Up in the Changthang plateau, Ladakh, what one can see occasionally is a caravan of people and animals along with their belongings for setting up makeshift shelters. Life for the tribe 'Changpas', the nomadic pastoralists of this region with an average altitude of 14600 above sea level is really that, an unending caravan. Here amidst the rugged mountainous terrain which has a brief season in which anything can grow, these 'northerners,' or 'Drukpa 'in Tibetan simply soldier on, along with their sheep, goat, yak and horse.
There are several 'Ladakhs'. Leh, the capital city now a tourist hotspot with all the trappings of modernity, of bustling markets, trekking companies and hotels is miles away and worlds apart from life in the upper reaches. Changthang remains remote, disconnected even inhospitable, certainly not on any tourist map. None of the opportunities for earning a living here from the tourism industry, nor is there any settled agriculture.
Survival in this high ground, snow covered for 8-9 months in the year is a challenging, nay daunting task. It is centered around livestock; Rearing of animals, consuming and selling the produce milk, hair, meat is the main and only means of livelihood. Movement is the key, over the mountainous paths in constant search of pastures for their livestock and habitats for themselves.
Unlike other nomadic pastoralists, Changpas do not move from one climatic region to another; they do not for instance 'migrate' in the winter months to warmer climes. Rather they move short distances within the same zone. Migratory routes are established over years with campsites identified at vantage points. Typically, there are constructions with stone wall boundaries for protection against the chill and the wind. Acutely conscious of limited grazing season of 4-5 months, they are simultaneously harvesting grasses for storage when the frost sets in. ( Trekking in Harmukh Peaks )
Up in the Changthang plateau, man is pitted against nature, Changpas have evolved techniques to even out the periods of surpluses and shortages. In the summer months, when the livestock produces high levels of milk, dairy products are converted into less perishable forms like butter and cheese. Again, animals are fattened up during the summer to be slaughtered early in the winter, while the weather is conducive to storage. While the struggle against the elements to survive is a bitter one, it also comes with a blessing. Because the terrain and the climate are so difficult, there is no pressure from settled farmers, unlike what other nomadic groups in the region face. Agriculture is well-nigh impossible and thus remains very clearly a Chanpa turf!
The blessing comes with a rider though. Their constant movement is hardly conducive for any development programs of the government to be targeted towards them. Thus for most, they remain excluded from any of the welfare or protection schemes of the government. Life can get very grim, up in the icy terrain. The caravan of Changpas often encounters. mishaps. Their tents are swept off their poles by the strong winds or they see their animals die due to heavy snowfall
They have to necessarily contend with sickness, injury even death. At such moments of even tragedy, the caravan cannot stop. The movement, momentum has to be kept up, no matter what the cost, animal or human. Many times, it is the elderly who simply die. Sometimes it is children. What could be more torturous or traumatic for parents to lose their child and carry on regardless? It is not only the climate or terrain that is harsh for the Changpas.
There are other calamities that the Changpa stoically faces. Often it is the man of the house who migrates to the higher pastures, with the livestock leaving his family at a safe place with adequate food, fodder and firewood supplies. Neither has anyway of knowing immediately of any accident, sickness or even death has befallen their loved ones. It may be 3-4 days, for the information to reach. It is just the way things are. There seems no way it could be any different, not for the previous generations, not for the Changpas now.
No doubt, the absence of health care and medical services is glaring. Education too has taken a big hit. The very mode of life of this nomadic group runs contrary to the current concept of education as it is for thousands of children across the country. How can the Changpa children even conceive of a school building, teachers, classes and extra-curricular activities? They will live their lives as nomads, shepherds, never perhaps knowing the discipline of study, nor the value of an education. Never knowing that things could be different in the world beyond the Changthang plateau. ( Pollution in River Jhelum )
All their learning comes from the path and the life pattern handed down over hundreds of years. Of course the learnings are vast, immeasurable the life-skills, best practices to sustain, conserve their meagre resources, pitted against what is easily one of the harshest climes and terrains in this Himalayan zone. Changpas inhabit a world that is unknown and unseen to much of humanity outside the Changthang plateau. There is inevitability to the pattern of life here and there is no question of 'choosing' an alternate to the nomadic way of life.
Yet the gnawing question still remains: will the children and indeed the future generations continue to live the same way, a life of pristine value and worthy of the highest respect, yet one that remains outside the purview of development? Is it fair that the robust Changpa children will continue to roam the heights in search of fodder much like their parents and grand-parents, sans the skills and knowledge that is within the reach of others in the state? To enable this generation of Changpas to make informed choices about their lives and destinies would indeed be laudable. It could chart a different course of life for the quintessential wanderers who live a life that others may not even dare to dream.