THERE ARE just 4,000 of them left in the world, and 30 of those were visiting Delhi recently. In heavy fur costumes, flower bouquets adorning their heads, members of the Dard Aryan tribe from Jammu & Kashmir's Ladakh region were in the capital as part of a seminar that extensively discussed the need to preserve their legacy. They spoke about a struggle to do so, as they perceived a threat to their cultural "owing to modernisation and migration". With the help of experts, they drafted a memorandum and submitted it to the Centre, requesting the government for intervention.
Who are the Dard Aryans?
Some 200 km from Leh are the villages of Dha, Hanu, Garkone and Darchik on both sides of the Indus River, inhabited by the Buddhist Dard Tribes. The villages are together called the "Aryan valley". "The word 'Dard' is derived from a Sanskrit word, 'Daradas', which means people who live on hillsides," said Virendra Bangroo, assistant professor at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), who has extensively researched on their lives, and also curated the exhibition/seminar in Delhi. He added people of this region are culturally and linguistically different from those in other parts of Ladakh. Among other researchers who have gone into the community’s roots, there is a line of thought that the "Aryans of Ladakh" or the "Brokpas" might have descended from soldiers in Alexander's army who had come to the region over 2,000 years ago. The Dard Aryans, however, do not document their history, Bangroo said.
They rear goat and sheep for milk and meat, and their festivals are based on the solar calendar. Bangroo visited the regions inhabited by the Dard Aryan community back in 2017, where he helped set up two museums to archive their cultural heritage. Bangroo is of the view that their traditions go back 5,000 years; those who still follow the original customs worship trees, rivers and mountains. During their visit to Delhi, they were also taken to Prayagraj for a day to visit the Kumbh. These tribals are mainly dependent on agriculture; the apricots grown here are considered among the best in the world and there are 12 varieties of grapes in the region. Bangroo said grape-wine is very popular in the "Aryan valley".
A number of researchers, as well as the tribals, perceive a threat to the heritage of the community owing to modernisation, migration and religious conversion. The community now numbers about 4,000. Over the last few decades, many of them have embraced Islam or Buddhism. "The community prohibits marriage with outsiders to keep the gene pool intact. Of late, the Dard men have been migrating to other parts of the region (in search of livelihood) and marrying outside the tribe," Bangroo said. "The tribe is struggling to find a balance between modernity and traditional values." Also, after the Kargil War, development work in this region has been restricted. Some of the areas of the Aryan valley are out of bounds for outsiders, since it borders Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Members of the community said there are only three high schools in their villages and very limited resources for livelihood - mainly because of the harsh weather and difficult terrain. As such, they have no option but to migrate to cities for higher education and employment. They have demanded that the government set up a tribal hostel and declare the "Aryan valley" a heritage village to boost tourism.
A delegation of the Dard Aryans submitted their charter of demands to Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Sudarshan Bhagat. Besides, they have also asked that a Dardi post be filled at J K Art, Culture and Language Academy in Kargil; a regional Study Centre for Dardi Tradition; and a Cluster Model Village at Garkon to boost the cultural heritage of the Dard Aryans. Bangroo said the tribe is already part of the Scheduled Tribes list, but the only way to sustain them is by giving them special status and helping make them self-sufficient so that they don't have to migrate.