exist, and it was common for couples within the tribe who could not conceive to choose other partners for producing offspring after discussions in the village. “Open sex is encouraged as a cultural way of maintaining the perpetuity of the race as Brokpas are not allowed to marry outside their four villages. During the festival of Bono–na, that takes place every three years to celebrate the fertility of crops and women, the womenfolk sing songs to attract men for copulation, and to ask for their hand in marriage,” he said.
Mansingka was delighted to find that the Dards (particularly women) love flowers, and wear their perennial flower Monthu Tho or Shoklo throughout the year. “The older Brokpa wear pearly button ear decorations, and the women tie their hair in interlocked multi-stranded braids similar to knotted dreadlocks. On seeing my interest, I was also invited to an old lady’s home to see varieties of their unique colourful silver jewellery that was easily over a century old, and is worn to keep evil spirits at bay.”
The Brokpas -- famous for their apricot, grape and walnut produce -- are established experts in the art of making apricot, red and white wine, and do not consume cow milk, preferring instead goat milk. “A jolly lot, they’re proud of their culture, and make full use of their resources,” said Mansingka, referring in particular to the apricot oil that the Brokpas sell in handsome quantity to the army and outsiders to treat many ailments.
Welcomed warmly by the people, Mansingka was surprised to hear that the tribe had never heard of Rajasthan, but were awed when the photographer told them he had studied in Mumbai. “Bollywood songs are popular here. There is only one singer remaining who sings the traditional Brokpa songs. He sang one of his favourite numbers for me, even though he had a sore throat, and let me record it,” he said, adding that he was not charged a penny for food and accommodation.
He was charmed in particular by the children, who he said gave him a hero’s welcome, and were ecstatic on getting their picture taken.
Intoxicated by their uncomplicated existence, Mansingka said there was much that the rest of India could learn from the ancient community that accorded their women a higher stature than men, and “is calm even in the face of minimal development. They have been sandwiched between Kargil and Batalik, and that has greatly hampered their progress, yet they remain cheerful and work hard,” he said.
“They face harsh climatic conditions, the nearest hospitals are far away, meaning death in medical emergencies and irregular education, yet in spite of their remote connections to the country, they are intensely proud of being Indian, having seen the way from close quarters and even fighting alongside the army in 1999.”
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