Introducing Himalayan Chai

Our ‘Accidental Ethnography’ Series

First let us clarify to our readers why we are calling this the Accidental Ethnography series. The use of the expression ethnography would not be justifiable for the following reasons. Traditionally, ethnographers would need to spend long periods of time living among the people they wish to study relying on participant observation as a method, becoming immersed in a culture and way of life. The goal is to understand activities within a culture to explore why practices make sense in the context of the day-to-day life of a group. For instance, an ethnography of cooking practices of a community would require the researcher to participate in them as this would facilitate an understanding of meanings and significance from an insider’s perspective.

The posts we plan for the Himalayan Chai section of the blog will be photo and video essays, but with more planning and depth, guided by a protocol prepared in consultation with experts Heidi Keller and Shraddha Kapoor. Our collaborator, Vishwas Raj is an outdoor professional traveller who started his own company in 2016, Adventure Sindbad. Please see the link below to access their website. The genesis of our collaboration is important to disclose.

The Genesis of Himalayan Chai

I first encountered Adventure Sindbad on a serendipitous journey through travel podcasts. Musafir Stories (I really liked the title) posts interviews with travellers. The hosts have an unpretentious, spontaneous and sincere manner of presenting themselves and their invited speakers and I particularly enjoyed their story about the Changpas, a nomadic community of sheep farmers living in the remote Changthang Valley of Leh. Their sheep are the source of wool for the grand Pashmina fabric. Links to the episode are provided below, but here is a brief extract:

“The Changpas are a nomadic community that wanders across the Changthang area with their herd of sheep and goats. The famous pashmina wool is made from the wool of the sheep and goats of this region, which is then crafted by Kashmiri artisans….. The rebo or yak wool tents of the Changpas are the epitome of minimalism and simplicity. The tents contain a kitchen, a dining area, sleeping area and a prayer room….. The lifestyle of the Changpas is considered a dying lifestyle with the younger generations prefering to move away. The Changpas usually own anywhere between 100-800 sheep and start the day early by milking the goats and sheep. Some of the family then heads off to graze the sheep, while one or two family members stay back and take care of the household chores.”

I was instantly hooked to the narrative. The presenter (Vishwas Raj) maintained a sensitive and respectful stance towards the community and several of the observations were, in my opinion, very insightful. He also said something that lingered in my mind for a long time. Although we are aware about endangered cultures, occupations and languages, hearing about it right after a detailed illustration of the beauty of a place, the people and their lives, made it so much more compelling. As the weeks passed, I wondered how precious it would be to document the lives of children in this and other communities in the region. There is, I believe, an urgent need to better understand the lives of people living in remote areas because we know so little and our imagination about them is severely stunted, especially in academic circles. On an impulse I wrote to Vishwas about the proposed project, having already exchanged messages with him about a possible trek some time earlier. Soon, Himalayan Chai was born!

Vishwas Raj

I asked Vishwas to write about himself:

“I am just a simple guy, trying to make a living out of my interests. I love travelling, especially to remote places experiencing new cultures, food and ways of life. I feel fortunate that I have been able to shape my profession around my passion. I also enjoy reading, documenting through photography, cinema, whitewater kayaking and running. I have been in love with the mountains ever since I first experienced them as a 12-yr-old. After going through the regular education grind – college, Engineering, a corporate Job, I decided to call it quits and see if there is more to my love for the outdoors. I spent the next nine years working for other top companies in remote corners of the Himalaya honing skills and learning on the job. After I thought I had learnt enough, I decided to start off on my own and Adventure Sindbad was born in 2016. Since then it has been a way of satisfying my own wanderlust and testing and pushing my other skills in creating something beautiful. Eventually hopefully!
When you came up with the idea, it did pique my interest. I had never thought my work could contribute in other meaningful ways. I knew right away that I will enjoy it and would let me observe my surroundings more keenly with a renewed purpose. I was also generally kicked about working with an erudite Professor who publishes whitepapers. :)”

The “erudite professor” is a bit of a stretch, but that’s how this project was initiated. Our collaboration has resulted in spot observations of around 10 scenes of children from remote locations in Sikkim and Nepal, all conducted by Vishwas. This Friday, we are posting the first in a series of photo and video essays: Tea-Shop by the Teesta

Tea-Shop by the Teesta

The Teesta river emerges from Pahunri glacier and flows south to the Sikkim Himalayas and onto West Bengal and Bangladesh.

View from the Tea Shop: Teesta river
The Tea-Shop

This scene took place between a mother and child at a tea-shop on a hill overlooking the Teesta river in North Sikkim near a small wayside village called Rakdong. It was the child’s sociability that caught the attention of our team. Vishwas is behind the camera accompanied by a guide and driver, a Nepali, who knew the language the mother spoke. The mother is also from Nepal, married to a local. The interior of the shop, surrounded by items for sale, was enclosed by a wooden slat placed specially as a guard so that the toddler could stay inside.

Toddler in the shop
Making faces

The area behind the wooden bar had a mattress, pillows and some toys for the child to play with and rest. The mother was busy with serving the visitors and arranging stuff in the shop as she responded to their questions. Their home was a small distance away, and she had arrived early to open up the shop for business. This recording was made around 10.30 in the morning. The mother and child were by themselves. The father who belonged to the Lepcha community usually stayed back in the village, so the management of tea-shop was run by the mother.

What emerges from the video and pictures is the spontaneous friendliness of the baby, devoid of any anxiety on account of the presence of strangers. At about a year and few months of age, her friendliness is unusual and far from being wary, she is seen to engage in active social play and vocalisations with the strangers; and with her mother in their presence. The resemblance between the other and child is also remarkable. The scene seemed like a regular day at home for her, where, from her vantage point behind the bar, passers by were a constant feature. Here is a link to the video in case the uploaded file doesn’t work. :

In the next post, we will feature an encounter with a four year-old girl as she negotiates her morning at home. One cannot help being impressed by the ease and grace of her unsupervised movements as she grooms herself. As always we eagerly await your comments to our posts. Do let us know what you think about our new project: Himalayan Chai!

The Changthang Valley Album:

The podcast by Adventure Sindbad:

Adventure Sindbad Facebook Page:

The Musafir Stories Facebook page:

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