The Gaddi People of Dharamsala The nomadic Hindu tribe has dwelled in the shadows of the Himalayas in Northern India for countless generations. Before Tibetan refugees and Western tourists arrived, they were the dominant ethnic group — but as development looms, their culture is changing.
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The Gaddi People of Dharamsala

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The Gaddi People of Dharamsala

The Gaddi People of Dharamsala

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This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin is usually here with stories about our world online. This week she has as series of stories about changes technology is bringing to Tibet and Tibetan exile communities in northern India. Traveling there, Xeni saw traditional Tibetan celebrations.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And ancient rites of prayer.

(Soundbite of Tibetan prayer)

CHADWICK: But today's Tibetan exiles are a blending tradition and technology.

Unidentified male: Internet is the virtual home of Tibetan people, because Tibet doesn't exist for us.

BRAND: In this series you'll hear about Buddhist monks emailing each other from fifth century temples, Himalayan hackers using the Internet to preserve ancient Tibetan texts, and computer technicians who make sure that their wireless network equipment is monkey-proof.

CHADWICK: Xeni begins with a trek to Dharamsala, India, that's just on the other side of the Himalayan Mountains from Tibet. The area became the home of the Tibetan exiles, including the Dali Lama, back in the 1950s. It's now known as Little Tibet.

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

XENI JARDIN, reporting:

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, a 20-year-old Gaddi man. He sings tribal folk songs to pass the time.

Mr. AJAY THAKUR (Guide): (singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: Delhi's traffic is a Speed Racer video game in which everyone wants to kill you with their car. Candy colored trucks burst with impossible loads of hay, livestock, and huddled humans. On the back of each truck, the words - honk please - are painted, to suggest others honk for permission to pass. The request is unnecessary, because drivers veering in every direction, honk as often as they breathe.

(Soundbite of honking cars)

JARDIN: But Ajay's singing is enough of a distraction that I forget how terrified I should be.

Mr. THAKUR: (singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: The lyrics describe a land of jade-green valleys, magic lakes formed from God's tears, icy peaks where demons and deities duke it out. They sound like mythical realms, but in reality, these songs are odes to the very Gaddi homeland we're about the visit. Sixteen road-weary hours later, after I've heard what feels like every Gaddi song ever sung, we arrive in Dharamsala.

Mr. AJAY THAKUR: (singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: During my stay a visit to the family home of a wellknown Gaddi folksinger named Sunil Rana. In the small, rural hilltop village of Satobri, roosters and goats are settling down for the night. From here, inside the kitchen, I can see the sun setting over snow-capped mountains outside. Sunil's mom Kamla, is preparing dinner for us. Firewood is stacked in rafters overhead. One roof plank is pulled aside to release oak smoke from the cooking hearth. Children are hiding up there too and they peer down, eyeballing the blonde stranger with the microphone poked into a cooking pot - that would be me.

(Soundbite of simmering pot)

JARDIN: Maybe it's all the traveling. Maybe it's the mountain air, but the spread Kamla serves us, sautéed sesame leaves, thick buttery yellow dals, spongy nutty flatbread baked on the fire. It's the most delicious I've ever tasted. Afterwards, Sunil treats us to something that sounds equally rich.

Mr. SUNIL RANA (Gaddi Folksinger): (singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: Unlike the old Gaddi tunes Ajay sang to us in the car, Sunil's songs are mostly original compositions. There's one catch though, he doesn't write them using Gaddi script. While many still speak Gaddi, they're written language, called Takri is effectively lost.

Mr. HANS TROHANSHANE(ph) (Friend of Sunil): (speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: That's Sunil's friend Hans Trohanshane welcome to Satobri Village in the Gaddi language. By day Hans is a tour guide and he tells us about traditional Gaddi life.

Mr. TROHANSHANE: Gaddi is a tribe, it's a semi-nomadic tribe. So we travel a lot with the sheep and the goats.

JARDIN: That wandering way of life has made it challenging for the Gaddi to preserve their language today. In Sunil's composition book he's written out his lyrics phonetically in Devanagri, the script of the regions predominant Hindi language. Not long ago, things were different. Hans remembers his grandfather writing in Gaddi script when he was a child.

Mr. TROHANSHANE: I know my grandfather used to read or write, but we never actually took an interest in learning this language. But now with - he's no more - we think we should have learned it. But it is too late.

JARDIN: Sunil and Hans have seen texts written in the Gaddi script but they're hidden away in big city libraries. They don't know of anyone teaching or writing it here in their community. Still, the spoken tongue is very much alive. As Kamla stacks dishes back in the kitchen, Hans explains that whenever he and Sunil leave the village to find work, their language travels with them.

Mr. TROHANSHANE: I would never want to leave this language. And because I've seen many people who belong to this tribe, we meet in big cities, and sometimes they try to hide their identity. But for me if I hear somebody speaking some few words of my language, I always want to talk to them in Gaddi language.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RANA: I think everybody will be (unintelligible)

Mr. TROHANSHANE: (unintelligible)

Mr. RANA: Yeah, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RANA: (Singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: Sunil keeps the language alive through his music. Lately he's been performing regularly on a regional station of the state-run, All India Radio Network. And here in Dharamsala's Gaddi community, he's a star.

Mr. RANA: (Singing in foreign language)

JARDIN: For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

Mr. RANA: (Singing in foreign language)

CHADWICK: Xeni's a tech contributor to DAY TO DAY and she's contributing editor to You can join her journey to Tibet and northern India by going to our website NPR dot org. You'll be able to see slide shows from her trip as well as get information on the people you've heard from in the series.

BRAND: Tomorrow Xeni's series continues.

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