The bleak landscape of Ladakh, a small trans-Himalayan desert is marked by its sparking lakes and vast high altitude meadows. With temperatures dropping steadily below freezing in the long winters, the plains of Ladakh remain hostile to human life, except for the semi-nomadic Changpas, who are originally Tibetan pastoralists. They settle around the Changthang plateau of Ladakh, a terrain that is largely inhospitable for farming, making the rearing of yaks, horses and sheep their primary source of livelihood.
The terrains that the Changpas live in are above the 10000 feet mark and in areas that are devoid of roads, infrastructure and communication. This is a land where you will be hard pressed to find a steady electricity connection and almost no mobile connectivity. But the century-old traditions of the Changpas have allowed them to survive in the inhospitable terrain by using innovative methods to make life flourish in the middle of the inhospitable terrain. They are also influenced by the ideas of Buddhism and the colourful prayer flags that decorate the high passes of the land bear testimony to that. Most of them are followers of the Dalai Lama and their tents generally have an altar for praying.
Changpas live in ingeniously crafted tents which are known as rebos. The material of these tents is made from yak wool which is spun and woven and then shaped in the necessary form of the tent. The tent is built over a two feet deep pit in the ground and it is held up by wooden stakes. The material helps to withstand the strong winds and the biting cold of the winter. Most of the daily activity of a Changpa family revolves around the herding and milking of the animals. The other important activities are shearing of wool and stitching them into various items. Both the men and women are expert herders and efficient in shearing activities. A shepherd starts with his herd early in the morning in the search of good grasslands and returns in the afternoon. The older women attend to the process of milking and preparation of milk products.
With the animals being their main basic source of survival, the Changpas have a strong bond with their herds. Being nomadic, they generally settle in one place for three to four months and construct permanent stone walls to shelter the animals. The food of the Changpas mainly includes animal meat with touches of rice or barley. Dairy products are also an important part of their diet. With the incursion of modern civilization, many Changpas are including modern items in their diet. The tribe still follows the process of barter in dealing with the other locals and the milk products like cheese are important items for such transactions. They use dried local shrubs for fuel and go through great hardships to collect it.
The most famous product that the Changpas have presented the modern world with is the Cashmere wool. This is derived from their goat’s soft undercoat, also termed as Pashmina. The length of the undercoat reaches its maximum in the post-winter periods and the shearing takes place during the onset of spring. This is one of the costliest wools in the world and being soft and fine, it is used to make a range of colourful winter garments. The tribe contributes about 50000 kg of high quality wool annually into the market. The tribe mostly sells the raw wool and the spinning and weaving is done by experts from other regions.
You can start your journey from the city of Leh to the village of Korzok to find the Changpa tents located in the vast wilderness. With the touch of civilization, many of the young Changpas are attending boarding schools in Leh, in the search of a more modernised lifestyle. But the community elders still hold on to their traditional lifestyle and value their freedom and closeness with nature. The world of Changpas in the heart of wilderness presents an anachronism that still survives and transfers a traveller into a different era.