I was struck by the height of my hostess, her stature accentuated by her towering headgear. Decorated with local flowers in bright colours, a peacock feather, and gold and silver trinkets, it was certainly a dramatic, if weighty, accessory. This tepi (traditional headwear) is said to ward off evil, though undoubtedly it’s also a fashion statement.
As we sat drinking tea, Sonam went item by item through each part of her tepi. Metal coins prevent sickness; the coloured ribbons protect against the adverse effects of an eclipse; and the feather will stop paralysis. The flowers have come from Sonam’s garden, each one chosen because it’s auspicious. Juniper cleanses evil; montho berries will bring love and prosperity.
The afternoon drew on and Sonam’s family members return home. The extended family lives together in one house, and the kitchen is at the centre of the domestic universe. The god Lha is believed to live in the pillars of the building, and he likes everything kept clean. Cooking utensils are polished to a shine and hung upon the walls, and no meat, eggs, or dairy products cross the threshold (except at festival times) else they pollute the home and anger Lha.
Though these traditions remain strong, life for the Brokpa is nevertheless changing, and fast. The Kargil War in 1999 brought the Brokpa into direct contact with the Indian Army, who relied upon their knowledge of the local terrain. There are roads now to the village, and outsiders do come. Brokpa children — including Sonam’s nephews and nieces — are getting an education, and with it a desire to explore further afield. Rigzen tells me he wants to become a doctor, something which if it happens will necessitate leaving Dha-Hanu to study at least a day’s drive away in Srinagar.
During the drive back to Nurla, Namgyal was uncharacteristically quiet. I took the chance to look once again at the mountains, now entirely different colours in the evening light. I thought of the natural barrier they posed, keeping the Brokpa in isolation, and neighbouring communities cut off from one another during the winter months. Now and then I caught a glimpse of an oil lamp flickering in a window, prayers rising with its smoke. In every hidden valley there are stories. Only by travelling there can you hear them.
Words by Stephanie Adams
Steph travelled to Ladakh with Indus Experiences (www.indusexperiences.co.uk). The 13-night Hidden Ladakh tour, which includes Leh, Nurla, and Dha-Hanu, as well as a number of other locations, costs from £2,695 per person. International and domestic flights are included in the price.