Tag Archives: Ladakh
Shy yet curious a 3-year-old Changpa child greets a new day and a photographer on the Changthang, a cold desert at an average altitude of 15,000 feet above sea level in Ladakh.
Until roads connected the Changthang with Leh, Ladakh’s capital, horses and feet were the only modes of transportation for the nomadic Changpa. Even as more and more of them buy SUVs now, the status of the horses remain undiminished. Here, a group of Changpas gather with their steeds for a race.
A Changpa races sunset to get his flock to the safety of their corral. These nomadic pastoralists are the guardians of pashmina goats, which provide the world with the much-sought-after cashmere.
A lamb exits the warmth of the womb to find warmth yet again in the heavy overcoat of a nomad. The Changpa time the birthing of their livestock to the deepest months of winter, which allows the lambs to be weaned just as the first shoots of summer grass emerge in the desert.
Among the last true nomads, the Changpa migrate as many as 8 times a year following rain and clouds to new pasture. Every movement is led by women and children. The men follow with all the possessions loaded on horses and yak. They are also responsible for herding the livestock safely across the mountain passes.
A Changpa woman helps a newborn goat finds its way to its mother’s udders. The nomads count their wealth in heads of goat and sheep, but that is not the only reason why they love them as much as they do their own children. Buddhists by faith, they consider it a sin to be the cause of suffering for any living being.
Surviving winter is a full-time job that the nomads take seriously. With temperatures regularly dropping to below – 40C, the changpas spend almost all summer, and their free time in winter, collecting dung and droppings of their animals and the roots of a shrub to use as fuel. The Changpas’ hearth burns for about 18 hours every day through the five months of winter.
Changpa men let their yak roam free, and check on them about once every fortnight. Here, a father takes his children along for the inspection. Changpa children are inducted into the nomadic way of life from an early age. Boys as young as 7 are often given the responsibility of taking the livestock out to graze.
Days begin early at Changpa camps, which are chosen not for their proximity to water, but pasture. Tasks at camp are well sorted, with men and boys responsible for taking the animals to graze, and the women tasked with taking care of home and hearth.
Four-year-old Trinley’s face bears proof of the fierceness of weather on the Changthang. Legend has it that, on the Changthang, people can suffer sunrun and frostbite within a span of 24 hours. Temperatures can fluctuate by as much as 30C every day.
Tsering, now 6, takes a break from milking goats, a job she has been training for since she was 3. The task is much more than tugging at udders, and involves head as heart. The women need to not only identify goats tht can be milked, but also how much each animal is willing to spare for them.
A Changpa children are sometimes left in front of open fires while their mothers go to fetch water. Younger children though, are kept in the corrals with the goats, where they are not only warmed by the animals’ body heat.
Windspeeds exceed 80kph on the Changthang in the winter, making sandstorms a routine no one complains about. With almost no cover, the only way to deal with them is to wait them out – as this trio of women does.
The winter cold ensures nothing remains liquid on the Changthang. The nomads have to collect ice and melt it for water.
The Changpas traditionally lived in yak-hair tents called rebo, but are increasingly opting to use canvas tents bought from markets, or given to them at subsidized rates by the government. While these tents are much lighter, they are not as warm as the hand-woven rebos.
A Changpa woman roasts barley for the sheep and goat. Perhaps because of the changing climate, the valleys in the Changthang are receiving a lot more snow each year, making it almost impossible for the sheep and goat to get to the grass.
Treating animals as equals is part of every pastoralist’s lifestyle. Horses and people share the same source of water in winter; the only rule in such situations is to ensure the drinking water for people come from upstream of the animals.
A horse race in progress
The hunt for the perfect white steed begins as preparation for the welcome of a monk. Each summer, Buddhist monks travel to all the Changpa communities to bless the people, the animals, and the pasture that sustains them.
A Changpa tent, no matter how small, has a corner dedicated to the gods. Despite roads and the advantages it brings with them, the Changpas’ lives continue to be dictated by factors much beyond their control, in the realm of blessings and prayer.