High in mountains of Ladakh in the Changthang plateau, live the Changpa nomads. Away from the noise of the world, these semi-nomadic human beings live a life of hard work and abundant peace. The word ‘Changpa’ means northerners, and indeed, they do justice to this name like no one else.
They live in the northernmost part of India, high up in the mountains of Ladakh. Where no human being could live for more than a few days, the Changpa nomads have been living here for decades, not only surviving but thriving as well.
It’s not an easy life for the Changpa nomads, but beauty and grace shine through the lives they live. There is something so simple and yet divine in the way these humble beings of the earth live their lives. It is truly a heart-warming and soul-touching experience to have a peek into their lives and get to know the beautiful, humble beings known as Changpa nomads.
Meet the Changpas
The Changpas are some of the humblest and simple-hearted human beings you will meet in your life. You feel comfortable in their presence, and within a short period, as you get to know them, you start to feel like home.
The Changpa men are the head of the family, but the women, they are the foundation of the family. The men are strong and kind. The women are nurturing and hard working. Both men are women on the family who work tirelessly with an innocent devotion to create a good life for them and their cattle.
Some of the older Changpa women even love singing and sing their traditional cultural songs with a lot of love and joy. Even though the Changpa’s live a hard life, joy is abundant in their lives, and you always see a smile on their face as if they are forever connected to the divine spirit of life.
Some children of the Changpa nomads stay back with their families to help out with the cattle and home chores. Some children are studying and working in Leh and other parts of the country.
This is a growing situation among the Changpa nomads, where most of the kids now prefer to live in the cities and seek out a comfortable life in the cities instead of staying back in Changthang and living the hard life.
Education is given a high priority in Ladakh, and most of the Changpa kids are sent to boarding schools to study. So, it is not surprising that they choose to live in cities after their education instead of living in the high altitudes of Ladakh, where life is adventurous but not easy.
A winter’s day in Changthang
Since the Changpas live at high altitudes in Ladakh, crops do not grow at these high altitudes. So, the main way through which the Changpas survive is by raising their cattle, which includes goats, sheep, and yaks.
The life of the Changpa nomads is hard because they spend all their time during the day taking care of the cattle and their produce.
A typical winters day starts around 7 am where the female member of the family is first to wake up and collect some cow dung known as ‘gobar’ to start the fireplace known as ‘Bukhar’ and make some tea for the family.
After this, they attend to the cattle. The yak children and females are held back at the house settlement while the make yaks are sent to graze in the mountains. After the baby yaks drink some milk from the mother yaks, the female yaks are milked, and that milk is used to make butter, curd, and cheese. Milk forms an integral part of the diet of the Changpas and is considered holy in their culture.
In the winters, it is a long and tedious process to make these milk products though it is a highly interesting process to learn and observe. The Changpas have now become masters of this process.
The main source of income for the Changpas is cattle, which includes sheep and goats. These cattle provide meat, wool, and pashmina for the Changpas to sell. The Changpas wool and pashmina is loved not only in Ladakh but all over the world.
The Pashmina wool, also known as cashmere, is obtained from a special type of goat known as ChangRa and is famous throughout the world. The ChangRa goat is indigenous only to the Changthang plateau, which is why this is the only place this famous Pashmina wool can be obtained.
The main activity for the Changpas every day is to take their sheep and goat out in their mountains to graze and roam.
Apart from milk and milk, the staple food for the Changpas is Tsampa, which is roasted barley flour. Usually eaten along with butter and tea, the Changpas love their Tsampa.
Faith and Festivals of Changthang
The Changpas are down to earth people. Religion and spirituality play a significant role in the lives of the Changpa nomads. The Changpas follow Buddhism and a deep connection to the divine spirit of life. Rituals and prayers are a big part of the Changpas lives.
Buddhism teaches non-violence, and the Changpas have to kill their animals and sell them off for meat, which leaves them feeling sinful. And so, they devote a huge portion of their day reciting prayers and rituals to redeem themselves.
The Changpas have their own festivals that they celebrate with joy and enthusiasm. One of the main purifying poojas’ the Changpas perform is known as Jyabten and make different kinds of food as an offering to Lord Padmasambhava.
Their festival Tangpe Chao is lively and vibrant and signifies a beautiful celebration of life and destruction of evil.
The Changpas nomads move during winter to different settlements, which are much safer during large amounts of snow. This is a particularly challenging time for the Changpas as food and water become a huge problem during the winter months.
The moving of the Changpa nomads for the winter months is a beautiful experience to witness and experience. It leaves you feeling awe and respect for the Changpa people as they make their move in the winters and even in such hard times treat their cattle with so much love and respect.