Along the India-Pakistan border, in the world’s most highly militarised zone, the villages of the Brogpa community around India’s Ladakh region have seen it all. Valiantly, they resisted the invasions by Tibetan kings that first threatened their cultural identity in the 12th century. They survived the 1947 India-Pakistan war that divided their villages overnight, and the 1999 Kargil war that caused irreparable damage to their lives.
Now, the Brogpas (or Drogpas) have to contend with melting glaciers even as they wage a seemingly endless fight for recognition in the local hill council. Despite living tucked away in the remote Himalayas, the Brogpas have always lured visitors, thanks to their reputation as the “last Aryan village,” the remnants of what Nazi-era racial theorists thought of as a purebred “master race.”
Brogpas were traditionally considered "stubborn" and "untrustworthy". Mona Bhan writes that they were likened to an ace precariously hanging from a peg that could hurt and injure people.
In the book Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India, cultural anthropologist Mona Bhan, a professor of South Asian Studies at Syracuse University, mentions that the Brogpas are believed to be the original inhabitants of Ladakh, fleeing the oppressive rulers of Gilgit in the ninth century and settling in the region’s fertile villages. The Brogpas’ rich corpus of hymns, songs, and folklore passed down through generations recounts their complex history of mobilities and migrations.
But Tsering Tundup, a 48-year-old orderly in the revenue department, cannot claim with certainty whether his community, the Brogpas, are indeed Aryans.
“If the scholars claim we are Aryans, then there must be some truth to it,” he told VICE. “But we don’t have any paperwork or any other evidence to prove or disprove the same.”
Tundup’s village, Dah, changes dramatically with the seasons. In the sub-zero winter months, an impenetrable layer of snow blankets all the Brogpa villages, the stationed army troops blotching the otherwise immaculate white. During autumn, apricot and cherry blossoms fill its winding alleyways, in stark contrast against worn-down houses.
The media have commonly portrayed the Brogpas as a “wife-swapping” community of the “last Aryans”. There are rumours of “pregnancy tourism” too, with reports of some German women seeking out Brogpa men to impregnate them with the last of the “pure” Aryan sperm.
The institution of polyandrous marriages was premised on labour considerations, wage division, and consolidation of land. Now, only a few older people from the community practise it.
According to Tundup, understanding their system of polyamorous marriages only through a sexual tint misses the point. “This was a reasonable practice to consolidate land,” he said. “If a group of brothers didn’t want their land to be divided by petty disputes, they would all share a single wife. Sometimes, seven brothers would share the same wife. Thanks to this arrangement, there would be negligible land disputes.”
However, the post-colonial idea of what a civilised society should look like has upended the traditions they held close for centuries. Today, the majority of Brogpas, said Tundup, prefer monogamy and nuclear families. Land disputes have exponentially increased, often having to be settled by revenue officers.
According to Bhan, the anthropologist, cultural change is inevitable but it’s important to understand how those changes take place.
“If cultural change is imposed or happening because of things not under their control, whether political or ecological, it is bound to make people anxious,” she told VICE. “So, while the Brogpas might have gotten used to it, the [polyamorous] marital patterns didn’t change on their own terms but because of government impositions that made these marital arrangements illegal.”
Since land was scarce, Brogpas, like many Ladakhis, prevented the division of land through an institution called primogeniture, which mandated that only the eldest brother in the family inherited land.
In Ladakh: Culture, History, and Development between Himalaya and Karakoram, anthropologist Kristoffer Bertelsen notes that in the 1940s, neo-Buddhists from Kashmir derided Buddhists for indulging in “shameless” acts that “destroyed the lives of young Ladakhi men.” All of this eventually led to the Buddhist Polyandrous Marriages Prohibition Act of 1941, the earliest legal resistance to the Brogpa way of life.
However, Tundup fears that the lack of polyamorous marriages in the Brogpa villages points to a deeper concern.
“Instances of Brogpas marrying outside 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’s easy for the newer lot of Brogpas to forget our rich history and culture.”
Shortly after the prohibition of polyandry in 1941, the neo-Buddhists passed the Ladakh Buddhists’ Succession to Property Act in 1943 which declared that every son would be entitled to an equal share of ancestral land and property, thus leading to the rise of nuclear families.
He added that the lack of political acknowledgement of the Brogpas in the local hill council remains a major concern. “The fruits of development might reach all of us, Brogpa or not, but what about our formal participation on a much more local level? We don’t have any representation on these local boards.”
Bhan said that getting recognised in the hill council as an entity separate from other Ladakhis was also one of the major reasons why Brogpas had to consistently prove their “authenticity” and “unique way of living” in order to qualify as culturally different.
“During my fieldwork in the Brogpa villages, I discovered that people were concerned about the splitting of land (due to fewer polyandrous marriages) because that makes the land less viable,” she said. “But even beyond the land considerations, polyandrous marriages cannot be dissociated from labour 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 multiple brothers but they were doing different chores,” she said. “So, one brother would be gone for months on end grazing the cattle in the highland pastures, another would stay home, while the third would go trading.”
According to Roohani Sawhney, an independent researcher who has been studying the community since 2018, the burden of “morality by outsiders” weighs heavily on the Brogpas too.
“The Brogpas are now shy of their own traditions,” she said. “They do not 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 would indulge in merriment and celebrate their bodies.”
Against the harsh Ladakhi landscape, the Brogpa attire is loaded with silver jewellery, animal fur, and bright flowers because they represent their gods and happy beginnings.
Sawhney explained that the original Bon religion of the Brogpas has also given way to Buddhism and Islam. “Back in the day, Buddhist monks would consciously settle around the Brogpa villages to show them a ‘brighter’ and more ‘colourful’ way of life so that they could ‘civilise’ them,” she said.
Apart from the Buddhist interventions, ecological and political changes greatly affected the Brogpa’s beliefs, from their deities and worship practices to marriages and their family structure.
“Because we only want to exoticise certain aspects of their culture, we ignore the fact that the Brogpa villages are located along the most militarised zones in the world,” said Bhan. “Due to the constant presence of wars, flash floods and glacial meltdowns, many Brogpas couldn’t access their deities located high up in the mountains.”
The overarching presence of the military in and around the Brogpa villages, by virtue of their location along the border, is seen by many Brogpas as a means for social mobility too. Bhan noted that many Brogpas seek employment opportunities with the Army.
Mona Bhan notes that by articulating a “divine” relationship with their surroundings, Brogpas staked claims to Ladakh in ways that transcended official appropriations of space through maps, boundaries, and districts.
“The Indian state-making has not really allowed Brogpas to feel as included in the political processes,” she said. “So in that regard, the Brogpas have had to rely on the military. And that changes everything – how you treat your land, labour or marriage. Because the military comes in 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 might be on its last leg, he is hopeful that certain elements of the Brogpa way of life might survive in some form.
“Many photographers and researchers are now coming to our villages to capture our customs,” he said. “So, that makes many of us Brogpas proudly own our culture. Against the harsh Ladakhi landscape, our clothes are loaded with silver jewellery and bright flowers because they represent our gods and happy beginnings.”
Tundup's village, Dha, blossoms into stunning flowers and creepers in the brief Ladakhi spring.