Ladakh, nestled in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, is known primarily for its unique scenic landscape. It is fast becoming popular with tourists and especially trekkers both in India and abroad. Travellers claim they simply get lost in Ladakh's humbling panoramas and much has been written about Ladakh's 'looks'! I will share an unusual insight into Ladakh and its soul via my sojourn to Dahnu, a remote Ladakhi village on the India-Pakistan border. Dahnu lays claim to housing the descendents of the first Aryans who settled in India.
A foray into Ladakh begins with its capital city Leh which is also where the airport for the region is located. In Leh itself, I was immediately struck by the unmistakable warmth of Ladakhi hospitality and by the innate simplicity, goodness and kindness of the locals. I stayed at a homely hotel called Kaal which is very near the airport. The hotel owner Stanzin and his immeasurably diligent staff became like family during my stay and the hotel became my base in Ladakh. After our camping trips, I especially looked forward to the hot food buffets that had a 'home-cooked' feel, and that, for me, were redolent of home-comings.
A decision was made to go off the tourist trail in our itinerary and include the secluded village of Dahnu high up in the mountains in the Kargil region, along the border with Pakistan. The village is isolated in every sense of the word. Reaching it involved navigating stretches of inhospitable terrain. It is about a 6 hour drive from Leh but the day we set out the weather turned inclement and news reached us that parts of the Indus River bank along our route were in spate. This posed a clear danger. So we had to break our journey . We stayed overnight by a milder stretch of the River Indus at the Faryok River Resort Camps. The night saw the temperature plummet sharply and the tent rattled to howling winds and screaming rain but the sight that greeted us at dawn - of unspoilt mountain views serenading a raging river, made it entirely worth the sleepless night. After a hot breakfast of 'paneer parathas (Indian bread stuffed with soft Indian cheese') we set out to cover the remaining 3 hour drive to Dahnu.
The drive included traversing through the most unimaginably, magical landscapes where mountains carried rainbow colours. Bands of violet, lavender, beetroot, ochre, slate, graphite, granite and silver covered the mountains which made different faces – faces sculpted out by erosion due to wind and water. The journey was also arduous and adventurous as we ‘car-water rafted’ through streams and got lost several times before we actually discovered the mountain terrain trail leading to the village. Even the Army who have a large presence in the border region could not confidently sign post us to the village, such is its obscurity. The villagers are also secluded socio-culturally and genetically as they adhere to sclerotic social norms and boundaries which prohibit marriage outside of the village. These rules that stymie any ‘adulteration’ of their gene pool give credence to the claim that they are the direct descendents of Alexander the Great’s Army.
Bearing the nomenclature of the ‘Brokpa Community’ they are more popularly referred to as Alexander’s Lost Army while they refer to themselves as Minora which means Aryan. It was the British explorer Godfrey Thomas Vigne who visited the village in 1830 (he is the first known Westerner to have done so) and propounded the theories of the 5000 year old Brokpa tribe carrying the direct boodline of the first Aryans to India or of the Army of Alexander. However, DNA tests to establish this have proved inconclusive and there are no records that bear testimony to these claims either. Research to establish their lineage has not yet been comprehensive.
While many Ladakhis speak Hindi, the inaccessibility of this village meant we needed our guide to be our translator. Complexions of peach and porcelain, high cheek bones and eye contours that were a mix of European and Mongoloid symmetries, defined their striking and strikingly unusual features. The children were curiously friendly and gathered around us easily. They showed us around fields of mulberry and apricots. The guesthouse we visited (there are two in the village) was very spartan but run by a savvy lady whose family had ventured beyond the village into Leh. She spoke a smattering of Hindi and was keen to her share her vision for her village – of how she wanted running water like her husband tells her there is in Leh. Despite fresh water streams at the doorstep of the village, running water remains a far fetched ideal.
Unlike other Ladakhi tribes, the Brokpas do not practice polyandry but marriage is an easy affair with divorces and successive marriages being the norm. The first real ‘outing’ of the community to the outside world was in the Kargil war in 1999 between India and Pakistan. They were an enormous asset to the Army in their intricate knowledge of, and dexterity with, the difficult terrain.
Inaccessible their location might be but they came across as a proud and sanguine people; questionable their lineage might be but they remain very assured of their own stories of their Aryan descent. But what is most admirable is that in a harsh terrain and climate they bear testimony to living ably off the land and in harmony with the land.
Ladakh traverses not only a rawness of landscape but also a simplicity and beauty of communities living in synchrony with even the harshest faces of nature. In the combination of the two, Ladakh is an exemplary. If there is prayer to living – it is here.
Written byDr Priya Virmani
Dr. Priya Virmani is a Political and Economic Analyst and an International Speaker based in London. She is the Foundress and Director of Paint Our World - a humanitarian project that works to heal underprivileged children who have endured trauma. Together with her passion for her work, she derives her nurture from being in nature, horse-riding, writing, painting, classical music and travelling. Travel, in her words, is 'the best medicine and the best teacher'. She loves travelling to explores the souls of places