For Ladakh's Pashmina goat-rearing Changpa nomads, change comes to a centuries-old way of life

  • The Changpa nomads live in the remote, trans-Himalayan Changthan region of Ladakh, roughly 16,000-plus feet above sea level

  • Here, for centuries, they have been shepherding their world-class Pashmina wool-bearing goats

  • But now, winds of change have started blowing in Changpa land; not very fast but fast enough to catch the attention of outsiders

No phone. No internet. No GPS. Just gusts of howling wind, giving them company from sunrise to sunset, followed by clusters of dazzling stars peeping down from the night sky into their yak-skin tents. Whatever the season, there are always openings in these tents to let fresh air in. Living in the remote, Trans-Himalayan Changthan region of Ladakh, at roughly 16,000-plus feet above sea level where, for centuries, they have been shepherding their world-class Pashmina wool-bearing goats, the Changpa nomads may not be among the most informed people on the Earth. But they surely know which way the wind blows, and can spot a good thing coming.

Like for instance, the announcement of new Union Territory status for Ladakh. The information reached them after a few days’ delay, as it always does at these heights, but it hardly matters. Though largely happy at the development, they did not exactly erupt in joy, the way the rest of Ladakh (barring Kargil) did. This is because the Changpas’ response to sudden change is not something which can be measured by our clocks. The swiftest occurrence which can be observed here, for days on end, is the movement of clouds.

 For Ladakhs Pashmina goat-rearing Changpa nomads, change comes to a centuries-old way of life

Goats returning to Changpa encampment in the evening, along with a shepherd

Yet, things started changing for the Changpas of Changthang recently — even before this latest announcement by the Narendra Modi government. The announcement has only made them more perceptible. But to understand these, one needs to look at the life of the Himalayan nomads in a different way, one in which our watches, calendars and daily schedules become totally meaningless.

Unlike many of us who live by the plans made by others, such as our bosses or organisations, Changpas place the greatest reliance on their fine-tuned senses. The lengthening shadows on a cliff hold their attention much longer than one would take note of (if one were to take note of it at all) in the plains. It’s through their sensory antennae — honed and sharpened by hundreds of years of collective memory — that they discern the shifting seasons, the gradual turn in the direction of the wind on high passes, the slow but unmistakable yellowing of the grass which tells them it’s time to move on to greener valleys and pastures. Make no mistake, their lives depend on maintaining the right balance with nature. In a region where the February temperature has a tendency of dropping to - 40 degree Celsius, accurate reading of these signs often becomes a matter of life and death.

But now, winds of change have started blowing in Changpa land, not quite fast but fast enough to catch the attention of an outsider’s casual glance. The first thing which strikes one while entering their encampment is the total absence of teenagers and young people. They are simply not to be found. One comes across a little girl or a boy, or men and women in their middle years and older.

Tso Moriri. One of the Changpas' preferred camping grounds is a few kilometres from here.

Tso Moriri. One of the Changpas' preferred camping grounds is a few kilometres from here.

A few probing queries reveal that the young ones have descended to Leh, and some even outside the hilly region, for education. Now this may seem commonplace and would make some of us scoff with disdain, but hold on. It’s nothing short of revolutionary. These are the first of the Changpa youth who have initiated a meaningful encounter with an outside world, practically the first generation to dip its toes in the uncharted world of formal education.

This should be amazing. But more amazing is the fact that the news never made it to our noise-filled cities.

Almost all the 5,00,000-odd Changpas in Ladkah’s Changthang are inveterate travellers, though not by choice. Walking over one high pass to another in search of suitable grasslands for their goats, sheep and horses, they set up camps in five to seven locations in a year. Their foray in the world of education, therefore, is  the first recorded disruption in the Changpas’ set way of life, which goes back to at least 1,200 years.

Other indications, many in fact, have surfaced in recent times to suggest the Changpas’ willingness to adopt to the modern way of life; and of our refusal to take note of them. This is what happens on being stuck with a fancy notion for too long, even after it becomes obsolete. Take, for example, the presumably sacred relation of the nomads with their yaks. Not so long ago, yaks were as pronounced in these parts of the Himalayas as camel in Rajasthan. Now, both are dying a slow death (but for different reasons). The yak, in particular, is no longer the preferred mode of transport, which it used to be till a few years ago. Most encampments of Changpas now have one or more vehicles, often purchased by pooling money. Yaks have taken a back seat in their larger scheme of things. However, most books on Ladakh, textbooks and best-sellers alike (such as Janet Rizvi’s Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia), have refused to acknowledge the change, even in their revised editions.

A Changpa family

A Changpa family

But the biggest change affecting the Changpas, one which is bound to take away the last vestige of their uniqueness, concerns their most prized possession: the Pashmina-bearing goats. Pashm, that soft fluffy substance sheared from the underbelly of the goats, yields Pashmina — the finest wool in the world. For centuries, Pashmina was the most sought-after traded item on the entire Silk Route, from India to Tibet and then to Europe through Central Asia. It was primarily to gain control over the supply of pashm that the flamboyant Dogra general Zorawar Singh — whose master, Raja Gulab Chand of Jammu, was in turn the vassal of Sikh Emperor Ranjit Singh — raided and conquered all of Ladakh in 1834.

Strange as it may seem, that victory triggered ripple effects which have yet to die out completely in Ladakh’s high-altitude desert-scape . A few of these are impacting the dynamics of the region even now.

While Zorawar Singh subjugated Ladakh effortlessly, he met his doom seven years later in a dramatic fashion. Brimming with false confidence after the easy Ladakh victory, he charged at Tibet but did not take into account three factors, which would cost his life and annihilate his army: the inclement weather (it was in December 1841, in the dead of winter, that he invaded Tibet. Although he held special training sessions for his horsemen on the frozen Pangong lake before attacking Lhasa, the efforts came to naught in the actual battle); the Tibetans’ resolve to fight back; and the timely help they received from their ally China.

Fast forward to 2019, the same Chinese hand is now seen on the North-Western stretch of the Tibetan plateau, which is the Changthan region of Ladakh. But the target this time is different; it’s the Changpas’ goats, and not the invaders from the plains.

While Pashmina still retains its allure — at least among the people who cannot afford it — it now faces stiff competition in the form of cheap synthetic wool made in, you guessed right, China. The markets in Leh and other smaller towns of Ladakh are full of such stuff.

The prized Pashmina goats of the Changpas

The prized Pashmina goats of the Changpas

In the Korzok Phu encampment of Changpas close to Tso Moriri, where some 120 families have been tending their goats, the village elder Skarsmer Tsering explained why the Pashmina trade is fast losing its shine. “The Chinese wool is a major factor, of course. But an equally big reason is our children getting exposure to the outside world. There is no electricity or phone connection here. But once or twice when we pass through Leh or other big towns, we see how fast the world is changing. Our children can feel the progress. They see it in their mobile phones. It’s not our fault that they are itching to be a part of that world. Soon enough, these goats will enter our folklore, with nobody to take care of them,” he said.

Making quick calculations, Tsering laments that even his 100-odd Pashmina-giving goats fail to stop him from getting the dirty end of the stick in the markets of Leh. The finished product sells for many times more than the source price. And what does Tsering get after one full year of rearing the goats? Only Rs 62,500. Mind you, his entire family is involved in the work. The arithmetic is quite simple: a single goat gives roughly 250 grams of pashm in a year, and one kilogram of pashm sells for Rs 2,500. And 25 kilograms of wool is what he’s able to get from his entire flock.

Still, the Changpas have trudged on. To keep on producing Pashmina for 1,200 long years is an act of excellence, albeit a humble act as nobody from the clan made a hullabaloo around it. Soon, it will become a lost art. Quite like falconry, which died a sudden death in India after laws were passed against it a few decades ago on grounds of conservation.

Changpas cannot be faulted for dreaming of a better future for their children in the Union Territory of Ladakh. But what about the price they will end up paying for it all? As John W Gardner, author of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society remarked, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

The price of progress, did you say?

— All photographs courtesy the writer

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Updated Date: Sep 25, 2019 09:36:57 IST