Walking into the past along the frozen Indus in Ladakh

I had read passing references about the Brokpa community, most of them were rumours of German women coming in search of pure Aryan men. The people living in ‘four Aryan villages’ had remained culturally secluded and were different from the rest of the Ladakhis.

Huff Post interviewed me about this, here.

Spectacular landscape, a riot of colours in the stark and unbearably cold winter.

Read : Into Unknown Ladakh

I was in Leh having just returned from Turtuk, somehow escaping from a snowstorm atop Khardung La. My guest house owner suggested I head to Hanu Gongma and explore (Hanu is one of the four ‘Aryan’ villages). The other three being Dah, Garkon & Darchiks. A bus left from Leh at 9 in the morning and would reach at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I wasn’t worried too much about accommodation and food even though it was the peak of winter in January, knowing the helping nature of the mountain people. After the bus dropped me in Hanu, it was a challenge to walk on the frozen road along the emerald waters of the Indus river and reach somewhere before dark and find accommodation.

A scene while walking on the road, hardly two vehicles passed me in two hours.

When I travel to a place, I go with a clear mind and do not entirely believe in what is written on the internet. Regarding the ‘Aryan’ myth; the locals converse in a different language locally known as Shina but they themselves do not know whether they are Aryans or not. Legend says there were four brothers, one settled in Gilgit (across the border in Pakistan) and the other three by the names Dulo, Galo, Melo settled in Dah, Garkon, Darchiks & Hanu. For the Brokpas, inter-mixing with outsiders by way of marriage and kinship is forbidden and that has enabled them to maintain their racial purity over the centuries.

I was startled to see a woman wearing sheep-skin in the bus. She also donned orange flowers, silver jewellery and looked ethnically different than the Ladakhis. I went around asking questions out of curiosity. An elderly gentleman told me it was the traditional dress of the Brokpa (Or Drokpa). He invited me to his home in Hanu if I did not find any accommodation.

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The trees have shed all their leaves, sunlight is about to leave us and cold takes over to freeze the Indus.

All the four Brokpa villages are located amidst green pastures, and grow barley, tomatoes and other grains and vegetabes; but what they are really famous for are the apricots, grapes and walnuts. The Brokpa are experts in making a fine quality of apricot wine, red and white wine. Even though these Dards (Brokpa people) claim to be Buddhists, they predominantly seem to practise an animist religion called Bön which is even older than Buddhism. I am shown their place of worship and the deity (to my surprise) is – horns of Ibex piled upon one another against a rock face. They are very fond of flowers and a riot of colourful wildflowers grow in spring.

A glimpse of traditional Brokpa attire; flowers, silver jewellery and hat.

The Dards or Brokpas were some of the earliest settlers in Ladakh. A mixture of Islam from Kargil and Buddhism from Leh meant a different community called the Argons emerged with names such as Ali Tsering. I wondered how the amalgamation of cultures has caused such mysticism.

I had reached the village of Dah after walking uphill from the road and arrived at a deserted home with only a lady walking around. I chatted as I usually do, she took me home and gave me a glass of white wine to taste. I almost ran away after that, when she came closer and gestured with her hands. It was a funny incident, I don’t think she meant any harm.

Read : Travel memories of 2015

They looked wide-eyed when I said I have studied in Bombay, they hadn’t heard of Rajasthan. Bollywood songs are popular among the Brokpas too. Only the prosperous houses have television. There is only one singer remaining who sings the Brokpa songs, I met him and he performed one of his favourite numbers for me even with a sore throat and let me record the audio.

They do not use cow milk and other products. Sheep and goat are an integral part of their lives. They are agro-pastoralists and use goat milk for daily use. Ibex are considered to be sacred. The Brokpa wear silver and other metals and believe that the metals protect them from evil spirits.


At one place was I asked for 10 rupees for clicking a picture and that was in Dah village. In Garkon, I received a hero’s welcome from the kids of the village. The women seemed more active than the men and were carrying dried wood on their backs for use in the house. Some were filling water for daily household purposes. They were happy when I clicked their photographs and even demanded to see how they looked in the camera screen. It was quite a surprise for them to see an outsider coming to these distant villages in the cold of January.

A kind samaritan from Garkon took me on a walking tour around the village and showed an old ruined castle and a gorgeous freezing waterfall that fell from a great height. Upon seeing my interest in their culture, I was invited to an old lady’s home to see varieties of their colourful silver jewellery, easily 100 years old. The kids were very friendly and some of them were very keen to have their photographs taken.

Close to the line of fire, these villages lie in perilous territory.

The landscapes are stunning; the trees have lost all their leaves and the colour is a shade of crimson and gold. With fading sunlight across the emerald coloured, rapidly freezing Indus river, it is a sight to behold. 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 two or three places on the way.

The Brokpas wear their perennial flower Monthu Tho or Shoklo, that blooms in summer and is kept for use through the entire year. The older Brokpa wear pearly button ear decorations, and the women tie their hair in interlocked long multi-stranded braids similar to knotted dreadlocks.

The princess of Garkon!

The villages are rustic and construction is of mud and stone. The houses do not have much space, the Brokpa value their sheep and goats so much that separate rooms have been made for them as an annexe to the homes.

The Brokpa are sturdy, tall & fair looking with distinct European features; high cheekbones, deep almond shaped blue green eyes and light brown hair.

In guarding their purity and preventing inter-caste marriages, sometimes genetic complications mean it is difficult to distinguish between a person being a man or a woman. With more and more youngsters bidding farewell to the villages for the wealth and glamour of the cities, they are finding it difficult to maintain their so-called racial purity.

Read : Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

Happiness and smiles galore as I reach Garkon.

The house that I stay in Garkon is comfortable, designed like a Ladakhi house and a relatively newer construction. My host shows me his old house and place of worship, and also tells me the designs on the door have been found to be similar to those in Rome.

There is much to be learnt from this ancient community that is calm even in the face of minimal development. They have been sandwiched between Kargil & Batalik and that has greatly hampered their progress, yet they remain cheerful and work hard. The Brokpa livelihood is dependent on agriculture and jobs from the army. The climate is less harsh than Ladakh which allows them to grow two crops a year. The nearest hospitals are far away in Kargil & Leh. Sometimes, medical emergencies mean certain death in severe cases. There is a school which has irregular classes due to dearth of teachers.

Making full use of resources is one great forte of the Brokpa community. The almond derived from the seed of apricots is used to make oil which is therapeutic and is used in treating many kinds of ailments. This oil they sell to the army and outsiders for a handsome price.

They are happy to help humans in need, I was lucky to be given a bed to sleep in despite the village not having a homestay. The next day they refused to take money from me for even the delicious dinner and lunch. They are proud of being Indians having seen the war from close quarters and fighting alongside the army in 1999. Their lives are so simple and uncomplicated that probably their toughest thought in a day would be to decide what to eat for lunch or dinner.

The ruined fort of Garkon, has quite an enigmatic history behind it.

Their simple lives make me think maybe its better to live in ignorance of everything – vehicles, telephone, television. To live in bliss without knowing it.

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In Ladakh, women traditionally have been accorded a better status than men. Due to small land holdings, polyandry was rife – brothers shared one wife among them to keep the family land together. There are still some families practicing polyandry; it is a dying practice as more and more people get educated and are exposed to life outside the four villages.  Government developments mean prosperity and more tourists coming their way, increasing education has made them aware of having one partner.

Inscriptions on a rock near Biamah, believed to be from the 6th Century.

It is common for couples who do not conceive to choose other partners for producing offspring after discussions in the village. There is no dowry system. However, the bridegroom generally gives the girl silver ornaments and cattle.

They also organise a triennial festival called Bono – na. It is a celebration of fertility of the crops and the women. The myth of open sex being encouraged is apparently true as confirmed by the villagers. Free sex is a cultural way of maintaining the perpetuity of the race as Brokpas are not allowed to marry outside their four villages. Women sing songs to attract men for copulation, and to ask for their hand in marriage. Pregnancy is a matter of happiness for the entire village, as that is deemed to be the only way forward for the population of 1800-2000 Brokpas.

My homestay owner’s sister, photographed by a foreigner many years ago.


The only bus to Leh leaves at 7 am from Dah. My homestay owner’s car would not start due to the cold and I was left running on a snowed out road to try and catch it. It was my good luck when the Army brigadier of Biamah picked me up and made sure I caught the bus from Achinathang. I have a difficult choice to make, to wait for the guard to give me the rose stick that the brigadier has gifted to me or catch the bus that would take me to the warmth of Leh.

I choose the latter.

30 thoughts on “Walking into the past along the frozen Indus in Ladakh

  1. Yes, for mountain people their animals are definitely sacred. I remember my ma narrating an incident which she heard from the people in the village after her marriage. Our village in Uttarakhand was literally surrounded by a dense canopy of trees back in the day. There was always a fear looming large of the bagh coming and stealing the goats from what you referred to as the annex to the main house. In he pitch dark of the night, when the tiger held one of the goats by the neck, my father’s maternal aunt bravely snatched it away from the fangs of this bagh, who had no option but to flee because of the commotion around.

    We heard this story as kids. So, when I got the chance to ask the elderly people in the village, they testified to my great grandmother’s courageous fight. Trust me, they can even die protecting their cattle.


    Also, women wore a lot of silver and pierced their entire ear so they could adorn them with silver rings and jhumkas. Sadly the glittering gold has taken over and popular jewlery is now made in gold, not silver. So good to see tradition being preserved higher up in the Himalaya. And, what a beautiful portrait of the lady. 🙂


    More power to you and your travles, Shubham!

  2. Ladakh is a beautiful place to explore. You have mentioned it in a very nicely manner. I love your photography specially images of ladakki kids. They are looking soo cute and innocent. Thanks for sharing…!!

  3. This is a fascinating journey into the past. I never knew about these Aryan villages. Loved reading about your interactions with the people, especially the children. The community seems so pure and untouched with just the hint of contemporary times sweeping through. Awesome post.

    1. It really was a crazy experience. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been able to do it if I had thought about how I will find a way to stay because it was winter. I visited these villagers again in the cold of 2017 and have yet to start travelogues from that epic journey!

  4. I am really really fascinated…not with you but the area, the people I was never aware of. I felt like i was really there to see everything clearly and to hear everything properly while I was reading this article of yours…and now I feel I should go there and just be someone who I always wanted to be (the traveller by heart) and feel the peace and happiness so deep!!

    But I also felt bad at a point where you mentioned that the tribe’s rule to not to inter-mix with outsiders, is getting disturbed due to outsiders visiting the place and making them aware of the reality of this world….I mean it should be okay if they are happy by not knowing anything in general and if they are really willing to keep the purity of their ancestral shape size etc!!
    So I would want to go but in a way that respect their rituals and rules!

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