Goats as Nannies? Childhood in the Himalayan Desert

Part Two

Greetings! Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

In our commitment to the study of childhood in different parts of India, today we feature children of the Changpas from our Himalayan series. We hope that through these essays, we can reaffirm the importance of diversity and mutual respect for others. For a moment, let us stop and think about another pressing matter. Of what significance is all our education and advancement if even one person can feel entitled to stamp out another or, closer to home, blow up an animal? Is it because of imagined superiority? As Hannah Arendt once wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and we are all party to the complacency that permits such actions. We need to look outside of our parochial realities to respect others and to learn from them. Towards this end, we remain determined in our dedication to bring you stories from diverse communities so that we can appreciate how important it is to respect others for who they are and how they live. Diversity in nature and culture is not just a fundamental fact, it is also a key to our survival as a species. With this opening rant, let us get on with the post.

Mother care

A mother’s care is undeniably the most important influence in a young child’s life. Arrangements for food, safety, love and warmth, the ‘cradle of care’ in which a baby thrives are most commonly believed to be the responsibility of the biological mother, although she may be assisted by others. In literary and cinematic representations, stories about mothers fuel the myth of completeness, perfection and purity. She is assumed to have a life-long impact on her children, and her absence can jeopardize the very survival of her offspring.

Developmental psychology also places the mother at the centre of a child’s world, using the nuclear family as its moral and social ideal. Predominantly, childhood is imagined within the singular framework of an intimate dyad around which most theoretical formulations, research designs and intervention programmes for early childhood are arranged. Even fathers were brought into this bubble with special effort. Up until the 70’s, for example, psychology looked at the role of fathers only when explaining ‘father absence’ (See Foreword of Fathers in Cultural Contexts).

The model of one or two children, an employed father and a stay-at-home mother devoting all her time, attention and energy to her children, living together in domestic harmony, is almost taken for granted in many circles. Women employed outside the home all over the world (all women work, so we avoid using the expression working women’ to acknowledge their contribution to the economy) have had to work against this prejudgment, with some success. In a recent article about the nuclear family, Brooks writes that “a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.”

Family life in a Rebo. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Large families with multiple caregivers and multi-generational households have been relegated to the pages of history, despite the fact many people around the world still live in extended households. These kin groups are treated as outliers, represented as text-boxes in text-books of Child Development, mostly linked with economic disadvantage and poorer developmental outcomes for school performance, language milestones or emotional regulation for children. We fail to acknowledge that the research from which such findings emerge arise out of the same social and moral ideology that celebrates individualism, autonomy and separation. Other forms of family tend to be pathologized as a consequence. A broader gaze would inform us that demographically and historically, the nuclear family is the exception and not the norm.

Family life in a Rebo. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Alternate models of care

Finding this singular model to be inadequate as a prototype for study of family life in India, I developed an alternate framework for care arrangements based on my research. This formulation incorporates four possible options, one child with one adult, one child with many adults, many children with one adult and many children with many adults. The model has been published in a chapter with Heidi Keller in The Cultural Nature of Attachment. For heuristic clarity, the distribution is separated into two categories each for adults and children, one and many, where many would be two or more since the primary objective was to question the singular model.

The purpose of creating this model was to develop a framework that could be applied everywhere since children grow up in a wide variety of arrangements. For instance, even in the nuclear family, the arrival of the second child alters the home environment in profound ways, and there is no possibility of separating these within the nuclear-joint dichotomy. These situations are not water-tight since movements can take place on account of situational demands and ad hoc inclusions.

 One AdultMany Adults
One ChildOne adult, one childMany adults, one child
Many ChildrenOne adult, Many childrenMany adults, Many children
Models of Care

In the context of many children, many adults, it wouldn’t be wrong to propose that the ‘many with many’ model forms the foundation of all others historically and theoretically. In multiple caregiver households, there are several distinct features that challenge prevailing assumptions of family interactions, roles and responsibilities. For instance, ideas of singularity, consistency, sensitivity and responsiveness of adults are very different with multiple caregiving as these are both divided and distributed. Our illustrations will provide examples for this point. The logic and reasoning of multiple caregiving and co-occurring care can be understood best only when context is taken into account. As Heidi Keller has argued, how we arrange the care of children is adapted to the circumstances in which we live. What works well in a particular setting can be completely maladaptive in another. In order to illustrate this point, we look into child care among the Changpa Nomads. The children of Changpas grow up with multiple caregivers in multi-generation clusters. These families where polyandry was practiced in the past, live semi-nomadic lives and have adapted to the harsh Himalayan desert with unique adaptations where nature itself is employed in children’s care. Let me explain.

Evening time in a village hut. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Co-occurring care. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Family life in a village hut. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Childhood and family life in Changthang

The Changpa families are constantly on the move through the vast expanse of the Himalayan desert in search of grass for their animals. As mentioned in last week’s essay, some families who have permanent houses in villages use these as a base from where to conduct their movement. Someone or other has to accompany the herd throughout the year, although the spring and summer seasons make life much easier because of the availability of grass near the nomad temporary settlements. Turn-taking between family members and co-operation with other members of the cluster is arranged to ensure survival and sustenance. Elderly members and school-going children stay behind in villages , while young babies, older children during school vacations accompany their nomadic parents on regular trips with the animals. Sometimes children are placed in State run residential schools as they get older. For those who are permanently on the move, the nomadic way of life is a constant reality and the winter season is the hardest time of the year when families have to reach remote locations is search of some fodder. Animal feeds are supplemented with roasted grain that the families keep for their own consumption. Water is also shared in times of need. Yaks, goats and sheep are personally attended to especially when they are young or weak.

Morning snack. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

On rare occasions, the shy Changpas have invited travellers to engage with them, sometimes even to live among them. India in Motion, a youtube channel that features travel videos from around remote corners of India is one such series where a collection of six videos about the Changpa nomads can be found. In a series by Saravana Kumar featuring the Changthang region that starts with an introduction of how a young traveller was invited to spend time with a Changpa family when he found him travelling alone in the region. Commenting about the calm, pleasant humility – a characteristic of the Changpas, qualities that his host had in good measure, Kumar learns many important details of the Changpa way of life that are discussed in the videos, including work distribution, food preparation, care of animals, community life, customs, feasts and festivals. Kumar’s dedication and perseverance in the harsh winter earned him an invitation to the family for the forthcoming summer season, when life would be much easier, and food plentiful.

Daily lives

The Changpas appear casual and uncaring 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. They are aware of this and remark about it as they discuss their shyness before a camera.

A Changpa household. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

As the cultivators of the Pashmina, this feature of their lives provides a stark contrast. There is no evidence of mirrors to check the appearance in their temporary huts and yak wool tents as the Changpas spend their days absorbed in the daily upkeep of their home and flock. Water is a precious resource in the high-altitude desert, and there is no evidence of regular bathing. In times of scarcity, food and water have to be shared with the animals, and the Changpas make sure that they keep the animals warm and fed before they get down to their own tasks, as they share the most precious resource of the region with them, water. In winter, water is collected from frozen streams and lakes, and heated for household consumption.

Rounding up the goats. Picture credits: Adventure SIndbad

The animals survive on the last reserves of brown grass on marshy bogs as the surface becomes covered with snow and ice. The Changpas are masters of survival in this difficult terrain, following a way of life that has sustained over centuries. Family members take turns in going grazing with the sheep, goats and yaks, and also rely on other members of the community on occasion. This support and sharing is crucial to survival, especially in the harsh winter season. Those who stay behind have a number of tasks in and around the household like the care of young children, maintenance of the open animal enclosures, collection of dung and dry roots for fuel, food preparation, and if there is time, some spinning of wool for carpet making, and carpet weaving itself.

A grassy patch. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Life in village homes is somewhat more settled, with access to facilities like split level houses, water (from hand pumps) and electricity. Yet, even with more resources, the principles of careful conservation and sparing use are followed. Let us take this example of hair-washing. As the mother washes down each child’s hair, the rinse is collected in a basin for re-use, just as with other household waste. In fact there is no waste as such, everything is seen as a resource.

The Pashmina nursery: Goats as nannies

Curious moments. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

In a recent documentary title Icing on the Lakes, Sankar Sridhar, trekker, traveller and acclaimed photographer who has dedicated two decades to studying the Himalayas, features his project on the frozen lakes of Ladakh during his expeditions during the northern deserts severe winter season in the year 2016. During his travels, he encountered the Changpas and has many things to say about them. Winter in this region, he says, “is a time when the difference between life and death is marked by a solitary slip”. It is a time when animals sprout a special layer of fur for warmth and limit their movements to the bare minimum. The Changpas cover themselves with layers of hide, wool and fur to keep themselves warm and keep their hearths constantly lit with fuel from animal waste and roots of a plant that they collect throughout the summer months. Sridhar reports that the relationship between the animals and people is so close and so intensely mutual that they even permit the goats to play the role of a “nanny, cuddling them and keeping them warm when their parents are away”. This is a unique feature of the Changpas who, in return for this trust, take very good care of the animals, one can say even as they do their children.

Pashmina-warmth in the winter: “Goats as nannies”. Screenshot from Icing on the Lakes, Sankar Sridhar

If we examine this practice with reference to the models of care mentioned above, it can find place among the many by many option, where the warmth from the Pashmina goats is used to keep children protected in sub-zero temperatures. The scene is a vivid reminder of the documentary film Babies by Thomas Balmes where a Mongolian baby is descending from a small seat as the baby cattle return home. The animals are considered companions and not a threat to children and in the case of this Ladakhi community, they are even used to provide warmth.

Milking the goats and sheep happens only in the summer months. Video footage: Adventure Sindbad

Co-occurring care and the distributed attention

Falling asleep. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Grandmother and child. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

In her work about the care of young children in Indian families, Dr. T. S. Saraswathi used the expression co-occurring care which is an important departure from exclusive dyadic care characterising dyadic adult-child relationships where instead of focusing only on the child or children, adults loosely supervise children as they go about their daily activities. Once children are fed, separately or with the family, they spend their time around the settlements, usually in the company of grandparents and other children. The adults may take a brief pause in their work, but soon go back to doing what they were. Children occupy themselves with other things around them. [Insert grandmother with carpet weaving]. Co-occuring care was seen in these families. Once children are with older siblings, one-on-one care is no longer needed and these pairs or groups of children only receive distant supervision instead of constant attention. Vishwas mentioned that he never observed any young child crying for attention or running after the mother or father. The self-sufficiency is very evident. Yet this self-sufficiency is made possible by the presence of slightly older children, who are informally assigned to be companions cum carers. Not much of an effort is placed on personal grooming on account of the harsh weather conditions. This is a desert region and cold, dusty winds are a constant force that everyone has to learn to deal with. Covering of the face with masks, handkerchiefs and dupattas is very common. Warm clothing is worn in layers to preserve the body heat. Changing of clothes or footwear is not frequent, and mostly, garments are worn down till they are ready to be discarded.

Co-occurring care. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

The following three images provide an example of how a grandmother takes a short break from weaving a carpet to hold her grandchild before returning to the task.

Carpet weaving. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Companions and carers: The omnipresence of siblings

Although infants are carried on the backs of the adults, mother, father, grandmother or other adult, as soon as children start walking, they are in the constant company of older siblings and other children from the cluster.

My brother and I. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

This requires children to gain early autonomy from the primary carers. Older siblings provide support during this transition away from dependency and thus a close connection between the siblings develops.They spend their time watching the adults, maybe even hanging onto them, and sometimes roaming among the goats and sheep. Most of the day is spent watching others, since there are few toys available to them. Older siblings are playmates, guides and teachers, and caring for each other is an unspoken expectation. Changes may happen when one of the children enters school, especially if they are sent to a residential facility in a big town like Leh or the designated Nomad school in Puga, Changthang.

Big brother. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Big brother 2. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Although infants are carried on the backs of the adults, mother, father, grandmother or other adult, as soon as children start walking, they are in the constant company of older siblings and other children from the cluster. This requires children to gain early autonomy from the primary carers. Older siblings provide support during this transition away from dependency and thus a close connection between the siblings develops.They spend their time watching the adults, maybe even hanging onto them, and sometimes roaming among the goats and sheep. Most of the day is spent watching others, since there are few toys available to them. Older siblings are playmates, guides and teachers, and caring for each other is an unspoken expectation. Changes may happen when one of the children enters school, especially if they are sent to a residential facility in a big town like Leh or the designated Nomad school in Puga, Changthang.

Looking in. Children and the Rebo
Constant companions. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Toddlers and young children are mostly seen in pairs or small groups. Vishwas remembers that at this age, children were found to be quite shy, but at the same time, they also expressed great curiosity. They lingered in the sidelines, peeping curiously at strangers until they were comfortable enough to approach them. This region is remote and isolated and very few visitors travel to Changthang, so children rarely encounter people from other places. Older children were also curious, but they tended to stay aloof unlike the younger ones.

Rebo life. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Rebo life 2. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

Fungible dynamics: Whose child is it anyway?

One comment that Vishwas made during our extended discussion about the Changpa way of life is that oftentimes, he couldn’t tell whose child it was, and also, the relationships between the adults living together is hard to estimate sometimes. In fact, a person assumed to be a brother during his visit to Namgyal’s family Rebo, turned out to be a neighbour’s son from the village who had gone along for the grazing trip to help with chores. The roles and relationships are thus much more flexible and fungible in comparison with settled families. Men and women actively share the care of children as they have to manage the animals, children, home and hearth together. Work is divided among the members of the household and turn-taking is observed, whether it relates to holding the child, churning the curd for butter, grinding the roasted barley, or feeding the animals.

Mothers, grandmothers and others. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad

School and survival: The persisting battle

It is quite evident that the Rebo way of life is in direct conflict with schooling. In the documentary series on the Changpas, Kumar describes the family where he was invited in to stay. The wife and her two husbands lived together along with their young daughter who had dropped out of school in Class 8. In fact, one could say she dropped back into nomadic life. Although each family would like to educate their children, having at least one child take interest in their traditional occupation is seen as favourable. Sometimes one sibling is even held back from school for this purpose, Namgyal told us. Those who attend school could join a village school if there is one, or join a State run boarding school if they had the resources to send the child. Coming back to children, it was also found that as they get older, children may also join Buddhist monasteries as student nuns or monks.

Looking at the education policy and the lives of these children, it is hard to resolve the confrontation between traditional occupation and schooling. In a conversation about this with Namgyal, Vishwas asks him about this, and whether the nomadic way of life will disappear in the future. “No” Namgyal says. ” For now we can only hope that there is a way out of this face-off between the two options, and that school can somehow even support the local way of life through innovations. Surely the Right to Education should not need to be upheld at the cost of livelihood and we can come up with policies and practices where both these can survive without being opposed.

For now, the most recent news from the border is that the area has become politically sensitive and the Changpas’ entry into border grazing zones may be threatened, for a while at least. One can only hope and pray that an early solution to the problem can be reached so as to prevent unnecessary loss of animals. Until next week………bye from Mumbai, where the cyclone has just passed us by. News from the southern part of Mumbai is not so good, but here, we are safe. Nature and nations, all seem to have escalated their anger in these trying times.

Scenes from Changthang. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Scenes from Changthang. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Scenes from Changthang. Picture credits: Adventure Sindbad
Prayer flags: Picture credits: Mayank Soni


  1. This is series is absolutely fascinating. I am surprised to engage with this part of the country. Thanks to team for bringing it to us.


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