The ‘exotic’ clothing and polyamorous marriages of this ‘Aryan’ community hide other truths

Along the Indo-Pakistan border, in the the most militarized zone in the world, the villages of the Brogpa community around India’s Ladakh region have seen it all. Valiantly, they resisted the invasions of Tibetan kings who first threatened their cultural identity in the 12th century. They survived the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 which divided their villages overnight and the Kargil War of 1999 which caused irreparable damage to their lives.

Now the Brogpas (or Drogpas) have to contend with melting glaciers even as they wage a seemingly endless struggle for recognition in the local hill council. Although they live hidden in the remote Himalayas, the Brogpas have always attracted visitors, thanks to their reputation as the “last Aryan village”, the remnants of what Nazi-era racial theorists considered a “race of purebred master.

In the book Counterinsurgency, Democracy and Identity Politics in Indiacultural anthropologist Mona Bhan, a professor of South Asian studies at Syracuse University, mentions that the Brogpas are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Ladakh, fleeing the oppressive rulers of Gilgit in the 9th century and settling in the region’s fertile villages. The rich corpus of hymns, songs and folklore of the Brogpas, transmitted from generation to generation, tells their complex story of mobility and migration.

But Tsering Tundup, a 48-year-old nurse in the revenue department, cannot say with certainty whether his community, the Brogpas, are indeed Aryans.

“If scholars are claiming that we are Aryans, then there must be some truth to it,” he told VICE. “But we have no documents or other evidence to prove or disprove the same.”

The village of Tundup, Dah, changes dramatically with the seasons. During the subzero winter months, an impenetrable blanket of snow blankets every village in Brogpa, with stationed army troops smearing the otherwise pristine white. During fall, apricot and cherry blossoms fill its winding lanes, in stark contrast to the worn houses.

The media often portrayed the Brogpas as a “an exchange of women“community of”last Aryans”. There are rumors ofpregnancy tourismalso, with reports of some German women seeking Brogpa men to impregnate them with the latest ‘pure’ Aryan semen.

According to Tundup, understanding their system of polyamorous marriages solely through a sexual tinge misses the point. “It was a reasonable practice to consolidate the land,” he said. “If a group of brothers didn’t want their land divided by petty disputes, they would all share one wife. Sometimes seven brothers shared the same wife. With this arrangement, there would be negligible land disputes.

However, the post-colonial idea of ​​what a civilized society should look like has upended the traditions they had held close for centuries. Today, the majority of Brogpas, says Tundup, prefer monogamy and nuclear families. Land disputes have increased exponentially, often having to be settled by tax officials.

According to Bhan, the anthropologist, cultural change is inevitable but it is important to understand how these changes occur.

“If cultural change is forced or happens because of things that are not in their control, whether political or ecological, it can only make people anxious,” she told VICE. “So even though the Brogpas may have gotten used to it, the [polyamorous] marriage patterns did not change in themselves, but because of government impositions that made such marriage arrangements illegal.

In Ladakh: culture, history and development between Himalayas and Karakoram, anthropologist Kristoffer Bertelsen notes that in the 1940s, neo-Buddhists in Kashmir mocked Buddhists for engaging in “shameless” acts that “destroyed the lives of young Ladakhi men”. All of this eventually led to the 1941 Buddhist Law Prohibiting Polyandrous Marriages, the first legal resistance to the Brogpa way of life.

However, Tundup fears that the lack of polyamorous marriages in Brogpa villages indicates a deeper concern.

“Cases of Brogpas marriages outside of our community have only increased now,” he said. “When they come back to our villages, they don’t even speak our Arya language. In the absence of any official recognition of our language, it is easy for the new batch of Brogpas to forget our rich history and culture.

He added that the lack of political recognition of the Brogpas within the local hill council remains a major concern. “The fruits of development could reach all of us, Brogpa or not, but what about our formal participation at a much more local level? We have no representation on these local councils.

Bhan said being recognized in the hill council as a separate entity from other Ladakhis was also one of the main reasons why the Brogpas had to constantly prove their “authenticity” and “way of life”. unique” in order to qualify as culturally different.

“During my fieldwork in the villages of Brogpa, I discovered that people were concerned about land sharing (due to the decrease in polyandrous marriages) because it makes the land less viable,” he said. she declared. “But even beyond land considerations, polyandrous marriages are inseparable from work patterns.”

Bhan cites her interaction with Zumba, a Brogpa woman, who explained why “marrying three brothers was fun” but also important for sharing work and resources. “There were several brothers but they were doing different tasks,” she said. “So one brother would go away for months to graze cattle in the upland pastures, another would stay at home, while the third would trade.”

According to Roohani Sawhney, an independent researcher who has been studying the community since 2018, the burden of “morality by outsiders” also weighs heavily on the Brogpas.

“The Brogpas are now shy of their own traditions,” she said. “They don’t want their community to be known for customs that we think are negative. One of them is the sex dance during the Bonanah festival, where the Brogpas indulged in merriment and celebrated their bodies.

Sawhney explained that the original Bon religion of the Brogpas also gave way to Buddhism and Islam. “At the time, Buddhist monks consciously settled around Brogpa villages to show them a ‘brighter’ and more ‘colorful’ way of life so that they could ‘civilize’ them,” she said. declared.

In addition to Buddhist interventions, ecological and political changes have greatly affected Brogpa beliefs, from their deities and worship practices to marriages and family structure.

“Because we only want to exoticize certain aspects of their culture, we ignore the fact that Brogpa villages are located along the most militarized areas of the world,” Bhan said. “Due to the constant presence of wars, flash floods and glacial melts, many Brogpas could not access their deities located high in the mountains.”

The general presence of the army in and around Brogpa villages, due to their location along the border, is also seen by many Brogpas as a means of social mobility. Bhan noted that many Brogpas seek employment opportunities in the military.

“The creation of the Indian state did not really make Brogpas feel included in political processes,” she said. “So in this regard, the Brogpas had to rely on the army. And that changes everything – how you treat your land, your job, or your marriage. Because the army comes with its own ideas of modernity, gender and masculinity.

Tundup said that while the institution of polyamorous marriage and the Bon religion of the Brogpas may be on its last leg, he hopes that some elements of the Brogpa way of life may survive in some form.

“Many photographers and researchers now come to our villages to capture our customs,” he said. “So this makes many of us Brogpas proud of our culture. Against the harsh landscape of Ladakhi, our clothes are laden with silver jewelry and bright flowers as they represent our gods and happy beginnings.

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