Fragile identities


Fragile identities

The river Indus is a stealthy serpent: she winds round barren hills peeping out cautiously. Crystal clear waters slice tall rocks and wade into Pakistan from here. With the Line of Control just a ridgeline away, the area has a dominating military presence.

The impregnable heights cast an overbearing shadow over the valley. Perched in this valley are patches of greenery and life that have co-existed along these disturbed borders for ages now. Here lies the barren-scape of Byama, neighbouring Batalik, in the war-famed district of Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir.

Ironically, the hills of Dha, Gharkun and Batalik are famous by name — thanks to the Kargil war. The inhabitants of these hills have braved inhospitable terrain for years now. They are an invaluable resource to the military, as they know the terrain like the back of their hands. Today their identity is synonymous with their fragile landscape — the ‘border people’ as they are often referred to. Living in an ever-changing geopolitical context is this special group of people called the Brokpas.   

Padma Tsering is a tall man. The wrinkles on his battered face bears testimony to his age and lifestyle. The whitish glow stands hidden under layers of sun-burnt skin stretched between his almond eyes and straight nose, haggard physically but young at heart. The bright orange flower pinned onto his headgear colloquially known as the Monthu tho retains its deep orange hue for a maximum of 12 years; and is synonymous with his very identity. As he stands out on the terrace of his home in Dharchiks, he points to a distant ridge — “mere baab dada us raaste se aaye” (“that’s the route by which my forefathers came”).

The ridge now belongs to Pakistan. Identified as Brokpas by the local population, this small ethnic minority is arguably one of the last surviving Aryan races from central Asia. Part of an Indo-Aryan stock that came up the Indus centuries ago, Brokpa literally means a mountain dweller; ‘Brok’ signifies a hillock and ‘Pa’ stands for an inhabitant. A fiercely independent ethnic group who flaunt their pure Aryan descent, Brokpas or the Buddhist Dards believe they came in from Gilgit. Their Muslim counterparts are found in parts of Batalik, Kargil and Drass.

However, only the Buddhist Brokpas safeguard the remnants of their rich culture. Their elaborate headdress studded with colourful flowers, shining needles and other accessories are evidence of their age-old Aryan tradition. Numbering over 2000, they inhabit four villages along the Indus — Dha, Gharkun, Dharchiks and Hanu.
As the legend goes

Interestingly there is no written history to testify for their Aryan descent. But oral folklore, which they recite once in every three years in the famous Bono-na festival, traces their journey. Dawa Tsering explains, “We came from Gilgit, migrated through Turmukh, Rome, Skardu, Kareix, Sixuar, Shigar, Gavis and ended at Ganex.” The story revolves round three brothers — Dulo, Melo and Galo — who initially settled in Dha and later spread to other villages of Gharkun, Dharchiks and Hanu. Each village name carries a significance of its own. “Dha originated when one of the brothers shot an arrow at one of the hillocks and water sprang out of that point; Dha in Brokskad (their dialect) means an arrow,” adds Tashi Namgyal, the Nambardar (village chieftain) at Dharchiks village.  

A typical day

The village of Dharchiks is lush green, intermittent spots of brown (which are unplastered mud homes) jut out to break the monotony. Every bit of cultivable land is terraced; hence the name ‘Dharchiks’, meaning a terraced dwelling. The mountain air is pure and refreshing. Barley (the staple diet) stands tall on small patches of terraced fields. The gush of the Indus in the valley echoes with fervour. Dharchiks has woken up to a new dawn. The flutter of activity in the ‘Chamakpa’ (name of the family home; people are often identified by the name of their home) home matches that of the birds outside — chirpy, restless, urgent and intolerant.

Each day in the summer months is precious. Little Gyatso is up early and watches his ‘Aayi’ (mother) milk the cows carefully while his father hurries to get some greens to feed the goat. “Dudo careful!” he screams to his the grandfather who is slowly climbing onto the terrace with his spinning wheel busily winding some goat hair into thread.  

Chamakpa is roaring with activity. Likewise is the Depa home, constructed hardly a few feet away from Chamakpa. Crisscrossing the narrow bylanes of Dharchiks at dawn, one notices another striking feature — dwellings are unusually congested and cluttered together. Tundup Dorje is quick to explain, “Earlier, when our forefathers came and settled here, they feared the Muslim dacoits of Skardu (now in Pakistan). They would attack at night and loot. Hence, they built homes close to each other and fortified them. At night, they would guard the fortress by taking turns.” 

Tundup Dorje, perhaps the most literate in the village has a Masters in History from the Jammu University. “Education was not given priority till recently. I was lucky to go out and study as my father was in the Indo-Tibetan police force,” explains Tundup. Proof enough, the primary school at Dharchiks doesn’t have a building. Lessons are imparted under the shade of a huge tree that spans across a flat rock. For their high school, students need to travel more than 10 kilometres to Silmo which until recently was a forbidden journey for girls. However, with hostels coming up in Kargil and Leh, there is more hope. Most young children are sent off to these hostels for education as peace in this border area is relative.  
Changing geopolitics

As we hurried down the terraces of Dharchiks, Lobzang, my guide for the day, was reminiscent. “It’s so quiet with the ceasefire. After the Kargil war, we faced continuous shelling. Nobody would walk about this freely. The sound of a shell would send us all huddling up for shelter. We could only pray that the shell did not land in our fields.” Lobzang echoes the collective fear of people living near the LOC.   

Traditionally, the Brokpas were hunters. But over the years they have adapted to suit the geographic and political environment. Once their villages were well established, they started cultivating apricots and soon took to trading.  Besides the Indian army, the local people have been the backbone of success during the Kargil war. They have lugged ration, ammunition and opened routes, which aided the army to a great extent. “Even our women carried loads. We had sore backs. In fact, some of them even died doing so,” recollects Tsering Dorje, a teacher at the Gharkun School who also worked as a porter during the Kargil war. Today, the border people or the Brokpas share a great relationship with the military. Their location makes them utterly important and strategic.

Brokpa identity & future

Treacherous terrain and a hostile enemy have taken their toll — the Brokpas have had to deal with the changing geopolitical context from time to time. But their culture seems constant notwithstanding the change affected in the surrounding. I am still in awe of their characteristic dress worn on festive occasions which I was lucky to be part of.

Tsering Lamho is a petite girl of 16. Her mates — girls of her age and older — merrily joke with their male counterparts as they have gathered to celebrate. One of their friends is getting married. Marriages mean a marathon of weeklong festivity in a Brokpa home. Song, dance and chchang (local beer brewed from barley) flows in abundance as villagers make merry and toast to the newly weds.  

Their traditional dress made of sheep wool is elaborate. A riot of colour fills the otherwise green monotone — men and women, both wear a kurtini — a short blouse, slightly longer for men. A tunic is worn above the kurtini, which is called peran in case of women and ekta for men. The coarse hand-made fabric is studded with silver accessories and embellished with silver jewellery. The headgear is decorated with a multitude of flowers, silver jewellery, long needles and even coins.

But behind the happy-go-lucky Brokpa is a much stronger person who is aggressive, a survivor. Independent and self-respecting, a Brokpa man would rather die than lead a demeaning life. They believe in their pure Aryan descent and are visibly proud of it. Very kind at heart and even childlike at times, this ethnic group has preserved its cultural distinctness for centuries now. Living in inhospitable terrain, cut off from the rest of the world for half the year, their hardships are many. To derive happiness from little things and feel fortunate to be human is typically Brokpa. In Brokpa land, truly ‘less’ is ‘more’ and ‘giving’ means ‘gaining’. Long live the Brokpas!

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