Agricultural Practices in Spiti Valley

“Ney yotna chukpo sam, nor yotna mak”

“Those who have barley are rich, not the ones with money”

- Spitian Proverb, Anonymous

Ever since my childhood days, I was very curious to know about the agricultural practices of Spiti valley - traditional crops we grow and how farming happens in a cold Himalayan desert. Like any Spitian youngster growing up I used to help my family with agricultural works whenever I am at home for holidays or during the peak harvesting season but I never got the opportunity to help them for the whole season. But last year, due to an ongoing pandemic, when I came home, I realized it was a good opportunity for me to understand agricultural practices first hand. I helped my family through whole process right from scattering ashes in the snow covered fields to prepare the field for ploughing to cleaning dried-up water canals before harvest season to helping during peak season of ploughing and harvesting. I also wanted to learn about the history of agriculture in Spiti valley and the elders in my family shared some interesting insights with me.

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Photo Courtesy: Lobzang Tandup

Traditionally, the people living in this valley grew barley and black peas for sustenance. They used barley grains to make Sampa (flour) or Arak (traditional alcohol). They also used barley and black peas to barter it with traders from Changthang who in turn would give Lena (Pashmina) and Khullu (Yak wool) in the 1960s however, things started to change in the valley. People started growing cash crops like green peas and potatoes as access to outside markets improved due to development of key roadways. Now, barley and black peas are grown only for self-consumption and are only a small share of the total agricultural production.

Agriculture in Spiti lasts only for six months. It's the most crucial time for all the farmers. Although the sowing season starts only in April, the preparations start months before. The seeds are either procured or developed and stored safely during the winters. When the snow first melts around mid-April, the farmers plough their fields with the best resource they have - Yak or a pair of Dzo and seeds are scattered by hand, but these days people use tractors, ploughing machines and even tillers are used. Ploughing the field is a two person job, but sometimes the whole 

family can be seen in the fields helping out the parents. In Spiti, one’s family, relatives and friends are one’s greatest resources. Farming is very communal in nature. Everyone helps each other and sometimes even 3-4 families work collectively.

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Photo Courtesy: Lobzang Tandup

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Photo Courtesy: Lobzang Tandup

The system of communal farming helps ease the burden of marginal farmers who do not own Yak - they collaborate with Khangchen households (Zamindar family), borrow Yak for ploughing the field and in turn repay through their labour. Yaks are an effective but an expensive farming asset and not everyone can afford to buy and maintain them. The system works because it is based on a reciprocal relationship between Khang-chen (Big Zamindar) and Khang-chung (Small farmers) households and resource and labour are shared communally. Sometimes, the members of the Khang-chen household lend a piece of land for a few years to the Khang-chung household for farming. They do not have to necessarily repay through capital but the Khang-chung family can repay the benevolence through their labour works in the Khang-chen family - for instance, they can help the Khang-chen family during ploughing and harvesting season. This system is called “Shey” in Spitian.

 

The relationship between people, wildlife and nature go beyond utilitarian aspects. It is heavily influenced by cultural values and local practices around it. For instance, many Spitian households have unique names for their agricultural land which is a helpful marker of identification of one’s land and also carries meaningful ecological symbolism: “Chup- ja” (water-bird) is named for agricultural lands that resemble the shape of long-necked water cranes. “Ti-rik” is named for lands that resembles local barley-flour delicacy, “Dorgya-ma” is named for agricultural lands which is full of stones or pebbles owing to its hilly terrain, “Yur-yok” is referred to lands located beneath a water canal and “Phe-kak” (meaning half in Spitian) is often given to agricultural lands of “Khang-chung” families (small farmers) who gain their land after ancestral subdivision from Khang-chen family (big zamindari household).

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Photo Courtesy: Lobzang Tandup

There are a lot of farming songs and prayers that people hum while toiling in their fields. Farmers sing particular songs at every step. The songs have rich meanings related to farm works, weather conditions and comprises of odes and incantations towards local deities pleading for bountiful harvest. “Om Mani Padme Hung” - the holy Buddhist mantra is chanted while ploughing which symbolises farmer’s gratitude and compassion for Yaks and Dzos who toil so hard in our fields. “Laso- ho” is chanted in merriment to ease the stress and fatigue of animals when they plough in harsh weather.

As soon as the ploughing is done, the farmers wait for the first crop or sapling to grow a little before the cycle of irrigation begins (Yurma). This period is usually after 40 days from the day of sowing. Water is a scarce resource and there are local systems of water distribution and management called “Chu-rey” (water turns) entirely handled by women of the village. A group of women is appointed to take charge for the season to ensure timely, equitable distribution of water to each household. The Khang-chen (big zamindar) households have more access to water resources - they have frequent water-turns (chu-rey) and more water is allotted in their canals for irrigation. They also have more authority in decision-making as they are the original tax-payers of the land and have earned that right historically. Owing to scanty precipitation, irrigation becomes a daunting task - women get busy with watering works (Yurma) for over 2 months till the crops are fully ripe.

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Photo taken from online sources

The green pea crop gets ready around June in low-lying villages (Kaza, Tabo, Rangrik, Pin) and August in villages in elevated regions (Demul, Komic, Langza, Hikkim, Kibber and Chicham) . These crops are then transported and sold in Delhi and other nearby states. The produce from Spiti is considered of highest quality as the farmers do not use any insecticide, pesticide or weedicide in their fields. Instead they only rely on animal and human waste as manure. The sweet taste of green peas from Spiti valley is the result of unique farming techniques and hard-work of the people who do not give up despite harsh conditions and scarce resources.

 

The cropping patterns of green peas and barley are different. Green pea, although is the primary source of livelihood for the farmers, requires much more work and tends to consume more water. Barley is a traditional crop of Spiti that is favoured more by farmers due to its low input requirements, better adaptability to harsh conditions and is considered drought/disease resilient. Barley crops and black peas (kala matar) can be harvested later around August-September when the work around green-peas is done. The remaining grass residues are collected to use for fodder or as a livestock feed for animals during winter.

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Most Spitian households own a flat ground near their agricultural field called “Ul-tak” where separation of straw and barley (Khu-yuk) are done, cut grasses are brought and flours are grinded. The grains are finally stored in village. A group of women is appointed to take charge for the season to ensure timely, equitable distribution of water to each household. The Khang-chen households have more access to water resources - they have frequent water-turns (chu-rey) and more water is allotted in their canals for irrigation. They also have more authority in decision-making as they are the original tax-payers of the land and have traditional go-downs/storage called “Bhang” for better preservation.

 

Agriculture is the lifeline of Spitians and it is not just a livelihood means for us, but a way of life. Our tradition, cultural values and regional ethos revolve around agrarian practices. Many local Spitian proverbs (pera) are reflective of that knowledge. I am sharing few as recounted by elders:

Photo Courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav

Nyima dot la mata, Dotpa chung la mata

Do not rely on the sun's warmth nor your appetite. This proverb talks about the importance of being alert, active and prepared when one is undertaking any agricultural work. When one leaves home in the morning for the field, a farmer has to be ready for any unpredictability - nor the pleasant heat of sun or one’s appetite at that point can be relied on.

Soye me phung, nyal phung

There will be agricultural loss not when you eat but when you sleep/laze around.

Ley betna, sey nyong

If you work hard, there will be a bountiful harvest.

Ney yotna chukpo sam, nor yotna mak

Those who have barley are rich, not the ones with money.

I am not an expert in farming or possess rich knowledge but I would like to share some suggestions, the ecosystem in the trans-Himalayan region is very fragile. Excessive focus on cash crops like green peas won’t be sustainable for the long run. We need to incorporate traditional crops like barley as well as black peas which are more suitable to local conditions. We should think about long term ecological sustenance and food security for the entire community. Cooperative societies, local management should work in a collaborative manner to fetch fair prices to our farmers. Youngsters should realize that although modern farming and technology are easier and more convenient, nothing beats natural farming technique and indigenous knowledge of the people.

About the Author

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Lobzang Tandup

Lobzang Tandup is born and brought up in Spiti’s Kibber village. He finished his graduate degree in Physics and Electronic studies from Punjab University, Chandigarh. He is currently self-studying for an entrance examination. He likes playing cricket, football and is gradually becoming more enchanted with trekking and snow skiing.

*Spitian Proverbs narrated by: Mr. Sonam Tanzin (Tanpa), Kowang, Spiti