Asian Geographic – July 2013

My article on the Dards has featured in July 2013 issue of Asian Geographic magazine. The relevant pages from the magazine can be viewed by clicking on the images below and scrolling. I have also provided the article content in text format for ease of reading.

 

Dards

The Greek king of Macedon, Alexander the Great, having conquered central Asia, in the year 327 BC turned his attention to India. At Indus river in Punjab, he met King Porus to battle for India. Though Porus was defeated, his valor and leadership impressed Alexander. For the first time in his conquests across central Asia, leading to Indian subcontinent, he decided that his rule here would be established through an alliance with Porus. On his return to Greece, he left detachments of his troops at various places in Punjab, Sindh and the Northern Himalayan territories of Baltistan.

 

Alexander’s troops comprised of soldiers of Aryan descent. With over 2,000 years since his conquest of India, the gene pool of the Aryan soldiers have amalgamated with the natives. However, a small community of the Dards  has survived in isolation, within the remote northern Himalayan regions of India and Pakistan.

 

Located about 163 kilometres southwest of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, on the road to Kargil in Kashmir, along river Indus are located the two villages, Dha and Hanu of the Dards. From what I was told there are about four to five villages of this community within the Indian territory, but other than Dha and Hanu, rest fall under the inaccessible, militarized zone along the Indian-Pakistan border. There are also four to five villages that fall within the Pakistan territory. Ancestors of the Dards settled in this region because here, the steep bare walls of river Indus open into the terraced fields, making it ideal for agriculture.

 

The geopolitical situation along the Indo-Pakistan border since the partition of sub-continent in 1947 has had negative cultural and economic impacts on the Dards.  With their villages divided across the two countries, the community finds it hard to find marriage alliances amongst a small population split on either side of the border. The total population of Dards on the Indian side is numbered around 2,000; the numbers are around the same on the Pakistan side.

 

The closeness of the community can be appreciated through the religious, racial and linguistic mapping. Though the Dards are accounted as Buddhists in the religious census of India, they practice an ancient pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon-Cho. Acceptance of Buddhism by the Dards is superficial, only to provide a platform for prayer and rituals that are practiced at the time of birth, marriage and death. Their real daily worship follows Bon-Cho, and is centered around spirits and demons.

 

On the west and south of these villages lies the territory of Ladakh, where the people of Tibetan origin practice Tibetan Buddhism. To the east and north lies the Indian and Pakistani territory of Kashmir, where Islam is practiced. Linguistically, the Dards speak an unique archaic form of Shina language, which has no similarity to the language of Ladakhis and Kashmiris. Variations of the Shina dialect are found in the language spoken by the people of Baltistan (northern region of Pakistan, around Gilgit, in the Karakoram mountain ranges), however the people of the Gilgit region are followers of Islam.

 

The economy of the Dards is based on agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. Due to ancient religious taboos, they do not rear cattle or do poultry farming. Animal husbandry is mostly centered around sheep, goats, bulls and horses. Barley, wheat, gram, black tea are their main agricultural crops, while peas, tomatoes, turnips, radishes and potatoes are the primary vegetable grown on their fields.

 

Their traditional dress for females consists of a loose gown that covers the whole body. The male gown is held at the waist by a girdle cloth with woolen trousers. The women also decorate their headgear with flowers.

 

While the Dards remained isolated from the rest of the world till 1947, their utopian society has been rudely impacted with the Indo-Pakistan wars, skirmishes and militarization along their villages. They have found themselves thrown into the world – and with few ways to deal with it. Their language does not equip them to integrate. Their religion isolates them from their neighbors. This small community lies divided across two warring nations.

 

These rapidly changing times makes it certain that the Dards can no longer return to their blissful existence. Once detached from the stresses of modern life, their way of life is now on the verge of annihilation. Will this last strain of the Aryan gene pool, which survived through isolation for 2,000 years, now be assimilated into the mainstream and lost forever?