Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exploring Aryan Village Life

Conor Dinan writes………

I woke up, fully recovered from a mild bout of sickness the night before, the second morning in the village of Dha to discover that I was the only one of the VIS students left there. We had been split up four and three the first night, with me, Emily and Hannah in Dha and the others in a village a few miles away, but after a night in the village guest house the other two had been transferred to homestays in the other village. And so I found myself alone, and with a whole village at my fingertips. It was exhilarating.

I spent that day and some of the next exploring the narrow, winding pathways through the town and fields. The town’s arteries were narrow paths, barely wide enough for one person, that twisted between and—in one case—under the solid structures of the houses. Sometimes a path was no more than six inches of cement on one side of a litter-filled water drain, sometimes it was so steep and rocky that ascent seemed impossible, but that didn’t stop children from tearing up them at all speed, or women from marching up them with cows or sheep in tow. They would wind back and forth, with no clear plan, but in various spots on this maze-like network the path would come to an open area—usually not much to speak of, maybe a few square yards of gravel. I think these spots intrigued me most of any in the village. The villagers, naturally, seemed to know them all by heart, and each one appeared to have been put to a specialized use. The pathway that ran along the base of the village was apparently reserved in all its length for the younger children to use as a playground; where two paths crossed in front of the general store, there seemed to be an impromptu meeting ground for the women. A metal electrical pole surrounded by a small circle of dust and grass attracted children on their way home from school, still in their uniforms, delighted to make an ungodly din by smashing rocks against the pole over and over to proclaim their liberation from academic travail. This happened like clockwork, every day, sometime around four thirty. My favourite spot, which I discovered by chance while impulsively following a random path, was a small semi-circle of gravel ringed by large rocks and half-shrouded by poplars, which seemed hidden from the village while somehow commanding the best view in town: the rooftops of the lower-down houses; the terraced fields beyond them, with rows of deep-golden poplars lining the tall stone walls; the river and the cliff rising sharply from its other side. This idyl was for the village’s young men, no more than my age but already having spent years working and accepting hardships and sacrifice, to retreat among themselves for a cigarette and a few minutes to hang out. I spent half an hour here with them, sitting on a rock and learning—through limited English and a few words of Ladakhi—their stories.

The Drokpas are a fascinating society, a people hidden within a hidden land—a tiny piece of the patchwork that makes up Ladakh, but one which I think enriches that quilt far beyond its size. The antiquity of the Drokpa culture, the unique traditions like the flower-hats, carry into modernity a small slice of Ladakh’s pre-Buddhist past. Driving by, it would be hard immediately to spot any differences in the villages themselves, but subtle differences are in some ways more fascinating than obvious ones. The village layout was not totally Ladakhi, seeming more chaotic and less luxuriously spacious than, say, Takmachik, or Rumbak. More obvious are the difference in people’s appearances: Drokpas do look distinctly Middle Eastern, although a few shared the Asian features of the Ladakhis. Their language, Ache Becky says, is Indo-European, close to Persian, and more related to English than the Ladakhi spoken in villages a few miles away. It’s a fascinating mix, I think, and if I had forever I’d love to spend six months or so in this handful of villages, getting to know this hidden culture.

On the first day, Tashi led us to the edge of the cliffs at the far end of the village, where a promontory of stone jutted out over the meeting of two rivers and we could sit on the rocks and look into the distance. Looking out, away from the village, the river extends down a deep ravine flanked by two almighty mountains, rocky and sparse, rising high into the heavens. On the far end of the deep river canyon was Pakistan. Sitting there, in the bosom of these pristine mountains which affected for all the world not to care about the foibles of man, I realized that even though this village might seem eternal, isolated, a Shangri-La of sorts, in truth life here was as fragile as anywhere else in the world. But people everywhere, Dha included, have the same plucky urge to make do, and here—in the shadow of one of the modern world’s most persistent conflicts—the people had vowed to live life to the fullest, come what may.

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