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Name : Joydip Mitra  [On Sep 24, 2011]

State : JK

Title : IN NOMADS’ LAND

Article :

A time comes when everything appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

This is not because we are inside a super fast train, arrogantly galloping past lonely platforms where someone just appears to have a look at the train. This is always associated with an irresistible urge to get down, to step onto the field, to walk towards that distant cluster of huts where there will be some silence. The urge is to follow the ritual of the funeral procession of never looking back. But it can’t be more different as we are looking from inside a rickety jeep, moving at a pace that the frequent donkey caravans could ignore. Ours is a very special journey against time, because, just on the other side of the road and flowing in opposite direction, is river Indus.  The reverberation from the mountains caused by the river’s flow, presence of one or two abandoned clay forts up at improbable heights, sudden smudge of a lonely rider far into a corner- all these made our imagination stretch it’s wings.

        We felt that imagination is really stretched beyond limit as we stepped into the office of the District Collector, at Leh. Negotiating some dark corridors and not-too-friendly stares of three dogs that somehow collected there, we finally could present ourselves before the person officially empowered to issue a permit, necessary for moving into the interior of Rupsu and Yangma valleys. On being presented with our appeal he went into an impromptu examination of our contours, and that too for a period desperately long. All, including the dogs, went into contemplation and patters from horse’s hooves in the adjacent stadium where a game of polo is on only added to the silence. The stance was then broken with a cheer as a team scored, and, still speechless, we were handed over with some forms. The official process was over within 5 minutes, and, as we were coming out, a cheer loud enough to reach the distant and high-up Zorabar fort effortlessly buried the bells emanating from Sankar monastery. It was a typical, aboriginal, Leh evening.

         Anthropology says that millennia ago a fraction of the Aryans, while migrating to the greener south, somehow got lost and came into the lifeless Tibetan plateau, of which the western and northern regions of Ladakh were then a part. Not being able to get hold of land where agriculture could be practiced upon as a profession, they opted to nourish horses and sheep. In a land where rain is not a frequent occasion, and where a patch of green could only have to be searched out, necessity made them migrants. From time immemorial they came to be known as Drok-Pa (men from Drok, or Tibet), and are still living a life that have all the elements of surreal mysticism. They are wanderers, as has been said. Once an entire green stretch is chewed off by their sheep, they set off riding strong horses to make a search for another. One cannot care less for the relentless political developments that are taking place. To them all these are happening elsewhere, probably in some other planet. Their language cannot be written, they have a God having origin in the pre-Buddhist ages, and many of them still do not recognize currency as a medium for trade. Once they have enough wool from the sheep, they come to Korzog, the only permanent settlement in the region, to affect an exchange for garments, and food. Once they have enough horses in the herd, they just move into Tibet to get some exchanged for carpet. Army has strengthened it’s vigil in the area, but to them that is no restrainer. They are folks to whom lines drawn as international borders are literally imaginary.

         Our plan was simple and innocent—we set out to watch these Drokpas from close quarter. The program was not to go for clinical studies of details that one associates with a research project, but to try to witness the lyricism of a forgotten life that is just lived, unpolluted, bereft of politics. For 3000, a rickety jeep deposited us at Korzog, at about 14000ft, just by Tso-Moriri, a lake big enough to take 5 days to circumambulate. A hotel was there, but we opted for the camping ground. It was only expected that through exchange the Drokpas must have acquired some Levises, and John Millers, but our first Drokpa acquaintance, Padma Dorje, was still a shock—the bold message on his T-shirt was “I love Goa”. My friend Barun got skeptical about Padma’s credibility as a Drokpa, and fired some questions. Padma collected himself calmly, drew some hieroglyphics on loose soil, even indicated some of those as valleys and passes, and then effortlessly chalked out a route that would keep us in longest company of the nomads for the next four days. Then he went to an instanteneous discourse about the technicalities of preservation of Chang—the local beer, meanwhile delivering the news that though he is a settler, he had been to Leh only once, during childhood. “Son of the soil”, Barun whispered. Padma would have been on further elaboration of his credibility hadn’t the heaven broke loose. Rain silently intruded into the DesertMountains and the lake is stirred. We encountered the strong breeze from inside the tent, looking at a lonely white horse that was standing still to let the water speak. Next morning it was, as usual, sunny, and Padma, with his three donkeys, started a march, with we four, draped in jackets and rucksacks, mutely following behind.

          Padma ensured that the previous evening’s rain would cause much movement among the Drokpas, thereby making it easier for us to spot a group. It was only a couple of hours before the first group was spotted. With rain the land at Thaldak turned greener and a new flock had just arrived in expectation. Angry barks were heard from a long distance and, paying heed to Padma’s instruction, we stood still in a neat row. Readily three riders arrived to have a closer look at this queer little party. We put our tongues out and uttered “Julley”. More than the masters our gesture was meant to make ourselves presentable to the dogs. All appeared satisfied and we were offered a cup of tea. Theirs was a group of five families moving with nine hundred sheep, twenty horses, six dogs and ten yaks. They then just arrived and hadn’t had enough time to pitch “robos”—tents made of yak skin. The children were found much busier unloading the yaks, though three of them together could barely carry a tent. Delivering another urbane edition of julley we proceeded to move towards Thaldak-La, a pass at about 17000 ft. Altitude made my brain working independently, probably dreaming with an element of hallucination about wandering herds, about monastery bells, about polyandry that is rumored to have been practiced among these clans still today.

         Presence of an yak’s skull told us that we are on our summit. Looking down we could just make out the form of ten odd tents the Drokpas had by then managed to pitch. The valley uninhabited the day before was already assuming the look of a settlement. Further beyond was a glimpse of Tso-Moriri’s turquoise blue. We started coming down the other side of the pass, and spent the night beside a rivulet, solitary, just like the valley that has started widening.

           Nowhere was there a sign of life the next day as we kept marching on and on. Padma was stared at many times but he managed to retain his composed look. At about three we crossed another pass that Barun’s map pointed as Yamarukangla. Suddenly we had another occasion to put our tongues out, and say julley. There was the unmistakable presence of a rider who led us the rest of the way. Taking a turn we encountered the dazzling yet serene vision of thousands of sheep basking in the warm evening sun. One having all the bearings of a patriarch instructed us to pitch tents between two robos. Only by this way would we not be considered differently by the dogs.

         That evening our dream came true. As night settled we collected inside the patriarch’s tent, sat down with those different people encircling a fire that will be kept lit all night. Countless cups of “gutgut tea” (made with salt and butter) were consumed and conversation (here Padma proved his worth) rolled on. Time stood still and our dream journey into the past was accomplished. Flicker from the fire made our faces magenta, and long dark shadows cast on the robo walls stirred in distorted fashions. We came to know that though being rich by all standards these people cannot think of demanding more. We learned that though polyandry was once practiced to keep wealth inside the clan, it is no more in use now.

      Next day we started late. Sticking to the little deviations the patriarch suggested to our route we encountered five groups. From one Padma managed to exchange meat for condensed milk. His is also a Drokpa heritage, we got assured. The night was spent just like the night before, watching on, and listening to, all that is old, not relevant by any means anywhere, all that just stays on, like fire.

        Barun’s map told us that the final day’s march would take us to some point on the Leh-Manali highway, near Mori plains, about 100 kms from Leh. From there Padma with his three donkeys will return back, while we will try to stop a vehicle bound for Leh. A small pass was negotiated and we reached Nuruchen. It bore the look of a haunted village. Someday all went away never to return. The general mood became a little more pensive. Frequent riders were spotted as we were walking past the shore of Tso-Kar, another lake tiny in proportion. Far into the distance could be made out a long dusty track laid abandoned in brown wilderness. Our road ended.

      After all those spontaneous hugs and choked appeals to forget his misdeeds, Padma with his three donkeys started returning back. We collected over the desolate road and kept looking on. Padma never looked back. His donkeys cannot gallop, their steps are short, and they take their time to become just pointed presences in that vast vertical perspective.

       By now, on Padma’s shirt, that icon of a palm tree must have faded. Does he still dream of the sea?

 Copyright@Joydip Mitra