The last of the Aryans?

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Deep in India’s Ladakh region live the Aryans, perhaps the last generation of pure-blooded people and holders of possibly the only untampered gene pool left in the world, writes Dave Stamboulis. Published on BBC on May 3, 2019.

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Pure-blooded people

In a remote valley deep in India’s Ladakh region live a tribe known as the Aryans, who are perhaps the last generation of pure-blooded people and holders of possibly the only untampered gene pool left in the world.

For many, the term ‘Aryan’ has negative connotations. However, it comes from the Sanskrit ‘arya’, meaning ‘nobleman’, and originally referred to a people who spoke an Indo-Iranian language and migrated from Central Asia to India and Iran. It was later used to refer to tribal groups who lived in the Indus River valleys that are now part of Pakistan and India, and it is their descendants who are said to make up this tiny minority found in the Ladakh region today. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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A remote, harsh life

Ladakh’s Dha-Hanu Valley, also known to locals as the Aryan Valley, is hemmed between the Karakoram Mountains and the Indus River in northern India, close to the Pakistan border. Here lie the five Aryan villages, home to somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 inhabitants. Also known as the Brogpa (or Brokpa, Dards or just the people of Dha-Hanu, two of the largest villages in the valley), residents have lived here in seclusion for thousands of years, partly due to the wild physical landscape, the lack of roads and India’s border fights with Pakistan over Kashmir, all of which have helped minimise contact with the outside world. This isolation has helped to keep their gene pool intact and untampered, but with the arrival of the modern world at their doorstep, this looks set to change. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Mysterious past

There are varying theories as to the origins of the Brogpa, none of which have ever been conclusively proven. German linguist and Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller believed that the Aryans descended from fair-skinned conquerors from Central Asia who battled their way across Europe. Later, German Nazis used this fascination with a fair-skinned warrior tribe to give rise to their propaganda of a pure race that could take over the world.

Another commonly held belief is that the Brogpa are the descendants of Alexander the Great and his soldiers, who came through here during their conquests of Asia. The same theory has been applied to the Kalash tribe of Pakistan not too far away, but DNA testing has rendered this inconclusive. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Original inhabitants

A third theory holds that the Brogpa were the first permanent inhabitants of the area, having migrated and settled here and in the valleys of the Karakorams in the 7th Century. One thing is certain though: the Aryans have physical features far more akin to Europeans than to the Tibetan-Mongol Ladakhis who inhabit the region. They have blue, green and hazel eyes, higher cheekbones, and fairer skin, and they also stand far taller than their Kashmiri and Ladakhi counterparts. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Changing traditions

The Brogpa have forbidden outside or inter-caste marriage and kept their unique Broksat language. They’ve also adhered to old cultural ways, dressing in elaborate costumes with floral headdresses known as tepi, long sheepskin cloaks and ornate jewellery and accessories. However, access to the internet and the arrival of paved roads in the last decade have made it much harder to preserve traditions. Younger Aryans are now marrying outside of the Brogpa tribe, moving to the cities for work and wearing Western clothing. Buddhism has made huge inroads here, too, with the majority of the formerly animist Aryans becoming Buddhists and new monasteries being built throughout the valley each year. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Elaborate festivals

While modern changes may be threatening the Aryan culture, they may be saving them as well. A paved road into the valley has given the Brogpa’s access to better health care, education and jobs in Leh, while the lifting of restrictions on foreigners visiting the area over the past five years by the Indian military has brought both a steady trickle of tourists as well as extra cash flow into the remote communities. Over the past two years several cultural festivals have been organised by the five villages, where every member of each clan takes part, wearing their traditional clothing, performing cultural dances and showing their unique ways to the outside world. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Traditional costumes

Young girls are the most important link in preserving the culture, as the Brogpa women wear the most elaborate traditional costumes (men today only wear their traditional garb for festivals, whereas some women still wear their headdresses for going to the fields or domestic chores). Mothers proudly spend hours plaiting their daughters’ hair, preparing their handmade costumes, and handing down their exquisite ornaments and accessories in preparation for the festivals. Traditional Brogpa weddings are also held at these festivals, with the brides-to-be covering their face with veils made of paper flowers and led by hand by their families through a crowd of admiring well-wishers. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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Daughterly duties

When my wife and I stayed in the village of Biama, we were put up in the house of Dolma, a local Brogpa who was both nervous and curious over the first two foreign guests to be in her home. She spoke a few words of English and asked if we came from the same village – bemused that we might come from far-apart communities – and then proudly showed off the family headdresses, jewels and amulets that she helped her daughter put on. She was giddy with excitement over the weekend festival that was bringing tourists to the community. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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A vibrant culture

I asked Dolma if she was excited over her daughter participating in the festival. She replied that not many outsiders came to Biama, and that it was fun to meet foreigners. But even more importantly, she couldn’t wait to see friends from neighbouring villages, brought together each year by the festival, as well as the chance to dress up, dance and celebrate. If the future generations continue to hold traditional ceremonies and celebrations and keep their vibrant culture alive, perhaps then, they won’t be the last of the Aryans. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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