Ladakh’s lessons of balance

Designer Deepshikha Khanna of Good Earth spends eight days in Ladakh and comes back with sheep wool shawls and a deeper appreciation of true sustainability

Updated - August 04, 2023 07:56 pm IST

Published - August 04, 2023 11:46 am IST

(L-R) Deepshikha Khanna in Changthang; a wool shawl from Lena Looms; and one of the low doorways of Ladakhi buildings that help retain heat

(L-R) Deepshikha Khanna in Changthang; a wool shawl from Lena Looms; and one of the low doorways of Ladakhi buildings that help retain heat

There’s a pre- and post-Ladakh version of myself. I’m forever changed by what I have learned from its topography, its people and its history. I have a deeper understanding of what it means to be sustainable, why it is important to preserve age-old techniques and traditions as a way of life, and how all of this forms the language of the aesthetic of a particular region.  

On an eight-day Pashmina Trail (organised by Shoba George of The Extra Mile, and Mantra Himalaya) last month, I witnessed how palpable nature’s influence is on every aspect of life in this mountainous region: be it the pursuit of agriculture that’s limited to a mere four months of the year or the locally-sourced materials used in construction.

Old Ladakhi structures are juxtaposed with newer ones that continue to borrow techniques from the past. Poplar wood, for instance, still finds its purpose as insulation between roof slabs in monasteries and homes. The distinctive technique of building with thick rammed earth walls endures, preserving the wisdom of storing heat during the day and slowly releasing it at night. Even the size of the doors hold meaning — low doorways encourage humility and respect, inviting visitors to bow before entering.

Old Ladakhi buildings juxtaposed with newer ones

Old Ladakhi buildings juxtaposed with newer ones | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

Walking into the Leh home of Catherine Allié and Tsering Angtak — the founders of We are KAL, a portal that retails mindful fabrics — I was struck by how the earthy aesthetic of plastered mud interiors had a contemporary feel, one that reminded me of the minimalism of the West. Their home, where the materials merge into one another and into the landscape, is also their studio where they continue their efforts of keeping the craft of weaving local wools alive.

The typical colour palette of a home in Ladakh, with plastered mud interiors, yak wool carpets, and the local wood furniture

The typical colour palette of a home in Ladakh, with plastered mud interiors, yak wool carpets, and the local wood furniture | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

Changpas and yak wool tents

Midway through the trip, we ascended to 15,000 feet, and the harsher terrain of the Changpa nomad tribe in Changthang unfolded, revealing tents made of yak wool. Our guide, Siddarth Pradhan, explained that the fabric is not only insulating, but also possesses water-resistant properties, enabling them to travel every two months, looking for sustenance for their livestock.

The soothing colour palette of Ladakhi textiles stood out. They are derived from the natural shades of wool of the yaks, sheep, and mountain goats, and come in varying hues of cream, beige, brown and black. Interestingly, as one journeys higher, the colours deepen, an intentional adaptation for absorbing heat in the colder regions. In sharp contrast are the striking red robes of the Buddhist monks which, in ancient times, were probably dyed using the saffron that grew in abundance there. 

In the terrain of the Changpa nomads

In the terrain of the Changpa nomads | Photo Credit: Siddarth Pradhan

The natural shades of sheep wool

The natural shades of sheep wool | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

The pashmina goats of Ladakh. For every kilo of wool one gets only 50% of usable wool

The pashmina goats of Ladakh. For every kilo of wool one gets only 50% of usable wool | Photo Credit: Siddarth Pradhan

As the Changpas worked in the harsh conditions, Dolma — a weaver who is related to Angtak from We are Kal — showed me a stunning sheep wool shawl in beige and cream. I was struck by the quality and finish of what was produced in this remote area by a person who is informed only by nature.  

Dolma is a Changpa nomad. Her family is one of the few that continue the tradition of pashmina weaving

Dolma is a Changpa nomad. Her family is one of the few that continue the tradition of pashmina weaving | Photo Credit: Rahul Patel

A traditional sheep wool rug with a very contemporary aesthetic 

A traditional sheep wool rug with a very contemporary aesthetic  | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

But there’s also a sombre reality: many ancient crafts such as pashmina shawl weaving, coppersmithing in Chiling Sumda village, pottery in Likir, and stoneware from Turtuk are fading. Sadly, despite globalisation — and how everything is now available everywhere — there isn’t a structure in place to market these products to the European or American markets where the Ladakhi aesthetic would fit seamlessly.

A beautiful sheep wool rug that I bought from a Changpa

A beautiful sheep wool rug that I bought from a Changpa | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

Rituals with copper and clay

The more you journey through the region, the more age-old practices you encounter, particularly in the monasteries. Take the art of making tea and cooking in clay vessels. The tea is mixed with butter, sugar and salt in a long wooden or copper tubular vessel with a churning ladle to make the renowned salty tea known as gur gur chai. It is served in a traditional clay or copper teapot.

A wooden tea maker displayed at the Central Asian Museum in Leh

A wooden tea maker displayed at the Central Asian Museum in Leh | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

Copper spoons and saucepan used to make gur gur chai

Copper spoons and saucepan used to make gur gur chai | Photo Credit: Deepshikha Khanna

Stone and copper vessels that are still used in Ladakhi kitchens

Stone and copper vessels that are still used in Ladakhi kitchens | Photo Credit: Rajiv Purohit

In Ladakh, we dropped by Alchi Kitchen, which is run by the award-winning chef Nilza Wangmo. The all-women restaurant has a traditional Ladakhi kitchen, and I came across small copper saucepans with long handles — used to mix the butter and salt into the hot tea — and hammered copper spoons.

Traditional clay ovens and stone furnaces provide warmth and also serve as cooking tools. You can spot these in Leh’s bakers’ lane, Chutay Rantak, with its traditional water mills built by the Baltis in the 17th century, and Kashmiri bakers baking breads such as khambeer in their tandoor ovens.

An old oven still in use to make the local bread

An old oven still in use to make the local bread | Photo Credit: Rahul Patel

For me, a journey through Ladakh was not just an exploration of craft and design but an immersion into the very essence of human existence, balancing nature and life.

The writer is the creative director at Good Earth’s FLOW.

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