The Tale of the Sacred Juniper Tree in Ladakh | Nat Geo Traveller India

The Tale of Ladakh’s Sacred Juniper Tree

The tree that survived time, war, and interpretation.  
Ladakh Juniper tree Indus river
Dhuyachilgi, “the juniper of sacrifice” (left); River Indus (right) weaves its way through the Himalayas in Ladakh. Photos: Kai Friese (tree); meenakshi madhavan/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

“It’s not far now,” Tundup had promised. “Just another 20 minutes.” That was an hour ago. We met a shepherd loping down the hill, and he was carrying a bunch of flowers and an ibex skull, its horns curled like giant ammonites. “You’re nearly there,” he said cheerfully. The hours passed in the rasp of my breath, the ache in my legs, and the dull chant of curses in my head. I knew it was going to be uphill all the way. We would be spending the night at Nirda, a summer pasture far above Dah, a Brokpa village in the gorge of the Indus in Ladakh. “Once we get to Dhuyachilgi, it’s just a stroll,” said Tundup.

Instead, Dhuyachilgi stopped me in my tracks.

It was a magical tree, a gnarled and powerful juniper, standing in splendid isolation just below the crest of the ridge. We had walked through scrub and scree, past boulders and bushes, but we hadn’t seen a tree for hours. And now this majestic individual greeted us, its sinewy branches raised theatrically to the dry blue skies. It glittered as the sun played in its full crown and cast a generous flickering shadow on the bleached slope. And sprinkled along the rough branches was a colourful confetti of red, blue, yellow and white, the fraying remnants of prayer flags and ritual offerings.

I had spent a week in the village below trying to unravel the story of the Brokpas of the Indus from the mess of racist fables in which they had become entangled when European scholars first encountered them in the 19th century, marvelling at their “Arian” features. Ladakhis had their own caricatures of the isolated gorge-dwellers and now a new wave of tourists from the plains had begun to gawk and gossip about the “pure Aryan” tribe. But, as the days passed, I grew more and more enchanted with the Brokpas’ own myths of origin and the very local sites they treasured in a sort of ancestral geography: Dah Phansa the village spring, Dabar the local brook, Nirda, the pasture where their founding fathers had first camped when they came from Gilgit, and Dhuyachilgi, “the juniper of sacrifice”.

I returned to Dah in 1999 at the tail end of the Kargil war. The village had been evacuated and the valley was filled with the low rumble of howitzers and the clatter and whine of helicopters. Bulldozers crawled up the course of the Dabar like determined beetles, scratching out a road to Nirda. At night, we watched the angry stars of artillery arcing through the dark skies. It was an incredible transformation, this terrible miracle of war.

I kept in touch with Tundup over the years and learned that shepherds no longer went to Nirda, no one left offerings to Dhuyachilgi. It was out of bounds now.

I returned to the Brokpa valley again in 2010 this time to accompany a pair of genetic researchers, from the National Geographic’s Genographic project, who were trying to trace the history of human migration into the Himalayas.

We combed the remotest Brokpa villages, these beautiful mountain oases, plucking mulberries and apricots along the way, talked our way into countless homes, sipped tea in rough but exquisite rooms whose windows all framed a shifting perspective of the same idyllic panorama: the rich green nap of barley fields nestled among the steep and barren slopes.

When we were nearly done, I suggested an excursion up the military road to Nirda. After a long wait at a check post I convinced an officer that we just wanted to visit a sacred tree. We had to promise not to photograph anything but the juniper—if we found it. We drove for half an hour along a dusty serpentine track, edged with countless cannons and then stopped to ask a passing soldier if he had heard of anything like the tree I remembered. “Oh! Captain Kalia tree? You can’t miss it!” he said. It had been renamed, in memory of a fallen soldier.

Sure enough, it was still standing, enclosed in a loop of the road just below the ridge. Its crown was mottled but still majestic. There were no more prayer flags but at its foot were the bleached fragments of ibex bones and horns left as offerings in its heyday. And glinting on the ridge above was a new shrine, a plaster bust of a fallen soldier, slathered in gold paint.

When I got back to Delhi I sent a picture to a friend who knows his trees. “The juniper looks like J. macropoda to me,” he replied. “Was it the only known tree around? No babies? Perhaps a relict.” One evening, a few days later, I found myself reading a poem which contained an uncanny evocation of Dhuyachilgi.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

It was in T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I thought it was wonderful.

Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “By the Juniper”.

  • Kai Friese is a writer, editor, and translator who likes to travel but not on holiday.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?