By Nandakumar Narasimhan
This is the second post from Nandakumar Narasimhan on his travels through the wintery Indian Himalayas. Part one can be found here.
On my second visit to the Indian Himalayas, once again in winter, I decided to try out something a bit more intrepid after having been privileged to always have a warm room at the end of every day the last time I was here. So this time I met up with people who live in tents and semi permanent dwellings even in the peak of winter where the mercury drops as low as -30C!
These hardy semi-nomadic people are called the Changpas. Against all odds they battle it out in the winter at an altitude of over 4,000 metres and living in tents or temporary rock dwellings. These groups of people roamed the Tibetan plateau and criss-crossed the nonexistent international borders half a century or more ago. Then of course, politics involving a few clowns in India, China and Britain, completely changed the world here, separating people and almost destroying their nomadic lifestyle. In fact, the Indian prime minister didn’t know people actually lived here until the humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Such was the apathy and ignorance on the part of the politicians.
When the lines were drawn, some Changpas were left behind in India while others were trapped in Tibet. The Tibetan exodus started coming to India in the early 1950s when they ran away from the massacring PLA. The lucky ones made it across with their sheep and cattle crossing over treacherous mountains and rapidly changing weather and entered India. An unknown number perished in the process. Of the many unofficial routes to India, I think these people possibly took the worst. Most Tibetans would attempt to enter via Nepal and then be escorted by the Indians into Dharamshala, the de-facto capital of the exiled Tibetan government headed by the 14th Dalai Lama.
The people I met, however, came here through some unknown mountain passes near Ladakh with no civilisation along the way and totally relying on whatever they could grab when they left their homes in Tibet. Must be weird, packing for a trip that you do not know is how long and from which there is almost no hope of returning back. In fact most of the older people I spoke to got here when they were five or six years old and they told me they will never see their homeland but pray that their kids would be able to go back.
If only they knew it is almost impossible. The Chinese government has no intention of leaving Tibet. You only have to look at the territorial disputes they have with the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Japan and India to see how they deal with territorial claims.
My interactions were with the Tibetan and Ladakhi Changpas who are now distinguished as separate people thanks to the mess created by the Chinese and Indians. The Ladakhi Changpas were originally Tibetan as well (since they roamed freely across the two areas) but over 50 years of separation has brought about marked differences in language and the Ladakhi Changpas only share 60% or so of the Tibetan vocabulary. As such, they are no longer the same nomads who criss-crossed the borders not so long ago. This was told to me by the few people I spoke to in this region. I have yet to verify the accuracy of this.
While I met some amazing people here, a combination of fatigue from extensive trekking (three weeks in Kyrgyzstan) resulted in a lack of communication on my part. I meticulously noted down the names of the people I met for the first few days but towards the end I started missing names and even forgot my notepad at one of the houses. My guides were not very helpful either because of their limited command of the Tibetan language.
Most people ask me about the type of equipment I bring on my trips and how I plan my locations. Its more important to pick a right guide than the right location or equipment in places like these because the places are all beautiful but the communication barrier is acute as you have to know at least two languages (Ladakhi and Tibetan) to ensure you get your message across or interpret the stories told by the people here. My guides were good at Ladakhi but their Tibetan translations left a lot of blanks in my notes.
I was better prepared in terms of camera equipment this time around. I had a very reliable Pentax 67II and a Pentax 645N, both running on lithium batteries. My Mamiya RB67 did die on an exceptionally cold morning the last time I was in Ladakh. I assume the lubricant on the shutter mechanism froze when the mercury went below -30 degrees C. With the Pentax cameras, no issue was encountered and they both worked flawlessly over the course of my stay here. As you would find out later, the only flaw lay with the photographer who could not optimise the equipment on some occasions to capture the necessary shots.
The Tibetan Changpas inhabit the region called Puga in Eastern Ladakh. They used to live in tents made from animal hide but nowadays they use disused parachutes form the Indian armed forces for making their tents. You can see the tents faintly in the background of the picture above. I’ll be showing you some pictures of the interior and exterior of these tents later on. But regardless of how they make their houses, their primary occupation (at least in winter) is to look after their goats and sheep. The world famous Pashmina wool is taken from these goats and people from all over Kashmir come here to buy these sheep.
The cashmere taken from these goats is unlike any other as it is extremely fine and smooth thread. In fact the word Pashmina has been used very loosely throughout the world but it’s only here that the wool is produced in its purest form and exported to the rest of the world. Most of the other “pashmina” you see in shops is generally a mix of normal wool, silk and other materials.
In summer they move around to other passes at higher altitudes for their animals to graze. But in winter they stay put at Puga. So they are no longer fully nomadic but semi-nomadic, since they stay put at one place in winter without moving their homes.
Both men and women bring the sheep out unlike some parts of Central Asia (where I was earlier) where only men do the shepherding in winter. This lady brought out a herd of around 100 sheep and ascended up a mountain. Running uphill with my camera and lenses was a bit of a pain at 4,200m altitude as breathlessness sets in pretty fast!
The Tibetan refugees are very well documented by both local and Western media so they are quite used to having cameras pointed at them. However the goats were not so comfortable having a camera in front of them. I tried at first to face them head on with a shorter 75mm lens but when they approached me the formation split into two and the shepherd had to reorganise them into a single group. She did it by flanking the group that went astray and getting them to rejoin the main group. I apologised to the shepherd and immediately switched to a longer lens and shot from further away.
Photographing the shepherds in the morning was a difficult task because the light was often too harsh by the time the shepherds came out with the sheep. As such I only had a few minutes of workable light to take the photos.
One of the most common feature in the kids I met in the Indian Himalayas was the perpetually running noses. Regardless of the state of water in the wells and rivers (frozen or liquid), the noses of the kids were always running a steady stream of loose mucus. No amount of cleaning and clearing the nose kept this in control. I tried to avoid photographing kids with their snot during my previous visits but I felt this would leave an important aspect of the Himalayan life unseen hence I photographed this kid with his perennially flowing nose.
Kids in the settlements also came out with the sheep and can be seen running around or riding reassembled bicycles. Reassembled because the handle bars and seats were kept in their places using wooden sticks that were shoved through the joints since all the nuts and bolts were gone. In the entire settlement I only saw one bicycle with functioning brakes on it. Deceleration and stopping was mostly achieved by putting down the feet and letting friction do its job. Its amazing how fast the kids moved around in these brakeless bicycles!
I had a couple of nights at Puga settlement and its a pity I couldn’t interact with enough people to get a better understanding of the situation the inhabitants were in. This is Mr. Kharab Dorje, a refugee from Tibet who came here when he was just five. He hails from Amdo in Tibet and possibly took the Zoji La pass to get to India from Tibet. He has sons and daughters all of whom study in other parts of India. It’s strange that kids who work as civil engineers and other prestigious jobs have parents living in temporary tents and moving around like nomads.
I asked Kharab how long it took him to get to India from Tibet. He told me it was a few weeks. He went on to say: “Even if it had taken a year we would have done it as the dangerous mountains were much better than what the Chinese were doing to us in Tibet.” He said he only has vague memories of the journey his family undertook and his parents took good care of him during the journey.
People often wish they were born during a time when there is no disease and suffering but I sometimes wish I was born a few decades earlier so I could have met these people much earlier and interacted with them when their memories and their ancestors were around to shed light on so many things.
if you ever read the international news media reporting about India, you would inevitably encounter stories after stories of corruption in the government, politicians abusing their power and off late the seeming indifference of politicians to the crimes occurring within the country.
Many Indians, of late, blame the congress government and the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, for the state of the country and all its problems. However both local and overseas news agencies are possibly not aware that the Indian government (under Nehru) sheltered these people (over 150,000 of them) in spite of them refusing voting rights and election cards. Schools and dwellings were made for them in three states in spite of the government knowing very well they wouldn’t be getting any votes from the settlers. The refugees also get food subsidies through a ration card that is issued to all families.
A Tibetan refugee’s child in India is able to learn Tibetan in the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) over and above learning the Indian education curriculum in the government school. So if they ever return to Tibet in the distant future, they will be able to carry on with their lives without a language or cultural barrier. I can’t imagine any other developing country doing this for refugees while expecting nothing in return. Of course, rapes and robberies are more newsworthy than ration cards and rescued refugees.
Tibetan Changpas build their houses out of parachutes (likely from the Indian Armed Forces). The tents they make are in some ways similar to yurts one finds in Central Asia. However these tents use far lesser wood and rely on strings (pegged to the ground) to keep the structure in place. The locals call them “rebos”. The tent you see here is considered to be quite big as it can accommodate an entire family and their belongings. Although it blocked winds quite well, it was never adequately warm for me. Like most Ladakhi houses, it had a stove at the centre of the tent but one had to sit really close to it to feel warm. So in spite of being indoors, we still had our layers on. Sleeping at night was more difficult as I had to stay inside my sleeping bag and even sticking my head out resulted in a frozen and blocked nose.
And of course, then the photography problems started. The entire floor of the tent is covered in a soft cushion material. So plonking my mammoth camera (Pentax 67) with the tripod never felt quite steady enough to land a shake free shot. That, together with a shutter speed of a second or so, only made matters worse. Kharab Dorje was extremely cooperative and stayed still for up to two to three seconds. I was half way through a Provia 100F slide roll in 220 format so changing film was not an option! In fact if you look at his closeup portrait and the looser shot here, his pose hasn’t changed much although the shots were taken around 10 minutes apart. Thats how still he was. If I had gotten a shaky or out-of-focus picture, I would have no one but myself to blame.
From the slightly grassy valley of Puga, I moved to the remote lake called Tso Kar situated on the Changthang plateau, where I spent another week meeting and shooting the shepherds. The Changpas living here are called Ladakhi Changpas as they have remained here since the separation of Tibet and most do not have any surviving relatives who have seen Tibet hence they are considered Ladakhi by race. Now the lake itself was almost frozen and this was the only area where a little bit of liquid water remained so I positioned my camera here for sunset and got this shot.
It was difficult for me to move around here despite it being a plateau. The car I had booked kept breaking down and I ended up covering large distances (10-15km) on foot carrying my heavy backpack. This together with a guide that wasn’t very prepared for the inclement weather and vehicle problems made things quite difficult.
I tend to only mention the difficulties encountered by the Himalayan people in winter but leave out some of the blessings of winter. Few. Very few. Meet Tschering Yangphel, a resident of Starsapok, a temporary settlement of the Ladakhi Changpa people on the banks of Tso Kar (Lake Kar).
He brings his sheep out to graze every morning. He almost cuts his travel time in half as the lake he would normally walk around gets totally frozen. It’s rock hard and strong enough to allow him and his sheep to cut right across instead of having to walk around. I met him in the morning after a 12km (8 mile) trek thanks to the car breaking down well ahead of our drop off point. I photographed Tschering standing on the lake with his sheep on the right. I asked him to pose for this portrait and he happily agreed even leaving his sheep behind.
So carrying two medium format cameras and a tripod (53kg of me and around 15kg of camera gear) while walking on the hard lake kinda gives you an idea of how frozen this lake gets in spite of it being a salt water lake. Salt is no longer extracted from this lake as the nomads do not have a way of iodising it.
The biggest problem was getting the camera high enough to separate the model from the background. In the photo of him walking everything seems to be flattened on one plane which made the image look rather flat. So I asked him to stand still and tried raising the camera to a higher elevation. And that portrait was the best I could do. Had the car not broken down I am sure it would have made for a great platform to position the camera and shoot that picture from higher up. But if wishes were horses….
He was very friendly and thanked me profusely for taking his picture. He also told me to visit him in summer when they move to the Taglang area (around 5,000 metres in altitude!). I told him if I do ever come back, it would very likely be in winter. I do hope to see him again.
As mentioned earlier, Changpas no longer follow a fully nomadic lifestyle and most have at least become sedentary during the winter months. However, while the Tibetan Changpas set up tents for the winter, the Ladakhi Changpas live in permanent and semi permanent houses made from mud and stones.
Here you see an example of a permanent home that is built form mud, much like the homes you saw in the earlier images of the Zanskar people. In the village of Thukje only the old people inhabit these houses in winter. In summer many of these houses become guest houses and homestay options for the tourists. There is little activity apart form weaving and keeping the fire in the oven burning to warm up the house. The younger inhabitants of the house live in another area around 20km away.
They (unlike the Tibetan Changpas) build temporary dwellings out of flat rocks. And in summer the most of the able-bodied inhabitants are further up the mountains to allow their sheep to graze. So to call them nomadic would be incorrect but then again they are not staying at any of their three “houses” for longer than three months so they are still nomadic however they are nomadic between three locations only.
The lady who inhabited this house didn’t speak much Hindi so it was difficult talking to her. The guide and driver were too lost in fixing the kerosene stove that had gone kaput over the last two days.
I wasn’t expecting anyone to walk in to the house when I made this 20-second exposure but serendipitously the lady walked in in the last five seconds of the exposure thus registering on the frame as a silhouette. I am definitely not a photographer who chases decisive moments but I do get lucky once in a while.
The owner of our “homestay” was very active despite her age (around 70) and did everything from collecting dried dung (for the oven) to cleaning and knitting. She sat outdoors under the sun when knitting to enjoy the heat (mildly noticeable heat) and have better visibility. She untangled the raw wool so her neighbour (seated behind) could help her spin the wool into a yarn that could then be used to make garments.
Daylight hours last from around 7am to 6:30pm. However being surrounded by mountainous peaks towering over 5,000 metres meant that the sun rays only reached these areas around 8am and got blocked by the mountains at 5:30pm. It made a world of a difference when the sun was visible and when it was not. The temperature would plummet rapidly once the sun was behind the mountains even though there was adequate daylight.
The houses used by the shepherds and goat herders in winter are basically just enclosures made by piling flat rocks on top of each other. In fact the floor is the bare ground with no surfacing unlike the more permanent houses. Layers of carpets are piled to make sitting comfortable. The carpets and blankets are also hung up on the wall as there is too little or no cement or mortar in between the stones which means air can find its way through very easily if not for the protective blankets.
These photos are of the house belonging to Tschering Yangphel, the gentleman who brought his sheep across the frozen lake in the earlier pictures. His wife (seen more clearly in the second photo) looked after us by constantly refilling our cups with milk and butter tea. We shared our afternoon lunch with her. It was the least we could do for all her kindness in keeping us hydrated and warm with the fire of the oven constantly refuelled. I then went over to her neighbours and met the most interesting person on this trip.
And there he was, Nawang Tharchen, the 66-year-old “superstar” of my trip. Meeting and chatting with him made me realise how much of my own childhood memories were almost lost forever. By sheer luck, I met the only other foreigner in this region who was an ethnographer researching on songs that were sung by the Ladakhis. When he asked me to take a picture of him with Nawang I thought it was a routine snap shot. But after I finished the shot, he asked Nawang to sing the oldest Ladakhi song he knew and the song he sung was a haunting melody about spreading auspiciousness to the world. The song was called ‘Tashi Shok’ and from what I understand Nawang would be among the last few generations that know this song.
Languages are becoming extinct a lot faster today than ever before. The people of Spiti Valley in India (also linked to Tibet by ancestery) nearly lost their Bhoti Language (in fact it is not written anymore and only exists in spoken form) with Hindi being the lingua franca for many people. In Ladakh, the Bhoti spoken (closer to Tibetan than the one spoken in Spiti) is spoken in many dialects. Most of the Changpas sent their kids to school in Leh (district headquarters of Ladakh) so the kids learn a different form of the language and only learn it as an academic subject.
So ancestral songs and music is slowly being forgotten by the younger generations. It doesn’t help that with smartphones and computers Ladakhis are also accessing music from all over India and the world, further pushing the local songs into obscurity. So Tashi Shok is only sung by people of Nawang Tharchen’s generation who couldn’t teach their kids the same song. So an entire generation of kids would be mildly alienated from their grandparents and parents with the vanishing of these songs.
I relate this very much to the demise of the Chinese dialects in Singapore where the government insisted that Mandarin be the only Chinese to be spoken, taught, and broadcasted in Singapore. An entire generation of grandparents possibly lost an important mode of communication with their grandkids and were possibly alienated. Quite a few of my school friends told me their grand parents rarely used Mandarin in their day-to-day conversations.
I also encountered this myself when one of the charities I was working with, sent elderly citizens to our studio for having their pictures taken. An old man in his 80s had a miscommunication with the head of the charity and started voicing his displeasure in Cantonese. When the coordinator replied him in Mandarin, he kept asking her to switch languages to Cantonese. Similarly, the older Ladakhis are losing another vital line of communication with their younger generation when they do not pass down these songs.
The songs are not taught in schools and they will be lost. I revisited Nawang’s house to record his song. No fancy recording equipment, just an iPhone that barely managed to finish recording the song before succumbing to the cold. He sang in tune almost fully except when clearing his throat mid way through a stanza.
I played the song for him and he gave the most satisfied smile on his face as he heard himself again. I always feel awkward listening to my own voice but Nawang was loving every moment of it. He laughed out loud at the end of it, a sign of his approval! His wife, Tashi Tsangmo, also laughed with him. I took the picture you see above outside his house when the sun was fairly high. The lighting inside the house was so dim, it required a six-second exposure. I got him to sit down with his wife and told him to keep still for six seconds.
It’s a pity when there is a fully cooperative model/subject but a photographer who can’t get his act together. It was so dim inside the house I had a nightmare of a time trying to focus on them. The shot below was perfectly shake free thanks to the models who kept still for six seconds. but the focus was totally off. I don’t know if an auto focus lens could’ve handled it better. I regretted mounting a manual focus lens (the only wide lens I had) and struggling with the dim light. I washed down my equipment frustration with tea and left his house. Nawang Tharchen’s voice can be heard on the sound clip below:
Recording his song made it feel like the purpose of my visit was fulfilled. Its strange because I set off for Changthang Ladakh expecting pictures of a certain kind but at no point did I feel like I had gotten what I had been looking for until I saw the satisfied smile on Tharchen’s face when I played him a recording of his own voice. It was a sound clip that gave me a sense of fulfilment than any picture I had shot on this trip. I have always felt that taking a photo should be the last item on the agenda when exploring places and culture in foreign countries. The camera becomes very much like a gun when pointed at people before some rapport has been built. It scares people, makes them wary and possibly even question your motive and purpose. And in this era of name and shame where people shoot photos and videos at even the smallest of misunderstandings, it has become an annoyance to see someone constantly shooting away without actually understanding where or what he is pointing his camera at.
Every picture I shot after meeting this extraordinary gentleman was a bonus. A few pictures to finish the series appear below. Fatigue had reached an all time high by now and I do not remember the names of most people I met.
This gentleman was very curious as to why I was crawling on the floor and trying to take pictures. I told him I was shooting pictures of the sheep and told him if he is okay I can take his pictures too. He asked if I was joking and I said no. He was happy to pose for a picture before rejoining his flock and returning home for the day. It was a fitting end to a hard day at work for both, him and me.
It was interesting shooting into the light with the dust from the sheep rising and blocking the mountains in the background. I thought this was a problem since the pretty background could not be captured. But when the photos came out I was pretty happy with the dust adding a kind of veil to the whole scene. I realised I got a bit carried away with shooting into the sun. Too many dusty frames!
This was the parting shot from the trip and it ended a lot better than my previous trip that had me leaving resigned and fed up from an over crowded event. There was no crowd here. Most locals thought I was pretty crazy to have turned up in winter and as I left I looked out of the car window and saw this view of Tso Kar. It was almost as if the yak was reminding me how different this trip was compared to the last. There were over a hundred photographers eager to shoot pictures who were possibly relieved to see one of their kind leave the area. Here, there was just this one yak that saw me off and possibly thought what I was doing in this frigid land in the middle of winter. It didn’t seem bothered at all that the rest of the herd was already at the lake’s shore. The lake had at least two months or longer before it melted and the yak was pretty sure it would be back home before that. There was no celebration, no other cameras, no crowds. Just me, my guides, this yak and the beautiful mountains that bid me farewell.
All photos are copyright Nandakumar Narasimhan and are not to be republished without his express permission.
You can also follow him on Instagram at @grumpy_oldman_
- Capturing a disappearing generation of Indian trains on film - 05/04/2021
- The Indian Himalayas on medium format (Part Two) - 29/03/2020
- The Indian Himalayas on medium format - 15/04/2019