Allen Smutylo: 2003: Nomads of the Himalayas

[One in a series of trips, 1995 to 2013. Click images to enlarge.]

Nomads of the HimalayasIn the fall of 2003 I returned once again to Ladakh, this time going to it's eastern edge, along the Tibetan border. My friend, Phuntsog, (who had guided me in my treks into Zanskar) was travelling with the Kharnakpa as a teacher to their children. The Kharnakpa are a tribe of the famed Changpa, a group of the legendary nomads of the Himalayas.

The place I joined Phuntsog and the Kharnakpa was called Spanchen, located in a small glacial fed river valley which was barricaded on three sides by low, partially snow clad mountains. This was their temporary home. When their goats, sheep, yaks and horses had exhausted the local grassland the Kharnakpa would move on.

Nomads of the HimalayasThe scene that greeted my eyes could have been from the 12th century. The camp's two hundred men, women, infants, children and elderly were housed in tents called rebos, mostly woven from yak hair. Pungent white smoke of burning animal dung poured out of the open tops of many of the tents. In each 15 x 20 ft. rebo dwelt an extended family of 4 to 12 people.

I observed, painted, and photographed their daily chores of herding, collecting animal dung, washing clothes, cooking and child rearing. A drop spindle seems to be the women's constant companion as they spun wool while doing many of their other tasks. Most of their clothes, blankets, and brightly coloured carpets were woven by women on long narrow looms outside. While wandering the camp, I was often called over to small groups of 4 or 5 weavers, which seem to help enliven their discussions with joking and laughter.

Nomads of the HimalayasWith thousands of yaks, goats and sheep, milking was also part of the nomad's daily routine. The quantities of milk obtained, commenced a chain of added work for women, which included processing yogurt, cheese, curd and butter. Butter was churned by placing the milk inside a large goat skin bag, which was vigorously rocked by the women on their lap for about 2 hours.

I was particularly fond of the yogurt, and realizing this, a number of families soon started sending bowls of fresh yogurt to my tent every morning.

The Kharnakpa enjoyed a more varied diet than the farmers I was familiar with in Zanskar. Dairy products were obviously plentiful among the nomads. And even though they are Buddhist, and resist the idea of killing, they do eat lamb, goat and yak meat when needed. Flour is a purchased or a bartered item, used to make chang (an alcoholic drink), tsampa (roasted ground barley) and bread.

Bread baking was a simple procedure. Light some fine, dried animal dung outside the tent, wait until there are some coals and ashes, stick a piece of dough into the centre, retrieve it half an hour later, and after blowing off a few ashes, - you have fresh, hot bread.

Nomads of the HimalayasMen weave as well, but only the heavy tents made of yak hair. They too do a form of spinning, creating ropes and a mending yarn with the yak's course hair. The yak is without doubt the core resource that supports the Kharnakpa's nomadic way of life. It's coat is woven to create their shelters, carpets and ropes; it's milk produces cheese, butter and yogurt; it's dung is fuel for their cooking and warmth; it's size and strength is used to transport their heavy loads; and it's meat is one of their prime sources of food.

Nomads of the HimalayasHowever the chief identity and pride of the Kharnakpa, particularly among the men, centers on their horses and their riding skills. Observing both was an extraordinary sight. Brought from the plains of Mongolia a thousand years ago, these powerful, small horses have been conditioned over the centuries to thrive in the thin air atop the roof of the world. The intense cultural pride surrounding the horse was evident in their colourful, painstakingly woven saddle blankets and other accessories, and in the competitive trick riding practised by their owners.

The nomads have carefully worked out a process of rotating pasture use that prevents overgrazing the sparse grasses of the upper Tibetan Plateau. Like most other indigenous people there is an implicit understanding that their environment is essential to their survival. This is coupled with their Tibetan Buddhist religion, which teaches that contentment in life is achieved by respecting nature and preserving all aspects of it.

Each nomad tribe has specific demarcated areas in which to graze their animals. The group then divides and regulates pastures for the livestock among each of the families. With a family owning a couple of hundred animals, a shepherd is required to take the family flock each morning to a distant pasture and return them safely before night fall. Often these grazing areas are above 17,000 feet in elevation.

Nomads of the HimalayasDecision making regarding the tribe, is done by group consensus, among the men. There is no elected or appointed leader. Regulations, such as where to graze are strictly enforced with fines levied against those who break the rules. What they regard as more serious misconduct, such as adultery, premarital sex or children born to women out of wedlock usually results in banishment from the group. What our society would consider more serious offences, such as domestic violence, theft or vandalism are unheard of there.

The Himalayan nomads have evolved a complex system of self governance that is unique to them - partly socialistic, partly democratic. There are aspects of a co-operative, as there are aspects of free enterprise. Added to this societal structure are decisions based on the multi-layered teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as aspects of shamanism from the ancient Bon religion. Oracles are often sought to give direction to an individual or the group who are encountering a particularly difficult dilemma. Among the Kharnakpa, lesser daily issues between people, are decided without evoking the complexity of the above considerations, instead a simple roll of a pair of dice is a commonly used arbitrator, giving an instant decision that is respected by all.

Nomads of the HimalayasThe Kharnakpa seem cheerful and contented with their nomadic life. They have had however, enough exposer with larger communities such as Ladakh's capital, Leh, which is about 200 kilometres away, for them to realize that they live a harsh and primitive life by comparison to others. Many nomads have already been lured by the prospects of city life; owning cars, having electricity, warm houses, stores, entertainment and proper schools.

The government is currently building a central school for the nomad children. They will be required to board at the school while receiving their education. This will make it unlikely that once educated, they will want to return to the Kharnakpa and their parents' way of life. At a young age children are heavily relied upon to help in the numerous chores of the family. Further, parents are totally dependent on their children to help look after them in their old age.

In the direct style, characteristic of the Kharnakpa, a father of two young children said to me that he thought that within 10 years his people would no longer exist.

Nomads of the Himalayas

Paintings + Prints: | 2013: Ghana - West Africa | 2012:Thar Desert | 2011:Varanasi & Rajasthan | 2010:Nomad Memoir | 2010:Sea of Cortez | 2008:Brokpa | 2007:Ladakh-Winter | 2007:Italy | 2006:Kharnak | 2005:Changpa | 2004:Patagonia | 2003:Nomads | 2002:Ladakh | 2001:Zanskar | 2001:Antarctica | 2000:Bylot Is. Cont'd | 1999:Bylot Is. | 1998:Buchanan Bay | 1997:Greenland | 1995-6:Whales