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."