Brokpas: Little known race of Ladakh

Dok-pa area is the first to send its rich crop of vegetables to Leh market every year
Brokpa man dressed in folk costume in Ladakh
Brokpa man dressed in folk costume in LadakhWikimedia Commons/ Sunny Tank


About thirty six years back, seated on a boulder, in Tang-ts-e area of Ladakh (in Durbuk block; bordering Pangong Tso & Nubra),  approximately 110 kms away from Leh, thinking about the rock inscriptions found there; suddenly I began to surmise what zeal motivated those Christian missionaries. Like Father Francesco de Azevedo and Father Giovanni de Oliveiro.

The duo that visited Ladakh in Oct 1631, as mentioned in " Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, published by C.wessels in 1924, when even after lapsing of nearly three & a half centuries the total population of local Christians in Ladakh, converts, is just somewhere around 550.

An uncomfortable feeling followed me, on that day of 1986, when the question;  why history had thrust two  wars here on this very region (Mughal-Ladakh-Tibet war of 1679 and Dogra-Tibetan war of 1841)? A region through which trade with Central Asia, Turkestan, Yarkand and Tibet too was flowing in those distant days, as this route was promoted by the British there around.

All this returned to my mind today when I was going through the pages of my book, 'Jewel In The Lotus',  with the intention of re-reading what I had compiled, in the 1980's, about the little known race of Brokpa's- an ethnic minority of Ladakh. Dr A.H.Francke of Morovian Mission, who was in Ladakh from 1890 to 1927, wrote about the just-mentioned race and prior to him Godfrey Thomas Vigne, the English explorer, too, in 1830.

Approximately 170 kms from Leh, 75 kms from Kargil, chiefly in four villages of Dha, Hanu, Darchik & Garkon, a uniquely different race (presently less than 4,000 souls) exists about which the unproven theory is in circulation, chiefly ever since 1980, that they are descendants of Greek soldiers of Alexander (who came to India in 326 BC, via Kabul, Chitral, Taxila etc). Hence foreign as well Indian tourists are now curiously thronging in increasing number every year, for this 'Aryan-Stock made popular by the tales  about forays of German ladies '.

While in Ladakh somewhere I had read and jotted in my notebooks that year, that in the writings of classical authors like Magesthenese (Greek Explorer, d.290 BC) and Claudius Ptolemy (Roman Geographer, d.170 AD) mention is made of a race, identified as Dards. Gilgit was perhaps their stronghold. Writing about Fahien's route Prof. Samuel Beal (Oriental scholar, University college London, d. 1889 AD) records:

" north of Kashmir is Darail valley of the Dard country; on the western bank of Indus...." . Darail is the tribal territory between Indus Kohistan and Gilgit agency on Pakistan's western borders. Probably these Dards migrated from Central Asia via Gilgit into Ladakh, long before the advent of Buddhism or Mongoloid nomads; possibly displacing completely the 'Mons' of Ladakh, in 5th or 6th century AD. Dards came perhaps to seek refuge and protection from the advancing Greeko-Bactrian Kushans (1st century AD) whose empire extended from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Taxila, to north India etc (in emperor Kanishka's syncretic reign of 2nd century AD).

Brok-pa's/Dok-pa's followed, what writers like Sir Alexander Cunningham (surveyor, d.1893), named Bon cult; ( a pantheistic form placating nature-gods, shamanistic, fetishism, demonolatry, necromancer litanies, some of which survives in the form of words like  glud-gtu for ransom rites,  tsan for gnomes, sa-bdag  for underworld spirits, dr-eh for demons and lha  for benevolent gods ….all living still in Ladakh's present Lamaistic faith, dance, oracle show, death rites, threaded charms etc ); that was practiced in some areas of Tibet, adjacent mount Kailash (Ti-se) & fringes of Iran and few Chinese pockets. The epic story of Gesar of 'Ling ' that dwells on the heroic, miraculous deeds of this god-incarnate Bon hero. Bon faith is believed to have lost ground after its patron-king Lang Darma was killed in 842 AD.

In 1909 Dr.A.H. Francke had found an ancient Bonpo temple with Frescoes of Bon deities in blue and black dress at Lamayuru (approx. 130 kms from Leh) but as per world famous British Tibetologist Prof. David L. Snellgrove (1920-2016; author of 'The Nine Ways of  Bon, 1980; Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, 1977 and Indo- Tibetan Buddhism, 1987) the same seems to have been destroyed and does not exist now.

Tibetan Bon developed a monastic tradition that considers one Tonpa Shenrab as their spiritual head. Bon religion has its own scriptures. In 20th century Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, abbot of Menri monastery was their spiritual head and Dolanji area in Himachal Pradesh and western outskirts of Kathmandu Nepal gave refuge to Bon religion after Chinese cultural revolution. The present Dalai Lama of Buddhists,interestingly, forbade discrimination against Bon-pos.

Dok-pa area is the first to send its rich crop of vegetables to Leh market every year and at that time these highland Dok-pa males and Dok-ma females can be seen easily.

The appearance of some; their facial features, light colour wide open eyes, long noses, and taller stature  keeps them distinctly apart from mongoloid Ladakhi's as well as surely by their distinctive dress, hair-do, caps decorated with flowers of Shoklo etc, jewellery, decorative metal plates covering their long braids, coins, buttons, pins, cowry shells and whatnot.

Their beliefs & customs, puberty-celebration, fertility festival, harvest festival and overall lifestyle gave them a distinct colour but with passage of time Buddhist influence has diluted their distinctive aspects and their new generation is imbibing what pursuit of  modern/high education together with political consciousness, and growing Tourism brings in return.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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