The Gaddi People of Dharamsala

Delhi's traffic is notorious i i

Delhi's traffic is notorious -- trucks burst with impossible loads of hay or humans, and on the back of each truck is painted the words "honk please" -- unneccesary, because drivers from every direction honk as often as they breathe. Xeni Jardin hide caption

itoggle caption Xeni Jardin
Delhi's traffic is notorious

Delhi's traffic is notorious -- trucks burst with impossible loads of hay or humans, and on the back of each truck is painted the words "honk please" -- unneccesary, because drivers from every direction honk as often as they breathe.

Xeni Jardin

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Ajay Thakur sings native Gaddi folk songs to pass the time during a 16-hour drive from Delhi

Ajay Thakur sings native Gaddi folk songs to pass the time during a 16-hour drive from Delhi to Dharamsala in northern India. Xeni Jardin hide caption

itoggle caption Xeni Jardin

Gaddi Folk Tunes

Hear two songs sung in the Gaddi language -- the first a contemporary composition, the second a traditional folk song:

The sun sets over the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas above the village of Satobri. i i

The sun sets over the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas above the village of Satobri. Xeni Jardin hide caption

itoggle caption Xeni Jardin
The sun sets over the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas above the village of Satobri.

The sun sets over the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas above the village of Satobri.

Xeni Jardin
In Dharamsala's Gaddi community, folk singer Sunil Rana is a celebrity. i i

In Dharamsala's Gaddi community, folk singer Sunil Rana is a celebrity. He sings in the traditional language, but knows no one who writes in the Gaddi's Takri script. Xeni Jardin hide caption

itoggle caption Xeni Jardin
In Dharamsala's Gaddi community, folk singer Sunil Rana is a celebrity.

In Dharamsala's Gaddi community, folk singer Sunil Rana is a celebrity. He sings in the traditional language, but knows no one who writes in the Gaddi's Takri script.

Xeni Jardin
Sunil Rana's mother Kamla prepares a feast

Sunil Rana's mother Kamla prepares a feast of sauteed sesame leaves, dal and flat bread baked over an open oak wood fire. Xeni Jardin hide caption

itoggle caption Xeni Jardin

The India-Tibet Border

After centuries of troubled relations, Tibet formally declared independence from China in 1912. i i

After centuries of troubled relations, Tibet formally declared independence from China in 1912. It was invaded by communist forces beginning in 1950 and renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region -- part of the "big family" of a unified China. Doug Beach hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Beach
After centuries of troubled relations, Tibet formally declared independence from China in 1912.

After centuries of troubled relations, Tibet formally declared independence from China in 1912. It was invaded by communist forces beginning in 1950 and renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region -- part of the "big family" of a unified China.

Doug Beach

When China took over Tibet in 1950, thousands of refugees fled to Dharamsala, an Indian city across the border to the south. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala and set up a government-in-exile.

Two generations later, Tibetans still look north hoping to return to their native land. In the meantime, the northern part of the city has come to be called "Little Lhasa," after the capital of Tibet.

But for generations before, it was the land of the Gaddi people. As the surrounding community changes, this semi-nomadic tribe finds itself struggling to hold on to its culture and language.

My journey to Dharamsala began with a car ride through the bumpy, hazardous roads out of India's capital city, Delhi. My guide is Ajay Thakur, is a 20-year old Gaddi man, who sings tribal folksongs to pass the miles. Ajay's singing is enough of a distraction that I forget how terrified I should be of the traffic chaos outside my window.

The lyrics of Ajay's song describe a land of jade-green valleys, magic lakes formed from gods' tears, icy peaks where demons and deities duke it out. They sound like mythical realms — but in reality, these songs are odes to the Gaddi homeland.

During my stay in Dharamsala, I visit the home of a well-known Gaddi folk singer named Sunil Rana. In the small, rural hilltop village of Satobri, roosters and goats are settling down for the night. From inside the kitchen, I can see the sun setting over snow-capped mountains outside.

After an amazing meal, Sunil has another treat — original song compositions, instead of the old familiar folk songs. There's one catch, though: Sunil doesn't write his songs using the written Gaddi language. The people of the region may still speak Gaddi, but their written language, called Takri, is effectively lost.

The Gaddi's wandering way of life has made it challenging to preserve their written language. In Sunil's composition book, he's written out his lyrics phonetically in Devanagri, the script of the region's predominant Hindi language.

Still, the spoken tongue is very much alive. Sunil says he does his part to keep the language alive through his music. Lately, he's been performing regularly on a regional station of the state-run All India Radio network. In Dharamsala's Gaddi community, he's a star.

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