Brokpas of Ladakh – Culture & Portraits

After enjoying the explorations of the ‘Aryan Valley’ in Garkone (Also Garkhon) village in the cold of January in Ladakh’s winter in 2015, the lure of excellent wine drew me back to the Brokpa villages in December 2016 again.

A cute looking Brokpa kid at the old lady’s home in Garkone village.

After visiting Biamah village and having a glimpse of this ancient culture, I had gone ahead to Dah village and spending some time chatting up with the locals and buying some excellent almond oil from a local.

A sturdy Brokpa lady carries loads even as the ground is covered in snow in Garkone village.

There are some kids attending ‘school’ in an open courtyard and my arrival causes a brief moment of chaos. The youngsters are happy to clamour around me while the oldies are enjoying their time in the sun.

Happy me with the locals in one of the Brokpa villages.

A young lama is entrusted with the task of leading me on the way to Garkhon village. The mellifluous sound of the Indus river is a constant companion in these Brokpa (also Drokpa) villages. Dah, Biamah, Garkone are all located on the right bank of the Indus river while Darchiks is located on the left side of the river.

Brokpa women wear a sheepskin as a part of the clothing during the cold winters of Ladakh.

It is a mixed welcome in Garkhon village, kids look at me with inquisitive eyes while some take my hand and accompany me in finding a homestay. Once I’ve found room, the homestay owner takes me around the village with great insight into the Brokpa culture. Few details on my Garkone visit in Walking into the past along the frozen Indus in Ladakh.

Strange face of a local : I still don’t know if it was a man or a woman. I think a woman. Whats your opinion?

On the long walk in Garkone village, I was happiest when the local took me to an old woman’s home. The family and kids were excited to see an outsider in their house.

Men wear buttons adorning the ears as an accessory… Very strange are the way of the Brokpas!

The local with me asked the ladies of the house to show me the traditional jewellery. There was no electricity in Garkhon that day and I had to rely on the flashlight because the skies were overcast too and natural light was at a premium from the solitary window.

Glimpse of the jewellery in a local’s home in Garkone village in ‘Aryan Valley, Ladakh.

The jewellery was mostly made of silver and the designs were totally different from what I had ever seen. The blue-green colour seemed like turquoise while the other jewellery displayed was very unique.

Check : Kids of Markha Valley

This cute baby was sitting with her grandma and had striking eyes.

On one of the days, I was lucky to listen to a rendition of a popular Aryan song sung by the only remaining singer of the Brokpas. The Brokpa deity is worshipped a little bit away from the village and is a pile of ilex horns set around a stone.

A blurred photograph of the deity worshipped by the Brokpa people, as shown to me in Garkhon.

While walking from Biamah to Dah, I met some boys from Shalkhar village who were going to an army school near Yaldor. They looked quite different than the Brokpas and although I’m unsure, I think they were Argons of Ladakh.

Not entirely sure, but probably this child is an Argon from the Shalkhar-Chigtan belt.

On my subsequent visit in 2016, since it was nearing evening we tried walking into Shalkhar hamlet by crossing the bridge across the Indus on the left side; but the reception by the villagers was not welcome at all. I was keen on listening to stories of Chigtan Khar (Chiktan Khar) by an old man identified by the name of Moosa. Shalkhar seemed like a village inhabited entirely by muslims and the locals told us that there was no homestay during the winter months.

Portrait of a Brokpa lady with braided hair which is then tied to make the colourful bun.

We rushed on the road and were lucky to find a ride and spent the night in a different homestay. The home was modern this time and the homestay was really comfortable. While in 2015, my interaction with the family and locals was very culturally rich; it felt very different hardly 2 years later. We were served frozen peas and paneer with rice for dinner.

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Brokpa households are similar to Ladakhi homes where the kitchen is the place of central activity. I didn’t hesitate to ask for dried apricots and other dry fruits and gur-gur chai to keep ourselves warm. The Brokpas seem to have a strange affinity with cats, there was at least one cat in every Brokpa household that I have stepped into.

Portrait of a Brokpa woman in the traditional jewellery and costume.

Normally I am a bit averse to giving out such facts on the internet : The Brokpa villages grow grapes courtesy of the fabulous weather during the summer and are proficient in the art of wine making. Every household makes a limited quantity of wine from home grown grapes and the quality is exceptional.

A giggly welcome by the kids… Who is the crazy guy to come in the cold?!

I am not sure if my readers know this, but I am a liquor connoisseur and do not prefer to buy wine from the market. I had procured some bottles of local wine in 2015 and had loved them so much that we decided to somehow find more bottles for a reasonable price.

The last singer of the songs of the Brokpas. I still have the voice recording when he sang with a hoarse throat.

After much searching and finding, we could only buy one bottle and were quite sad when we walked out to the main road. In no time, a sumo came around and stopped abruptly. The driver had seen us wandering just a day ago and wanted to help the travellers in any way he could! We expressed our wish, and he took us farther on the road to Batalik.

More exquisite jewellery that the family said was easily more than 100 years old.

The sizeable village of Darchiks was visible on the left side of the road as we took a detour on the right and the sumo clamoured up on an uphill path to reach the tiny hamlet of Hordass. The village was straight out of a classic and donkeys roamed around the paths. Very few people could be seen as they had gone to the far side of the village to sit in the sunshine. We would later see that soaking the sunshine was serious business that the Brokpas liked during the winter.

                                Kids in traditional Brokpa attire.

There were tiny paths in Hordass village and the homes were all made of mud and stone and appeared very old and delicate. The road had ended on a crag just before the village and we had crossed the fields to reach. After criss-crossing some tricky paths, we were invited to the home of the elder sister of the driver.

I got really lucky that day… this is a different culture and this display of jewellery is extremely rare.

As with other Brokpa homes, a cat was sitting near the traditional stove. It seemed like we were the first tourists to visit Hordas village and were served the finest dried apricots, walnuts and almonds. We thanked them generously and expressed a desire to procure the bottles of wine as soon as possible. Our driver said he will bring 3-4 bottles in a jiffy.

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I was very happy and content; by the looks of it, it seemed that every household had surplus wine and would be happy to sell some of it. But it was not to be, the driver came looking glum faced and said that none of the households had any wine to sell to us. We refused to budge and with a sweet face told him that he needs to get the wine! We got lucky and stuck a very good deal for four bottles in the end!

A very ‘European’ looking child with blonde hair somewhere on the road to Dah.

The whole exchange in the very remote and non-touristy village of Hordas instinctively told me that the whole practise of wine making seems to be undergoing a slow decline. None of the villagers could make available even one bottle of red wine, which was a huge surprise considering the fact that Losar had been celebrated yet (or maybe they were hoarding all the wine for the song and dancing during Losar!)

Portrait of an old Brokpa woman in the traditional attire with sheepskin and braided hair.

When we came back on the road and were waiting for a ride, we saw that the entire village was on the road enjoying the sunshine. Some men and women were washing their clothes in the Indus while the old folk and the children played in the sun and shifted as the sunshine moved.

I was initially terrified when I saw this sheepskin or goatskin. This is a way of life for the Brokpa (also Drokpa).
While the Indus serenely flows… the mysterious people sure seem to be an old civilisation. Hows that for a view from the Brokpa villages?!
Cricket has made an inroad in their lives that is now dominated by television.
I hope to go back someday and handover these portraits to the locals…

It does not please me at all to report that the highly indigenous culture and customs of the Brokpas are slowly being mixed with Buddhism. During my second winter visit, I noted that not one of the locals could be spotted sporting the monthu tho flower nor wearing any traditional garment. Even in the village of Hordas, the few people that I encountered were wearing no sheepskin / goatskin.

The flower monthu-tho is very important for the Brokpa.

This post is thereby an attempt at preserving the memory of this ancient culture. I know this is not a comprehensive post, but better to pen it down than lose it from my mind forever.

Also check : Other posts on Ladakh

Portraits that speak, from Turtuk

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16 thoughts on “Brokpas of Ladakh – Culture & Portraits

  1. You have managed to put so much invaluable information in this short post- its so interesting to read !! The portraits are amazing and the slideshow is making the overall viewer experience so much better!! Keep it up 🙂

  2. Hi Shubham,
    Great collection of pictures. In Bhutan, people residing in northern places like Merak, Sakteng, Laya and Lingzhi are also called as ‘Brokpas’. I am wondering if they are ethnically share same root. Look similar – outfits and looks. Thanks

    1. Hi hi hi Sherab! Thanks. Yes, I remember the locals told me about the Brokpas of Lingzhi in the high altitude region. And then I also saw Brokpas of Arunachal Pradesh with similar outfits and looks and mannerisms. I need to get hold of a historian to ask this fascinating query! Come to India man?

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