Winter is letting out the apricot trees. In little bursts. Brown bark merges with fine dust, and at first glance, the hesitant whites of the apricot flowers look like errant snowflakes drifted off the veins of snow that run down crenellated mountain ridges. Loose rock and boulder edge mud houses stacked haphazardly in nooks along the base of the cliff. And then the land steps away from the houses, in a series of terraced fields that end in a sheer drop into the cold green-blue waters of the Indus.
Winter hasn't gone entirely though. Getting out of the sleeping bag is an effort. The first light of the morning is peeping in through the small window of our low-ceilinged room. My toes feel cold. Someone thrusts a small cup of pink, buttery gur-gur chai into my hands. It's tepid, but the salty, buttery smoothness is warming. Clutching the tea in my hands, I bow through the door, into a dark corridor that lets out into a small dung and straw spattered courtyard. Emerging from the confines of the house I feel I've walked into a cliff. Sheer walls rise along the edge of the narrow valley, and end in snow 2,000 feet above us. The valley can't be more than 200 metres across at its widest. I've left the plains far behind, but the expectation of flat land still lingers in the mind's eye.
It's snowing in Garkhun today. A light powdery snow lifts off the ridges of the hills that surround us, and drifts gently on the breeze. Snowflakes the size of pin-heads melt the moment they settle on my bare arms. The snow comes in from my left, while the sun rises higher up the valley on my right. Ten minutes later there's no sign of snow. As the image of snow fades, flowers of the apricot trees emerge. And then as the sun rises, the land seems to change dimension. The cliffs recede, revealing carefully terraced fields, surrounded by a crown of white and pink apricot trees.
"Baahar kyon khade hain," asks Tashi, our host and surna (a shehnai-like instrument) player, who has just come back from a night of playing at a wedding and chhang-drinking. "Looking at the snow," I say, brushing off the puddles of dead snowflakes. "How was the wedding?" He doesn't look much worse for lack of sleep. His cowboy hat, though, is tilted at a slightly jaunty angle. That and the beautiful bunch of Monthu Tho flowers (bright orange flowers resembling wood rose) tacked onto the hat give him a rakish air. "Bahut achha," he says, in a Ladakhi-accented Hindi, "aap aaj raat aa rahen hain". And without waiting for an answer, he disappears into the house.
As I stand waiting for him to re-emerge, a few elderly ladies pass by. They're wearing elaborate silver headdresses that support a deceptively real arrangement of plastic and Monthu Tho flowers. There are chains of jade and other colourful stones around their necks, and sheepskins to keep their backs warm. "Julley ji," I say, smiling. We exchange glances, trying to decide who's more startled. "Juu-lley," they lilt, and the lines on their weather-creased faces twitch for a brief moment into a smile.
We're about 150 km from Leh. At Khaltse, about 90 km from Leh, the road bifurcated, one branch heading towards Kargil, Drass and onwards to Srinagar, while the other branch followed the Indus as the river made its way to Batalik. The drogpas (hill people), as they are derogatorily known, live in a group of six villages between Achinathang and Batalik. First on the road comes Hanu, once a drogpa village, now more Ladakhi. Above Hanu, lie the settlements of Hanu Yogma and Hanu Gogma. Moving beyond Hanu, you come to Biama, a quaint, but dusty little village that abuts the road. Beyond Biama though, if you weren't looking out for villages, you wouldn't find them.
The valley becomes narrower, and the road more precarious. Dah is just a signpost on the road, and a narrow path going uphill to your right—the village is a stiff 15-minute uphill climb. Most don't venture any further than this. Till fairly recently, access to the area was restricted by the army. Even now guards manning the checkpost immediately after Dah are wary of letting people through. Garkhun, which lies about 5km beyond, is indicated by a teashop. Darchiks is further down, on the left bank of the river and a little further down, a half hour walk from the road, lies Gurgurdho, at the border of Ladakh and Baltistan—a boundary that was fixed after the defeat of Jambyang Namgyal, the ruler of Ladakh, at the hands of Ali Mir, the ruler of Skardu, in the 17th century.
The drogpa population is small—the population of all the villages put together would be around 4,000. But what they lack in numbers, they more than make up for in colour and myth. Drogpa men and women wear flowers on their heads—the men usually walk around with a few brilliant Monthu Tho flowers tacked on to their woollen caps, while the women weave their hair into long braids (six for unmarried women and eight for married), and wear elaborate head-dresses of silver that support entire floral arrangements. With that elaborate head gear, the drogpas never really did have much of a chance of blending into traditional Ladakhi society.
Legends about their private and social lives attest to their outsider (and curio) status— "The drogpas don't have the usual inhibitions about showing affection in public," reads one brochure rather solemnly, before going on to state that "men and women can be seen kissing in the open." Others talk about them as a pure Aryan race, a legend that some of the drogpas themselves are happy to play along with. "We're pure Aryans," Tashi had informed me in all earnest, "We came with Alexander from Rome." I stared at him incredulously, scanning his face for signs of those much touted 'high-cheekbones and blue eyes'. Another gentleman I met in Garkhun casually informed me that he remembered his grandmother worshipping Saraswati.
The reality, though, is a little different, and it's easy to speculate about the origins of some of the myths surrounding the drogpas. Their society was polyandrous till a generation ago. But apart from the primary wife, the younger brothers, if they so desired, could acquire additional wives too. Sounds a little lax, and might translate in the popular imagination into free love, but in reality served to keep precious land holdings from being whittled down. And, of course, someone did have to marry all those extra women.
As for being Aryan, that found its inspiration in 19th century ethnographers who thought they'd landed at the end of the world, and needed to have something to tell the folks back home. They couldn't have gone all that way to find a placid and slightly unwashed group of people with unexceptional noses. And somewhere down the line, drogpas, shunned by the Buddhists of Leh for holding on to their traditional animist deities, and looked down by the Muslims of Kargil and Drass, figured that it made a lot more sense to be Aryan.
Not that Tashi seemed to be particularly concerned with all this idle academic speculation. He was fast asleep by the time I finished my breakfast of rice and moong daal. Slightly surprising fare, since neither is grown in the area. "Where does the rice come from" I asked his wife, who was sitting by the hearth in all her flowery finery. "Government se, army se...," she said. It's apparently cheaper to buy supplies from the government than it is to survive on rotis made from locally grown barley. The response was to be repeated many more times. Where do the kids go to school -- Army school in Batalik. How do they get there? Army truck picks them up. And what do most young men in the village do? Join the army, or try to.
It's eight by the time we get out of the house. Black-billed magpies flit from apricot tree to apricot tree, flying over the winding pebble-strewn paths that meander through the village, the blue of their feathers catching the light. The fields are empty—barley and shalgam have been sown, and the work now consists of diverting water from the stream to the fields. Groups of men and women sit in the sun, by the apricot trees, chatting or just looking around. Kids play hopscotch on the roofs of the houses. Women squat by the water channel that winds through the village, dunking their dirty wailing kids in the frigid water.
Turning a corner, I come across three elderly men and one woman, lying in the dust of a clearing. Their eyes follow me. And then one of them motions me to come closer. "Julley, julley," I stutter, and seat myself besides them. I wait for them to initiate conversation. Nothing. They look at me, and then say something to each other. Then they smile. I smile vacantly back. Nothing. We all look at the apricot trees. Deciding that it's time to act, I take a few dry apricots from my front pocket and chew on them. Apricots are passed around, still no conversation. So we sit there for a few hours on this warm winter morning, eating apricots, looking at the magpies, watching children at play, smiling at each other. Every once in a while, a few toothless words in Brog-skad (the drogpa language) are exchanged, followed by a round of enthusiastic "julleys", and then we sink back into our stupor.
It must be all the chhang from yesterday afternoon's wedding celebrations—memories of which are getting blurred and dreamy in the piercing heat of the sun. Two glasses were the limit, I'd told myself. And it had started well enough. By the time we'd arrived at the house of Yountan Gyatso, the bridegroom, an army soldier posted in Siachen, the celebrations had started. A group of men, women and children were sitting in a cleared terrace field in front of the house and a slow dance was in progress.
Six men moved in a closed circle in the centre of the clearing -- their right hands raised, holding an imaginary flower. The older ones wore the ekta, the traditional maroon tunic made of sheep's wool, while the younger wore Kal Klein jackets bought off the sidewalks of Leh's bustling bazaar. The musicians sat in one corner of the clearing—two of them played the surna and three played drums of different sizes. As I took my place amongst a group of young men sitting near the musicians, I was handed my first glass of cold chhang.
Barley chhang generally tastes better than rice chhang. It's got a deeper, more throaty flavour, which is followed by a sharp bittersweet aftertaste. And this was certainly of the very best vintage. The men were singing a song that rose and fell with every turn of the circle, and occasionally the people sitting around would join in for particular phrases, and so the song would drift around. "What is the song about," I asked Padma Tsering, the old surna player with a great curling white moustache, and big buttons on his ears. "Ham ladke ke baare mein gaa rahe," he said in broken Hindi. "Unke parivar ke baare mein -- De karpo mari sasanboosk ole ta etc etc -- they gave a tankful of apricot oil/they gave a tankful of goat ghee etc etc." So, how many songs were there in all, I asked him. "If we were to sing all the songs we know, we'd go on for 18 days and nights.
There's a song for every occasion." When does the party end? "When the chhang runs out," he said as someone refilled my cup. And refilled it, and refilled it. Later that evening, as I walked through the village, I ran into Padma again, as he clambered up a hillside. He seemed a little lost. I assumed he was searching for a bush to relieve himself behind. But seeing me, he staggered across. "Budda ho gaya," he said grimacing, staggering and clutching his knees, "Aap mere se kaal aake mileye, aaj chhang zada pi liya hai."
After two hours, the chhang-induced hangover begins to wear off. My toothless friends are fast asleep. I bid them a silent julley, and wander back into the village. Going past the Sharemo Lhamo Guest House (named after the lato or the village deity) where we are staying, I bump into the nambardar (village headman) and a few other men, who are walking towards the gompa. There's a large prayer wheel and a chorten outside the gompa, and as we circumambulate the two, the nambardar tells me that the lama is away.
Moving on, I spot the Rigopa house, one of the oldest in the village, with windows the size of postcards, and three chortens representing Jameyon, Chador and Chandazig (all forms of the Buddha) outside one of the windows. A fair young girl peers at me as I pass by. "Can I come in," I ask. "No." I'm a little taken aback, given that most people we've come across have invited us to their houses. "Bahut puraana hai hamara ghaar, kala hai," explains the girl shyly. It is very black -- the wood and straw roof of the kitchen (which in most houses is also where everyone sleeps) is coated with soot from the hearth. A little baby swaddled in layers of blankets peeps out from a crib fashioned from a wicker basket. A plate of chulli (dried apricots) and giri (apricot) seeds is set before me. "Naya ghaar to ban gaya hai, ek do mahine me tayaar ho jayega," says the girl as I peer at some ancient stone containers kept on the wooden shelves.
Tashi must be back by now. He is. And is holding the surna in one hand, ready to take off for the wedding ceremony at the girl's house. Before we get there, we stop at the changra (village square) where a surreal dance unfolds. A line of women wearing their sheepskin cloaks makes its way to the centre and in the narrow glow of a solar-powered lamp repeats the dance of the previous afternoon. One slow step, one turn, one phrase at a time. And then we make our way into the house, which is packed to the last corner, with men, bawling babies, women chatting excitedly.
The air is thick with smoke, and the smell of chhang. I settle down in one corner and get talking to a quiet old man who is downing his drinks at an alarming speed. "We've come from Gilgit, that's what our songs are about." "Gilgi-t, that's where Dulo, Melo and Galo came from," he says referring to a famous drogpa migration story. "Gilgi-t." It rolls off the tongue, and then echoes in the mouth. "Gilgi-t," he says dreamily.
I'm getting claustrophobic in the little room, so I wolf down the pappa (boiled barley balls) and make my way to the roof. The night is freezing, and above me there are a thousand stars. On either side of me tower the silhouettes of mountains. A shooting star streaks across the sky. Lonely dim lights from stray houses flicker in the distance. And in the pale light of the waxing moon the apricot flowers look like mosaics of ghostly snowflakes. At night, the roar of the Indus is even louder.
The drogpas might be shunned by other Ladakhis. There might only be 4,000 of them. They might depend on the army for a livelihood. Their villages might be divided between Kargil and Leh districts and subject to different regulations. And Gilgit might be far away. Very far away.
But below me the dance continues and the chhang never does seem to run out.
All the drogpa villages lie within a few kilometres of each other. It's possible to get a bus from Leh all the way to Dah, but the 160km journey takes about 6 hours, is fairly uncomfortable, and the buses are infrequent. The only alternative is to hire a car from Leh to take you there.
Dah: The Skybapa Guest House is located in one corner of the village, and is surrounded by fields and apricot trees. The rooms are basic. They charge nominal amounts per day per bed (three to four beds to a room). The Sharemo Lhamo Guest House, the only other place to stay, is higher up and offers lovely views of the village. There is no way of contacting them (there are no telephones in any of these villages), so it might be a good idea to ask a travel agent in Leh to go there and make reservations. The food at both places is very basic, depending on what is locally available.
As of now there are no places to stay in any of the other villages, but since most of them are a couple of kilometres from Dah, it makes sense to base yourself there. In Darchicks and the other villages though, you'll have to ingratiate yourself with one of the villagers—they're extremely warm and hospitable, but make sure you carry your own sleeping bags and food.
You need a permit to be able to visit any of the drogpa villages. And getting a permit can be a time-consuming process. To visit Dah, Biama and Hanu you'll need a permit from the District Commissioner, Leh, while to visit Garkhun and Darchicks, you'll need to get one from the District Commissioner, Kargil. Leave this process to your local travel agent.
Ladakh Homestays is a network of rural households in the Sham area and near the Hemis National Park that offer visitors clean rooms and Ladakhi food.
There is no electricity in most of the drogpa villages. So carry a torch and some candles.
Carry some canned food with you. The few shops near the villages are poorly stocked.
It might be a good idea to read a little about the drogpas before visiting them. The Buddhist Dards of Ladakh by Rohit Vohra is a very informative, if slightly academic text.
The drogpas do not eat beef, chicken or eggs. So don't ask for them or carry them.