Footlose in Drokpa land

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Sep 29 2008, 05:29am hrs
Among the few spots in India where rampant urbanisation is not the order of the day, Ladakh and its Leh have a number of pristine getaways. Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri are two of the cleanest lakes in the world. You can see the two-humped Bactrian camel in the Nubra Valley. There is also the magnificent Markha valley and a climb to Stok Kangri best for the first-time trekkers. To the west of Leh, hidden between rocky peaks and a narrow valley, lies the little world of chosen people.

As I turned right from Khalsti, about 100 km from Leh, the monotony of the cold desert, almost lunar landscape, began to giveaway. I was driving on one of the finest roads made by Border Roads Organisation. The road leads to the Batalik sector of the Indo-Pak LoC and runs parallel to the Indus. The area turned greener and more populated with little hamlets situated on the numerous streams joining the mighty river. As I went further, the valley got narrower and it became difficult to judge whether it is a valley or a gorge. After about two hours from Khalsti, I reached an Indian Army post, which is situated on the inner line drawn by the army for security reasons. The four villages of Dha, Hanu, Garkon and Darchik are situated here. Only Dha and Hanu are accessible to tourists, and a special permit is required from the Home Ministry for visiting Garkon and Darchik, the army man at the post said. No civilian vehicles are permitted to cross the post; the only way to reach Dha is to climb the hill on which the village is located. A 15-minute trek and I soon realised that I was entering the area of the chosen people the Drokpas/Brokpas.

Unlike the Ladakhis, the people around me were not of Mongol ancestry. They were fair, had light brown hair, high cheekbones, sharp features and many had blue eyes too. The Drokpas are said to be of the Aryan stock who came and settled down in this region centuries ago. Tshina, the language they speak, is an archaic language. Their religion is called Bn, which, though similar to Buddhism in some ways, has got shamanistic and animistic rituals that are common to ancient Hinduism. Literally, mountain inhabitants (Drok means a hill, while Pa means an inhabitant), the Drokpas are said to be the descendants of Dards, of Indo-Aryan stock, found in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some say they were a part of Alexanders army who decided to settle down here, Stanzin Passang, a student of sociology from Leh, told me. For ages they have been guarding their racial purity by preventing inter-caste marriages. When I wished to know from the villagers about their lineage, Passang told me, Refrain from asking them about their lineage as there arent any historical records to prove their claims.

On my way back to Leh, I stopped at Ladakhs largest and oldest monastery, Alchi Choskor. This monastery is situated on the left bank of the river Indus, at a distance of 70 kms from Leh. It was constructed about 1,000 years ago by Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, one of the greatest translators of the New Translation period in Tibet. In its calmness and wilderness of centuries old trees, lie four sacred temples the Rinchen Lhakhang, the Losta Lhakhang (translators temple), the Jamyang Lhakhang (Manjushri temple) and Sumtsag Lhakhang (three-tiered temple). The main statues inside the temples are that of Vairocana (primordial Buddha), which are about 30 feet high. Alongside are the statues of five Buddha families together with their attendant deities. Zangpo brought 32 sculptors and wood-carvers from Kashmir who made these temples, says a lama at the temple. Various beautiful forms of Buddha and bodhisattvas are moulded in clay, carved in wood and are painted inside the temple walls. The restoration work being carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India leaves much to be desired. Perhaps they should restore the original clay paintings instead of repainting the walls.

A visit to the valley is warranted for the adventurous. Who knows what relic from the Alexandrian era you may come across.