En route to Tso Moriri lake in Ladakh, the pastures are dotted with tents made of wool – these are the homes of Changpas, who herd Changthangi (pashmina) goats and are among the few suppliers of authentic cashmere wool of the finest quality.
The Changpas are nomadic pastoralists. Academic accounts indicate that they migrated from Tibet in the 8th century AD and came to the Changthang region in India – a western extension of the Tibetan Plateau, across the Himalayas. This area, located near the India-China border, is closed to foreign nationals and even Indians must obtain a special permit from Leh.
This photo essay documents the Changpas of Hanle Valley in eastern Ladakh. Around 40-50 Changpa families live here, according to their own estimates.
Hanle Valley is a vast and rugged area – the winter here is very long and the summer is really short. Due to the region’s hard soil, vegetation is scarce and the nomadic Changpas move during the summers in search of green pastures across fixed pasturelands in the valley allotted to them by the heads of their communities.
I went to Hanle Valley in winter, in February 2015. After a long search, with the help of the villagers, I was introduced to Changpa Karma Rinchen. In the winter, the Changpas live a relatively sedentary life, so I went back in summer 2016. That August, after a two-day wait, Karma Rinchen finally showed up. The next day, he took me to his community’s summer grazing location, a three-hour drive from Hanle village.
Karma’s summer home was really high – at an altitude of 4,941 metres. It sometimes snows here even during the summer. I spent the next seven days with him and his family. Karma, around 50 years old, is a goba or community elder – four units of Changpa families report to him. A goba must be wise, spiritual and experienced. Karma has all of these qualities. “We love the nomadic life because it’s about freedom,” he said in a mix of Tibetan and Ladakhi.
The Changpas are Buddhists, and followers of the Dalai Lama. Besides goats, they also keep sheep and yaks, and many still follow an old barter system, with various communities along a local network exchanging some of the goods they produce.
But the times are changing. Along the way, I saw an under-construction road that will ensure smoother movement for the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police – the road will alter the landscape. And, Karma said, 2016 was not good at all, “…because the cooperative society from Leh has not come yet to collect the wool. Perhaps that is because inferior quality and cheap cashmere wool from China is coming into the market."