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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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