One day, my mother asked me to take the cattle to graze in the seabuckthorn forest near the village. It was early summer in the late 1980s. The trees were sprouting new leaves just as green shoots of grass were emerging from the ground. Sun was high and its rays were reflecting on the sand dunes and the barren path leading to the forest. This made walking difficult. There was silence in the area. Even the normal jungle sounds seemed to have ceased. Faraway, a lone bird was preparing to dive in the river across the sand dune.
I walked behind the cattle with a willow stick in my hand. We had 13 cows, four donkeys and two oxen. Since they knew the path to the forest, I have never been able to understand the purpose of walking with them. Anyway, we crossed the river. The herd decided to walk through the water and I used the bridge made by three long branches of a seabuckthorn tree. It requires skill and concentration to walk across this makeshift bridge. Even a slight distraction can break your concentration and you could end up in the icy cold water below.
In the distance, my eyes fell on the figure of a boy sitting alone on a rock. There was a walking stick in his hand and he was wearing a hat. My eyes remained fixed on this figure. The cattle were not bothered and they continued on their way. I was hesitant to move ahead, my heart started beating faster and my hand started trembling. Suddenly, I remembered a folklore recounted by my grandfather and other elders in the village about a supernatural creature. They would describe a short and stocky human-like person with a walking stick and a hat who had magical powers to fulfil any wish. They are known as ‘Balu’ in Ladakhi and are similar to elves and dwarves in other cultures.
My grandfather had told me that if I ever met a Balu, I should call out my wish to him. My grandfather added that my wish would be fulfilled but I needed to ensure that I did not mention the incident to anyone. He warned that if one fails to keep the secret, misfortune would befall.
I was convinced that the figure in the distance was a resting Balu. The first thing that came to my mind was to wish for
a more chicken for our home. A month ago, my father had started a small poultry farm at home with few country chicken and two roosters. However, they had refused to lay eggs even after a month. I was eager to play with little chicks from this poultry farm.
So, I shouted at the top of my voice, “Balu-ley! I want more chickens at home. Can you please help me with it?”
I turned immediately, scrambled back and ran blindly through the river and sand dunes without waiting for its reaction and left the cows to their own devices. I ran through the narrow lanes of the village like someone possessed. I entered the house at the same speed. My elder sister was startled and started running too. I was frightened and excited at the same time. I stopped to catch my breath with my hands on my knees and my head hanging down. I was wondering if I should tell my sister about the incident.
She was very curious and wanted to know about what happened to make me run so fast. I was in a dilemma: Should I tell her about the incident and wait for misfortune to take place or remain silent, which is impossible. My sister is very inquisitive and difficult to ignore. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to tell my sister about my encounter and made her promise that she would not tell anyone else about it.
Local folklores claim that Balu live in Beyul (hidden village). They occasionally pass human settlements while travelling. It is said that the Balu are very hardworking. In fact, there is a saying in Ladakhi, “Balu sath pa makher, Balu kol la kher”, which translates as “Don’t kill a Balu but enslave it instead.” It is said that a Balu needs its hat and walking stick to travel. They use the hat as a compass and the walking stick to travel fast and remain invisible.
My family owns a water mill in Kyagar village. It is one of the finest water mills in our village. It is said that a Balu visited our water mill once and took some barley flour from there and blessed the water mill as a token of its gratitude. It thus became the finest water mills in the village. Every village in Ladakh has legends about Balu. For instance, Spangmik village on the bank of Pangong-tso is considered to be a Beyul and villagers believe that it controls the irrigation water of the village. Similarly, the famous Lonpo of Wanla, who was historically known for his supernatural power, is said to have had acquired these powers from a Balu. Similarly, the literal meaning of Phey is ‘half’ and it is said that half of the village is still occupied by Balu and is invisible to us. Likewise, there are ruins of castles in many villages that are often called the castle of the Balu or Balu Khar. Such structures are present across Ladakh especially places such as Khaltse, Hemis Shukpachan, Hunder etc.
Anyway, returning to our story, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking of the Balu. I was excited to see the outcome of my request. I kept wondering if I would see eggs in the morning or if I would face some misfortune for revealing the secret.
That fateful night there were some commotion in the chicken coop. All the hustle and bustle left me exhilarated as I thought that my wish was being fulfilled and the chickens were laying eggs. That night was the longest night of my life. I woke up at the crack of dawn. There was complete silence except for a donkey braying in the distance.
My father was awake and moving fitfully towards the chicken coop. I saw one of the roosters perched on the toilet and there were feathers scattered everywhere around the coop. My mother was walking around hastily outside our house compound in the narrow lanes of the village as she searched for something.
It turned out that a dog had entered our chicken coop in the night and killed all the chicken with the exception of one rooster. I went back to my bed and cried profusely for my folly in revealing the secret to my sister. I woke my sister up and told her what had happened. She promised to keep our secret and did not reveal anything to our parents.
I don’t know if it was a coincidence or if such magical creatures do actually exist. I have come across many such incidents and folklores in Ladakh about the Balu. I remain baffled by my own experience, which compels me to believe these legends.
Ladakhi society is full of such stories about mythical creatures. People believe in these stories and they remain an integral part of Ladakhi culture. It is not unique to Ladakh as such mythical creatures are also known in other societies and cultures and are known by names such as elves, goblins, trolls, kobolds etc. Today, such myths and magic are being recreated in films. Unfortunately, legends of the Balu are fast disappearing from our society, which will not only leave a vacuum but also weaken our culture. We are running out of time and need to document such incidents, tales and legends associated with our belief system and preserve them for future generations.
(The author is grateful to Rainer Roos, Stanzin Tsewang, Khanpo K. Sherab and Tsering Namgyal for their valuable inputs for this article.)
Text by Dr Nordan Otzer
Sketch by Isaac Tsetan Gergan
Dr Nordan Otzer is an ENT doctor based in Leh.