Pema Rinchen says 'tashi delek’  (blessings and good luck, in Tibetan) and walks off towards the horizon in Hanle valley of eastern Ladakh, close to the border with China. With her is a huge herd of Pashmina (or cashmere) goats, all of them returning to their hamlet after a full day of grazing. 

Pema, the second child of Karma Rinchen, a community leader, lives in Hanle along with around 280 Changpa families. The Changpa are pastoral nomads who rear yak and sheep. During the long winters from November to May, they are mostly sedentary. In the summer, they move to higher altitude grazing grounds. I visited them some time ago at the Nalang grazing ground in Hanle valley. The valley is in the Changthang Plateau at an altitude of over 14,000 feet. The plateau stretches east into Tibet over several hundred kilometres – it’s part of the larger Tibetan Plateau.

Changpa women manage all kinds of tasks during the grazing season, including pitching tents, carrying firewood, herding, milking goats and so on. And they still manage time for their children and cooking.

The Tibetan Plateau is home to various nomadic pastoral communities; among them the Changpa in the western Himalayas (See The Changpas who make cashmere) and the Brokpa in the eastern ranges of the mountains (See Brokpa: ‘The jungle is our mother'). These communities are divided by cliffs and valleys, but connected by cultural, ethnic and spiritual bonds.

On another visit, I travelled to the forested slopes of the eastern Himalayas to meet the Brokpa nomads, who belong to the Monpa tribe. They mostly live in West Kemang and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh. They too spend the summer in highland pastures. With the onset of winter, they descend with their yak herds to permanent hamlets such as Lagam, in West Kameng district. 

I walked for eight hours to reach that tiny settlement.  On the way, I met 70-year-old Yama Tsering. She said, “I am old, and I cannot walk [uphill] that much. So I take care of housework, like making chhurpi [yak milk cheese] and supervising my grandchildren. If required, I go up in the summertime.”

Last year, in the month of May, I went back to Arunachal, to Chander, another high altitude settlement at 11,152 feet. This time I stayed in the house of Leki Suzuk, mother of two and owner of around 30 yaks. Brokpa women perform similar tasks as women in the Changpa community. They are visible in all aspects of community life, making independent decisions about their herds or children. I recall how all Brokpa women came together to build a gompha, a small Buddhist shrine, in Chander.

Sometime later, I travelled from the cold mountains to the dry heat of Kachchh in Gujarat, to meet another nomadic pastoral community, the Fakirani Jats (See The endless search for grazing grounds). They rear Kachchhi and Kharai camels. Their migration pattern is more complex and depends on the kind of camel and the availability of water. It took many visits to gain their confidence. Over time, among others, I met Jat Haseena. She and her husband Jat Ayub take care of a herd of 80 camels, migrating throughout the year within Bhachau taluka. The community is conservative, and women don’t speak much to outsiders. But their presence is everywhere. I met the dynamic Nasibibai Shermamad Jat in Dhrangavandh hamlet of Lakhpat taluka. She speaks Hindi well, and said, "Our grazing ground has shrunk already. We are on the verge of giving up our traditional life. We are looking for support… I hope our voice will be heard."
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Leki Suzuk, a Brokpa herder, is lovingly taking care of an orphaned yak cub in her winter settlement at Chander village

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

A young Brokpa woman collecting herbs and roots for fuel at a pass at around 11,250 feet in  a Dirang valley hamlet in West Kameng district

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Yama Tsering lives in Lagam hamlet all year round. The seasonal migration to the higher altitude Mago is difficult for her. Elders like her look after children, and they make and sell chhurpi to other Monpa villagers of West Kameng district. Chhurpi is a cheese made from yak milk, a significant source of livelihood for Brokpa communties.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

A group of Brokpa women going for prayers to a stupa located in Dirang valley

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Pema Gyurmey of Lagam hamlet is trying to brush her daughter Rinzen’s hair after returning from fieldwork at the end of the day 

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Dohna pitching her family’s tent in a highland summer pasture in Hanle valley, Ladakh. This involves heavy lifting and is not an easy job at an elevation of 13,000 feet

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Yum-Chen-Mo grazing cashmere goats at the altitude of 13,245 feet in Hanle valley

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Pema has just returned from foraging for fuel. August is late summer, but the grasslands already have a sheet of snow. With the fuel she has gathered, Pema will ensure that a small stove in her tent is lit continuously

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

In her makeshift shelter, Sonam Wange is making traditional butter tea, po cha, a staple in the Changpa community.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Denchen Dorje, 28, is enjoying the late afternoon respite with her little son Dote. Mornings and evenings are busy for Changpas, but the afternoons are more relaxed

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Fakirani Jat women in Kachchh, Gujarat, wear their community’s traditional dress even on hot summer days. The community rarely, if ever, sells the handmade clothes women wear.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Nasibibai Shermamad Jat, from Dhrangavandh hamlet of Lakhpat taluka, receives a medical kit from a Bhuj-based NGO for her herd of 60 Kharai camels. 

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Jat Haseena is walking with her herd of Kharai camels in search of water. Every year during the peak of summer, food and water are so scarce that the family changes their location almost every alternate day.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Little Bhagyani  Jat inside her newly-built hut of  grass and jute, in Gugariyana village of Lakhpat taluka. She said she helped her mother Ayesha Jat to build the hut

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

In Mori village of Lakhpat taluka, Shamaani Jat is preparing dinner for her four sons and husband, Karim Jat

Ritayan Mukherjee

Ritayan Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based photographer and a 2016 PARI Fellow. He is working on a long-term project that documents the lives of pastoral nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.

Other stories by Ritayan Mukherjee