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Meet the Kharnak nomads, who brave the harshest terrains to produce pashmina wool

Tashi’s aunt serves butter tea.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

It’s a clear, sunny afternoon. The gravel crunches under my boots, and the sun overhead is baking my skin to a crisp here at an altitude of 4,700 meters.

I look around at the infinite stretch of treeless flatness. It is just blues and browns.

I notice a slight movement. I am not alone. A kiang is curiously staring at me.

I am in Ladakh’s Moore plains, halfway through a hike to Zara, the summer abode of the Kharnak nomads.

These highland grazers brave some of the harshest conditions on earth to produce one of the finest things you can touch, pashmina wool. They are one of the four major Changpa tribes that collectively produce over 80% of India’s pashmina wool. These devout Buddhists scale dizzying heights of the arid Changthang Plateau in Eastern Ladakh, with their families of pashmina goats, sheep and yaks, which they believe are sacred beings bestowed upon them by the gods.

The beautiful but punishing landscape where only the Kharnaks and their livestock thrive.

The beautiful but punishing landscape where only the Kharnaks and their livestock thrive.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana


Zara is dotted with stone-walled pens and coarse woollen tents coughing up clouds of smoke. Each tent has heaps of flattened yak dung by its entrance. The air smells putrid. But the rosy-cheeked toddlers are giggling and rolling in the dirt. Older men and women yell julley (hello) in greeting.

The rebu home

A short, robust man, his broad shoulders wrapped in a traditional maroon sheepskin overcoat or goucha, greets me. His skin is sun-weathered, his hands work-hardened, his clothes soiled. He introduces himself softly as Tashi.

I begin my breathless rant: I am here to learn about his community and pashmina goats; I will only observe them from far and not be a burden; I have supplies for two weeks. I am interrupted by a light chuckle, and Tashi extends his hand in greeting, an invitation I don’t need twice. Under many curious eyes, I set up camp on a green spongy patch by the river. When I am done, Tashi invites me for a cup of tea.

The rebu, a brown yak-wool tent, is home to the Kharnaks. Crouching through its pygmy entrance, I enter a three-meter wide dugout. Light filters in through the tent’s weave, and the bare earth serves as floor. On the east is the only decorated portion of the tent, the praying area. Statues and images of Buddha and Gyalwang Drukpa are placed on an ornate stone pedestal.

Mud and tin stoves are set up in the centre, with dirty woollen carpets on either side serving as a place to sit by the day and as mattresses by the night. The life possessions of an entire family lie bundled along the sides: clothes, utensils, food, water and god are all these nomads need and have, forcing even a self-acclaimed minimalistic like myself to look away in embarrassment.

We talk over a cup of milk tea, followed by a bowl of creamy curd, some homemade wheat bread, and endless cups of gur-gur (butter tea). It turns out that Tashi is as intrigued about my life as I am about his.

An elderly shepherd with his flock.

An elderly shepherd with his flock.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana


Tashi tells me he lives with his in-laws, a practice common among Ladakh’s Buddhist communities. It is a small and happy family of five: his wife, his in-laws, and a bright-eyed three-year old daughter, Jigmet, who sneaks a peek from behind her father every now and then — she has never seen anyone like me before.

We are literally in the middle of nowhere: there is no road, electricity, toilet, phone connectivity, let alone a hospital or school. “So how will she study,” I ask. “We will send her to a hostel in Leh, when she is six or seven,” Tashi replies.


Sixteen families

The Kharnaks are an ageing tribe, shrinking with every year. Children who leave to study seldom return. Reduced now to just 16 families, the bare-bone nomadic lifestyle stands no chance against the pull of the city. “It’s just grandparents, kids and us. The middle generation is missing,” Tashi says with a deep sigh, as Jigmet jets past me into her grandmother’s arms.

Each of the 16 families rears a herd of at least 500, roughly comprising 400 pashmina goats, 100 sheep and a dozen yaks. Everything I inquire about invariably traces its roots to the livestock — food, tent, clothes, migration schedule, fuel, all the way down to the woollen carpets they sleep on. Their herd is their only lifeline.

By dusk the shepherds begin to return home and the place suddenly comes to life. Now I can barely hear the sound of the gushing river through the cumulative bleats of a thousand goats. Wave upon wave of livestock storm in like a tsunami of fluff. Naughty lambs refuse to enter their stone-wall pen. Mother yaks grunt and pound in panic, trying to find their little ones. Over 7,000 goats, sheep and yaks converging is unsettling, but it doesn’t faze them one bit, as each family member goes about their designated role.

It’s dark by the time everything and everyone is in place. Back in their tents, people share the day’s stories over dinner. The men are huddled on one side, the women sit on the other side, chopping, cooking and garnishing everything with cheese. Dried yak-dung cakes are fed intermittently into the fire. The household, which has been quiet all day, now erupts with chatter and laughter. The men speak a little broken Hindi, but the women and children don’t understand a word. Nevertheless, we manage.

Playing shepherd

Aping the tribe, my days begin at dawn. By seven every morning, with a packed lunch strapped to my shoulders, I am off with either Tashi or his wife, who alternate grazing duties. The in-laws stay back with Jigmet.

I thought being a shepherd was a relaxed affair: sitting under a tree, playing the flute while sheep graze in the meadow and a river flows by. But in this high-altitude desert, trailing a 500-strong contingent from dawn to dusk, hunting for patches of green, I realise it’s no extended siesta.

Sonam is all smiles, surrounded by her woolly friends.

Sonam is all smiles, surrounded by her woolly friends.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana


But with the views and company on offer, I am not complaining. Heading out in a different direction every day, I am treated to vast, indescribable vistas.

The sheepdogs guard the front flank of the herd, mostly against the Himalayan wolf, and we are in charge of the rear. Tashi animatedly narrates a fierce battle he once witnessed, where dogs mounted a counter-attack and forced an entire pack of wolves to retreat.

My week-long internship as a shepherd is progressing promisingly. I have picked up a couple of whistle commands and mastered the art of shooting the bandook or slingshot. It’s a long rope with a webbed pocket in the middle to hold the stone, and when hurled with the right technique the stone shoots out with a thunderous roar, whistling past the heads of rebellious herds. The imminent revolt is immediately quelled, and the timorous runaways rejoin the herd.

As the shadows lengthen, it is time to head back. Recharged from an hour-long siesta, we leap into action, sprinting along the ridge and firing our bandooks, straight out of the Wild West, and gather the herd in under an hour.

But it’s no fun and games; running sprints at altitudes where the air barely grips the surface feels like an unending asthma attack. But I didn’t realise that enduring this week-long ordeal had earned me the respect of the tribe, elevating me in the hierarchy, way above the other tourists.

Home stay

Having earned my stripes, I decide to spend the next week with the elders. In this Shangri-la, physical ageing seems limited to a few wrinkles and grey hair. The body and spirit don’t seem to age. By the end of the week, we are hanging out like old friends, and the kids no longer scream in horror on seeing me.

A little lamb gets an injection as a curious Jigmet looks on.

A little lamb gets an injection as a curious Jigmet looks on.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana


The day begins early with prayers and lighting of butter lamps. The Kharnaks are devout Buddhists from the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism; they are not followers of the Dalai Lama but the Gyalwang Drukpa. Or, as they put it, “We are the red hat sect, not the yellow hat sect.” Watching a toothless, white-haired lady devotedly perform non-stop prostrations for well over half an hour in this rarefied altitude, I sit questioning both my faith and fitness as I sip my butter tea.

Every member in the Kharnak family has their place and job, even the dogs. The women undeniably do the lion’s share of the chores. Their gruelling routine begins with milking the herd, then serving breakfast.

The herd dispatched, they attack the milk and wool as if there is no tomorrow. Tucking the sulma (traditional gown) between their legs, they sit cross-legged on the floor. With a goatskin bag in hand, they rock like persons possessed. This goes on for hours until the curd finally relents and turns into butter. The butter is strained and the viscous lumpy residue poured into a wide container to be boiled into cheese.

Later, when the sun is overhead, the women step out, covered from head to toe, and settle down with friends. They spin, weave, chatter, while closely watching over the children and the cheese that’s been put out to dry.

The men are relatively free, especially since shearing season is over. They fill the water canisters, they get a wooden spindle and spin raw wool into rope, and then collapse in a huddle in the sun. It means they are free to answer my endless questions.

The Kharnaks are known for raising the finest pedigree of pashmina goats, or Changra. I ask one of the elders how they produce the pashm. Chuckling, he says, “We don’t, the Changra goats do. While the rest of the shepherds descend during the winters, we don’t. We spend our entire lives here at heights of 4,600 meters or above. Temperatures plummet to -30° Celsius,” he says, with a certain pride, his chapped lips and freckled face a living testament.

Cool coat

But it is this biting cold and dry air that gives the goat its thick warm undercoat, called pashm. Come spring and the pashmina goats naturally shed this fine undercoat, which is then brushed off with metal combs. Each goat sheds around 200 grams of pashm, which will fetch ₹2,500 per kilo, while the sheep and yaks produce an additional 1.5 kg and 4 kg of wool, fetching ₹150 and ₹350 per kilo, respectively.

A grandfather and grandson from the ageing tribe.

A grandfather and grandson from the ageing tribe.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana


It may seem like good money, but it hasn’t always been this way. The international fashion rage in the early 90s elevated pashmina to cult stature. As demand rocketed, so did the prospects of the invisible highland pastoral nomads. And from sheep being their primary livestock, at a 4:1 ratio with pashmina, the ratio is now the opposite.

You can see this new-found prosperity in the presence of a handful of pickup trucks parked outside some tents. Roads are yet to reach this part of the world, but the near-flat plateau works well for these off-roaders.

But the winters in defence of which the pashm sprouts is brutal. Rivers freeze and pastures are under snow. The herd through this five-month period is dependent on the nomads for food. The weakened herd is usually at least down by 15-20 animals on the other side of this cruel season. Of course, nothing is wasted in this region of scarcity. The meat of the dead sheep is sun-dried and serves as food through the year, while the skin is used in coats.

The Kharnaks and the Changra co-exist and co-depend cyclically in this unforgiving terrain. I realise how their lives are stripped to the bare minimum.

They say change is the only constant, and it is only a matter of time before modern living makes inroads into the Kharnak’s lives. The change might be gradual, but it is certain.

The travel writer and photographer is on a mission to explore and share India.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 11:26:09 AM |

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