I had spent 3 days with the Changpas in the most rustic setup in their tents in Tuchik village of Ladakh to experience their life like a local. It was the most exclusive and exotic experience. In this article, I am going to share everything about this semi nomadic tribe of Ladakh, their lifestyle, daily life, food habits, source of income, the future, etc.
Who are the Changpas?
Changpas of Ladakh are semi nomadic tribe; mostly reside in the desolate highlands of the north and eastern parts of Ladakh. Roughly at 16,000-plus feet above sea level, in the trans-Himalayan Changthang region of Ladakh, is where the Changpas live. Living in minus temperatures in their tents, made of yak hair with minimum source of food, the Changpas lifestyle is beyond fascinating. Followers of Buddhism, the Changpas are the perfect example of how a community is living and thriving at an age of climatic change and still producing the finest wool, called the Cashmere and also known as Pashmina.
Far away from the concrete world and the modern lifestyle, the Changpas of Ladakh know how to live peacefully in harmony with nature. They might not be aware of everything happening in the outside world, but they are the people who know exactly the way the wind blows, about the lengthening shadows on a cliff, and changing colors of the grass.The sensory power of the Changpa nomads make them decide when to move and where. The accuracy is not achieved overnight. A century old tradition of living and observing make them aware of the tiny changes in nature which goes unnoticed by normal people.
Whether it is wandering from one place to another for greener pasture, pitching their tent, taking care of herd of pashmina sheep, yaks and horses, surviving on the limited resources and yet following the traditions of their forefather of living a nomadic life in the most rugged terrain and producing the finest quality of pashmina wool, the Changpas of Ladakh are beyond fascinating.
Meeting with the Changpas of Ladakh
Ever since I had read about them, I had been fascinated by everything about the Changpas. I always wanted to observe their life from close quarters but never had the opportunity to do so. My curiosity reached its pinnacle when I actually saw a few tents in the higher altitude of Ladakh on my last visit. Due to lack of time and no proper planning, I couldn’t meet them. But, I knew for a fact that I would return to Ladakh only to meet and spend a few days with the Changpas of Ladakh soon.
Exactly after one year, I had returned to Ladakh. This time, I was there to meet the Changpas. Almost 20 km away from the main Leh City, there is a village called Tuchik. I was told that 6 Changpa families are living there with their herd of sheep in their nomadic tents. All thanks to the local travel company of Ladakh named Tendrel, which had facilitated my stay and gave me the most authentic and exclusive experience with Changpas recently.
After more than half an hour drive from the city, I had landed at the most awe-inspiring location, which looked like a completely different world to me. Encircled by the gigantic mountains, wild flower beds on the ground, and the sound of water stream, it was nothing less than an exotic painting coming alive.
The white tents of the Changpas were vaguely visible from far. As there was no sight of any other human being in that most exclusive location, I was welcomed by the most adorable Changpa kids in the main premises. The tents were scattered in that deserted land. Each tent had a designated adjoined barricaded space for their sheep and goats. There were a few wild dogs seen on the road which belonged to the Changpas. Apparently, the wild dogs protect the herd from snow leopards and other wild animals.
My guide Tenzin, had a brief conversation with a Changpa woman of one of the tents, whom he gave a carton full of food, later. The area looked very peaceful as the Changpas had already left with the herd to the mountains in search of grass. Only a few Changpa women and the kids were at their tents, busy doing their daily chore.
Soon, I was invited by Dolma, the Changpa host of mine, to come to her tent for a cup of butter tea. It was for the very first time I had met and interacted with a Changpa. Dolma could barely understand Hindi and neither could I understand the Tibetan language. It was Tenzin, my guide, who became the translator between us.
Living with the Changpas: How it feels to live with the Changpas of Ladakh
Living with the Changpas has to be the most exotic experience of my travel life till date. Nothing can surpass the exclusive experience of meeting them and spending 3 days with the Changpas of Ladakh.
Seeing the Changpas doing their daily chores like taking the herd for grazing, milking the sheep, cooking their local food, playing with the kids and other daily duties, the life of Changpas is very different. They have a unique way of living with limited resources. Sharing space with them in their tent allowed me to get a rare glimpse of their nomadic lifestyle and it was totally priceless.
As the sun was about to hide behind those humongous mountains, I could see a huge herd of sheep making their way down the mountain. The shepherd was making a few sounds to direct the herd back to the tent. Dolma hurried to open the gate for the herd as they descended from the mountain. Like a curious soul, I stood there to observe the real life of Changpas from close proximity.
While Dolma was busy helping her husband in the daily chore, Tenzin introduced me to Waze, the shepherd. I was amazed by everything I was observing. I felt quite privileged to be able to see the life of a Changpa from such close proximity.
It was windy. I was asked to step inside the tent. Dolma was preparing butter tea for her husband and offered me as well. The central fire place was lit which made it quite warm inside the tent. Traditionally, the Changpas used to make their food on the central Bukhari only. But I was surprised to see a gas strove inside the tent. With changing time, they are also adopting elements from the modern life. It was during my conversation, I got to know that the children of Changpa couple are studying in school and they occasionally visit them.
As I was busy knowing everything about their lifestyle, I had several questions to ask to Wase. While I was completely engrossed in the conversation, Dolma & Tenzin started preparing the meal. Even though I failed to understand anything they spoke in Tibetan language, I was completely floored by their hospitality.
I also tried my hands in making the traditional Tibetan dish named Thenthuk that night. I was amazed how easily they allowed me to be a part of their daily lifestyle and accepted me as a guest.
Lifestyle of Changpas: Daily Life
Unlike any other dwellers, the Changpas of Ladakh live a hard life. The Semi nomadic community is attuned to live in challenging climate where people would not even dare to visit. The Changthang valley of Ladakh sees minus temperature in the winter with snowfall which makes the terrain one of the coldest region to live. The daily life of Changpas of Ladakh becomes even tougher during the winter months.
I visited the Changpas of Ladakh in the summer. Their daily life revolves around the sheep, goats, yaks, cattle and horses. As the sun rises announcing the day, the very first thing they do is to release the herd from their barricaded camps. The smoke from the tent of Changpas indicate that they are awake and making their first meal of the day. They normally start their day with a hot cup of butter tea and some Tibetan snacks.
Soon after that, the calves are separated from the herd and the sheep are tied down together to milk them. Both Dolma and Waze get busy milking them before the Changpa take them out in the mountain to graze. It was quite interesting to see them doing their daily chore. I liked the way they instruct and direct the herd by making some sounds and whistles. The best part is that the herd responds and understands the sound language as well.
I had decided to follow Waze, the shepherd, one of the days to the mountains with the herd. It was one of the highlights of my Changpa experience. I wanted to see the life of a shepherd and how he spends his day with the herd. As the herd started ascending the mountain, Waze was constantly directing them by whistling and making some sounds. The pace of the shepherd was too fast to even catch up. It was one of the toughest jobs to manage the herd on those mountainous routes.
While on the trek to the mountain in search of grassland for the herd, I learnt that the Changpas prefer different routes and grassland for their herd to avoid mixing the sheep and goats with other Changpa family. They always go to different directions for the same reason. While the herd grazes on the grassland, the shepherd spends his time by making tea, singing songs or just relaxing there. They also constantly have to keep an eye on the herd so that they don’t go out of the sight and mix with the other herd. The Changpas use a sling named Yurdo to hurl rock over the animal heads. They do it to scare the animals, not to hurt them.
While Waze was away up in the mountains with the herd, Dolma got busy with her daily chores. Apart from cooking food for them, she also prepared special food for the dogs. They need these wild dogs as they protect the Pashmina sheep, goats and cattle from snow leopards in the night. The Changpa ladies also collect the dung of the sheep and goats and lay it out on the ground to dry it properly. They collect and store it as it serves their purpose of fueling the fire. They keep a good stock of it for the winter months. The Changpas also sell the dry dung to the villagers in the lower valley to earn some extra money.
The Changpa women also keep themselves busy by making traditional carpets in the summer months during the daytime. Not just that, they also make butter from curd by applying a very interesting process. It is a long and tedious process of making butter from curd. They put the curd in a bag, made of goat’s skin and shake it rigorously to separate the butter from curd. This is a lengthy process. The curd needs to be warm, for which they constantly check the temperature and put hot water into the bag and shake it again until they separate the butter from the curd. They also make cheese which they dry and store for months.
The Changpas are Buddhist people who follow the Dalai Lama. Therefore, in their tent, you will see a corner with Dalai Lama’s photo and butter lamps. They always pray to him and light the lamp daily.
The evening is the busiest time of the day. As the shepherds make their way back to the tent with the herd, the Changpa women get ready to help their family. I was amazed to see how the herd know their designated space so well that they themselves go to their tents. The young calves are released to feed milk from their mothers. Soon after, the calves are separated from the mothers and the Changpas start milking.
This is pretty much how the Changpas of Ladakh spend their daily life in the toughest terrain with great ease.
Food of Changpas
The Changpa’s diet mainly centres on Yak’s butter, cheese and meat. Due to the harsh weather condition, they prefer to have food that produces heat in the body. Butter tea and other Tibetan snacks like Tingmo and Khambir are common in their morning routine. The food mainly consists of soup based dishes like Thenthuk, Chu-Tagir, dried meat, etc. During my stay, I had the best mutton cooked by my Changpa host, Dolma. I also relished momos in their tent. You will not be surprised to see them having Churpi, the home-made cheese in their leisure time.
Source of Income
The main source of income for the Changpas is the Pashmina wool that they have been shepherding from centuries. They have been producing world–class Pashmina wool from generations. It is a false notion that Pashmina belongs to Kashmir. It is the Changpas who are responsible for herding the sheep in harsh weather conditions to produce the expensive Pashmina wool that is sold to the Kashmiri artisans who make those soft woolen shawls, popularly known as Pashmina. Apart from that, the Changpas earn by selling traditional hand-woven carpets as well. Not just that, they also sell dried dung of the sheep and goat which they first dry in the sun and then sell it to the villagers in the lower valleys. It works as a daily essential for villagers, especially in the winter months in Ladakh.
Future of Changpas of Ladakh
The very first thing that I noticed in Tuchik village was that the encampment was totally bereft of teenagers and young people. There were hardly anyone except a few kids and Changpa women during day time. After I inquired about their adult kids, I was told that most of them are staying in Leh and a few have decided to settle in the city, embracing the modern lifestyle. The children do visit their parents occasionally.
There is clearly a lack of interest in the children of Changpas to carry forward the age old tradition of herding and living a nomadic life. Modernization has also touched their lives and it was quite obvious. They are under the spell of modern lifestyle and don’t mind incorporating a few changes to live a more comfortable life with amenities, even in their tents.
The Changpas who used to solely depend on their Bokhari to cook or make the tent warm, are having gas stoves. Where you will not expect electricity or mobile phone, the Changpas are running their tent with bulbs with the help of battery. Yak and Horse are no longer the mode of transportation for them. Now, the Changpas are having cars and bikes to commute.
With the cheap synthetic wool made in China, widely available in the market, it has become a tough competition for the world’s finest Pashmina wool. As a result, the Changpas of Ladakh are facing the wrath of the situation. They are not getting the sufficient amount against their produce and have been compromising on the value. It is not the shepherd alone, but the entire family of the shepherd is involved in the whole process from feeding, taking them out for grazing, milking and even rearing.
With the rapid effects of modernization and more and more of the young generation going away from herding and following their age-old traditional occupation and way of life, the future of Changpas is on the edge. It would not be wrong to state that the Changpas of Ladakh are the fast disappearing nomadic people in the days to come and so is the art of producing world-class Pashmina.
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