THE EXTINCTION OF A CULTURE, like that of a species, isn’t a sudden clap into darkness. It is the slow dimming of a way of life, the drawn-out struggle of an identity in a world that continues to spin as it condemns them to myths. In the Himalayan land of Ladakh, India, lives Skarma Lakpa, a man who is all too familiar with the fight for survival. He steals every chance he has to connect with an identity he lived years ago.
Lakpa belongs to the Changpa nomads of Changthang, a semi-nomadic people who sustained for centuries wandering within the limits of an austere ecological zone. At an altitude of over 14,000 feet, the plateau of Changthang soars above the rest of India in the eastern part of Ladakh, and stretches far across the Chinese border and into Tibet. To say the altitude is severe is an understatement. “Never fall asleep outdoors,” Lakpa warns me. “If you sleep with half your body in the sun and the other half in the shade, you will fall victim to both sunstroke and frostbite.” The landscape, although forbidding, appears as if in a fable — swirling wisps of clouds hang like dreams in an azure sky, throwing stark shadows on the endless dusty terrain. Mountains are streaked with ores and minerals that create fluid hues of purple, green, brown, blue, and black. Like Gods, the thunderous Himalayas tower over you no matter where the road goes.
Today, Lakpa works odd-jobs in Leh, the most populous city of Ladakh. He awaits the weekends to head back to Korzok, an isolated hamlet located in the pristine wilderness of Changthang, near the pastures he roamed in his youth. His mother still resides there, along with other members of his extended family who he rarely sees during the work week. It is a brutal six-hour drive, and on these journeys he picks up locals and tourists who have no means of reaching Korzok themselves. It was in this way that I first made Lakpa’s acquaintance. I soon came to realize that, as inhabitants of the fragile Hindu Kush Himalayan region, the Changpa nomads are amongst the hardest hit by climate change, even though they have been living in harmony with the natural world for centuries.
WE MADE THE TRIP to Korzok in an ancient, rusting Maruti that clanked and rattled so hard it seemed like all its parts were tied together by rope. With every pothole we hit we were tossed into the air, our heads knocking against the window panes as if we were flimsy rag dolls. But except for an unprepared hitchhiker, no one seemed perturbed — most locals were used to making the arduous journey. Lakpa’s petite body bounced around like the rest of us, but he had an undying grin for most of the trip, one that rippled through his rough face and reached his dark eyes. He looked much older than his 29 years, his profile deeply lined from years of living in the high dry lands under a harsh Himalayan sun that he rarely hid from. Neither the rocky roads, nor the wind that hissed and spit sand at the windows, could steal his sunshine.
He frequently broke into stories of folklore; legends of the mountains, of buddhist monks and their journeys through the land, of how the azure lake Tsomoriri got its name. I suspect he told these tales more for his own reliving.
His stories were tinged with nostalgia, and spoke of the nomads’ intimate knowledge of the land. “My grandmother would say, ‘Never kill the wolves, for the mountains will get lonely,’” he recounted. The Changpa nomads belong to the rare strands of mankind that practice coexistence, and hold a deep reverence for the world around them. Their spirituality is rooted in a Buddhist form of animism. Every tree, mountain, river, animal is as alive as they are. Treading the plateau through every season, they know the land as if it were their own body. The nomads are often dismissed by others as illiterate, but the wealth of their knowledge — passed down from generation to generation, spilling out through songs and stories — cannot be dismissed. “These lands,” said Lakpa, “are flush with nutrients and medicines. The amchi (Changpa doctor) knows which mountain flower works as an antibiotic, which shrubs and herbs to use for a boost of energy, or to cure headaches, ulcers or colds.”
Lakpa has been deepening his own connections to the land since he was young. In his childhood, he and his mother would brave the cold desert climate and rugged peaks and outcrops of the Himalayas, all in search of verdant pastures for their goats, yak, and horses. “As restless children, we rarely had much to play with. If we lucked upon empty tin cans, we’d be overjoyed. With a little bit of string, we would rope these noisy cans together and drag it behind us as we ran through the infinite emptiness, our own tinkling music following us everywhere,” he said.
When Lakpa suggested we make a short visit to a nomadic settlement enroute to Korzok, none of us passengers objected. A quick swerve, and we left the only faint road in the desert. A dusty trail came alive behind us like a serpent, and died when we halted at a sudden burst of pasture. Before us, a gurgling brooke trickled down the blue himalayas and across spongy green floors. Lakpa popped open the trunk of the car, and hauled out bags of rations — rice and lentils — onto his shoulders. He rushed into the meadow and towards a rebo, a traditional Changpa tent made of Yak wool, pitched beside a crude stone-wall corral. An ancient woman with hair as silver as the glaciers behind her worked on a rickety loom nearby. She greeted Lakpa with a beatific smile, and soon they were rapt in conversation.
As the sun began to set, nomads were guiding hundreds of pashmina goat back to the safety of their corrals from atop a mountain in the distance. They appeared as white and brown pinpricks, spilling over the peak and pouring towards us like a slowly approaching army. The herd made its way back languidly, pausing every few feet to take another mouthful of grass. A young kid bleat helplessly near my ankles, and stretching my fingers through its wool gave me the sensation of having stuck my hand in a cloud. Pashmina wool is arguably one of the most exquisite Cashmere wools in the world at 12 to 15 microns in diameter. Cold climes are essential to trigger the growth of a splendid coat, which is why nomads seek high-altitude pastures. Bartering with traders on the silk route was the nomadic custom in earlier centuries, but now the wool — collected through a meticulous process of combing, not shearing — is sold to state-run cooperatives or, less frequently, private vendors from nearby cities.
Swirls of smoke emanated from a chimney jutting out of the apex of the rebo, and the old woman ushered us in for chai. Save for a large metal trunk that doubled as a chair, the family’s possessions were meager. Fresh goat milk boiled on a Tibetan stove, its sweet aroma wafting through the tent. Fueled by collections of dung, droppings, and dry shrubs, the hearth burns for almost the entire day to beat the glacial temperatures that regularly drop to below –30 degrees Celsius. Although we spoke not a common word, the old woman kept shuffling over to me and, despite my meek protests, refilling my cup with hot creamy chai every time she saw the bottom.
A young mother lay nursing her baby on the rugs that covered the floor. Her husbands were still outside, coaxing the goats back into the corral. Changpa nomads, said Lakpa, practice polyandry where a woman marries the brothers of a family, a practice that restricts property and herds from being divided between households. “Jealousy?” he said to my question about the practice. “No, you don’t feel jealous when your wife is being loved and cared for by the ones you love. You are all one family.” Yet over years of exposure to a wider culture, a majority of the younger generation is moving away from the tradition, preferring monogamy instead. This shift has led to labor shortages for some families.
WE RODE TO KORZON with the darkness setting in upon us. The village of Korzok could almost be a mirage. Unpainted stone and mud houses, clustered together, blend into the dusty brown peaks that cradle the village. After scarfing down a warm meal of momos and thukpa with Lakpa, I retired to a modest room in a guest house near the Korzok monastery.
Before dawn breaks, the silence of the night is shattered by the lone long sound of a horn emanating from the monastery. Inside the prayer room, rows of monks sit before a gilded idol of Buddha, their deep chants reverberating through the five-century-old monastery and spilling out into the lanes of the village. It’s the day of Korzok Gustor, the annual festival that draws in nomads from the various districts of Changthang to offer sacrifices and prayers to the spirits for a merciful year ahead.
The Changpa nomads, who have roamed these lands as pastoralists since migrating from Tibet in the eighth century AD, arrive in their finest attire. The men are robed in layers of yak wool, the women bejewelled and cloaked, with headgear reminiscent of a cobra’s hood adorned with Himalayan turquoise and lapis. Infants peer out from the safety of their mother’s backs. Everyone gathers in the cloisters and on the rooftop to watch monks perform the dance of the dharmapalas, the protectors of the cosmic law and order in Buddhism.
The guest of honor at the festival is Gurmet Dorjey, an ex-nomad who currently holds the position of executive chancellor of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council; a man familiar with the adversity faced by the nomads, who fights relentlessly to have their voices heard by state officials.
“The Changpas have great hope in Korzok Gustor and in the spirits that protect their universe,” he says when I speak to him after the festival. “With so much of their lives not in their control, is that any wonder? They struggle to feed their herd with pastures depleting year over year.”
The nomadic existence of the Changpas was once profitable, their wealth usually exceeding that of agricultural households. However, that has been changing in the face of climate change and rampant tourism in Ladakh.
Changthang lies in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which contains the largest store of snow and ice in the world after the polar regions, and undergoing warming at rates significantly greater than the global average. Data shows that between 1973 and 2008, the temperature in Ladakh rose by three degrees Celsius, while in the rest of India it rose by only one degree. Nomads lament that snowfall has become sparse in recent decades, an observation reflected in climate research carried out in the area. Between 2013 and 2017, Ladakh’s annual precipitation was deficit by between 50 percent to 80 percent. Glaciers that were once so familiar to the nomads have also started receding. Scientists estimate that glaciers in the Indian Himalayas lost an average of 19 percent of their volume between 1984 to 2012, with losses as high as 67 percent for low-altitude glaciers for the same period.
Climate change is also increasingly impacting the 210 million people living in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the 1.3 billion people living in downstream river basins. “[The rising temperature] is impacting the snow and rain cycles,” says Jayaraman Srinivasan of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “When it rains in the desert — short but extreme spells — it is catastrophic. These places are not equipped to handle it.” Incidences of flash floods, mudslides and landslides in Ladakh have increased in the last decade, killing hundreds and causing damage to the tune of US $20 million. Houses, traditionally built from layers of wood, stone, mud, brush, grass and clay, are not designed for heavy rain. Additionally, less precipitation is resulting in thinner streams snaking through villages, and growing feuds over water between local communities.
Although villages of Ladakh were once predominantly agricultural societies, the erratic rainfall of recent years is resulting in poor yields, and farming is increasingly taking a backseat to more lucrative fields like tourism. To put the tourism boom into perspective, in recent years Ladakh has received over 250,000 annual tourists, a tenfold increase since 2002. Although welcomed as a blessing by many, there is a rising sense of alarm from the devastation in tourism’s wake. Springs that once quenched the thirst of locals in Leh now trickle brown, choking with plastic and trash. Although locals still use traditional dry compost toilets, water scarcity is exacerbated by luxury hotels draining ground-water with private borewells. According to the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDEG), an environmental NGO based in Leh, the average Ladakhi uses 21 liters of water per day during summer and 10-12 liters during winter, while tourists need as much as 75 liters per day.
As weather becomes less predictable, pastoralism becomes an increasingly dangerous occupation. “December to March is the most debilitating period for the nomads, accompanied by frostbite and a scarcity of food and fodder,” says Dorjey. A single blizzard can kill thousands of animals in a region either through starvation or hyperthermia. Such heavy losses can throw a nomadic family into poverty, or force them to shift occupation to keep afloat. In 2013, Changthang received unexpected spells of heavy snowfall in March that resulted in the death of over 25,000 pashmina goats. “I believe this number would have been over 70,000 if it hadn’t been for the support of the Textile Ministry of India,” said Dorjey. At the time, the Government of India had been facilitating pashmina production by providing incentives to the Changpa in the form of fodder during severe winters, subsidized food provisions, and supplementary nutrients for cattle. But in 2015, the newly instated government ceased all support. “This hit the nomads hard,” says Dorjey. “The herd was accustomed to supplements and fodder. The sudden discontinuation of supplements had negative effects on the health of the animals.”
Climate change isn’t the only challenge in the region. Although the Changpa’s verdant pastures once extended more than 100 miles from Changthang to Lhasa, after India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959, violent conflicts with neighboring China resulted in significant changes to border between the two nations, including a massive portion of Changthang moving to Chinese control. Changpa nomads living in India were now prohibited from crossing into lands they had roamed for centuries, and lost their winter pastures in Skagjung. Many say that China continues to encroach into their territory. “In spite of notifying government officials of this situation, they dismissed the claims, and deny allegations that land is being encroached upon,” Dorjey says.
Wildlife conservation has also impacted nomadic life, Dorjey says. Regions like Changthang that hold rare and endangered species like the snow leopard and Tibetan gazelle have been protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. “But when Changthang was declared a wildlife sanctuary that prohibited human activity, once again the nomads were forced out of their own lands,” Dorjey says. “Yes, it is vital to protect this ecosystem, but the nomads have never been a threat. They live in unity with the ecosystem.”
Today, the nomads are caught in a tug-of-war between their identity and their livelihood. Unable to sustain a nomadic lifestyle, nomads are increasingly migrating to urban areas to earn scant-but-steady incomes. Research indicates there were as many as 4,000 Changpa in Changthang in 1995, but there are fewer than 1,200 Changpa there today. Once pushed into urban living, most will live on the margins of society as most of India’s rural migrants do. “In less than 20 years, if current trends continue, Changpa nomads will no longer exist,” says Dorjey.
LAKPA LEFT HIS NOMADIC LIFESTYLE behind almost six years ago. The morning after a blizzard that year, he found the bodies of his goats scattered across the land. The same year, he lost his father, and suddenly the world weighed too heavy on his shoulders. Nomadic life was no longer sustainable for him and his mother.
He now helps his aunt run a guesthouse in Korzok on the weekends, and a small restaurant called Skarma’s Organic Cafe. “Yes, all the food in this village is grown organically, but I keep the name because it attracts tourists!” he tells me with a wink. Most of the villagers of Korzok have their roots in nomadism, but now earn a living from the rising tourism industry in Ladakh..
Integration into a new world isn’t easy; especially one that, according to Lakpa, often dismisses nomads as uneducated, dirty idlers. Like people around the world, the nomads strive for a better future for the new generation. In 2007, the Nomadic Residential School was established in the village of Puga, Changthang, to better equip the youth for life outside their nomadic customs.
Inside the vast halls of the school, the screams and laughter of children in play bounce along walls adorned with paintings of apple and poplar trees. “Many children are familiar with shrubs and various grasses but not trees, which you rarely see in the Changthang plains. So these portrayals are as close to trees as some of them can get,” says a math teacher of the school.
For the nomads, the school is a double-edged sword. It arms their children with the basic tools to navigate the outside world, but it also deprives them from the invaluable experiences of treading the plateau, caring for the herd, and lessons that only the mountains can teach them.
Exposure to the wider world has allowed the children to dream without boundaries. When I asked students what they one day want to be, tour guide, teacher, and engineer were common answers. But there were a lone few who spoke shyly about their plans to one day return to nomadism. “We do not tell the children what they must be, or what path they must take,” says the headmaster of the school. “We only tell them that whoever they chose to become — engineer, artist, teacher, doctor — they must remember to come back to their own lands and serve their people with that skill.”
Although climate change has painted a grim future for our planet, the school is committed to teaching the children traditional nomadic songs; songs of hope, songs that worship the natural world, songs that emphasize the importance of coexistence. Perhaps more important than arithmetic and grammar, the school aims to instill in the children a knowledge of their culture and history. By doing so, they give them a shield as they go forth into society — a pride in where they come from.
Every morning, the students assemble in a dirt field. A hundred sunny voices sing the songs that have fortified their people through the deadly chill and darkness on the plateau.