CITY LIFE is easy, scoffs Tsetan Paljor, whirling a prayer wheel as he sits by a stream where, on a little island, three crimson-robed lamas snooze. City people don’t have the stresses we have, he says: are the goats eating enough? Are snow leopards on the prowl? Mr Paljor, 69, is a member of the Kharnak, one of three tribes of the Changpa, who live in Ladakh in the extreme north of India. For as long as anybody can remember, these tribes have raised the goats native to the Changthang plateau—the only ones that produce pashmina, the most prized and pricey type of cashmere.
To call life here harsh is, for this city-dwelling correspondent, an understatement. The Changthang plateau is 15,000 feet above sea level. The air is so thin it makes heads ache and noses bleed, and leaves visitors gasping for breath. Winter temperatures drop to -35°C and, apart from the lush green on the banks of the stream, there are few signs of plant life. It is a barren landscape, the mountains rising naked on all sides.
It was not always so. “There used to be grass on that mountain,” says Tsering Phuntsog, the 65-year-old head of the tribe, gesturing towards a nearby slope. But over the past decade temperatures have risen and precipitation has diminished. “It doesn’t rain when it’s supposed to rain. It doesn’t snow when it’s supposed to snow,” he says, and when it does, it doesn’t do enough of it.
The result is that there is no longer enough grass for the animals to graze on. What little scrub does emerge is not ideal for the goats. Less grass means less pashmina. It also means lower-quality pashmina. It makes the animals weaker: they fall ill more frequently and premature births are increasing. What is more, tribal elders complain, the fodder that the state government used to send has dried up since an administrative change in 2019 separated Ladakh from the rest of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and made the two new “union territories” ruled directly from Delhi, the capital of India.
What can be done? One answer is prayer: the napping lamas are visiting because the locals are in the middle of a week’s worth of chanting to the Buddha. “But still very little falls,” says Mr Phuntsog, A more immediate solution is to move every month in search of greener pastures, up from six or seven times a year in the past.
The dearth of forage is exacerbated by a shortage of manpower. Barely 20 families remain among the Kharnak, rearing between them some 13,000 animals: mostly goats but also sheep for trading, horses for transport, yaks for wool, and dri—female yaks—for their milk, which is churned into butter and added as a calorie-booster to the tea the nomads drink all day. Up here, the body needs as much energy as it can get. The youngest adult member of the tribe is 28. Most are in their 60s. There are not enough men to mind the grazing herds.
Outward migration started about 15 years ago, says Mr Paljor, when young people started leaving to study in Leh, Ladakh’s biggest town, some 150km away. They rarely returned. “But in 2009 eight or ten families left together, and that was when we realised it was a demographic crisis,” he says. Granted, the winters are brutal, and until the state recently built an all-weather road the valley was cut off from the world for part of the year. “But if they keep leaving the whole culture will be gone.”
Nor is it just the young who are moving to the city. The latest loss was Tsering Angchuk, 68, who left the tribe in August to be with his daughter and son-in-law in Kharnakling, a settlement just outside Leh where many Kharnaks have built homes (“ling” is the Ladakhi equivalent of “-ville” or “-town”). “It is right to be there. Actually one should be there,” says Mr Angchuk, referring to the valley, as he sips butter tea. “But as you get older there is no one to look after you or after the herd. So there is no choice but to come here.” It is true that life is easier in the city: “You don’t have to worry about feeding the goats or the sheep getting eaten.” But there is a difference, he adds, between ease and happiness.
As the tribe dwindles, it must rely on outsiders to fill the gap. For the past several years, the elders have employed migrants to graze their animals, paying 25,000 rupees ($335) a month, a 40% premium on the cost of day labour in Leh. But coronavirus restrictions over the past two years reduced the supply of workers, who are now demanding higher wages.
The nomads will pay up. They have recently realised how valuable their wool is, after years of trading it with travelling merchants for apples and jaggery (a type of sugar), or selling the animals whole to butchers for a fifth of the price they get now.
Living conditions ought to improve too. Last year the local government announced 2.5bn rupees in development aid for Changthang, to be spent on things like all-weather roads, electricity, mobile towers and fodder. “This is the 21st century. The nomads now learn how to read and write. After all that you can’t tell them to go back to do livestock and grazing,” says Tashi Gyalson, the head of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “Those who want to stay with the livestock, we are doing for them what we can.”
Mr Angchuk, the latest emigrant, is optimistic too. For one thing, he says, the Buddha will never allow their culture to become extinct. For another, you never know—the youngsters may eventually realise that they belong back in their motherland, where they have their own identity. But most importantly, he says, “these are modern times. The winters may be harsh. But now we have ways of dealing with it.” ■