Photographing One of the World’s Last Remaining Homogeneous Tribes

By Susan Blick

I was recently in the very North-Western tip of India, about 7 hours north of Srinagar on the Kashmir Line of Control in Ladakh, India. Ladakh sits right in the middle of the World’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas. It’s completely inaccessible overland for eight months of the year, totally cut off from the world bar infrequent flights.

This isolation has allowed the preservation of people known as Dropkas in Ladakhi which means nomad or Turk, not from the modern day Turkey, but a Kingdom of Turkic or Dardic people who once ruled the Karakoram in the time of the Greeks.

The Dropkas (Aryans as we know them in English) are ethnically, socially, linguistically and culturally completely different from all of the other inhabitants surrounding them. They are the decedents of the men from Alexander the Great’s army who could travel no more and were tired, sick or injured. These decedents live mainly in three small villages in the only fertile valley in all of Ladakh. They originally migrated from the Gilgit area of Pakistan, wandering Westward looking for better hunting grounds and pastures and eventually stumbled upon and settled in this valley squashed between the Indian and Pakistani Line of Control.

I had read a lot about the Aryans before traveling to the region and I was keen to
document one of the World’s last remaining homogeneous tribes.

Just getting there is a story in itself, but photographing them wasn’t as straightforward as one might expect either. First of all, the people are hard to find. Their village lies on a steep cliff face and at an altitude of around 3,500m, it makes it very hard to sniff them out. Secondly, they seem to slip in and out of their houses without being seen, camouflaged-well in their traditional dress and blending with the forest surrounds and giant granite boulders that nestle their village. The lane ways are devoid of people and in the night they tell me Himalayan wolves and shanko (high-altitude feral dogs) as big as lions roam the mountains in search of wildlife and domestic animals.

Add to this, the fact that in the past, Dropkas believed that cameras could steal your soul, so most people still aren’t all that keen on being photographed! Nevertheless, I needed these photos as I had come so far.

Read the full article by Susan Blick in Issue 24 of NZPhotographer magazine.