History and culture of the Dards

As I read books on Ladakh’s history, I realised that many writers had visited Dha-Hanu villages to collect data. This piqued my curiosity to explore this area. In 2015, I joined the PNR Hydro Power Project in Dha village for my summer internship as a Junior Engineer in the Civil Engineering Department of the company. It was mandatory for me to stay on the premises of the project. I had the option of staying at the staff quarters but I refused. Instead, I decided to pursue my ambition to learn more about the Dardic community. I looked for accommodation in Dha village and found it at the home of a humble villager. We agreed on the rent but he refused to accept money when I was leaving a month later.

During my stay in the village I would spend my time with the elders of the village whenever I got free from my duties. On Sundays, I would visit the village lChangra (public meeting place in villages) where the elders would gather to socialise. Initially I spoke with them in Purigias they regarded me as an outsider. The children would call me ‘Pirki’. I took this name in my stride and continued interacting with the villagers. Gradually, I started speaking in my own mother tongue and people looked at me in astonishment. They asked, “Ture Hamo Moušpo Yea Bo Eesin?” (How do you know our language?). I smiled and responded, “Wa Dudo Ge Dededa, Mo Sharchichok Baitna” (Oh elders, I am from Sharchay). On hearing this, an elder lady started swinging her traditional headgear in front of my face as a gesture to welcome me. After this, many of them started sending fresh vegetables to me from their fields. Their kindness was overwhelming. A few elders started sharing old stories of our ancestors who lived happily together. Times have changed all of us and created various divisions.

In my village, people say that the villagers of Dha, Garkhone, Beama and Darchiks spoke the purest form of our language but I discovered that this was not true. Furthermore, we speak a similar language, eat similar food but follow different faiths. Despite this difference, the people of Sharchay and Chulichan perform many rituals that have no connection with Islam. For example, when something tragic happens or seems imminent, people sacrifice a goat or sheep above the village beneath a big juniper tree called Chilgee. The ritual is called Chal-Gipayis. The place where the slaughter takes place is called Duhi/Duhea in Dardic. As part of the ritual, white flags called Dadarsare tied to the juniper tree as a sign of peace and prosperity. After this, people raise their hand towards the sky and askDabon (God) to protect the area from natural disasters.

Migration from Gilgit to Ladakh

When speaking about the Dards, historians generally speak about Dha-Hanu and Darchiks-Garkhone and exclude Dards who currently practice Islam. When I asked some elders about the history of Dha and Garkhone, they said that our ancestors had migrated from Gilgit through Shigar in Baltistan along the gorge carved by the Shayok between Hanu and Turtuk. On the other hand, elders in my village say that our ancestors migrated from Gilgit to Ladakh along the Indus.

Dogra Governor of Ladakh Wazarat, Frederic Drew has written in his book, The Jummoo and Kashmir Territories: A Geographical Account (1875) that the Dards in this belt belong to an earlier migration who reached this region in small numbers. However, British historian R. B. Shaw writes in his book, Stray Arians in Tibet (1878) that Dards of Dha-Hanu claimed to have migrated from Gilgit and Brushal via Astore, Deosai, and Kargil.

German Tibetologist A. H. Francke wrote in his book Ladakh The Mysterious Land (1907) that there was a dynasty of Dard Kings at Khaltse whose fort was built on the bank of the Indus, and that inscriptions identified the names of the last kings as Shirima, Gya shin and Tri od. This dynasty ended sometime between 1150 and 1200 CE. Francke also mentioned that “…Da [Dha] and Garkunu [Garkhone] were ruled by magspons [Makpons] or “dukes,” just as the Baltis were; but these villages have always been independent of Baltistan” (p.48).

According to local tales, the kings of Khaltse and Leh fought a war, which the Dards lost as they were fewer in number. They were forced to leave Khaltse and Lamayuru and settled in Dha, Garkhone and Chulichan. We still have families in Chulichan village with names such as Yurupa, whose ancestors migrated from Lamayuru and Lehdo.

Researcher Tsewang Gailtsen writes in his Dardi Brokskat Dictionary that Garkhone, Dha and Ganokh were founded by three brothers, Galo, Melo and Dulo after they fled from Gilgit. Their respective sons, Gapomaro, Thapamaro and Gil Singgey settled in Dha-Hanu. Later, Horri Deday and her seven children from Garkhone migrated and founded Darchiks village.

Religion and deities

The Dards in this area currently practice Islam and Buddhism. The Dards of Dha-Hanu, Garkhone, Darchiks follow Buddhism while those in Sharchay, Chulichan, Silmo, Lakha Baltum, Batalik, Gargardo and Lalung practice Islam. Brokskat is no longer spoken in Lalung and Hanu.

Shina scholar Razwal Kohistani writes in his book Dard tribes in Pakistan and Kashmir that over time Dards have followed Shamanism, Astrolatry, Zartosht (fire-worship), Bonism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. He mentioned the names of deities worshipped by Dards, including Raťhi (who brings happiness and wealth), Raťhalo (who protects from disasters), Sabdaq (who protects homes) and Sili (who protects castles from enemies). Austrian ethnographer, Karl Jettmar in his paper ‘Ethnological Research in Dardastan 1958’ (1961) mentions Sili,a holy woman of Dards. I suspect that Silmo village was originally called Silimo. According to Master Hussain, a famous oral historian from Silmo, the Dards who settled in Silmo were victims of a war with the people of Sodh. It is possible that Moti Khan, the son of Gil Singgay, named the place after their deity to protect them from the enemy.

The arrival of Islam and Buddhism

R B Shaw mentions a war between Shigar and Ladakh, which ended with this region being captured by the latter. He mentions that monks from Skurbuchan monastery converted the people of Dha-Hanu some 12 to 15 years before his travel in the region around 1878. This suggests that the Dards of Dha, Hanu, and Garkhone converted to Buddhism around 1863-1866.  Shaw adds that Wachera (now across LoC) was also inhabited by Buddhist Dards who spoke Brokskat during that time. He further mentions that Dards residing in Lalung, Silmo, Dangal, Chulichan, Morol, Singkarmo and Ganokh converted to Islam a long time before his visit to the region.


The languages spoken in this region include Purigi and Dardic Brokskat, which is an offshoot of Shina language. I consider Shina as the mother of our language. British orientalist G W Litner has written, “The language spoken in Dha-Hanu is called Shina of Dha-Hanu.” Other scholars such as N Ramaswamy have mentioned its name as Brokskat. Tsewang Gailtsen refers to it as Dardi Brokskat in his dictionary while Mukhtar Zahid Budgami calls it Chulichani, Garkhoni. Musavir Ahmad, a professor at Kashmir University refers to it as Brokskat and Kyango in his book, A Descriptive Grammar of Gurezi Shina. The Central Institute of Indian Languages has officially registered its name as Brokskat. Razwal Kohistani has called it Shina Indus Bataliki. In a book we are writing together, we have compared words from Brokskat and Shina Indus Kohistani.

Relationship between Muslim and Buddhist Dards

Despite religious differences, Muslim and Buddhist Dards share close family ties. Many families including mine have close relatives in Darchiks. I discussed this with the residents of Darchiks, Dha, Beama, Chulichan, Batalik and Sharchay. It emerged that villagers of Batalik have relatives in Dha-Beama and Hanu, those from Darchiks have relatives in Batalik and so on. These people visit each other during festivals and funerals irrespective of the religion they follow currently.

Agricultural rituals

Agriculture is the cornerstone of the region’s economy. R. B. Shaw writes that the villagers of Dha mentioned that their ancestors hunted rather than farmed. A mighty hunter of the past had dropped his bow (Dah in Ladakhi) on a hillside. This became a water channel that irrigated the fields of what grew into a village. One of their chiefs found seeds of wild wheat and barley and sowed them near the water channel. Thus, the village was established. The process of using the plough and sowing is called Bahis in Dardic Brokskat.

During this season, Muslim and Buddhist Dards perform some unique rituals. They burn juniper leaves to purify the land and protect it from disasters. Before taking the plough and bulls to the fields, children go to the field for a ritual called Sumpa. Children are said to be free of sin and this ritual is believed to improve the field’s yield. The word Sumpa is a combination of Sum (soil in Dardic Brokskat) andPa (a possessive suffix in Balti/Purigi) i.e. person of the soil. The face of the Sumpa is dotted with local ghee (clarified butter) and roasted barley flour with a bag of barley on his back. He then walks around the field before the family starts ploughing and sowing seeds. This ritual is unique to this region.

By Aarif Hussain

Aarif Hussain is a resident of Sharchay village, Kargil. He holds a B. Tech degree in Civil Engineering from Kurukshetra University, Haryana.

Unearthing the mysteries of rZongi-Kor

Ladakh is famous for its culture, beautiful landscape, crystal clear Pangong-tso, Nubra’s sand-dunes, Changthang’s pashmina, lush green valleys of Kargil, the beauty of Zangskar, the forts that dot the landscape and so on. Ladakh still holds many secrets and unexplored mysteries. I recently explored one such mystery.

There is a village called Sharchay in Kargil district of UT Ladakh. The village is located at an altitude of 10,000 ft (3,050m) above mean sea level (msl). The village is surrounded by towering mountains that seem to hide more than they reveal. The village dates back to ancient times. It came to the forefront in the 20th Century as it is located on the approach route used by mountaineers to climb Mount Gyunkar, whose peaks stands at 18,000 ft (5,487m) above msl. An elder in the village mentioned that till middle of the 20th Century there were no restrictions in these areas and people were able to travel around freely. He explained that many mountaineers used to visit this area before the Partition of 1947 and the creation of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan that cuts through this landscape. At the time, climbers would trek down from Mount Gyunkar towards Sharchay and then follow the route along the Indus to Mount K2 in Baltistan.

The village still lacks road and phone connectivity and continues to struggle for these amenities. The village is famous for its agriculture and fruit production especially walnuts and apricots. It is also famous for the high quality of pure Salajeet, which is used in traditional medicinal systems, found around the village. The inhabitants of the village are considered to be one of the oldest Dardic communities in Ladakh, who are believed to have migrated from Gilgit many centuries back.

Sectional sketch of rZongi-Kor by Architect Fayaz Ali

Local folklore mentions a cave near the village. Recently, a group of us explored this mysterious cave near Sharchay. This group was led by architect Fayaz Ali who brought the necessary equipment such as heavy torches, rope, measurement tap and gauges etc to measure and explore the cave. In addition, we also had actor Kacho Ahmed Khan who assisted with the exploration, recited verses from the Holy Quran and entertained with his melodious voice. The group included hotelier and entrepreneur Ali Asger, who has considerable experience exploring such caves in India and Nepal, and Zakir Hussain Jaffary, a renowned film-maker and hotelier who documented various facets of the cave. We also had Sadic who is a famous skier and a teacher whose expertise as a mountaineer proved invaluable in this expedition. The group also included local Kargili trekkers, Iftikhar Baravi and Hasnain Rajayee.

The team spent the first night at my home in Sharchay and headed out the next morning after breakfast. It took us to two attempts to find the cave. The cave is known as rZongi-Kor, which is derived from two Dardic words, ‘rZong’, which means chisel and ‘Kor’, which translates as cave. The name suggests that the cave was created and decorated by humans with a hammer and chisel.

The cave is located at the same altitude as the village and is divided into two large chambers. The entrance is through a three-foot high and two-foot wide doorway, which is 80ft from the base camp. There is a 15-foot wide natural façade around the entrance.

The villagers have been following a ritual each time they enter the cave. This ritual has been inherited from our ancestors. When a group enters the cave, one person remains at the entrance reading the Holy Quran. Thus, whenever someone visits the cave, an elder from the village accompanies them to recite passages from the Holy Quran at the entrance. It’s believed that reciting verses from Holy Quran protects the visitors from the dark energies and spirits of the cave.

We honoured this tradition and as we entered the cave, Ali Asgar started reciting Sura Yasin, which is one of the most important parts of the Holy Quran. Once he finished the recitation, we entered the cave. A village elder, Hajji Mohd Reza remained at the entrance to guard it till our safe return. Thereafter, we faithfully followed this procedure each time we entered the cave over the next month that we spent exploring and documenting this cave system

The first chamber of the cave is 50 ft (15.2m) wide,130ft (40m) long and 100 ft (30.5m) high. The second chamber is 174 ft (53m) long, 30 ft (9m) wide and 80 ft (24.4m) high. Beyond the second chamber, there is a duct with a three-foot (0.9m) wide opening and 400 ft (122m) long passage heading downwards at an angle of 60 degrees towards the Indus. The river is below the cave at an altitude of 8,491 ft (2,588m) above msl and meets one of its tributaries in Dangal Batalik, which is about 15 kms from Sharchay.

According to local legends, the cave has multiple exits including one in Gachoo near Chiktan side, which is around 50 kms away. There are folktales in the village that in the past people would use cats to locate various exit points. There is a famous folk-story of two sisters. One sister lived in Sharchay village, while the other lived in Dangal Batalik. The sister in Sharchay village tied a burning torch to the tail of a cat and released it at the main entrance of the cave. A few days later, she heard that the cat had reached her sister after exiting the cave at Dangal Batalik.

We found white marble in the cave, which had been carved into intricate designs including domes and minarets. I am confident that this cave will provide new knowledge of ancient civilisations and the geological history of the Himalayas.

Village elders told us that our ancestors used to store their valuables in the village. In ancient times, robbers from Chilas would occasionally plunder Sharchay village as it was rich in agriculture and horticulture. This forced the villagers to use caves to hide their precious goods. However, one day over 100 robbers from Chilas descended on the village. As they plundered the village, they discovered that the villagers had hidden their precious goods in the cave. They headed to the cave and entered inside to look for the loot. However, none of them were ever seen again. Their fate remains a mystery to this day. One plausible explanation is that they got lost in the maze of ducts and passages inside the cave and died there. People of Sharchay claim that there are human skeletons inside the cave along with metal pieces.

Our exploration of this cave was a fascinating experience. rZongi Khar is said to be the largest cave discovered in Ladakh so far. I penned a poem in the local Dardic (Brok-skat) dialect to celebrate this fascinating fragment of our heritage:

rZongi-Kor Sharchays hove bait.

rZongi-Kor aso bunu taj bait.

rZongi-Kor di azuo hang aaso niwoung.

rZongi-Kor aaso bunu turiwo bait.

(rZongi-Kor cave is the heart of Sharchay,

rZongi-Kor cave is the jewel crown of our vicinity,

There lies our luck over the podiums of the cave,

rZongi-Kor cave is the shining star of our village.

Many aspects of this cave system remain shrouded in mystery. It will require more detailed studies by relevant experts to unearth these secrets. In the meantime, we are creating a documentary film of our exploration, which we hope to release soon.

By Aarif Hussain

Photographs by Zakir Hussain Jaffary

Aarif Hussain (popularly known as Aarif Ladakhi) is a resident of Sharchay village, Kargil. He holds a B. Tech degree in Civil Engineering from Kurukshetra University in Haryana.