Glimpses of the endangered nomads of northern India

Fitting a small stone into a yak wool sling, Tsering Stobdan whipped his wrist and let the object fly, sending it soaring across the bar...


Fitting a small stone into a yak wool sling, Tsering Stobdan whipped his wrist and let the object fly, sending it soaring across the barren landscape. This, he told me, is how he protects his herd from predators and convinces stray goats to return – one of the countless skills he has learned over the past 60 years that allow him to raising his animals in such an unforgiving landscape.

Meanwhile, at some 15,000 feet above sea level, I was just trying to breathe. Here, on the Changthang Plateau, in a remote region of the Indian Himalayas, the altitude had left me dizzy and out of breath.

Tsering Stobdan is a member of a nomadic community known as the Kharnak, who for centuries herded yaks, sheep and goats on the high plains of Ladakh in northern India, one of the the most spellbinding – though harsh and inhospitable – on earth.

I first visited the area in 2016, in the middle of a long overland journey from Cambodia to Berlin. Passing through Nagaland, in northeastern India, I met a man from Himachal Pradesh, a state bordering Ladakh, who told me about the beauty of the Himalayas and nomadic habits people who lived there. Based on his stories, I rented a motorbike and headed to Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

In Leh, I was put in touch with a young member of the Kharnak community who took me to meet his family on the Changthang plateau. I explained my interest in their culture and my intentions to document their daily life. During my month-long stay, they welcomed me graciously and allowed me to participate in almost every aspect of their life.

In 2019, I returned to Ladakh to visit the families I had met three years earlier. This time, I stayed for more than six weeks, moving between nomadic settlements in the community and a small town on the outskirts of Leh.

Once a thriving tribe, the Kharnak community is now in decline. Younger generations are sent to nearby towns, where they can find better health care and educational opportunities. And while pashmina, the lightweight wool shorn from the bellies of Himalayan mountain goats, is a profitable commodity, life in the mountains is extraordinarily difficult, especially in winter.

Today, there are less than 20 families left to care for nearly 7,000 sheep and goats, as well as several hundred yaks. And, like Tsering Stobdan, many of those who remain are aging and less able to cope with the daily demands of their jobs.

Climate change has also had a profound effect on the Kharnak way of life. The weather has become more difficult to predict, rain patterns in particular. Due to warming temperatures and the overuse of some pastures, areas that were once vegetated are now barren. Small glaciers, which for centuries provided a reliable source of water, are retreating.

As a result, Kharnak herders are forced to move their flocks more frequently and with less certainty.

Among these nomadic communities, families and animals live in close interdependence. Milk from sheep, goats and yaks – processed into cheese, yoghurt and butter – forms the basis of the dairy diet.

The life of the Kharnaks is difficult all year round. During the longer days of spring and summer, shepherds milk and shear their animals early in the morning before grazing them, often walking more than 20 km a day at altitude. Another round of milking and shearing takes place in the evening.

But the work does not stop there. Food must be cooked, sheds tended, carpets woven, ropes made, manure collected for fuel.

The real challenges, however, come in winter, when temperatures drop below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Roads are often blocked and food is scarce. During these long months, from November to April, the cattle are confined in shelters and fed with animal feed provided by the government.

During the winter, most Kharnak move temporarily to a town called Kharnakling, on the outskirts of Leh, about 90 miles from their highland pastures. While they are away, they leave their livestock in the hands of a few family members and paid herders, who look after the animals during the toughest months of the year.

To pay for their homes in Kharnakling, many nomads had to sell their animals and leave behind their traditional stone houses and tents in the mountains. And more and more frequently, community members stay in Kharnakling all year round, having abandoned their old way of life.

At their home in Kharnakling, I spoke with a Kharnak elder and one of his grandsons. Dawa Tundup, who was 83 when I met him, had left his nomadic life to settle near the city, where he could live more comfortably and with better access to health care. He remembered his days in the highlands and dreamed of returning, he said, but acknowledged that life there had become untenable for most young people, given the lack of proper schools. .

Karma Tsiring, his grandson, had studied in Chandigarh, a city about 250 miles to the south. While he acknowledged that his life is in many ways easier than his grandfather’s, he also spoke of new forms of pressure that his family members never had to deal with in the past. face.

Everything in the city is about money, he lamented, adding that many urban values, centered on consumerism, were very different from the value system taught by his ancestors back home.

Later, as I attended a series of traditional festivals held in the mountains, I saw young men performing age-old herding techniques, including throwing stones on horseback. Here, the interest of the younger generations in the culture of their elders was palpable, as most of them had come from the city for this single event.

There were no winners or losers during the festivities. Instead, runners were given a shot of chhang, a local Ladakh beer, and a khata, a traditional Tibetan scarf, each time they hit their targets.

It was a heartwarming scene: tribal elders instilling hard-won wisdom in their eager descendants.

Yet one of the biggest concerns of the Kharnak is that their vast storehouse of nomadic wisdom – the specific types of grass certain animals need to survive, the way meat is dried and preserved, the way temporary shelters can be built with meager materials, among thousands of other examples – will be lost in the years to come.

Faced with a generational exodus and the threats of climate change, their rich culture, accumulated over centuries, can vanish in the blink of an eye.

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