Glimpses of Northern India’s Vanishing Nomads

Fitting a small stone into a sling made of yak wool, Tsering Stobdan whipped his wrist and let the object fly, sending it soaring across the arid landscape. This, he told me, was how he protects his flock from predators and convinces straggling goats to return — just one of the countless skills he has learned in the last 60 years that allow him to rear his animals in such an unforgiving landscape.

Meanwhile, some 15,000 feet above sea level, I was simply trying to breathe. Here on the Changthang plateau, in a remote region of the Indian Himalayas, the altitude had left me lightheaded and gasping for air.

The settlement of Kharnakling, outside Leh, the capital of the Ladakh region of India. Around 120 families of Kharnak nomads have moved into the settlement over the past 20 years.

Tsering Stobdan is a member of a nomadic community known as the Kharnak, who for centuries have raised yaks, sheep and goats in the high plains of Ladakh, in northern India, one of the most hauntingly beautiful — if harsh and inhospitable — places on earth.

I first visited the area in​ 2016, in the middle of a long overland journey from Cambodia to Berlin. While passing through Nagaland, in northeastern India, I met a man from Himachal Pradesh, a neighboring state of Ladakh, who told me about the beauty of the Himalayas and the nomadic ways of the people who lived there. Based on his stories, I rented a motorcycle and headed to Leh, Ladakh’s capital.

In Leh I was connected with a young member of the Kharnak community who took me to meet his family on the Changthang plateau. There I explained my interest in their culture and my intentions of documenting their daily life. During my monthlong stay, they welcomed me graciously and allowed me to participate in nearly every aspect of their lives.

In 2019 I returned to Ladakh to visit with the families I’d met three years earlier. This time, I stayed for more than six weeks, moving between the community’s nomadic camps and a small town on the outskirts of Leh.

A young Kharnak rider named Rinchen looks over his shoulder during a horse festival near the settlement of Yagang.

Once a flourishing tribe, the Kharnak community is now dwindling. Younger generations are being sent to nearby cities, where they can find better health care and educational opportunities. And while pashmina, the lightweight wool sheared from the bellies of Himalayan mountain goats, is a profitable product, life in the mountains is extraordinarily difficult, especially in the winter.

Today, fewer than 20 families are left to care for nearly 7,000 sheep and goats, along with several hundred yaks. And, like Tsering Stobdan, many of those who remain are growing older and are less able to cope with the daily demands of their work.

Mipham Shakya, 61, prepares butter tea at her home in the nomadic settlement of Yagang.

Climate change has also had a profound effect on the Kharnak’s way of life. Weather has become more difficult to predict, rain patterns in particular. Because of warming temperatures and the overuse of certain pastures, areas once thick with vegetation now lie barren. Small glaciers, which for centuries provided a reliable source of water, are receding.

As a result, Kharnak shepherds are forced to shuffle their flocks around more frequently and with less certainty.

Jigmet Lamo breastfeeds her baby, who was born just days earlier in Yagang, one of the Kharnak’s nomadic settlements. The baby was born one month ahead of schedule, which is why the mother gave birth in the highlands, and not at a hospital in Leh.
A Kharnak teenager sits on the grounds of a Buddhist temple overlooking Kharnakling.

Among these nomadic communities, families and animals live in strict interdependency. The milk from the sheep, goats and yaks — made into cheese, yogurt and butter — forms the foundation of the dairy-based diet.

Life for the Kharnak is difficult year-round. During the longer days of spring and summer, the shepherds milk and shear their animals in the early-morning hours before taking them out to graze, often walking more than 12 miles a day at altitude. Another round of milking and shearing takes place in the evening.

But the work doesn’t end there. Food must be cooked, sheds maintained, carpets woven, ropes fabricated, manure collected for fuel.

The real challenges, though, come in winter, when the temperatures drop to below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Roadways are often blocked, and food becomes scarce. During these long months, from November to April, the livestock are enclosed in shelters and fed animal feed that’s provided by the government.

Tashi Namgyal, who is 30, organizes stacks of dung cakes and goat manure, which will be used fuel for heating and cooking during the winter. 

During the winter, most of the Kharnak move temporarily to a town called Kharnakling, on the outskirts of Leh, some 90 miles from their highland pastures. While away, they leave their livestock in the hands of a few family members and paid shepherds, who care for the animals during the harshest months of the year.

To afford their homes in Kharnakling, many of the nomads had to sell their animals and leave behind their traditional stone houses and tents in the mountains. And with more frequency, members of the community are remaining in Kharnakling year-round, having given up on their old way of life.

Gatuck Sonam, a Buddhist storyteller known as a “manipa,” tunes his kogpo, a horse-headed Tibetan lute, as he prepares to perform a ritual in the nomadic settlement of Zara.

At their home in Kharnakling, I talked with a Kharnak elder and one of his grandsons. Dawa Tundup, who was 83 when I met him, had left behind his nomadic life to settle near the city, where he could live more comfortably and with better access to health care. He reminisced about his days in the highlands and dreamed of returning, he said, but acknowledged that life there had become untenable for most younger people, given the lack of proper schools.

Karma Tsiring, his grandson, had studied in Chandighar, a city some 250 miles south. While he acknowledged that his life is in many respects easier than that of his grandfather, he also spoke about new forms of pressure that, in the past, his family members never had to deal with.

Everything in the city is about money, he lamented, adding that many urban values, centered on consumerism, were very different from the value system taught by his ancestors at home.

A boy looks into the camera during a Buddhist ritual taking place in a goat corral in the nomadic settlement of Zara.

Later, while attending a series of traditional festivals held in the mountains, I watched as young men performed ancestral herding skills, including flinging stones on horseback. Here, the interest among younger generations in the culture of their elders was palpable, as most of them had come all the way from the city for this one event.

There were no winners or losers during the festivities. Instead, the riders were given a shot of chhang, a local Ladakh beer, and a khata, a traditional Tibetan scarf, every time they hit their targets.

Among the Kharnak, younger generations are now often sent to nearby cities, where they attend schools and grow accustomed to a more modern lifestyle.

It was a heartwarming scene: tribal elders instilling hard-earned wisdom among their enthusiastic descendants.

Still, one of the greatest concerns among the Kharnak is that their vast store of nomadic wisdom — the specific types of grass that certain animals need to survive, how meat is dried and preserved, how temporary shelters can be built with meager materials, among thousands of other examples — will be lost in the coming years.

Facing a generational exodus and the threats of a changing climate, their rich culture, amassed over centuries, may vanish in what amounts to the blink of an eye.

A Kharnak family tent sits below the Milky Way in the nomadic settlement of Zara.

Ronald Patrick is a documentary photographer based in Portugal. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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