The Himalayan Desert: Where solitude and isolation are a way of life

Part One: The Place

Picture credits Mayank Soni

In these strange times, remote areas of the country seem to have receded even further into the wilderness, and one wonders if and when they will be accessible again. For a while at least, the travel industry will be hit by the restrictions. Perhaps this is an opportune moment for a retrospective feature from the Himalayas. This essay about the Changpa community in Changthang, Ladakh, is an outcome of our association with Adventure Sindbad, an adventure tourism company specialising in the Himalayan region. We have earlier featured essays emerging from this collaboration under the section titled Himalayan Chai. Links are provided in the Notes section for quick access. We are grateful to Vishwas Raj, the founder of Adventure Sindbad, for his partnership and active participation in these essays which have been developed from narratives of his visits to Ladakh, looking back more carefully at children and family life. In our joint project, we focus specifically on the everyday lives of the people living in remote areas. To ensure accuracy, every article is sent to him for final approval before it is published here. We also wish to acknowledge Mayank Soni and Arun Thakur for their pictures which form the backbone of these essays (Links also in Notes section). Vishwas himself is a gifted photographer and some of the images are from his camera. The contribution of Tamchos Namgyal is also important to mention. As a member of the Changpa community, his perspective in these descriptions is critical. He continues to collaborate by answering any questions we have about the Changpa way of life.

Pashmina: The ‘soft gold’ of northern India

Picture credits: Mayank Soni

Early mentions of Pashmina fabric can be found from 16th Century sources. A prized fabric worn by Mughal royalty for its luxuriousness and warmth, Pashmina was also used in the making of robes of honour awarded for exemplary service or royal favour. Both men and women from wealthy families used Pashmina shawls, carpets and jackets, and over generations, these have been passed down as precious family heirlooms. Around the early 19th Century, the fabric became internationally known and Pashmina shawls have since gained world-wide recognition as a luxury fabric.

Although most of us are aware that this exquisite fibre is spun to its final elegance by Kashmiri artisans, a lesser known fact is that the wool itself is harvested by a remote, nomadic community of sheep and goat herders in the northern Himalayan region. The downy undercoat of the Changthangi goat that sheds naturally every spring is harvested for wool which soon grows back into a thick silky coat to protect the animals from the harsh winter season. Unlike other woolen material, the Pashmina does not require regular sheering, these silken strands are simply combed off and collected before being transported for cleaning, spinning, weaving and finishing.

This photo essay presents a glimpse of the areas in which the Changpa live and graze their animals. The images were taken during trips to the area in the years 2017 and 2018 before the onset of winter. In the next post we will go deeper into their daily lives, periodic movements, as well as festivities.

“Guardians of the Pashmina”

Among the goats. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

In an essay on their website (Link below), Adventure Sindbad announces their tours with the following introduction:

The Changpas are a nomadic community of goat-herders “endemic to the vast windswept high-altitude (4500m) cold desert plateau – Changthang. It is located at the South-Eastern corner of Ladakh extending 1600 kms eastward into Tibet and into modern day China. With expansive highlands and giant sapphire lakes, it is home to the Changpas, the wandering nomads of this land. For generations, they have roamed its huge swathes of nutritious pastures with their flocks weathering severe temperatures, high winds, and inhospitable terrain. It is warm in the summers and severely cold in the winters, dropping to -35 to – 40-degree Celsius. It is only in these extreme weather condition that the pashmina goats thrive to yield the best pashmina wool. Throughout the year the nomads keep moving with their huge flocks of goats and sheep along with yaks, horses and ferocious Tibetan Mastiffs which guard the flocks against predators – mainly wolves. Their tents are made of black yak wool to protect them from the harsh winds as they move from one encampment to the other. This yak-wool tent earns them the name ‘Rebo’ – called so by the local Ladakhis. The Rebo cover vast stretches of land over a year’s journey and some stunning locations, still hidden and unknown to most of us non-nomads. The Changpas have and are still living this hard way of life following customs and keeping the tradition of their tribe alive even today, untethered to the modern society. Another aspect that helps is the protection of the Indian side of Changthang, as ‘Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary’ which consists of two large, world famous lakes Pangong Tso and Tsomoriri and much smaller, yet amazing ones across the region which totals to about 11 lakes and 10 marshes. It is only in recent times has this region along the Tibetan border been thrown open to tourism although with a permit issued from Leh. Changthang is also home to many rare species of migratory birds and other fauna including the black-necked crane, Tibetan wild ass (Kiang) and the Argali.”

Picture credits: Mayank Soni

Pashmina’s unique journey from rugged subsistence to cultivated elegance

In sharp contrast to the end users of Pashmina, it originates from the high altitude pastoral community of the Himalayan desert, an extension of the Tibetan plateau into Ladakh in northern India. Population density in this region is very low. The area is separated into several clusters that are somewhat distinct from each other. Whereas the areas around the Leh-Manali road have a greater exposure to traffic from other parts of India, other locations are remote and hard to access. This has had an impact on the community life that is distinguishable by the ways in which people react to tourists. The shy curiosity of the remote Changpas is missing, and they go about their lives unmoved by the arrival of visitors. Other differences are also visible, which we will discuss in Part Two of this series.

Picture credits: Mayank Soni

Since the region borders China towards the East, it has recently become a politically sensitive area with several restrictions in place. The Changpas would easily cross over to the grasslands of Tibet in the past, but this is no longer possible. The zone lies on the historical route to Lhasa which is still recognised as the cultural centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama who lives in exile in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh in India), is their spiritual leader. Some sects also revere Drukchen Rinpoche, the spiritual head of Ladakh region. Although very similar in their lifestyle and culture, the people of the Tibetan plateau have been divided by political boundaries into the Indian side and the Tibetan side, which is now controlled by the Chinese Government. On the Indian side, the Changpa community is registered as a Scheduled Tribe since 2001, providing them with special status and affirmative action as per government rules. As a natural reserve, the area and its inhabitants and wildlife receive further protection. For many Changpas, rearing of sheep, goats and sometimes yaks, and consuming and selling their produce (milk and its products, woolhair and meat) is the only means of livelihood. Some crops are also grown, but the climate is too harsh for vegetables and fruits since it lies much above the tree-line at altitudes of 4000+m. The Pashmina yielding goats are the highly pedigreed Changra species (Capra Circus).

Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Although some farming activity can be seen in some areas where the environment is more favourable, the climate and soil are not best suited for agriculture. Vishwas reports having seen some agricultural activity in other parts of Changthang where barley, wheat, potato and mustard are cultivated. These ecological conditions have prevented the Changpas from settling down in the past. Gradually, as the area developed, rural settlements began to see the emergence of concrete housing, facilitated by the State policy of providing land to build houses. For those who settle into temporary or permanent rural life, villages provide a base from where families operate.

For the families that keep goats and sheep, movement is necessary to keep the animals fed. Someone is always with the animals. Although rural settlements are the base from where many of the families operate, Namgyal informs us that there are still many families who have no permanent settlement. The care and maintenance of the animals compels their owners to remain on the move from one pasture to another, leaving as and when the need arises. Families head out for long treks in search of grass, where they remain until the sheep and goats are fed. Thus the animals are always shifting although the family members may take turns in accompanying them. The moving settlements usually consist of a cluster of Rebos, or yak-wool tents, each belonging to one family. The movement of this cluster is always decided collectively, depending upon the availability of grass. When one area is used up, they move to another usually around 15-20 kms. ahead. A note that Vishwas adds about the grasslands is that when viewed from a distance, the landscape appears dry and barren and the grass cannot even be seen. But as one heads closer, fields of coarse green grass become visible. This grass is highly nutritious and probably responsible for the quality of the wool. Regarding the Rebos, more recently, the Animal Husbandry department of the Government has made lighter, canvas tents available to the families. These are easier to pitch and transport, but far less effective in keeping out the cold and wind.

When the household moves around in the remote grasslands, they walk for long hours, sometimes from sunrise to sunset. One can find the area dotted with semi-permanent huts surrounded by rock collections that are used to pitch yak-wool tents. Namgyal mentioned that sometimes when they are closer to the village home, adults take turns to return home to check on the children if they have been left behind, or to fetch some supplies. This is impossible when they decide to walk to a distant field. “In those instances, the family only returns after weeks or months, even during the harsh winter.” In case urgent supplies are required, families may hire transport to villages or towns depending on their financial status. A recent Webinar by the Indian Mountaineering Federation covers Sankar Sridhar’s visits to Changthang region in the winter where pictures of frozen lakes provide a brief but brilliant glimpse of the severe conditions in which the Changpas live.

A village home. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

The Changpa follow Tibetan Buddhism, and each village has a monastery. Annual monastery festivals and other ceremonies are central to village life. As devout Buddhists, most homes display pictures of the Potala Palace, the original seat of the Dalai Lama at the Lhasa monastery. Although village life is largely joint in its functioning, life on the move is somewhat different. We will address some of these issues in the next post. Quite unique to the nomadic families, Vishwas mentioned that after a marriage ceremony, it is the parent generation that leaves a functioning Rebo to the young couple rather than the other way around. Partition of goods and animals is done at this time. The original tent which is better stocked is gifted to the married couple during an elaborate ceremony where a priest and neighbours are invited to preside over and attend the handing over as the parent generation move into a smaller tent. Such a partition is not customary in permanent homes in the villages and towns.

“We are all a joint family” Namgyal asserted, “….and my mother always goes to my sister whenever she needs help with anything like taking care of the children. The girls, now around nine and ten years old, are now attending school in the village and they don’t go with the parents to the Rebo anymore, except during the school vacations. My parents don’t go for grazing any more, they live in the village. At the time of her marriage, my sister and husband were also given their share of goats whom they have to care for on their own. But if they need help, my parents are always there.”

A Monastery. Picture credits: Mayank Soni
Care of the animals. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Rebo: A Yak-wool tent. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

The coarse, heavy yak-wool tents are warm and protective, allowing little light and wind to penetrate. The central area has a bokhari stove with a chimney and the surrounding seating areas are is carpeted with thick woolen handmade carpets. The only furniture one finds are small tables placed along the sides of the tent. The enclosure is kept warm by fire from the bokhari that uses dung-cakes as fuel. This is used for cooking and heating. Some families also have a portable gas stove for quick cooking. These supplies are carried when the family moves allowing only a bare minimum number of things that can be easily transported. The sheep and goats are led far away into different grazing pastures surrounding the rebo settlement and allowed to graze during the day. They return only by evening to be herded into their enclosures for the night, watched over by the family guard dogs to protect from being attacked by wolves.

The family mastiff. Picture credits: Mayank Soni

The Changpas seem casual about their appearance. The harsh winds, dust and severe winters of the desert make it quite difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a well-groomed appearance, even if someone wanted to. With access only to the cold, pure flowing rivers and streams for water supply, baths in the open countryside are set aside. During the harsh winter season, even these sources become frozen, and water becomes even more scarce. The Changpas spend their days absorbed in the daily upkeep of their tented homes and flock. In the villages, people have started building bathing areas now although the toilets are all dry, eco compost pits and can be and indoors or outdoors. Periodic water supply from tankers during winter months supplements the hand-pump sources in villages. For those on the move, the fresh streams that are the only water source.

Although milk, milk products and meat are available, fresh vegetables and fruits have to be transported from the capital city of Leh. There are very few buses to these remote border areas from Leh. For example, the Tsomoriri/Korzok region has only three buses on the route every month, on the 10th, 20th and 30th. Private transportation like jeeps and vans ply only if the entire vehicle is booked or if there are enough passengers. Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the main town, is the go-to place for purchasing items like warm clothes, footwear and food. There are an abundance of recycled warm clothing and imitation footwear that people can purchase for a fraction of what these would cost in cities. We will describe more details in our forthcoming essay.

Layers of warm clothing. Picture credits: Arun Thakur

Heaven on earth

The night sky. Picture credits: Mayank Soni

Gar Firdaus bar rue zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast”

In this famous couplet about the resplendent beauty of the Kashmir valley, the 13th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau wrote thus, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here…..”. The words would apply to this region as well. The depth and detail of the night sky, the clear reflections on the surface of the lakes, and the sharp rays of the sun are breathtakingly beautiful. These are the images that the Changpas live with everyday alongside the harsh conditions of the high-altitude cold desert. As more children move away from nomadic life, join schools, and a settled way of life is being facilitated, it is impossible to estimate how long the tradition of Pashmina harvesting will endure, but now more than ever before, there are many lessons we can learn from the Changpas who live for long periods under harsh conditions and remote isolation.

Picture credits: Mayank Soni

To be continued…

Part two: The people. Coming up next week.

Picture credits: Arun Thakur


Adventure Sindbad Tours to Changthang:

Mayank Soni’s Instagram page:

Arun Thakur’s Instagram page:

Himalayan chai posts:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s