Thursday 1 December 2022

The Brokpas of Garkon- A Sketch Travelogue

 I spent five enriching days in Garkon, home to the Brokpa/Aryan/Dardic tribe, during the Apricot Blossom Festival in April 2022. My earlier plan was to spend two days in Garkon, but thanks to the bad experience in the Achinathang homestay (read my previous blog), I shortened my stay at Achinathang and spent two more days at Garkon. I took a bus from Achinathang to Garkon and reached the  Payupa Guest House, run by Diskit and her husband Tashi Lundup. It is a multi-storied house with several rooms. Since I was traveling solo, they gave me a room on the ground floor with a shared bathroom and toilet. 

This was the first sketch I did of the view outside. 

Warming up for the Garkon sketch series

I met a very interesting person in Garkon. He is the folk singer of the village, Sonam Wangyal, and was a storehouse of information about Brokpa culture and history. One thing he said was interesting. It was one of his relatives who had gone to graze his cattle on the border who discovered the infiltration of Pakistani terrorists on the border and informed the Indian Army, which eventually led to the Kargil war in 1999.

Sonam Wangyal, the folk singer of Garkon

While walking around the village, I saw this old Brokpa house with Ibex horns on the door. After I had sketched it, the owner came along and offered me some dried apricots from her tree. 

A house with a lot of character in Garkon

I think it is now time to tell you about the Brokpa tribe.
When Alexander, the Macedonian King invaded India in 326 BC, there were three soldier brothers who stayed back. Their names were Galo, Melo and Dhulo. They stayed back originally in the Gilgit Baltistan area and then wished to move to greener areas. One of the brothers shot an arrow and it fell in Dah (Dah means arrow), So Dah became the first settlement of the Brokpas and then eventually the descendants of the three brothers, settled in the villages of Hanu, Garkon, Darchik and 2-3 other villages, one of which is in Pakistan now. The Brokpas were animists and worshipped Nature and later embraced Buddhism. They do keep their animist traditions alive too with festivals and celebrations. Polyandry was common until a few generations ago. They speak a language called Dard or Shina and their language has no script. They speak Ladakhi fluently but the Ladakhis cannot understand their language. They marry only within their community although that is fast changing with the younger generation going to cities for work and studies. Both men and women wear headgear with flowers on it.

Two young Brokpa girls

Two young Brokpa girls

I was lucky that on the day I was there, 14th April 2022, the Apricot Blossom Festival, locally called Chuli Menduq was being organized by the Department of Tourism. All the Brokpas from Garkon and the neighboring villages came in all their traditional attire and finery.
The Brokpas looked like walking floral bouquets. So amazing. I noticed that the Brokpa attire is a celebration of all things sourced from earth. There is silver, pearls, coral, flowers, turquoise, sea shells, goat leather, coins, seeds, wool, etc. It was a bonus for me. It was a riot of colour and a feast for the eyes. There was dance and music too and I sketched in a frenzy to capture as much as I could.

The bright orange flower, Monthu-tho, is very important for the Brokpas. They value it even more than gold or silver. Whenever there is a dispute between people, this flower is offered as truce and to symbolize peace. During all the happy occasions like weddings or birth of a child, all the community members wear this flower as part of their headgear. This flower grows in a shrub in the fields in September. This is the headgear worn by Brokpa women.
The floral headgear for Brokpa women called Molan Kho

Monthu Tho- the most important flower for the Brokpas

I also sketched the Brokpa footwear and pants worn by women.

The shoes are called 'Aala Peela'. Peela means shoes in their language. The bottom part is made of goat leather and the upper part of wool. So colorful! I am considering joining the Brokpa tribe for their sheer love for bright colours.

The pant is worn underneath the kaftan or Kurta and is made of wool with rich embroidery in bright colors. It was quite heavy to hold.

Brokpa women's pants

Brokpa shoes called Aala Peela

I wanted to do another portrait of a Brokpa woman and the mother of my homestay owner sweetly agreed to pose for me. The Brokpa women wear their hair in 14 plaits. 4 on each side and 6 behind. This lady told me when she was young, they had to comb their hair everyday and plait it. They never cut their hair. But now things have changed. She said earlier, rajma (kidney beans) and corn and other seeds were used as part of their attire. The silver used to come from Skardu, now in Pakistan. The traders would exchange salt in exchange for silver.

Brokpa girls from the back. They wear a cape made of goat skin and until two generations ago, girls weren't allowed to go outside or be seen by men without the goat skin.
The cape of the Brokpa girls.

The traditional attire of the Brokpas is elaborate and heavy!

I got the opportunity to watch and sketch Brokpa musicians on percussion and wind instruments. The Brokpa songs are all about Nature, about Apricot blossoms, the river, the mountains. They share a close connection to nature like most people in the villages.

The wind instrument is called Surna, the tabla like instrument is called Daman, the sticks are called Danshing and the single percussion instrument is Bhoonsh.
You may like to read my post on the Lepcha tribe in Sikkim.

I think the Brokpa men may be the only men in the world to wear floral headgear with such confidence and elegance.
Brokpa men with floral headgear
This is a 500 yrs old Ladakhi house belonging to the family of Tashi Lundup, @payupaguesthouse which has now been converted into a museum. This was restored 150 yrs ago in its current state. It is a 4 storied structure. The ground floor called the 'Bhu' was used for keeping goats and sheep. The 1st floor is called Kattsa, used during winters where the entire family gathered. Leading to the Kattsa is another large room, where the handprints of Guru Padma Sambhava are kept on a Sabdak, an ancient symbolic rock, which represents the local deity. The food after being prepared is first offered to the deity and then partaken. There are small cells for storing butter and hold household items.

The 2nd floor is called Sbyarkhang, used in summer. The 3rd floor is a prayer room called Chokthang. 4th floor is the terrace.

Brokpa museum in Garkon
Some of the items in the museum as such these pots are made of stone. They are over 200 years old and were made in what is now Pakistan.

Collection of museum artifacts
At Garkon, I felt fortunate to sit by the Sindhu/Indus river, from which our country Bharat gets its anglicized name India, and sketch this beautiful scene, with the sound of the gurgling river water and the musical notes of the Whistling Thrush. The sun cast a molten golden glow on the waters on the horizon. So beautiful! I wanted to go and touch the water and fill up my water brushes too, but I already had a swollen ankle and thought that navigating more of these boulders would cause more strain. There will be another time I am sure.

Indus river in Garkon

As I was wandering around the village, a young man Phunchok invited me to see his newly renovated guest house called Betepa Guesthouse. He offered me tea and I sat on the terrace and sketched this panoramic view.

Phunchok of Betepa Guest house in Garkon

Below is the Payupa Guesthouse.
As I had mentioned earlier, the Brokpas have kept their animist traditions alive alongside the Buddhist practices. This is the sacred walnut tree of the village called Changri Aatho, where their guardian spirit is believed to be residing. Every year, the Brokpa villages take turns celebrating the Bon festival called Bonona. So Garkon gets its chance every three years. The tree and stone are worshipped and offered holy fumes called Phok (juniper leaves). The first harvest of the season is also offered to the tree and villagers come in traditional attire and sing and dance in celebration.

During the Apricot blossom festival, the men and women performed a folk dance. It was a slow-moving dance but very graceful and the dancers sang in chorus. One of the women offered me a headgear. It was very heavy on my head. The songs they sang were about Nature, love, river and mountains.
A coffee table at Paupa guesthouse with Tibetan Buddhist motifs. This kind of decor is ubiquitous in the regions practicing Tibetan Buddhism such as Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and parts of Himachal Pradesh.
My hostess at Payupa Guest House, Diskit, made this syrupy side dish with dried apricots which are just boiled in plain water. The result is a syrupy jam-like dish that pairs well with rice-dal and rotis.

Seeing me sketch at the Chuli Menduq, a Tourism minister of Ladakh, Aga Syed Taha, asked me to draw a portrait of him. I said I did not have loose papers and that I wouldn't tear a page from my sketchbook. He managed to get some A4 printer paper and asked me to draw on that.
Assistant Director of Tourism, Aga Syed Taha

All in all, my Garkon visit was extremely fulfilling as I got a deeper insight into the culture of the Brokpas. My next stop after Garkon was Temisgam/Tingmosgang which was equally beautiful in its own way. Read about it here.

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Wednesday 2 November 2022

Sketch Travelogue of Leh, Achinathang and Temisgam- Ladakh

Leh Palace with the mountains in the background

I am finally writing about my Ladakh sketch travelogue. This was my second trip in 2022 which I have documented entirely through sketches. The original Ladakh trip was to be in April 2020 which had to be shelved because of the Covid lockdown. I attempted to travel in 2021 too, but there was a third wave of Covid so again that got cancelled. 

Finally, in April 2022, Ladakh called me and I had a splendid 12-day trip. As pictures (in this case sketches) speak a thousand words, let me take you along on my wonderful journey.

Passengers at Pune airport

The Himalayas beckon!

I was hoping to sketch a plane on the 1st page, but at the Pune airport it's not visible from the waiting area. But people glued to their phones make for a good warm-up.

View from the waiting lounge at Delhi airport

Sketched this at 2 am India time at the Delhi Airport. The tails of the parked planes look like shark fins.

The magnificent Himalayan range on the Delhi-Leh flight.

I am anyways grumpy when I don't get a window seat and today I was furious that after having paid extra for a window seat, my seat didn't have a window anyways I decided to make the best of it. I had some consolation that I had chosen the west side of the plane because on the east, the sun almost blinds you and you cannot enjoy the aerial view. I was right. Most people on the right side crowded on the west with their cameras. I started rapidly sketching but couldn't take a proper photo with the background and the sketch was also in a sleep-deprived state. Some more pictures of the aerial view. So magnificent our mountain ranges are!
View from the Ponyo guest house window

In Leh I stayed at Ponyo Guesthouse, run by a mother-son duo. It was in a quite lane, about 20 minutes walk from the Leh market and overlooking the snow peaked mountains.
Another view of Ponyo guest house while having tea in the morning

Leh market with the Leh castle in the background
I was drawn to sketch this cafe and the adjacent structures at the Leh market. The buildings are a muted colour matching the cold desert that Ladakh is, with bright pops of colours in flags and name boards.
The Leh Post Office.

I love how post offices across India try to incorporate traditional elements of architecture. In Leh it translates to intricately carved wood beams and bright red windows.
After a hot cup of tea and Ladakhi biscuits, on the 10th of April morning, I boarded a bus from Leh bus station and proceeded to Achinathang. At first glance, Ladakh looked barren devoid of any color, but upon a closer look I noticed a raw beauty in the barrenness and could decipher colors even in the neutral tones.

Thumbnails from the moving bus to Achinathang. Of barren, rugged almost lunar landscapes, weathered and fashioned by the wind and sun.
Now comes the part which travellers dread. I had zeroed in on Achinathang for the apricot blossoms in April and also to meet a renowned Ladakhi scholar, Sonam Phuntsog. As I had mentioned earlier, I had planned my trip in April 2020 which got cancelled due to the pandemic. But I had been in touch with Dolma and her husband Stanzin who run a homestay in Achinathang. Although having updated Dolma about my travel plans and dates, I felt utter dismay seeing how dirty the house was, upon reaching there. Things were strewn, and the floor wasn't swept for days. I was given a room on the first floor and was asked to use the bathroon-cum-toilet on the ground floor. The bathroom I was asked to use was utterly filthy, with leaves, mud, plastic buckets, washing machine and whatnot all dumped together. I said I would use the bathroom next to my room on the first floor. The wash basin had no water, luckily the flush had and it was better than the one below. The weariness of travel, the sleeplessness, and the indifference of the hosts took its toll and I wanted to immediately leave their place. But the next bus would come only the next day for my next destination, Garkon. I decided to brave out the 24 hours. Evening came and it was time to sleep and the hosts did not even bother asking if I needed some more warm blankets or hot water. I informed them that I would be leaving the next day. Stanzin justified the dirty house saying they are busy with farming and taking care of children. But why host people then who have come from far away to experience a slice of their life. Isn't that a waste of their time and money? I felt cheated.
The Ladakhi scholar Sonam Phuntsog

While I was sketching, this little boy who had seen me sketching earlier came up to me and handed me a bar of chocolate how adorable! He had purchased the bar from a shop nearby. So as a token of thanks I wanted to sketch him too. While I completed the 1st sketch he told me about his school and asked me which class I was in. He is in class 1. He was surprised that I couldn't tell him which class I am in.

He wanted to pose for a sketch with an imaginary black bird in his hand. Since I directly sketch with a pen, his feet got cut off. He asked me why I did not draw his feet with his footwear properly. Too strict for a 6 year old. his name is Nima Namgyal and Nima means the sun in Ladakhi language. For the earlier sketch he insisted I draw the sun because that's him.

A village on the other side of the Indus river. I was sketching this when the little boy Nima Namgyal met me (check the previous post). I had to draw the sun. He wanted me to draw the rays of the sun too but I didn't :-)

A village the other side of Achinathang across the river

Chorten in Achinathang
My homestay host said that this Buddhist structure is of great significance. There are only 2 such structures called Chorten with 5 domes in entire Ladakh. There is a belief that when people die, at the gates of heaven, the God of death asks if one has gone around this structure with 5 domes. And if not, they are promptly dispatched to hell :-)

Salted butter tea.

These colourful flasks with dragon designs are ubiquitous in most mountain villages I have visited. They come in various sizes holding up to 3 to 4 litres of liquid. In the mountains, people make large quantities of tea in the morning fill up these flasks, and keep having them throughout the day. This is salted butter tea, made with milk, butter, salt, and a different kind of tea leaf. It's rich and creamy and you can taste the butter in it too. This high-calorie beverage is essential for cold, mountain life.
My desire to see apricot blossoms did not materialize in Achinathang. Summer arrived early in 2022 and the village looked like a white fairyland with apricot blossoms the previous week, but by the time I arrived, they were all wilted. I wanted to burst out crying, for catharsis, because of the bad homestay experience and lack of apricot blossoms. I wondered if the rest of my trip would get worse and if I should just go back home. But a quick check of the astronomically priced flight tickets made me decide to tough and rough it out! Luckily, before I left Achinathang, as I wandered through the village, I saw this single tree full of apricot blossoms. Maybe, the nature fairies heard me cry. I sketched this determinedly with the scorching sun singeing my back through the layers of clothing.
You may like to read my blog post on Birding in Sarmoli.

The lone apricot tree with blossoms in Achinathang

Looked like I was not meant to visit Achinathang. As if the dirty homestay and lack of apricot blossoms weren't enough while waiting for the bus to Garkon, which was one and a half hours late, a shabby-looking old man annoyed me no end, by talking continuously and inviting me to his house and asking personal questions. I was mentally exhausted and was prepared to punch him if he crossed his limits. 
Sketching came to my rescue and I drew this, eagerly waiting for the bus and from the corner of my eyes making sure that the old man wasn't up to anything undesirable. 
A bad sketch by a mentally exhausted me!

The bus finally came and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The bus meandered its way parallel to the turquoise Indus river. 

Thumbnails of the Indus river from a bus to Garkon

I reached Garkon, the village of the Brokpa tribe. I have a separate detailed post about the Brokpa people which you can reach here. 

I stayed at Payupa guest house, run by Diskit and her husband Tashi. They also have a 500 yrs old Brokpa house converted into a museum to preserve Brokpa tradition. 
Outside the Payupa Guest house

I attended the Apricot blossom festival at Garkon, locally called Chuli-menduq and I had an amazing time. Please read my entire blog post on Garkon. 
Two young Brokpa girls in their traditional attire

At the Payupa Guest house in Garkon, I met two girls who were traveling through Ladakh in a hired cab with a driver. They told me that their next destination was Temisgam. I have never heard of it. But a quick Google search told me that Temisgam also known as Tingmosgang was at a higher altitude than Garkon so I inferred that I might still stand a chance to see trees full of apricot blossoms.  I asked the girls if I could accompany them and they gracefully agreed. I did a search for homestays in Temisgam and got to know the names of the hosts but there wasn't a proper address. Luckily, the family with whom the two girls were staying knew this homestay I wanted to go to and took me to Yakpa homestay run by the motherly Ama Tsering Lanzes and her husband Tashi Wangyal. 

It was a large house with six rooms with an attached bathroom each. Within the house compound was a large orchard full of apricot trees. My hostess Ama Lanzes was very motherly and fed me sumptuously. My first meal there was a huge plate of fresh and hot momos with cabbage and carrot stuffing. I sketched away as my hostess dexterously shaped the momos and steamed them. 

Making of momos in Temisgam

My hostess was very caring and made sure I had a heater in the room and extra warm blankets. 
The next morning I sauntered around the village. Temisgam has many old, elegant houses and structures, many of them abandoned. and to my utter delight I was right. Being at a higher altitude than Garkon, the apricot blossoms were still blooming. I had my heart's fill of these blossoms by sketching and savouring them. 

An old traditional Ladakhi house

After being heartbroken at not having seen apricot blossoms in the earlier 2 villages (and shedding some tears over it) I was in for a delightful surprise the moment I arrived in Temisgam/Tingmosgang. The village was dotted with these blushing pink tinted, white apricot trees. The earth laughs in flowers and I felt the laughter through joy rippling through my body and like a harp playing in my own heart. I sketched this in the morning, sitting in the sun and thawing my frozen body.

A profusion of apricot blossoms

Close up of apricot blossoms

You may like to read my post on hand pollinating vanilla flowers.

A road in Temisgam lined with apricot blossoms with the snow-capped mountains in the background

I even had the luxury of drying my towel on a tree full of apricot blossoms

My hostess, Ama Lanzes, suggested that I visit the Temisgam Gompa, situated high on a mountain. We trekked up, paid our respects at the Gompa and I decided to spend some time sketching the view below. My hostess pointed to two paths leading down to her house. One path was easy but she warned me that some fierce feral dogs barked and scared passersby on one of its bends. The other path was steep and full of gravel but was safe. 
I started sketching the view below while the cold wind froze my fingers and face. At one point, my fingers became so stiff that the brush just fell off my hand. But I persevered and finally have a memory in my book. 
View below from Temisgam Gompa

I returned to Yakpa homestay to see my hostess and her friends shelling apricot kernels. She told me that they collectively spend some time every day this season to do this. I was exhausted from my trek down from the Gompa. Did I mention I went to Ladakh with a swollen left ankle? Just a day before leaving Pune, I did flying kicks during my martial arts class and landed wrongly on my left foot. So, everywhere in Ladakh, where I had to walk and trek quite a bit, I went around half-limping. 

I did not want to walk around any more so I sat and sketched group at work. 
Women shelling apricot kernels

The next day while strolling through the village, I saw a beautiful traditional Ladakhi house. It looked unoccupied. I started sketching it when a young man asked me if I would like to see the house from the inside. He said he could get the keys from the owner who now lived in a 'modern' house. 

A 500 yrs old Ladakhi house in Temisgam

The house was 500 years old and built in a traditional style with mud and stones. Traditional mud architecture is more quake and fire-resistant and very enduring as one can see. 
I went around the house and there was a 250-year-old iron metal hearth for cooking in the kitchen area. Many walls had rich Tibetan Buddhist paintings, the colors chipped off over the centuries. I imagine how glorious the house must have looked in its prime. 
Later that evening as luck would have it, I met the owner of this house in the market. I asked him why is such a beautiful house abandoned. He said his children wanted a concrete modern house. 
84-year-old Tashi Angdus, the owner of the house.

On the upper floor

The prayer room

Ladakhi hearth

The kitchen

The young man who had shown me around said he was a soldier in the Indian Army and was home on leave. When I told my mother I went to explore an abandoned house with a complete stranger she was horrified and warned me to never repeat that. But traveling solo has sharpened my instincts and I generally keep my common sense on me. I would have missed this beautiful experience if I had gone by general conditioning. So I'd rather go by my gut feeling. 

I wandered around a little more and wanting to stuff as much of the visual delight of the snow-capped mountains into my eyes, heart, and sketchbook I did one more sketch of the mountains. If you look closely at the mountains show different colors depending on the sunlight. 

A couple of more old Ladakhi houses...

I returned to Yakpa homestay after a fulfilling day of sketching. My hostess fed me sumptuously.
Ladakhi pasta called Chui-taki

Ladakhi bread

My hostess gifted me a jar of apricot jam made by her.

Hand-made pasta shells which are then boiled in vegetable or meat soup

Bukhara at Temisgam

Yakpa Homestay

 You may contact Ama Lanzes of Yakpa Homestay on 9469294229. 
I had a fulfilling stay at Temisgam and took a bus back to Leh after three days. I sat next to the driver in the front and enjoyed the best panoramic views. 

Bus drive from Temisgam to Leh

Thumbnail sketches of the road from Temisgam to Leh

Road to Leh

I have two other separate posts on Leh and Garkon. On the way back to Delhi from Leh I did another sketch of the Himalayan ranges. 

Himalayan ranges from Leh to Delhi

View from my hotel in Leh

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