Saving Darma

A dying language brings a UT scholar to India and the edge of the inhabited world

The Panchachuli Range, forming the western 
boundary of the Darma Valley
The Panchachuli Range, forming the western boundary of the Darma Valley (Photo By Dan Oko)

The goats were the first sign that the spring migration had started once again for the Darma people of the Indian Himalayas. All along the winding mountain road that runs alongside the Kali River, separating India from Nepal, families on their way to their summer homes tended herds of shaggy, curly-horned goats, wooly sheep, and supplely laden donkeys. The Darma have followed this route for generations. If modern life in the form of racing jeeps, motor scooters, and garishly painted "Public Carriers" -- India's ubiquitous trucking fleet -- steadily encroach on this annual resettlement, the vehicles have no choice but to idle at pedestrian speeds until the livestock can be herded to the shoulder.

For most of last year, Christina Willis and I lived among the Darma in the remote town of Dharchula in northern India. Unlike Hindi, the dominant language of the area, the Darma language remains strictly oral, with no writing system, and in linguistics circles is considered endangered. Christina is a doctoral candidate in linguistics at UT-Austin, and her research work focuses on helping this ethnically distinct indigenous people record their language. We would follow the migrating Darma to their villages in the high basins of the Darma Valley on the border of Chinese-occupied Tibet.

Even to a casual observer, Darma appears in serious trouble. Of an estimated population of 4,000 individuals in the community, less than half speak Darma, a Tibeto-Burman dialect, and linguists say generally that any language with so few speakers is likely to vanish within two generations. Darma children are educated in Hindi, an Indo-Aryan language -- and the young adults we've met are more concerned with picking up some English and job prospects in the West than with maintaining the culture of their grandparents. "Development is coming" is a favorite refrain in Dharchula. Hardly anyone considers the potential costs of that progress.

Christina first learned Hindi for conversation and now, using tapes and direct observation, has been transcribing spoken Darma into the international phonetic alphabet, with the goal of producing a dictionary and written grammar. Her research focuses primarily on recording songs, stories, and ceremonies as windows into both the speech and traditions of the Darma people. She has been attending weddings and funerals, observing ritual activities, and hanging around with a digital recorder to capture day-to-day conversations. "There's no way to do the research I do without getting into peoples homes to record conversations and stories," she says. "So even though it's sometimes been difficult to meet just the right people, I'm feeling pretty lucky to have chosen the topic."

Scenes from a Darma-Hindu wedding outside 
Scenes from a Darma-Hindu wedding outside Dharchula (Photo By Dan Oko)

Language documentation often deals with languages that are, like Darma, on the verge of extinction. It's work that many linguists at UT pursue, with a particular emphasis on Latin America. Contact with foreign cultures -- Europeans in the Americas, for instance -- and economic pressure are two of the most likely culprits for this phenomenon, although as with all living things, the death of some languages is to be expected. As globalization continues to take effect, some linguists fear as many as 90% of the world's languages could be eliminated over the next 50 years, with potentially unprecedented cultural impacts. Beyond language-preservation efforts, language documentation provides linguists with the ability to look at the interaction and development of languages worldwide.

For members of the Darma community, there's a growing interest in creating a permanent record of their language and culture. "I've wanted to make a project like this happen for some time," says tribal member B.S. Bonal, director of the National Zoo in Delhi. "But we're happy to have outside help if that's what it takes to get this job done."

Peace, Charm, and Poverty

The haul to Dharchula from the Indian capital of New Delhi takes 24 hours of straight travel, although only the desperate or insane attempt it in less than two days. Heading out from the New Delhi Train Station, we catch an overnight coach and then schlep 15 or so hours in local "share taxis," bare-tired, diesel jeeps crowded with as many as 15 passengers. The drivers are poor young Indian men paid about 100 Indian rupees (roughly $2) per day to negotiate the roads carved into the mountainsides, navigating switchbacks overlooking drops of a thousand feet or more. I suppose this hair-raising trip -- along with the constant blare of bootleg Bollywood film music tapes -- could be considered part and parcel of the charm of relocating to the Himalayas.

Living in this remote corner of the world, Christina and I have had to reckon with all sorts of new rules for the road. From the crushing poverty of India's megacities to the ringing temple bells in our back yard at evening prayer time, it's always obvious we're not in Texas anymore. The sound of people breaking rock to eke out a few extra rupees each day provides the rhythm of our mornings. The hourly bellow of cows in the alley reminds us that whatever industrial development has come to this nation of a billion people, we have landed in a predominantly agrarian community where ancient traditions continue to echo throughout daily life.

Following the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the Indian government classified Darma and two closely related tribes -- the Byans and Chaudangs -- as descendents of Tibetan ancestors. Prior to that time, local people say, the Indian government hadn't even recognized the territory as part of the country. Today the region's three indigenous groups, including the Darma, resist their official categorization, noting that their religious practices are an amalgam of animism and Hinduism, emphatically not Buddhist as in Tibet. They also reject the Indian government's tribal label of "Bhotia," derived from the Hindu words for Buddhist and Tibetan. They prefer to call themselves "Rang"; the Darma are believed to be the largest of the Rang tribes.

With about 30,000 residents, Dharchula forms the business and population center along our stretch of the Kali River. In addition to the Rang people, Dharchula's population includes Indian army and paramilitary squads stationed to protect the international borders and scores of workers, including a handful of Europeans and Koreans, employed by the hydroelectric dam being built at the base of the Darma Valley. The rest of the Kali River corridor is dotted with small communities where the main highway remains the only street in town. Small storefront groceries provide necessities, such as laundry soap, rice, beans, and fresh fruit trucked up from the plains, as well as an array of consumer items such as plastic furniture and Chinese-made handbags and sneakers.

The Darma Valley, Kali River, and Dharchula -- 
across the river is western Nepal
The Darma Valley, Kali River, and Dharchula -- across the river is western Nepal (Photo By Dan Oko)

Away from the road, villages persist where locals tend small farms and orchards on terraced hillsides, growing citrus, potatoes, and grains. In Dharchula proper, you'll find some semblance of indoor plumbing, but throughout the area most people rely on public spigots and natural springs for their water. Open sewers run through town, while on the outskirts public latrines remain the norm. Our water flows only for a couple of hours twice a day, when we fill buckets for everything from washing dishes to taking showers. Electricity is also sporadic, but we have enough energy to keep the laptop charged, and many families have satellite television.

A Slower Place in Time

Despite the availability of Coca Cola, Levi's, and even popular American TV shows such as Friends and Alias, the cultural divide persists between East and West, especially beyond such metropolises as Delhi, Madras, and Bombay. I have had to give up longnecks and cheeseburgers, but there are many compensations. Christina and I have come to appreciate the joys of a fine cup of well-spiced chai -- sweet tea with cardamom, ginger, and black pepper -- not to mention well-seasoned plates of rice and lentils, served with heaping side orders of cauliflower, potatoes, eggplant, and okra, known in these parts as "subzi masala."

Not only the food but also the pace of life, social niceties, and religious practices never once let you forget this is an exotic destination. We find a certain quietude lost in many Indian and foreign cities (not to mention modern-day Austin), but day-to-day living can be a real challenge. Thankfully, our Byans landlady operates by a Rang social code called "nocksum": treating most strangers as guests and guests -- even paying ones -- as family.

Our shared house is made of brick and cement, a thoroughly modern dwelling by Dharchula standards with its marble floors and indoor toilet, nestled between several houses made of stone and wood. These older homes beyond our glassless windows give a feel for what this place must have been like before development began in earnest. The two-story structures are not much taller than our single-story abode. Most of the neighbors' living areas are accessed via a narrow wooden ladder-type staircase. The lower rooms once housed cattle, but now are most often used for storage. Fewer of these traditional houses linger as brick-and-cement structures replace them, but they are infinitely more charming to our eyes.

As befits a community barely a generation removed from village life, hollering for your neighbors is still more common than ringing them on the phone. In our crowded back-alley neighborhood, nearly everyone is related to our landlady, and she has frequent visitors, often before we are even out of bed. Their calls -- somewhat intelligible to Christina but totally opaque to me -- often wake us up. A notable consolation is that we happily receive our daily quotient of "bed tea" while still drowsy and indeed still in bed. It's a ritual we will miss when we return to Texas.

Scenes from a Darma-Hindu wedding outside 
Scenes from a Darma-Hindu wedding outside Dharchula (Photo By Dan Oko)

While some old ways still linger, other traditions have been mingled with Hindu practices. Within our first few weeks of arriving in Dharchula, I had discovered a trail off the main road, and along the path there stood a small whitewashed, open-air temple. Similar structures dot the hillsides near and far. One day we were taking our daily walk when we noticed we were being trailed by a group of local men leading a goat. We stopped to watch as they entered the temple. When they reached the interior shrine, the men threw some rice in the air, said a prayer, and then chopped the goat's head off with a single blow from a sickle, capturing its blood in a cup. They waved when they noticed us watching, shouldered the wooly carcass, and headed home again.

Darma Nocksum

After a winter in Dharchula, we were more than ready to explore the Darma Valley, the tribe's historic summer home. After spending a month watching idly while friends and neighbors packed their bags and saddled their livestock, we finally hoisted our own backpacks, loaded with camping gear, dehydrated noodles, and Christina's high tech recording equipment. It takes us two days of hard walking to reach the open plateau where we spent most of our time in the Darma Valley.

There are 14 villages in the valley, located at altitudes of 8,000 to 14,000 feet (everything isn't bigger in Texas). They have no roads, no power lines, no phones, and are occupied only from May to October. To get there, we follow the path of the roiling Dhauli River that helped carve the valley, skirting massive granite cliffs, and inch our way across icy glaciers, crossing wobbly bridges over rushing white water. We pass through broadleaf forests where oak, Himalayan walnut, and rhododendron trees provide plenty of shade, eventually ascending to subalpine evergreen forests where the air smells like vanilla. We share the trail with goatherds, military patrols keeping a wary eye on China, and families joining the migration. Many want to know where we've been; our time in Dharchula has made us a little famous.

We establish a five-day base in the village of Baun. Across the valley stand the five massive peaks of the Panchachuli Range, towering to heights of about 25,000 feet. It's the season of offerings, sacrifice, and feasting, and we join the Darma as they visit temples and shrines, wolfing down goat meat and rice. At each stop, they share sweets and a fried flatbread called "puri." The hills are sprinkled with blooming wildflowers, and every morning we make our way to the river and bathe in the brisk snowmelt.

Christina carries her digital recorder everywhere, taping Darma folk songs, old men telling stories, and housewives gossiping. She takes time to learn the local name for mountain iris and forget-me-nots, as well as wild strawberries and various medicinal plants. By the end of our stay, she has collected a dictionary of nearly 1,000 words and has begun to parse the grammatical rules of Darma. After leaving the valley, she will sit down with consultants to transcribe more tapes and translate more words into Hindi and English. It's work that will continue this winter, when we return. The record will form the basis for future generations to learn their language, if it comes to that.

In the meantime, we enjoy the Darma nocksum in this astoundingly rural setting. Many of the descendents of Baun have been away for 15 to 20 years, and this is the first time they've had a chance to come back. Most children don't speak much Darma. We trade stories and snack on blood sausage, made from goat intestine, and other delicacies. I'm invited to participate in a strength contest involving a small boulder, and when I muscle it onto a platform, I'm offered a sweet local alcoholic brew that tastes a little like Mexican mescal. Again and again, people tell us they're so happy Christina has taken an interest in their language and culture.

When we've had our fill, we take the recording equipment a little further into the backcountry -- to the last village in the valley, about 15 miles away. Past Baun, the villages are more sparsely populated and many of the small stone houses have been abandoned. The schoolyards boast volleyball nets, but the schools themselves have no teachers. In some cases the roofs have caved in, evidence of heavy winter snows. Those who spend the summer there farm small plots of land, and a lucky few supervise workers who have been brought in to help with this subsistence-level agriculture. In the fall, they will carry the grain to trade depots and collect their pay. I take these images home with me, when Christina's work returns us to Austin.

We're heading back to India this month, so that she can complete the dictionary and continue her work studying the grammar of Darma. "It's a never-ending project really," she says. "I mean, I can keep doing this for the rest of my life, and probably there will still be a lot that escapes me. So my goal is to get enough that somebody in the community can eventually take over." end story

Dan Oko writes frequently for the Chronicle. He has a weblog devoted to his travels in India and invites readers to visit An earlier version of this story was published in the Montanan magazine.

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language, Darma, linguistics, Kali River, India, Christina Willis, Dharchula, Hindi, B.S. Bonal, New Delhi, Bhotia, Rang tribe, Byans, nocksum, Panchachuli, Baun

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