Portraits of Dah Haanu: Photographing the last Aryans of Ladakh

Ladakh, the land of high passes and once a principal entrepôt on the Silk Route, lures many wanderlusts. Mountain kingdom palaces, spectacular high-altitude deserts, magnificent monasteries and their sacred monks, Bactrian camels and jaw-dropping landscapes are truly one-of-a-kind here and attract many a traveler and photographer. And then there are its people. Between Leh and Kargil, Ladakh’s two districts, there are close to 300,000 residents that are roughly 55% Muslim and 45% Buddhist, with numerous sub-sects. A smattering of Hindus rounds up the “others” category. But, there is a 1,800-strong settlement spread across five villages – Dah, Haanu, Darchik, Beemia, and Garkon – that attracts anthropologists from the West. This is the Dard Brokpa community that has lived in relative isolation in the Batalik sector – the last major event here was the Kargil war in 1999.

The most widespread belief links their genetic origins to the Aryan master race, although Brokpas do not associate themselves with Nazi Germany in anyway – the sole connection being that of German soldiers coming to these parts in 1938 looking for Aryans, under Hitler’s orders.

Why anthropologists, one might wonder? There is no definitive answer except vehement theories that have taken deep roots amongst various research and documentarian spheres. One faction of historians assert that the Brokpas are part of Alexander’s lost army that never went back. Other fraternities opine that they are indigenous inhabitants of India, dating back to 3,000 B.C. The most widespread belief links their genetic origins to the Aryan master race, although Brokpas do not associate themselves with Nazi Germany in anyway – the sole connection being that of German soldiers coming to these parts in 1938 looking for Aryans, under Hitler’s orders.

Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. A Brokpa girl is eager to greet an outsider and doesn’t shy away.
Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. Adult and elderly women run the village as the men work in the fields or assist the army in road work.
© Ayash Basu. The chief of Beemia is also a public works officer with the Govt. of India and enjoys a large family with apple orchards, gardens, and barley fields

Which theory you choose to subscribe to is an open deliberation, but one thing is clear – Brokpas are ethnically, physically and religiously different. No Tibetan-Mongol features from the rest of Ladakh are seen here, neither are any Balti traits, as found in villages like Turtuk. Instead, Brokpas exhibit somewhat Indo-Aryan features with long hair, pale skin, high cheekbones, and light-colored eyes. Both men and women are significantly taller than the Tibetan benchmark. And, this is why in recent years, Dah-Haanu has spiked in photographic interest from documentarians and photographers.

Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. Brokpa women adorn themselves with flowers, precious stones and silver as a mark of purity and protection against the elements.

Travel photography is as much about cultural awareness and exploration as making images, and on this count, Dah was a revelation. The road to Dah is alongside the Indus river and suitably called “Indus Valley” road, which prompted memoirs of the Indus Valley civilization and Aryan migration from my school textbooks. I was forming mental pictures of blue-eyed, blond-haired, tall, well-built people – the stereotypical Aryan folklore served in some sort of Indo-German-Swedish genetic recipe. Khan, the driver from Leh, had expounded that these were rare pure-bred Aryans. Plus, I had gone through several articles and documentaries that talked about racial and pregnancy tourism in these parts – German women visiting Brokpa villages to get impregnated with “pure seed” and families in western Europe adopting Brokpa children. Read one such example here.

Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. Brokpa men wear traditional maroon gowns with cummerbunds and often use the flowery headgear just like women.
Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. Silver, stones, beads, sheepskin, berry flowers and woolen strands are used for health, beauty and ritualistic reasons. Traditional coins are often displayed as a symbol of wealth.

Polygamy and polyandry are both allowed and couples who are unable to conceive a child can freely change partners.

Visits to Beemia and Dah, two of the five Brokpa villages revealed a recipe far from Indo-German, yet markedly aside from Tibetan-Mongol and Balti-Persian. Despite the anthropology not quite aligning with the Aryan myth, Brokpa culture is as discrete as it gets. For starters, this community strictly marries within itself – four out of five times within the same village, only on rare occasions with one of the other villages. Women who marry outside the tribe are not welcome back. Yet, polygamy and polyandry are both allowed and couples who are unable to conceive a child can freely change partners, within the community of course. Women reserve first rights to a divorce if they so choose, and are paid handsomely by the groom on wedding day. Aryan or not, I’m almost sure this beats most Hun, Goth or Viking norms.

Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. A tad surprisingly, but pleasantly and re-assuringly, women are front and center of Brokpa culture.
Portraits from Dah Haanu, Ladakh photo experience by Loculars
© Ayash Basu. Tribal traditions are not only preserved and observed but actively passed down to the next generation.

Brokpas are followers of the Bon religion, though versions of Buddhism are now seen. This means nature worship and utmost regard towards resources around oneself. Families grow their own fruits and vegetables, raise cattle and are vegans for the most part. Alcohol and goat meat are consumed on special occasions.

How far the Aryan myth is true is anybody’s guess. More importantly, how much does it matter – unless one somehow believes in the notion of master race and superior genes, which I don’t. My personal view is that the Aryan tagline got thrown around a bit during the war decades in the 20th century, possibly a bit by Germans, and equally invested in by the British in India at the time. I would argue that the Brokpas themselves have only been recently aware of their “Aryanness,” following rising interest from anthropology scholars, travelers and photographers.

Having said that, this is a distinct community in a very remote corner of India that is sexually liberated, has equal representation and rights for women, is extremely conscious of natural resources, doing everything to preserve and promote them, and fiercely remembers its ancestors and traditions. If these traits were to define an Aryan master race, then by many counts these Brokpas might indeed be the last remaining Aryans in India.


Some practical tips:

Getting there: 5 to 7 hours by car from Leh, be prepared for construction delays along the way

Length of stay: Recommended one night stay in Beemia, Garkon or Dah, prior booking and Dah-Haanu specific permits required

When to go: Best times are between June and September

Permits: Arrange in advance in Leh that specifically say Dah-Haanu on the permits, there are army check posts along the way where government issued ids and permits are checked, and recorded. International travelers need to carry passports

Photography tips: A normal (24-70mm) will suffice, a 35 or 50mm fast prime will help for portraits. These villages are lush with heavy vegetation so ambient light can be tricky even outdoors. This was the only place in Ladakh where auto white balance did not work quite well and gave funny results initially. Take a few test shots and set a custom white balance in your camera.

Language: Brokpas don’t speak good Hindi, unlike the rest of Ladakh. You will have to manage with both verbal communications and hand signals when interacting with the villagers.


These photos were made during a Ladakh photo experience offered on Loculars, please also check out another post on Turtuk, also part of the Ladakh photo experience. A version of this post first appeared here.