An Oasis of Himalayan Fiber
Photo by Sherab Lobzang
Nestled amid the lofty Trans-himalayan mountains, Changthang is a unique terrain where climate and topography play a crucial role in the sustenance of local communities. The region consists of wide wetlands and giant mountains which offer indispensable ecosystem services and safeguard our water and food security. Many wetlands in Changthang are located at a higher altitude and are fed by glaciers and snow from the surrounding mountains. The high-altitude wetlands in my region contribute significantly to the downstream landscape productivity and form a unique ecosystem for floral and faunal diversity.
The nomadic pastoral communities composed of distinct groups located at Rupsho, Kharnak and Korzokh rear a variety of livestock such as goat (rama), sheep (luk), horses (ta), yaks, and donkeys (bhungpa) which supports them in all aspects of their lives. The Changpa shepherds are skillful in tending their herds; navigating steppe grasslands, accessing fertile pastures, breeding resilient animals, caring for livestock, and preventing diseases. When there’s less grass in the pastures or the livestock are not able to graze due to excessive snowfall, they provide the cattle with fodder they have stocked months before to avoid weakness and starvation. It is precisely the efforts of the local herders and the nutritious resources in the cold arid land that the livestock we breed gives the finest fiber.
Pashmina Combing; Photo by Andrew Newey (cnn.com)
Ladakh has a highly diverse textile tradition that reflects its physical, socio-cultural, and environmental features. The herd provides different kinds of fiber: Khullu or Sitpa from Yak wool, Ral from Goat hair or Sheep wool, and Lena (Pashmina) from the underbelly of Changthangi goat. The wool is sheared from the livestock around early Spring or before lambing season using a wooden/metallic comb. It takes about 2-3 hours to shear wool from a single sheep and since it requires physical strength to hold a sheep, goat or yak to shear, it is usually men who do the work while women clean and sort the wool to remove any impurities. Once the wool is collected, it is laid on the sheet and beaten with a wooden stick to remove dust, dry grasses, and other impurities. It is then washed, dried, and then hand spun with a traditional spindle called “Phang” - thin yarns are made for weaving while slightly thicker and knottier yarns can be used for knitting. From elaborately patterned garments for the nobility to simple home-spun garments from local fibers, a range of garments are processed and procured in Changthang. The local fibers found in Changthang are used for various purposes; Yak wool and goat/sheep wool are primarily used for self-consumption while Pashmina (Lena) is often traded. The high altitude and the intense cold of Changthang serve a good purpose for the growth of the fine luxury fiber Pashmina. Due to its softness, elegance, and warmth, it is one of the most coveted fibers and fetches the highest price.
Weaving is an ancient craft and Changpas are reminiscent of the time when our ancestors wore clothes made up of animal skin. Due to freezing weather, animal skins are still used for various garments, quilts, and mattresses. The rich tradition of textiles came into being when our ancestors learned how to spin, make yarn, and weave. Wool and fiber are an integral part of the nomadic culture as Changpas reside in the traditional tents called Rebo made of Sitpa (Yak wool). Rebos are very functional and aptly suited for the nomadic lifestyle - as the nomads migrate in search of better pastures for their herd, the use of Rebo comes in handy for them.
Rebo and landscape of Changthang.
Making Rebos are extremely labor-intensive as it is handspun and handwoven and a group of nomads makes it collectively. Rebos are also precious family assets and are passed down from one generation to another but these days the use of canvas tents is also becoming popular. Handcrafting has great significance in Changpa tradition, it is a skill that everyone inherits and proves useful in resource-starved land like ours. Weaving and knitting are so economical and wholly self-sufficient - we knit sweaters, socks, hats, and mufflers, and weave mattresses, quilts, saddles, and even containers for foodstuffs. Imagine having to buy all these!
"Rebos are very functional and aptly suited for the nomadic lifestyle - as the nomads migrate in search of better pastures for their herd, the use of Rebo comes in handy for them."
Even the traditional clothes we wear Gos made up of fabric called Snambus. All of which are handwoven from scratch! When I think about the olden tradition of Changpas - whether it is sustainable grazing of the livestock, food habits, lifestyle, or the practices of spinning, and weaving I realize how self-sufficient and environment-friendly the whole system is. However, the practices around local fiber and cloth making are undergoing changes. Machine-made fabrics and ready-made clothes are easily procurable from the markets and one doesn’t necessarily have to make everything from scratch like in olden times. Although a great variety of wool and fibers are found in Changthang, there’s relatively little expertise when it comes to processing these fibers and adding value to them. Kashmiri artisans are way more known for their skills in handicrafts and if this gap can be fulfilled locally, the fiber value chain will be complete in Changthang itself.
Traditional weaving in Changthang.
About the Storyteller
Padma Dolker is from Samad Rockchen region of Changthang in Ladakh. She has done her graduation with a Bachelor of Science and a year-long entrepreneurial leadership program at Naropa fellowship. She is currently a fellow at the Ladakh Pashmina fellowship by NCF and is in process of setting up her start-up around Pashmina wool with nomads in Changthang. She serves as a Panch of Samad Rockchen under Rupsho Panchyat Halqa and works with Himmothan Society (Tata Trusts) as a cluster coordinator.