For the grass that you’ve just eaten, oh goat,
Give us some good pashm,
For the water that you’ve just drunk, oh goat,
Give us some good pashm,
Sit down on the grass and be still, oh goat,
So that we can take out your pashm
These lines penned by Monisha Ahmed in her book Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond succinctly summarise the worth and value of a Pashmina goat in the eyes of the herder. Metaphorically, even the world is at the behest of this goat that produces pashm, which is an object de art in the elite circles and rightly so.
This song is characteristic to Changpas, who reside in the cold mountains, and are nomadic pastoralists and are inhabitants of either Tibet or the Changthang region of Ladakh. This vast terrain is scattered with mountains and valleys and is a sight to behold, though it is desolate and cut off from civilisation. For centuries, these men have been herding these prized goats, who run Kashmir’s famed shawl industry.
The Changpas are habituated to extreme temperatures and reside at high altitudes, ranging from 3,600 to 4,500 metres, where temperatures can easily plummet to minus 50 degrees Celsius. According to estimates, they are not more than 9000.
Though they are commonly referred to as Changpas, don’t assume that they are a single community. Their groups are divided basis their place of origin and each unit has a chief and marked grazing areas. Some accounts suggest that there are 14 such groups residing in Ladakh and these vary in size from 20 to 176 families.
It is intriguing to know that each of these units has a specific name. For instance, there’s one that’s called Rupshu, which consists of roughly 120 families. While there are some variations, most of them lead the same living and their practices do not differ as such.
A sneak peek into Changpa Life
Though pastoralism is the mainstay for most of them, there are some who are also involved in agriculture and are the owners of some of the highest arable lands in the world. Generally, the livestock comprises sheep, pashmina goats and at times, yaks. According to official records, in 2007, the number of pashmina goats kept by these Changpa men was about 170,590. These goats were shredded to make handmade Handmade Cashmere Scarf and other Pashmina Products.
Till the 1960s, Ladakh was not in the limelight and it was western Tibet that supplied pashm for the shawl industry in Kashmir. Later, due to conflicts between China and Tibet and greater accessibility to the Indian plains, the trading patterns witnessed a shift. Today, the scenario is completely different, since it is these Changpas, because of whom the industry in Kashmiri land is thriving.
Since the early days, the Changpas move along with their herds from one grazing pasture to another. There are some accounts that suggest that the Changpas might also be of Tibetan origin, who herded sheep and cattle in eastern Central Asia all the way up till the northwest borders of China.
As far as their origin is concerned, there doesn’t exist much documentation apart from local accounts and folklore. There are several monasteries in Ladakh dotted with wall paintings as well as rock carvings that give out information that the Changthang region was inhabited by hunters and courtly men.
There’s a lot more to tell…
These Changpas follow Tibetan Buddhism and mostly belong to the Drukpa sect. Generally, each family sends their son to become a monk at any of the monasteries in the region. They are supporters of the cosmic structure that are separated into three tiers. The uppermost level is inhabited by the gods, the lowest by spirits of the aquatic and subterranean worlds. Some say that people and animals live between the gods and spirits, which as lore suggests, is also inhabited by demons. There are different colours defined for each set: white for heaven, red for earth and blue for the aquatic and subterranean world.
For the Changpas, their animals are sacred, and they believe that it is God who has showered them with these species. Each flock has some animal representations who are selected for the different colour sets. They are chosen basis their strength and colour. For example, the white animal is dedicated to the gods, the one with a hint of blue to the spirits and brown to the demons.
Among the Changpas, their wealth is defined basis the number of animals they own in their herd. Earlier, they preferred to keep more sheep than goats, since they could barter wool for grains. Gradually, the situation has changed. The Pashmina goats are now considered a symbol of economic prosperity. The yaks were earlier given the highest status, but with their number declining, the spotlight is now on the goats.
As a practice, earlier sheep and yak were offered during religious ceremonies to gods, demons and spirits. This has changed now, and these goats are held in high regard.
Though the world has changed beyond words, the life of these Changpas remains sheltered till today. They go about their daily work just as a ritual and this is the way they function. Untouched by modernity, little do they know that the world is literally at their feet. No wonder, pashmina is known as the diamond fibre and the herders are as special!
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