Saevus nomads_15_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

Green … once upon a time

Climate change is forcing nomad communities of Ladakh valleys to settle down and accept a new way of living – an interesting observation by Joydip Mitra.

Their valley was never green, and the greenery in their valley was never improbable. For them, the rivers always flowed in monotonous and predictable courses, and big, brown mountains always stood as citadels—near and far. For that matter, they didn’t have just one valley but many, and their caravans used to migrate from one to the other, always looking out for the rivers’ flow and bends, for the existence of greenery. These nomads—known more as Changpas (originated in the Tibetan district of Changthang) in this part of Ladakh—are ever migrants with their horses, yaks, and herds of Pashmina sheep. For ages, they are just moving landmarks in an infinite stretch of wasteland. Living a cycle of life gone in search of green vegetation, the Changpas seem to defy gravity – an ever-moving existence like a feather—the Changpas is certainly the last, who will have any memory of literally living on green pastures.


Saevus nomads_1_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

Too young to leave for school or live away from mom, Tenzin, 4, is very much part of the last few nomadic groups. Playing with Pashmina sheep and learning early the basic elements of nature like the warmth and the wind, Tenzin frequently looks far. In a few years, he will take up the philosophy of a contemporary and essentially urban world that never mourned for a lost horizon.


Pashmina wool is in high demand and the Changpas are rich. They had ever been. They rear a certain breed of sheep that produce Pashmina wool in some quantity. Earlier they had little use for money, as they didn’t move into space where money mattered as they used to barter wool and butter for yaks and horses. Used to living in yak-skin tents and wearing woolen garments they themselves produced, the Changpas never cared for consumerism in any form. What they produced, they either consumed or transformed into a living and helping assets. Thus was lived a life free of complication and stagnation. Just like their rivers.

Saevus nomads_2_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

Frequent dust-storms are part of a common day here in this Changpa settlement, near Hanle. At dawn men and young girls move onto the pastures with their herds, and all get busy when they return back. A strong sense of community dictates life here.


Intrigued and curious, I wanted to dig deeper into their approach to living so I attempted to converse with Dicky Dolma, one of the Changpas with little success as she would laugh too often. The wind here has a rare physicality causing me to lose balance with its blow, making Dicky more hysteric. Though not sure of her age, she told me that she has been migrating for more than half a century—living the course of an entire life right on the wild. Dicky Dolma’s scratched face seemed witness to many untold stories, though her posture was regal like an inscribed stone. All her life she believed in surviving on the basics, keeping faith in the protective layers of canvas and yak-skin, shifting their tent colony from one pasture to the other, leaving a grazing ground for the next as soon once their herd had enough. Life was so linear then.


Saevus nomads_3_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

A ‘robu’ is an octagonal canvas tent in which a Changpa family live. Previously these tents were made of yak-skin. But now the Changpas are using scooters instead of yaks, and thus a little improvisation has become necessary.


Being in a temporary colony of the Changpas, about forty kilometers from the Ladakhi town of Hanle, and talking to Dicky Dolma, I experienced a busy day in nomadic life – men and women converging into the camp with their herds from far off, grimacing sheep-dogs trying to look fatal, horses stumping on dead gravel, randomly dust-storm was obliterating everything from vision. Nature looked fierce. Uncompromising. Chimneys protruding from ‘robu’—or octagonal canvas tents—were gurgling out occasional smoke into a spotless sky. Inside every ‘robu’, an oven is always kept burning for a continuous supply of ‘gutgut chai’ (tea made with salt and butter) and a lamp is also kept flickering before a framed picture of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Tinkles from a marching herd seemed like jingles from an active landscape.


Saevus nomads_11_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

Dicky Dolma feels in her eighth heaven when she tends to her herd. The Changpas value their sheep the most in all senses, and a settlement with about 20 robus may possess more than 1000 sheep. Haircut from the upper abdomen of this special breed of sheep is Pashmina Wool and it is always in high demand.


Dicky—or for that matter anyone from her tent colony—doesn’t know about global warming, but she can feel it. With little confidence, the nomads can now predict that there will be grass on a certain pasture at a given time. Nowadays their rivers are either flooding, drying up or changing courses, and the Changpas’ confidence about their hunt for green is being challenged by changing course of nature. They know that something is wrong somewhere, and this is just time to adapt to a different way of life. The Changpas are now understanding the power of hard currency as they are investing in building concrete houses in villages, finally settling for immovable and permanent than their collapsible tents. All their kids are now going to public schools in Leh, as the Changpas possess both money and a foresight to predict that life into the open is nearing its extinction. Beside Dicky Dolma, I could find only a few elders in the entire settlement—the reason being that they are left in villages to access a better healthcare infrastructure, and also to look after the very young ones, who are no more part of caravans. This is another old Indian story of tradition giving way to common sense and a somewhat sustainable lifestyle, but for the Changpas the mountainous landscape is certainly shrinking. In another 10 years, there might be no migrants all year long in the valleys of Ladakh, and the rivers would certainly feel lonely.


Saevus nomads_16_ Green … once upon a time Conservation Travel  robu Pashmina wool Ladakh himalaya Changpas

Girls with their herd and a dog are moving towards a grazing ground. These dogs have an immense sense of responsibility and one is usually enough to look after a herd of 200. Its primary duty is to keep eyes on straying and distracted members of the herd.


Cover Pic: Dotted in the vastness, three from a Changpa settlement are on their way to the Indus in search of water. During winter the river freezes and large slabs are salvaged from it and melted into water. Nowadays the Government has provided tube-wells at those camping grounds where the Changpas usually settle down in the course of their migration.


Read also: High on happiness and altitude – trekking to mesmerizing Mystery Lake.

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About the Author /

A freelance photographer based in Kolkata, Joydip Mitra specialized in documenting people, fairs and festivals from all states of India and used to contribute travel pictures frequently to Jetwings, Outlook Traveller Guides, India Today Travel Plus and many other magazines. Turning into documentary photography rather recently, he has worked extensively on the Ramnamis—India’s Tattooed Agnostics. Right now he is working on ’60 Years in Exile—Escape tales of the first generation of Tibetan Refugees’ and ‘ The Siddis—Is India pushing its Africa back into the Jungle?’

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