Trip to the Land of Brokpa People in Ladakh

by - January 27, 2016

I travel to learn and discover and not just to relax and unwind. I flew to Leh in Ladakh. At 3,600 mt there was a much more pleasant climate. I had 4 days to tour the Ladakh region. The days are very few to get to know something. The communications in this area make a 160 km journey last a whole day and then you have to go back. I would have liked to climb the highest port in the world, the Khardung La, and go down to the Nubra Valley.

I wanted to go up to the Siachen Glacier in the Karakorum. I would have liked to spend a week camped in the Pangong Tso Lake expecting to see the Snow Leopard. I wanted to travel on the road to Srinagar in Kashmir, but the mountain passes were still closed. Now I want to meet the Brokpa, also known as Drokpa or Dards, the true Aryan people of the Himalayas

brokpa women images

Day 1

So I decided to go to the country of the Brokpa very close to the Line of Control between Pakistan and India. I depart from Lamayuru early and travel directly to the village of Dah Hanu. The bus there went out at 9 in the morning and nobody could tell me the time of arrival. I imagined it was about 5 hours.

The trip in this bus is not just a trip. For the locals, it is the only time they can have contact with other people of the valley, whose villages are completely isolated. In the bus, they close all kinds of deals, and relationships are strengthened. It is like a Bar in our cities and for me, it was like sitting in front of a National Geographic Documentary.

I watch some spectacular landscapes and get into a kind of time machine. The Indus is still only a large torrent. We break a tortuous passage through deep gorges of rocks and friable earth. The banks of the river are rocky with no vegetation even on the water's edge. The bus was going up filled with people. I got a seat in the back. Next to me sat a few students who were returning to their town, very close to Dha Hanu.

Immediately they began to ask me the typical questions. They ask my name, age, if I was married, and if I had a girlfriend. All my answers left them stunned, that at my age I was not married and I was an atheist. It is inconceivable to them, but in the end, the conversation ends in what really interests them. Suddenly I saw that to smoke they climbed to the top of the bus.

They told me if I wanted to go up and I was going to be bombarded if I went there. The feeling of traveling one of the most dangerous roads in the world at the top of the bus is similar to the roller coaster ride on the Swiss Alps. I imagine, the precipices on the Indus River already give me vertigo.

Along the way I see hundreds of workers, working to have the road conditioned. I see the life of the people from the top of the bus, like the ladies dressed in traditional costumes. During the final leg, Buddhist villages alternated with others. Dah valley is in shadow for a long time when the daily bus stops in the middle of the road to Leh.

After 9 hours, the bus left me in the middle of nowhere. It was not long until nightfall and there I was with some kids who came back from school and showed me the way to reach the village of Dha Hannu. In the beginning, the path leading to the village rises in the unstable mound where the road has been cut. Then it winds pleasantly between the fields of tomatoes and millet bordered by apricots to the village.

To the left of the path, slightly below, are the vegetable gardens covered with as many flowers as vegetables. I had to climb a stone path after going through some fields and finally, the town appeared. Here there were donkeys. I found them in the middle of the narrow street up, but the surprising thing would come soon.

I saw myself asking for accommodation to a family as it was getting dark. I found that there is a house run by two old Brokpas. It acts as a guest house, and I was the first guest since last summer. The house itself was like any other, without light, without running water and with Turkish baths.

The grandchildren immediately showed me the town. They took me to the school, and to the monastery. There are no men, who went to work in the fields, and not even many women. During the return, I see at the top of the village there is the school. It is well placed right next to a huge antenna. The evening passed quickly, as it hurriedly got dark. The women and men wear a fresh bouquet every day as a headdress.

And they prepared my dinner. I went down with a couple of grandparents, sitting in front of the fire preparing a simple dinner. It is a ritual, which consisted of onions poached with garlic. Then they added water and from a piece of goat bone, they extracted some small pieces of dried meat that went to the pot.

All the while they occasionally recite their Buddhist Tantras by turning the Mane. They offered me a kind of chai, a liquor that I do not know very well what it was and they started reciting the Tantras with the rosary. A group of Brokpa girls breaks into a dance.

The Brokpa is a community that lives in a couple of villages in the area. They are people with western features and their own language, the Brokpa or Aryan as they called it. They are an Indo-European ethnic group from the origins not certain but probably former nomads of the Caucasus. There are men and women with light skin and blue or green eyes.

They share with me myths of the Bonpo religion and stories of monks flying from the mysterious and extraordinary lakes and seas now dried up. It was cold and unfortunately, not even the thick sweatshirt protected me sufficiently. I regretted not having considered that in those valleys, during the night even if it was summer, the temperature could fall below zero.

That night I had a strange dream of an immense Snow Leopard that had chased me along a frozen river. I had been able to take refuge in a Chorten covered with a thick sheet of gold inside which burned herbal incense. The smoke was thick with the penetrating aroma. Then the great Leopard had managed to get in but had not hurt me. The animal had only spoken to me and I understood his language!

I awaken with my heart beating wildly. I knew it was an omen as the Leopard is a feline. All this certainly had to be linked to the reason why I was in Leh. I had not been able to go back to sleep, so I decided to get up as soon as the light would allow me to walk without risk of stumbling.

brokpa women images

Day 2

At half-past four in the morning, I was standing on the wooden terrace watching nature awaken. I admire the sunrise, while the sky was tinged with peach and cherry blossoms. Very few clouds stained the horizon to the west perhaps announcing the arrival of a storm brought by the winds from the south of the highest mountains. Many birds chirped since the early dawn, who revealed the arrival of the sun to the world.

The mountain looked barren and with little vegetation of low bushes, I could not see anything like the dream landscape of the previous night. In the dream it was winter and the mountains were covered in snow that shone in the full moonlight while the river was frozen and it was a terrible cold. Cradled by the booze of birds and the dirge of people who, somewhere in the building, were reciting prayers, I had to doze for a while. I woke with a start sensing the hand of the host who shook my shoulder slightly.

On the back of the building, several people had already gathered, among them a monk dressed in his red wine and yellow vestments. They talked softly, indicating a passage by the stream that snaked like a crystal blade through the emerald of some paddy fields. The owner told me that there are traces of a great Leopard! Everyone is joyful because this has not happened for several decades. The tracks end right under the window of the room where we slept!

One thing is now certain. I have to follow the imprints of the big cat. Something tells me that, beyond the river and then down on the valley floor among the pines, they will ascend to that point of the mountain. The innkeeper was a bit worried about my request to follow the tracks of the Leopard but seemed amused. There was a fear mixed with laughter. The sun shone high in the zenith, while a cool breeze moved with extreme sweetness the purple-colored flowers of the Leycesteria that decorated the wall less exposed to the cold winds of the north.

After a hearty breakfast, I leave. I had taken a minimal supply of food for the emergency and if I had to spend a night in the open, the host had given me a sleeping bag. To protect me from the cold when the temperature would be lower further, he handed me a heavy jacket. At that time of the year, it could happen that during the night the cold wind also brought some snowflakes.

I left that town, with a lot of grief. I would have liked to spend more time with those people. The 81-year-old man accompanied me. The guy went down jumping between the stones faster than me. Beyond the river, which I had crossed easily and fortunately without ever putting my foot in a phallus, I found myself walking on green moss covered with tiny white flowers. Large bushes of pink hydrangeas and thick tufts of blue poppies decorated the landscape here and there. High cedars and pines impose their presence as I remember the Alps of Switzerland.

At that height, I had difficulty breathing. The air contained little oxygen. Every movement seemed impossible to achieve. Even lifting a foot from the ground seemed like a difficult task. I hope to be able to continue alone. My thoughts were buzzing in my head without giving me a break. The visions of the Snow Leopard, more and more clear and engaging, came back to torture me.

I was convinced that the animal was the key to the mystery. In my intimate mind, I imagined how soft his fur would be and I dreamed of caressing it. But at that point of the journey, of that path in search of truth, I could not retreat. I was sure that at the end of the search I would be satisfied and happy! Now I allow my heart to show me the way. I've done it many times in my life. It's not that hard, I know. I just have to trust myself!

I had tried to intensify every bodily perception. Now I felt with greater clarity the ground under which I placed my feet. Every little stone was carefully checked for its stability. About halfway through the valley, he was waiting for me on a whitish and speckled patch spread over a spike of rock. His long tail, as thick as my arm, looked darker towards the tip where the spots were concentric and black.

There is a majestic specimen of Snow Leopard with a proud look. The ears above the head showed interest in the human being who was about to enter his kingdom. I had felt every muscle in my body tending. The sense of smell had become thinner. Almost without realizing it, my legs had assumed such agility that I could easily jump from one boulder to another. The presence of the big feline, about ten meters away, did not bother me. I tried to speak but the words had remained unexpressed thoughts.

Here I am. You called me and I came, as agreed by fate and destiny! What have you, O majestic creature, to bring me as a message? You appeared in my dream and I followed you. I did not have to wait long to receive a mention from the big feline. He had stood on all fours and with an agile leap he approaches. I had stopped, respectfully. My gaze had settled on the ground, in reverence.

The animal had approached and with its face in the air, it smelled to understand who was in front of it. A faint and slow meow had confirmed his approval. He was less than a meter away from my body. I had then crouched, stretching my hands forward with the palms facing upward in a sort of gesture of submission.

The great Snow Leopard had approached to touch my hands and then he had crouched on his hind legs and was watching me. His yellow eyes, with their pupils slightly dilated due to the intensity of the light, shone with a sweet and at the same time proud awareness. I had stretched my right hand up to touch the head of the big feline. He had turned his head slightly towards me, squinting his eyes. So gently I had caressed him along the neck and down on his back.

Without adding anything else, the big feline had risen and had retraced his steps. a couple of times he had stopped to check if I could follow him without problems. The Snow Leopard chose a path that was accessible to me with greater ease. Every now and then he stopped to wait for me or to give me the opportunity to drink some tea from the bottle.

The sun had for some time passed the zenith when we finally reached a clearing among the rocks with brushwoods and some bergenia with pale flowers that gave the only touch of color. On the bottom against the blue of the sky, stood the Chorten I had seen in the dream. I had stopped, assailed by a strong doubt. Did I really wanted to know my story?

Perhaps fear had taken possession of my thought, while these words still resounded in my head like a threatening omen. The Leopard had walked towards the Chorten, covered with a thick solid gold plate, which shone in the sunset light. I realized that the night would come soon and that there was no more time to go back to the hostel. I had no choice.

Inside the Chorten, I found myself enveloped in a soft light emanating from different lights while an intense smell of incense had rekindled old memories. When my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, my eyes searched the inside of that place of prayer. I had not been able to immediately see the dark silhouette crouched in a corner.

The great Leopard of the snows had approached me and now I felt his breath on my right hand. Instinctively I caressed him on the head and he immediately started to purr. At that moment I felt a gust of cold wind coming from the opening at my back and the Snow Leopard had slightly grind its teeth turning towards the entrance. Something or someone had penetrated inside.

The presence had become perceptible. I perceived that it was coming in my direction. I heard the rustling of time echoing in the semi-darkness while the Snow Leopard had crouched at my side. It seems incredible that a place lost in the world is so close to the hottest border in the world.

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