The Changpas are transhumance pastoralists originating in the Changthang region of the Tibetan Plateau, which extends into southeastern Ladakh. According to records, a large section of the Changpa population migrated out of Tibet into the Indian part of Changthang in the eighth century AD.
The territory is vast and rugged, with long and harsh winters, and woefully short summers. Vegetation is scarce due to the terrain’s hard soil, as a result of which the nomadic Changpas move during the summer months in search of literal greener pastures. They journey across pasturelands in the valley that are allotted to them by the head of their communities, spending their warmer days combing the fine, feathery pashmina or cashmere wool from the Changhthangi goats’ soft undercoat.
Changpas are among the leading suppliers of the expensive cashmere wool, originating in this region located 14,600 meters above sea level.
Women play a crucial role in the Changpa society. Despite the dizzying height and thin air in Changthang, these brilliant shepherdesses execute their daily duties efficiently. Besides shouldering social responsibilities like administrative work, they also look after their households with ease. Here’s a peek into their daily lives.
Yama counts her herd before she starts her day, every day. She owns a herd of 80 Changthangi goats.
The Changpas live in tents known as ‘rebos’. To make a rebo, yak wool is spun into yarn by the families, then woven and stitched together. The material protects the nomads from icy winds. The rebo is erected over a two-feet-deep pit, and held in place by wooden posts. Each rebo is occupied by a family. The process of making a rebo is complicated, and is largely handled by the women of the family.
Pashmina goats in the Hanle Valley: Through most of the year, the goats are grazed in pastures located at a height of more than 4,500 meters above sea level. Both women and men perform this task regularly.
Once the herds return after grazing the entire day, it is essential to count them and separate the female goats from the male ones. Once this is done, milking begins. Mostly, it’s the women who carry out this job. During summers, the goats are milked almost thrice a day by the women.
Changpa herders packing cashmere wool, which they will hand over to buyers.
Kitchens are significant sources of heat, warmth, and light for the nomadic community. It keeps them warm during chilly nights, especially in the long winters when temperatures dip to -25°C. So every time a family migrates, women set up the kitchen first.
In her makeshift tent, Stenzin is making butter tea which is traditionally known as ‘po-cha’. It is a staple in the Changpa diet.
Sonam is heading back to her tent after collecting drinking water from the Hanle river. At 4,941 metres above sea level, the summers are not quite warm in the Hanle Valley, where it can snow or rain at any time of the day or night.
While Changpa women remain busy in the mornings and evenings with herding, milking, and other chores, their afternoons are a little relaxed.
Two Changpa women returning to their rebo after collecting shrubs, like artemisia, for fuel.
In September every year, a mass prayer is organised at the Tashi Choeling monastery in the Hanle Valley, where herders from close and distant villages gather to pay homage to Lord Buddha. Through the entire month, the villagers do not migrate or travel far from their hamlets for herding.
Some women from herder families have received modern education, and now teach in schools.
Old women do not graze their herds, generally. They stay in permanent shelters in their respective villages. But if needed, the women join their families and lend a hand during summers.