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Tsering had a little lamb: Tsering Dorjai is the only herdswoman of Gya village

Good shepherd: Tsering Dorjai   | Photo Credit: Stanzin Dorjai

Last month Khenrab Phuntsog, wildlife guard at Hemis National Park in Ladakh, received a frantic telephone call. Could he urgently visit Gya, a remote village in Ladakh, and help the caller catch a couple of wild wolves that had attacked her sheep? The wolves had already killed four sheep in the last three days, the caller said.

So Phuntsog immediately set off with his colleague and reached Gya by late evening. And it was not hard to locate the house of the caller, Tsering Dorjai. She is after all the only herdswoman in the village and everyone knows her.

Untouched by fame

Tsering walks her flock of 300 sheep and pashmina goats on the high Himalayan plateaus. For this, she has to spend 11 months a year at an altitude of 4,500 to 6,000 metres, in temperatures ranging from -35°C to 35° C, with just her flock for company. Besides weathering the harsh conditions, she also faces the constant threat of wolves and snow leopards, waiting for an opportunity to attack the herd.

This does not intimidate her. “I chose this life. I love my sheep and goats. I know no other way of life,” says the 58-year-old shepherdess.

Inspired by her life, Tsering’s younger brother, Stanzin Dorjai, a filmmaker, decided to tell her story. He and his team followed Tsering for one year to capture her demanding way of life. The resultant documentary, The Shepherdess of the Glaciers, directed by Stanzin and Christiane Mordelet, won them the best director award at the Mountain International Film Festival, 2016, held in Autrans, France.

A slew of other awards at various international and national film festivals followed over the next two years. The documentary was recently screened at the ongoing 2021 Rising Gardens Film Festival as part of the annual One Billion Rising (OBR) celebrations saluting Indian women and their resilience. Feminist writer Kamla Bhasin, who is also the OBR India coordinator, says the film was chosen along with others because they showcase women with the courage to challenge existing practices and offer new perspectives on ways of living.

Tsering remains untouched by the fame. Although she is happy that some women were inspired by her to take up shepherding, she says they must also love their flock as their children. “It is the only way they can survive this tough job.”

Special bond

Even as a child Tsering shared a special bond with goats and sheep. With no school near her village, she spent most of her time tending to the animals. Although pastoralism is one of the main livelihoods in Gya, many from the younger

generation are giving it up, as they are unwilling to spend 11 months in a year camping alone with their flock in remote valleys. But giving up was never an option for Tsering. Earlier, Stanzin often accompanied her. Then, at the age of 14, he left Gya to attend a non-formal alternative school near Leh.

His sister, however, continued and when their father died, she took over the entire responsibility. Tsering, 27 at the time, had already spent 15 years herding the flock and knew the drill. Not only was she familiar with the lay of the land, especially the good grazing grounds, she had also learnt to cope with the problems that came with the job. She says, “I come down to my house in the village for one or two months a year. Every day in the mountains is a challenge. But my flock are like my children. How can I give them over to someone else just because conditions are difficult?”

Philosopher, guide

Tsering has turned down marriage proposals, opting

to stay single so that she can dedicate time to the flock. What does she do to ward off loneliness? “I converse with the sheep or turn on the radio, my only connection with the outer world,” she says.

Says Stanzin: “I gave her the radio many years ago. She listens to the news and weather forecasts. But I don’t think those are of much help considering the depth of her own knowledge. She knows every crevasse in the glaciers, all the plants that can be used for healing, and reads weather changes by the way the wind blows. My sister is a doctor, weather forecaster, veterinarian, botanist, Himalayan guide, philosopher and goatherd all rolled into one.”

It was these qualities that Stanzin wanted to bring out in his film. He was keen to show that women like Tsering are more than capable of entering a male domain and carrying forward the family and local tradition. But his sister wasn’t so sure that anyone would want to watch such a film. “I thought at first he was making a Bollywood film. Then he told me he wanted the world to see my life as a shepherdess. I told him nobody would spend time on such a film. It was only when he took me to France for the award acceptance ceremony that I realised how many people had watched the film. Yes, it made me happy. However, nothing can compare with the happiness I feel when I am with my flock.”

The writer is an independent journalist writing on development and gender.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 5:27:45 AM |

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