Situated high atop the banks of the Indus River, on a narrow strip of fertile land, a tribe of mysterious origins has flourished for centuries. Legends say that the Brokpa of Dah are descendants of a lost army of Alexander the Great. Others speculate they are Dards, an exiled tribe from Gilgit, in what is today part of Pakistan.
The Brokpa themselves do not know where they come from. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that there is cause for wonder. Their distinctive fair skin, sharp noses, and unusual colored eyes are clearly different from the majority of people in Ladakh whose appearance is influenced by Tibetan Mongoloids. It is not only their looks that separate them from others. In a traditionally Buddhist territory, the Brokpa beauties who originally practiced Shamanism, have long been famed for being wild women with multiple lovers.
At first glance, I am struck by the bouquet of flowers which adorn the tops of the heads of the Brokpa. Women’s hair is fully braided with extensions of old hair used to lengthen the long tresses. It is finally gathered in a knot well below their waists. Turquoise, pearls, coral, silver, and shells embellish the finery of the women. Goatskin coats cover their backs and many strands of beaded necklaces decorate their chest.
Here, where the natural world inspires ornamentation there is no need for the likes of perfume, lipstick, and mascara. However, times are rapidly changing and many of the Brokpa are abandoning traditional clothing for the easier to use ‘Punjabi dress’. These days traditional garments are mostly used at festival times only with a few elders still wearing their heavy costumes on a daily basis.
As a western woman coming from a culture where push up bras and plastic surgery are becoming the norm, I envy the natural beauty of the Brokpa. In times where society has submitted to the artificial and our standards of beauty have followed in its lead, I want to believe that the world I witness in this small sliver of paradise is not confined to this place alone.
The magnificence of the Brokpa, amidst a world of the superficial, remind me that the real beauty is one where the outside reflects what is within. That surely echoes the splendor of Dah, where apricots dangle ripe for the picking and grape vines sway to the songs of young love.