Celebration of Churs-pon

I was a young girl when I first visited Saboo. It was a school picnic and the lush green beauty of Saboo mesmerised me. Having been born and brought up in Choglamsar – a suburb of Leh, filled with overcrowded concrete buildings with sparse vegetation, I assumed all villages in Ladakh to be dull, dusty and barren. So finding a green patch of land was unbelievable. My interest in Ladakh renewed in my early twenties when I first started exploring lesser known places and experiencing its unique socio-cultural practices that sustained life in the region.

Within a few kilometers outside of Leh, one can start to observe the changes in the land-use. Saboo (Sa-phuk in Tibetan), traditionally referring to an inner grassland near mountain foothills, has abundant water resources and greenery. There is relatively less influence of tourism and people still practice traditional agriculture solely dependent on Gang-chu (glacial water melt) and Chu-mig (natural springs). Due to its proximity to glacial water melt, the area supports healthy mountain grassland and diverse agricultural fields. But the main difference between Leh and Saboo is deeper than mere land use. The rural lands in Ladakh are governed by local traditional systems and customs which are truly rooted in the reality of people living there. These governance practices are highly visible in case of village resource management and are as effective as any other form of governance. Although the nearby town has grown multifold in the past few decades, nothing much has changed in Saboo, which is still a village of 500 households. One such fascinating tradition that has stood the test of time is a local custom of electing a water leader in their village. Water leader is the one who is responsible for governing water resources. In my curiosity to know more about water management, I spoke to a local farmer who shared with me the story of Churs-pon.

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Saboo village, Photo Courtesy: Dawa Dolma, Leh

Water is the most precious resource and the election of Churs-pon is an indispensable part of the traditional festival in this village. “Chu” means water and “pon” means leader. Churs-pon therefore is a unique water management system which ensures local governance, maintenance and distribution of water resources. Located at the high altitude, cold arid zone with a short cultivation period people have devised local systems that maximizes their resource usage with minimal conflict. Like any social institution, churs-pon enables farming communities in Saboo to judiciously use their land, water resources and enjoy greater prosperity. Churs-pon are annually appointed at the beginning of the agricultural season and Saboo being predominantly an agricultural society, the election of churs-pon is quite an important tradition in the region.

Historically, villagers unanimously elected a well respected man in the community who had rigorous knowledge of customary duties, rights and responsibilities around water management. Now, Churs-pon is appointed rotationally. The selection process differs in each village but in Saboo, the day is marked with auspicious ceremonies and prayers. Venerable lamas are consulted for an auspicious date and communal meetings are held. It is no less than any other cultural affair and locals host a festival called “sa-phak” which celebrates the selection process of churs-pon. Water being a crucial resource, there’s great excitement around it and at least one member of each family is present during the selection ceremony to ensure appointment of a competent leader. The two key Buddhist prayers “Tashi Tsekpa” and “Nangsa Nang-gey” are recited by monks to mark the auspicious start of farming work and bless the newly elected “churs-pon” for his work. The religious ceremony is particularly important for the rightful selection of the leader, who ethically follows all rules and regulations to ensure equitable distribution of water and harmony among farming communities. Communal prayers and holy tantric rituals like “tormas" (barley flour effigies) are offered to deities for agricultural productivity and to garner their spiritual support during the farming season.

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Photo courtesy: Dawa Dolma

Traditionally, high-altitude communities have self-sufficient agricultural systems and religious ceremonies are done to invoke spiritual blessings of the local deities and to harmonize people’s relation with nature. “The tasks are overwhelming and challenging – a churs-pon has to monitor the water reservoir from five in the morning till eleven at night. Therefore, the right to churs-ponship is mostly given to male members", says Tsering Dorjay (46) who was Saboo’s churs-pon a few years back. “Earlier we used to have 2 churs-pon but these days we have 4 as there are numerous agricultural lands and we need to ensure equitable distribution to all fields. The work has become more laborious” he concludes.

The agriculture in Ladakh is governed by a short growing season during which Gang-chu (glacial meltwater) is the most important resource. All Ladakhi villages have a community water reservoir called “zing” where glacial water melt is directly collected for irrigation. The zings are connected with water canals called “yura” which feeds water to all agricultural fields. The water is distributed based on requirements of the crops. Since food and cereal crops consume more water, it is first distributed to wheat fields, followed by green pea, barley and finally to fodder crops which are more resilient. A churs-pon is responsible for managing water distribution, irrigation turns, overseeing maintenance of zing, yura, resolving water disputes and ensuring equitable distribution of water among all families of the village without any personal bias and favoritism.

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Photo courtesy: Dawa Dolma, Leh

Churs-ponship of Saboo village is a classic example of how a community resource like water is effectively self-governed by villagers and is codified into distinct rules and regulations that everyone follows stringently. The lives of people are dependent on such traditional systems which are orally passed to the next generation, representing a unique community-led, self-governing system. The ethics of impartiality, equity, mutual cooperation and reciprocity are built inherently into the system. However, there’s considerable decline in the tradition of churs-pon due to alternative livelihood options like tourism and younger generations growing up without any knowledge and awareness about the local agricultural system. Mohammad Akbar, a 52 year-old churs-pon of Saboo village, painfully mulls over the loss of this beautiful tradition in his village, “it is doubtful whether the youth these days will continue with the tradition and do farming. It will be a huge loss if churs-pon becomes another lost tradition in the coming few years''. Entire agricultural practices of Saboo and other villages following this practice will fall apart if there is no churs-pon system. It is an indispensable part of people’s livelihood and forms crucial part of their identity.

About the Author

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Dawa Dolma

Dawa Dolma is a freelance journalist based in Leh. She is a climate enthusiast and loves writing about culture, nature and travels. She is spreading the love of reading among children in Ladakh through a voluntary initiative called “Shatsa” with close group of friends. She likes devoting her time to Shatsa and envisions to build it better with her friends.