As winter descends on the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, the world of the Changpa nomads transforms as drastically as the landscape of this high-altitude cold desert. The Changpas stay off modernity, knowing full well that their SUVs will be rendered useless by the cold and their gas cylinders are no match to temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius. And yet, for these guardians of the Changthangi, or pashmina goats, retreating to lower altitudes and more merciful climes are no options. Rather, they seek out the cold, the elemental ingredient essential to trigger the growth of the fine coat of the goats. And for it, they embrace a lifestyle honed to perfection over centuries and based on a beautiful symbiosis.
On the Changpas’ part, they set aside precious pasture through summer’s glut so the animals have enough food to survive winter. As good shepherds, they lead their flock through traditional migratory routes that ensure shortest distances between grazing grounds. They protect the goats from wild animals and feed and nurse the young when the mother goats run dry. In return, the animals offer them sustenance, giving milk and butter, meat, wool and hide. Even the fire that keeps their hearth warm is fuelled by goat droppings. When Changpa women set out to fetch water and do not want their infants left alone near an open fire, they set them in the middle of their animals, whose body heat keeps them warm. As with the lifestyles of so many of India’s nomadic communities, the Changpas’ too faces a multitude of threats, not least from changing weather patterns in Ladakh and the exodus of youth who set out to chart themselves a different future.
Oasis from snow: Pashmina goats, caught off-guard by a channel of ice-melt on the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, wait as one of their own struggles to make it across. They have to often walk 5 km from the camp to the grazing grounds. For the Changpas, water, not grazing grounds, decide where they set up camp.
Snowing and nothingness: A chorten, or a Buddhist shrine erected painstakingly by hand, is a good example of how the nomads spend their time between grazing sheep and lazing. This chorten is the result of several winters spent chiselling away at well-chosen rocks.
Man-animal harmony: The relationship between man and beast is tested during the winters. The Changpas share even the scarcest of Changthang’s resources with their animals.
Raised in the cold: Three-year-old Trinley has a face cracked by sub-zero temperatures and the relentless, icy wind.
Denizens of a desert: A thin veil of mist and dust covers yaks returning from a day of scant grazing. While Changpas reserve some of their traditional pasture for winter grazing, heavy snow can lay them waste. During such times, they give roasted barley to the animals.
Life on the move: A man poses with his chumurti ponies. For a nomadic tribe, horses hold a special significance, considered symbols of status and freedom and hence never tethered.
Snow and fluff: The Changpas depend on the pashmina goats for sustenance.