Who are the Changpa Nomads? – A Life for the Gold of the Himalayas

The gold of the Himalayas

Pashmina, the precious wool made of cashmere goats’ fine hair, is the most valuable commodity of the Changpa Nomads. They live at an altitude of 4000 meters in the Kashmir mountains. But they do not become rich with their goods. Only a few still face the hard life, the young dream of living in the city.

For the grass you just ate, oh goat,
give us good pashmina.
For the water you just drank, oh goat,
give us good pashmina.
Lie down in the grass and keep still, oh goat,
so that we can take your pashmina.

Song of Changpa nomads during combing out the precious pashmina wool

Pashmina Goats at Stokar Lake, Ladakh

The Home of the Changpa Nomads

The nomadic Changpa people live isolated on barren plateaus over 4000 meters high in the southeast of Ladakh, the mountainous region in Kashmir annexed by India.

While the majority of the Ladakhi are engaged in agriculture, the people in the east of the country are nomads. The Changthang region, the geographical continuation of the Tibetan plateau, is their home – located at an average altitude of 4,500 meters, with bitterly cold winters.

A landscape where the air is thin and the wind is icy, where cattle have to move far to extract something from a stingy soil to eat.

The life of the Changpa, as the nomads of the Changthang region call themselves, is closely tied to that of their animals. It is the sheep, goats, yaks and horses that define the Changpa’s daily life.

When the already scarce pasture on the high plateau is grazed, and water is scarce, they move on. Often up to ten times a year.

Cattle are the wealth of the Changpa. Vegetable or grain cultivation is hardly possible at this altitude, and if it is, it is not very productive. It is therefore not surprising that the wealth of a family is measured by the size of its herd:

The more sheep, goats and yaks the Changpas own, the wealthier they are. For a long time, sheep and yaks were considered the most important animals in a nomadic herd, and they also had great spiritual and ritual significance.

On the other hand, goats were considered inferior and were also not very popular among shepherds, as they are more difficult to herd.

When shepherds curse, it is at the goats; the sheep are usually spared.

But like everywhere in the world – demand determines supply – also for the Changpa.

After the border to Tibet was closed due to political unrest between India and China in the 1960s and the traditional trade in Pashmina Wool from Tibetan goats came to a standstill, the Changpa nomads had to meet the needs of traders from Kashmir and Ladakh.

Since then, the number of goats has been steadily increasing compared to sheep, and also their initially poor reputation has improved markedly. 1

A Winter’s day in Changthang | India in Motion

Pashmina - the most exclusive wool in the world

The barren region holds a unique treasure: only at high altitudes, and freezing winters do the ‘Chang Ra’ goats grow a kind of undercoat under their fur. This excellent fine wool is combed out in early summer, cleaned and sold as the precious pashmina in the capital.

Even though the Changpa never get to see the end products – the expensive cashmere sweaters and scarves of Western luxury labels – for them, pashmina is the ‘gold of the Changthang.’

grazing flock of Pashmina goats in Ladakh India

It is not the entire fur of the goats that is of interest. It is the fine undercoat, the pashmina, that traders are after, which is then used to make expensive scarves and cuddly cashmere sweaters and sold worldwide.

At the end of May, pashmina is combed out for the first time with the help of a special comb. During the winter, the pashmina wool lies close to the body and warms the goat in the bitterly cold temperatures.

The nomads say that pashmina should be removed only when the goats have eaten the first fresh grass. By then, the undercoat has already started to set up and can be easily removed. Pashmina is never removed all at once, but at intervals, otherwise the goat would freeze and get sick.

The undercoat of old and sick animals is often combed out only in August. About 300 g of pashmina can be harvested from a male goat, slightly less from a female. In total, the Changthang produces about 40,000 kg of pashmina per year.

Unprocessed, the pashmina is then sold, both to private traders from Ladakh and Kashmir and to state cooperatives, with preference given to the former as they pay better prices.

Downfall of a Nomadic Culture

Once they were feared as robbers, they had wealth, huge herds and precious jewelry. Today, the number of Changpa tents in the high valleys is decreasing from year to year.

More and more young people migrate to the city, where a modern, more pleasant life beckons; the older people who remain behind can hardly support themselves. Traditional survival strategies such as polyandry – two or even more brothers sharing a single wife – are hardly practiced anymore or are even forbidden.

The hard life of nomads

Although the price of pashmina has risen continuously in recent years and a few families who have a large herd of goats have also earned well from it, fewer and fewer people want to live as nomads.

The already difficult life of the nomads is becoming even more difficult due to climate change. Especially in the Himalayas, the consequences of climate change can already be clearly felt.

The glaciers are melting rapidly and endangering the drinking water supply for people and animals in the high mountain desert of Ladakh. At the same time, the weather is more unpredictable than ever.

In recent winters, snowfall has increased in Ladakh, which otherwise has low precipitation. For the Changthang, the result has been that animals have been hard-pressed to find food due to the unusually high snowpack.

The children of the Changpas

Then there are the children of the Changpas. Due to the general compulsory education in India. The nomad children have to go to school as well.

In Changthang itself, there are only a few schools. Most children are sent to the capital, to Leh, where they are then supposed to be prepared for life in a boarding school – a life that has nothing to do with a nomad.

In recent years, there have been attempts by private organizations to organize “traveling schools” that move with the nomads from pasture to pasture. However, a teacher’s job at such schools is so unpopular that there are significant staffing difficulties.

The Changpas of Rupshu – Winter in Ladakh | India in Motion

The Tso Moriri lake is located in the east of Ladakh at an altitude of 4522 m with an area of about 145.3 km². It is flanked on the east and west by mountain ridges over 6000 m high.

The Tso Moriri has two main tributaries that flow into the lake in the north and in the southwest. Originally, the waters of the Tsomoriri flowed south to the Parechu, a left tributary of the Spiti in the Satluj catchment area. Today, the Tsomoriri forms an outflowless lake. Due to the lack of outflow, the lake is slightly saline.

The future of the Changpa nomads

The climate and their children’s future are the most common reasons why nomads migrate to the cities.

They sell their herds, which suddenly brings a lot of money. More than the nomads are usually used to have – and they seek their fortune in the city Leh. But they find it only in the rarest cases. Long-term unemployment and alcoholism are the biggest problems of the migrated nomads.

A Changpa nomads legend:

Dugmo, the wife of the mythical King Gesar of Ling, weaves a cloth. Year after year, one row at a time, and when the cloth is finally finished and the last row has been woven; this world comes to an end…    Some say there are only 15 rows left!

Hopefully, she will be at her loom longer, and the Changpa nomads’ are able to solve their problems.

changpa nomad woman

Thank You for Reading

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  1.  Champa by B.R Rizvi in People of India Jammu and Kashmir Volume XXV edited by K.N Pandita, S.D.S Charak and B.R Rizvi pages 182 to 184 Manohar ISBN 8173041180

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