What a World

The Himalayas’ Hidden Aryans

Are the Brogpas of Kashmir in India really the last bastion of purebred Aryans? Their claims have led to both academic controversy and localized conflict.

01.03.15 11:45 AM ET

A cluster of remote Himalayan villages claim to hold a bastion of purebred Aryans—the last in the world completely un-muddied by the outside gene pool.

For decades, visitors have been drawn to the Ladakh province of Kashmir in India by the promise of a master race that has remained intact for thousands of years. The Brogpas, or Brokpas, say they are the purest remnants of light-skinned European invaders who, legend has it, traveled through India thousands of years ago.

Living in the villages of Dah and Beema more than 10,000 feet up the mountains, their obscure and relatively unreachable territory has kept their DNA incubated from outside interference. Traditionally, the community has eschewed visitors and strangers to their towns, and strictly forbade outside marriage.

They’re are not exactly a reflection of the platinum skinned image advertised by the Nazi’s vicious campaign, but some Brogpas have blue eyes, lighter skin, and stand taller than residents of surrounding communities.

For many years, visitors were barred from the isolated towns. Slowly, two were opened up, and in 2010 the regional government opened all four Brogpa villages in a push for tourism. Now, the populations are experiencing a wave of curious visitors coming to marvel at their surprising appearance, including backpackers and scholars—and even, most strangely, women hoping to tap into the supposedly pure genetic pool.

In 2007, Indian filmmaker Sanjeev Sivan traveled to the community and made a documentary called The Achtung Baby: In Search of Purity. In it, he investigates stories of German women who come in Ladakh seeking to impregnate themselves with what they consider pure-Aryan sperm.

“It’s not wrong, what I’m doing,” the unnamed woman says, hinting at an organized system behind the transaction. “I’m paying for what I want.”

The tribe’s true origins are impossible to place—though that hasn’t stopped large amounts of speculation. One popular legend claims the community is the remainder of Alexander the Great’s army, who left descendants scattered in the path they cut across Asia.

In a remote location with little means for economic development, the Brogpas have cultivating this identity to their advantage. The region is marketed for visitors as “Aryan Valley,” and many citizens have taken to tacking on “Aryan” to their last names. For the Brogpas, transforming into a tourist attraction may offer their community a way to generate much-needed income.

“The origin of Brokpas is lost in antiquity,” a research article from the University of Delhi notes. “Phenotypically, they have Mediterranean features and fair skins, many of them have blond hair and blue eyes. They have preserved in their language and social customs many archaic traits of their Aryan ancestors through endogamy and oral tradition.”

The theory of Indo-Aryans was propelled in the mid-1800s by German linguist Max Muller, who believed that Indians were descendants of light-skinned Aryan conquerors coming from Central Asia thousands of years ago.

But a 2011 study of genetic evidence from 30 ethnic groups in India disproved this theory. “There is no genetic evidence that Indo-Aryans invaded or migrated to India or even something such as Aryans existed,” Dr. Lalji Singh, a coauthor of the study told India Today.

This concept has been adopted in varying forms, and most notoriously held that the ancestors of these Indo-European invaders were originally Nordic. This was later repurposed in Europe as an explanation for racial superiority, and the term “Aryan” came to define a white race.

“Brogpas do not associate their Aryanism with its ‘dirty and cruel’ history in Germany and elsewhere, though the two cannot be disassociated,” anthropologist Mona Bhan, a professor at DePauw University told Al Jazeera recently.

Bhan believes the whole concept of Aryan roots traces back to the British colonialists and their interest in racial categorization to subject certain lower castes. “There is also an underlying current here to reclaim a particular kind of nationalist pride and masculinity that relies on Brogpa bodies to bolster the superiority of Indian genes,” she said.

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Despite the distinctions between a German and Indian version of the pristine Aryan bloodline, conflict isn’t too far behind when claims of genetic purity start getting thrown about. The Brogpas are located in the disputed zone between India and Pakistan, and surrounded by one of the world’s longest running conflicts.

In a recent article in ‘The Journal of Cultural Anthropology,’ Bhan writes that branding the tribe as a pure and indigenous population has actually fueled tensions between different ethnic groups in the Kashmir region. Militant groups operating in the disputed area have been using this categorization as a historical root for their positions in the conflict. She writes that they “rely on the discourse of Aryan and Hindu indigeneity to validate their hold on India’s disputed territory [and are] laying new grounds for intensely violent politics.”

Whether or not their ancestry claims can be proven, the Brogpas aren’t the only one boasting of a set of surprising features to distinguish themselves from their countrymen. In Peru, a light-skinned citizens are rumored to be ancestors of the Celts, and in China, one village claims to be descended from a long-lost band of Roman soldiers. Now that’s a truly diverse trans-continental contingency.