India is diverse, India is mysterious. Presence of this Brokpa tribe in India is one of the most intriguing mysteries I have ever gotten a chance to witness.
It’s half an hour past 3 in the day time. And I am still waiting for my local bus to depart from Poyen so that I can reach Aryan Valley before it gets dark. The 3 pm bus from Poyen near Kargil town, is the only bus that goes from Kargil up to the four villages of Aryan valley i.e., Dah, Hanu, Darchiks and Garkone.
In Ladakh’s Batalik region, the Dropkpas/Brokpas live an isolated life. It is a community of people who are the descendants of Alexander or his army, as per theories. Another theory states that these people came from Gilgit-Baltistan (now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir-POK).
The link explains the Aryan invasion of the Indus valley better.
The villages are on the route which goes from Kargil to Leh via places like Apati, Batalik, Dha, Khalsi, Nimmu etc. I was again oblivious to what lay ahead. The next few hours in that rickety bus on narrow roads with nothing around but mud-coloured mountains changed my entire perspective about the Kargil-Aryan Valley-Leh route (Khaltse-Batalik route).
I was lucky enough to leave from Kargil on a weekday since the local bus from Poyen doesn’t work on Sundays, otherwise, it departs at 3 pm every day.
The ride was comfortable but made me drowsy. The timeworn songs from driver’s playlist and pin-bend roads of the route didn’t compliment each other well.
Gradually the bus kept getting empty as the locals were getting down for their villages which were on the way. A slight puff of wind was a relief in the harsh sunny afternoon whenever the bus crossed a pin-bend.
While on the way, one can choose to stay at the Apati village to see the third Maetriya Chamba of Kargil.
In Ladakhi, Brokpas translates to ‘people who live in the higher reaches of the mountains’ which was quite evident since we crossed Hambuting La at an altitude of 4024 metres.
After the journey of 65-km and 3-4 hours, I was dropped near a big rock where the owner of the guest house, where I was supposed to spend 2 days, told me was a shortcut to his place. My front and back luggage restricted my leg movements. Thus, I took a longer way to reach PAYUPA GUEST HOUSE.
I also made friends with two little girls who dropped me till the guest house since the alleys of the GARKONE/GARKUN were confusing.
I felt a lack of development including the necessities. The reason could be a lack of a local leadership because Brokpas (also known as Minaro) got divided between Leh and Kargil. Two villages, Garkone and Darchiks, went to Kargil whereas Dah and Hanu (Dah-Hannu, Dha Valley, Dah-Beema) came under Leh.
On the left bank of Indus, Darchiks is located. On the right bank, Dah, Biamah, Garkone are located.
While roaming up and down the alleys of Garkone village, I could find fields of paddy and buckwheat only. A little later after enquiring from a local, I got to know that Brokpas earn their livelihood by growing only two crops every year apart from many fruits like grapes, apricots, apples etc. The seeds of apricots are well utilised to extract almonds and apricot oil as well.
The settlement reminded me a lot of Chhitkul in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh. Read about it here.
But life isn’t easy in the Aryan Valley, no matter how many foreign visitors these villagers get. Good hospitals are located far away in Kargil and Leh. State-level schools and colleges are also towards the town side. Higher studies and better job opportunities outside become a major factor in getting these Brokpas migrated.
Their efforts to preserve and protect their genes fail when the younger generation decide to marry someone from outside their community which often becomes the case when they end up studying outside Aryan valley.
A little walk in the village made me talk to so many interesting people. One was this elderly man who was playing with his grandchildren. Lines on his forehead spoke a lot about his wisdom which he happily shared with me in Hindi.
He said, “from the time of his forefathers, he has heard many stories about the existence of Brokpas. Someone states that they are the direct descendants of King Alexander and his army. After getting defeated in 326 B.C. by King Porus, King Alexander left India but some of his soldiers stayed back in the Batalik region. The other theory says that Dards moved to India 1000 years back from the Gilgit-Baltistan region.”
The other community of Dards still reside in the POK region. Kalash people from POK are also a part of the same community.
He also mentioned about the three brothers, Galo, Melo and Dulo, that came to Ladakh in search of pasture land. There was a big sea in this region from Ladakh to Tibet and the thee brothers, while wandering, reached that sea. The end up staying in this region and their descendants are today’s Brokpas. There was a fourth brother too who stayed in Gilgit only.
But as per many reports, DNA analysis does not provide any evidence of Alexander’s link with this community. So the Dardic theory is considered most accurate.
A lot of the villagers knew Hindi apart from the Brokstat (Dard-Shina) language which is a part of Indo-Aryan native languages group. These languages are spoken in India’s Jammu and Kashmir, eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area.
I was in a land of tall, fair-skinned and light-eyed people. Honestly, anyone can get complex looking at the sharp features of the Dards. A lot of the villagers turned out to be pretty friendly. I found them beautiful from the inside too after a sweet incident that happened while I was asking a lady to let me click her. She reluctantly refused and I also didn’t ask again.
A little later, somewhere towards the end of Garkone village, I found her carrying two buckets of apricots. I immediately ran to help her and took them to her home. She smiled at me for the first time and invited me over for a cup of tea. She asked me, “milk tea?” I nodded in agreement.
After a long yet broken conversation, she came dressed in her traditional attire and let me take her photographs.
This made me realise, how numerous photographers must be poking their faces with cameras instead of making an effort to know them. That’s why a lot of elderly people in Aryan valley ask for some money if you try to photograph them.
But there are numerous reasons why tourists come from various places to photograph this Indian tribe. Their features are worth some intense portrait photography.
Their traditional attire of flower cap with long braids and sheep-skin coat lend them a completely different look.
The colourful headgear is known as Tepi. It is stitched with some ribbons, coins and flowers (Monthu-tho/Shoklo). The cap is believed to ward off the evil eye since a lot of metal is inserted into it. This belief is connected to their age-old reasoning of not being able to rely much on medicines. Maroon gowns with cummerbunds are what most men wear with a simple Tepi.
Monthu-tho/Shoklo is a berry flower which signifies love and prosperity. All the flowers grown in Aryan valley are considered as auspicious.
The seven-coloured ribbon on the Tepi wards ailments caused by the Sun or the eclipse.
I was told that these people never used to consume cow and hen related products. But that was quite a few years ago. Now with time, eating habits have evolved.
I wanted to try their staple food but my upset stomach made me eat more fruits and simplest food. Though tsampa, which is roasted barley flour and salty butter tea or cha, is their staple diet.
Grape wine, which is known as Gunchang, is served during festivities.
I was offered this locally styled Thukpa in Payupa Guest House
I walked up till the village’s end to find some prayer flags hanging on-field peripheries. All villages followed Buddhism which was quite evident by now. Even the house’s doors were influenced by Tibetan architecture.
The village also had these small Buddhist stupas, monastery and a prayer wheel.
People lived a basic life. The architecture reflected the simplicity of Brokpa’s lifestyle. Structures used stones with mud/cement mortar. Interior of the rooms was finished with layers of mud. I experienced regulated power cuts from 9 pm onwards till 7 in the morning.
Most houses were two to three stories. The first floor, Ktsha, of the house is used in winters and has one or no windows. The second floor called Barkhang is used in summers with terraces for drying apricot. Underground compartments on the first floor, store butter and other perishable items. If the third floor exists it is called Rafsal.
The ground floor, called Bhu, is used to shelter sheep and goats.
Evenings were spent on this wooden bridge constructed over the mighty Indus. Garkone village could be seen from here. The mighty Indus also managed to break the only road connecting Aryan Valley to Leh. I was stuck on my last day.
These two girls met me every time I used to venture for a village walk. They then took me to this bridge and a Buddhist prayer wheel located nearby.
Read about my Uttarakhand village experience here
Places to stay in Aryan Valley and Garkone Village
Payupa Guest House, Garkone Village
My stay at this guest house could be summed up as simple yet comfortable. I was given tasty meals and tea every day. The rooms had comfortable twin beds with WIFI connection. Washrooms were neat and clean too.
The owners also maintained a museum which tastefully depicted the history and culture that exists in Aryan valley. Labdak Museum houses artefacts from the Brokpa heritage. It is a 500-year-old building.
The museum belongs to a Labdak family which is assigned to perform the sacred rituals of the village to appease the local gods, an ancient tradition still in practice in the valley.
Arya Nature Camp, Garkone Village
9469534579, 9419841764, 9469170489
Aryan Valley camp, Beema Laatang village
Operation only from mid-May to mid-October
Achinathang Travellers’s Home
Achinathang village is 7 km away from Garkone and this homestay is owned by a historian Sonam Phuntsog.
Festivals in Aryan Valley
- Bonana: In this harvest festival, villagers recite hymns which tell about the migration of their forefathers from the Gilgit-Baltistan area. it is celebrated in Dha-Biama and Garkone village turn by turn. The festival is also celebrated in Ganoks village (now in Pakistan).
- Strupla: It is a ceremony of dance depicting the time when the deities, ferries and men lived together
- Aryan Festival: It is a tourism event that happens in some villages. In 2019, it happened on 8th-9th October in Garkone and Darchik village.
- New Year: It is observed after the winter solstice that happens on 23rd December.
- Yata: This is an income-based festival and is observed by families whose household income becomes enough to feed the entire village.
- Bangri: it is celebrated when a family is blessed with a newborn baby.
What to see in Aryan Valley?
· Learn about the culture of this unique Brokpa/Drokpa Tribe
· Enjoy local wine and cuisines
· Involve in apricot plucking and drying with the locals
· Get a deeper insight into the life of Dards by visiting local museums
· Enjoy the roads along with the flow of Indus river
· Plan your trip around local festivals to see the cultural explosion in full swing.
Weather in Aryan Valley
The valley is located at a lower altitude than Leh and Kargil thus making it much greener and warmer.
From May to August, it is the summer season (10 degrees to 40 degrees). November onwards, temperatures dip down to -5 degrees and winter starts to set. Up to March, this remains.
How to Reach Aryan Valley?
Via road, either one can travel via Delhi-Zoji la-Drass-Kargil-Batalik (Srinagar Leh highway, NH-1D) or if Leh is the starting point then Delhi-Manali-Leh-Batalik-Kargil-Delhi.
Kargil to Aryan Valley
Garkone is 65 km from Kargil and 198 km from Leh.
From Kargil side, Bus from Poyen departs every day (except on Sunday) at 3 pm. (100 INR) The bus takes 3 hours to reach. Shared taxi is also available 150 at INR.
Aryan Valley to Leh Local Bus to from Garkone/Aryan valley leaves at 8.30-9 am every day for Leh.
From Dah, bus for Leh leaves at 7 am.
Leh to Aryan valley
From Leh, bus leaves at 9 am and reaches Aryan valley by 3-4 pm
Kargil airport is in the process of getting constructed and will be operational within a few years. Until then, the Leh airport can be utilized. From Leh, a road trip can be undertaken till Kargil and Aryan Valley.
Nearest railway station to Kargil is Jammu Tawi in Jammu. From Jammu to Srinagar, a road trip can be undertaken with an overnight halt in Srinagar. The journey can be resumed to Kargil/Leh either by shared taxi or public buses.
Things to Remember
· Only BSNL is recommended for this region. Many of the locals don’t even have a landline connection. Make sure to inform your dear ones beforehand.
· Respect their personal space while clicking pictures
· Most of them don’t understand Hindi or English. In that case, opt for a local tour guide or use the universal language of hand gestures.
· Purchase minimum plastic packaged items to avoid careless disposal.
· Try to keep your visit when their festivals are going on. That’s the best way to understand their culture and find them all decked up in their traditional attire.
· All the villages have alleys that go in a zig-zag and up and down fashion. Make sure to wear comfortable footwear throughout the day.
· There are no restaurants or fancy hotels within the villages. Either opt for government bungalows or homestays.
· For longer distances, carry your refillable water bottles. You don’t need to buy any plastic bottles because at a lot of places have clean water streams.
· Recently videos on pregnancy tourism in Ladakh got floated on the internet. They were about how some German ladies came to Aryan Valley to get pregnant and carry Aryan genes back with them. The news doesn’t have concrete proof and I would suggest not to discuss this with the locals.