An anthropological sojourn


LONG STRETCHES of bare desert and barren hills. There are no ends to visibility. The immense desolate land is truly the satong. 1 I have never seen so much of sky - vast and blue. The deep and mysterious Tso Moriri sleeps silently beneath the frozen white sheet. My wanderings reach no where and neither do I.

That was like a dream. It looks like a virtually uninhabited wilderness of mountains interspersed with vast bleak plains and the sudden encounter with the blue of Tso2 is almost strange. It is an amazing experience to be in this desolate cold desert known as 'Chang - Thang' i.e. northern - desert. How come Tibet in Indin Geographically Rupshu plains are a small disintegrated segment of immense upland Changthang in Tibet They occupy the southeast corner of Ladakh and border, Spiti on the south and Tibet in north. If one forgets this political game of territories then Tibet and Rupshu share almost the same terrain with little variations of altitude. People who make this wilderness congenial call themselves 'Changpas', 'Inhabitants of Changthang'. They live here and inhabit this desert blessed only with shrubs and a seasonal covering of blady grass. It is suitable only for animal herding and is too elevated and dry for the cultivation to bring a living. They are the unknown producers of the world famous Pashmina (they call it Lena) which has been very normally mistaken as of Kashmiri origin. Growing curiousity and endless queries about the Changpas inhabiting this wilderness filled me continuously during and after my first introduction here last year. Was it for real? How these very special people survive in such an environment? I tried to explore many of my curiosities about Changpas while I trekked the haunting landscape from Karzog to Spiti with Pam (Paramjit Singh) and Rana. I was bewitched by this land so different from all others and I decided for a long sojourn here and returned back to Ladakh without waiting for the road passes to shed away their winter snows.


  1. Empty Land
  2. Water Body, Lake


It was early May in Leh. We were looking for a hitch to Karzog - the main settlement of Rupshu plains. Vehicles had not yet resumed going to Karzog because of the extended winters. Moreover there is no scheduled means of transportation to Karzog except vehicles transporting civil supplies and carrying government officials who occasionally travel there for administrative reasons. I tried luck in the LNP3 office, to see if there was any vehicle going to Karzog. Ishey was happy to see me again and told me about a tipper leaving for Karzog on the coming Tuesday for its first scheduled visit of this season. Pam and I hurriedly sorted out a list of food supplies compatible to our budget from the Leh bazaar. And Tuesday morning, we were in the back of the tipper with all our gear. LNP was carrying seeds of barley and animal fodder with a few huge rice bags - possibly to cultivate 'civilised' flavour in the dietary habits of Changpas which constitutes of tsampa with simple modification for variety. Anyway NGOs4 are at their best in their even- ready policy of charity of which we too were the beneficiaries. The back of the tipper got overloaded as a few more grateful passengers clambered on later.


  1. Ladakh Nutrition Project
  2. Non-government Organisation


There were some young and a few people dressed in their traditional woollen attire and everyone tried their best to make themselves comfortable on the rice and barley bags for the long journey ahead. We exchanged Jule (the traditional omnifunctional greeting) with everyone and manoeuvered to share the tight space. A very old lady got some space next to me. Her escort was a monk and was carrying enormous luggage and causing great excitement in an effort to fit everything to the already loaded trucks. We were eyeing his load which included groceries, soaps, biscuits and milk tins and butter. Was he a shopkeeper or what? Shop in Karzog was difficult to identify with. It turned out that indeed our monk was also a shopkeeper on the side in Karzog and on his way back, after buying supplies of groceries. Anyhow everyone settled in and the tipper took the Leh Nyoma road up along the Indus to Mahe 159 km from Leh. After 60 km we entered a spectacular gorge with towering high granite walls very tempting to climb. Pam and I resolved to stop over to climb on our way back when it would be relatively warmer. At Mahe we came out of the gorge and experienced a change in the scenery. More and more sky and small sandy hills of different shades of mauve and orange are surely different from the usual rocky cliffs. The dusty road approaching Karzog begins here and the metalled road continues for Nyoma. After crossing the Indus on Mahe bridge we followed the Puga river - a tributary of the Indus. We were the first outsiders checked by the police officials for our inner line permits at Mahe as the areas beyond that point are declared strategically sensitive. After crossing Indus the road extended in a valley enclosed between high ridges of crumbly reddish rock on both sides. The Thanglang la formation passes downwards gradually into in the Puga formation which grades high in metamorphics as is reflected in the geological studies. I looked for traces of nomadic encampments - those low stone walls forming enclosures in which the cattle are penned. The blocked horizon opened suddenly with the view of a small habitation. I remembered it - New Sumdo-on the left bank of Puga river. It is a settlement of 30 to 40 houses of Tibetan refugees settled here after 1960. From Sumdo we left the Puga river and climbed up passing the small old Sumdo settlement. After the drag of an haur's climb on the exceedingly steep and rough track we made a sudden halt. Everyone jumped out except me and the wrinkled faced old lady sitting next to me. She looked at me and I hesitantly gave a smile but it was not returned. I shivered in the cold afternoon winds like those mystic white flags fluttering high on the cairn stones. A bottle of triple X5 was taken out by Ishey and sprinkled over the latza6 stones as an offering along with butter, hoping that deities would like the new taste of rum in place of the splendid chhang, the traditional barley beer which is also an essential offering during religious ceremonies. In the remote areas it has been the only liquor along with its distilled cousin the arack, but army and international borders do have their foreign inflows.


  1. A popular brand of rum.
  2. Cairn on top of a pass.
  3. Butter


Salted butter is also close to the convenience factor but no doubt the mar 7 of deemo grades much higher in taste. The tipper circled the latza from the right amidst shouts of Ki Ki soo soo, lha gyalo.This was Namshang la. We never climbed down exactly the amount climbed up by us. The zigzagging was over and we were slow on a sandy trail.

Far-off hills, capped by snow, by in the long stretches of desert. I felt out of breath. Small black dots could be seen in the distance. Was this a nomadic encampment? Gradually the spots became bigger, but we still could not see clearly what they were. A little later it appeared as a cluster of re bos8. These were the nomadic settlement of herders mainly Tibetan refugees, we were told by the LNP officials. The monk kept on calling them Drokpas. Changpas do not treat them as equals. Garas, the blacksmiths and Bedas, the musicians and Drokpas have socially lower ranks in the social structure of Changpas. Traditionally no marital relations are encouraged with them. "Drokpas e&t phya9 and skyang10" the only reason given by the Changpas. But they do carry hidden resentments after their grazing land had to be shared with them when they sought refuge here in 1960's. The tipper was slow and breathing hard by making lots of noises in the silent surroundings. Everybody was dead silent in trying to save their own breaths for the tipper. It didn't help and the tipper choked far before the Drokpas' settlements. It was stuck in the deep sand. Every passenger got down to help in shovelling for the 'freedom of the wheels'. The rarified air became more rare with this activity at 5000 m. It was dark and cold when the wheels came out of the quick sand. We never stopped at Drokpas' settlement on the shores of Thazang kru but their dogs did have complaints. They followed us a long way. The ride was rather agreeable beneath a beautiful moon and the minimalist landscape of the day seemed to awaken under the blue light. Patches of snow glittered and looked mysterious in the undulating stretches of the desert.


  1. The tent of Changpas
  2. Marmot
  3. Himalayan wild ass


Thazang kru and Tso Moriri have a mythical connection. A story about the origin of Tso Moriri and Thazang kru and Tso-Kar, three major Tsos of Rupshu relates to a local God who drank all the waters of Tso-Kar and while he was on his way to Karzog some water escaped from his nostrils over a laugh and that was the birth of Thazang kru. He continued his journey to Karzog where he found people were dancing yabro, a traditional group dance. But no one offered a hand to him for the yabro except a girl. This made him angry and he sent the girl to a safe place and drowned rest of the village. That was the origin of Tso Moriri.

In a short enclosed stretch of the valley we crossed two streams of a river, in darkness, and quite suddenly a large white landscape, which had previously been shut from our sight by the walls of the valley, burst upon us. It is beyond words to express how the frozen Tso Moriri behaved like some vast white tableland in the moonlight. We rode for around 8 km along the Tso and it is still hazy what happened afterwards. The tipper climbed a bit and a lot of noises. People started jumping off the tipper and it was as if their shadows had started climbing up. I could not see anything until I fell as the baggage under me was taken off!

At last we were in Karzog. In spite of the cold winds, which made me shiver, I remained outside for a long time that night wondering if I should believe my presence in Karzog. It was already late in the morning when we got up from a cold sleep. The day had a clear appearance. No chilly winds and perfect silence, no chirping ®f the birds and no people. We were surprised and looked around. Many houses in the settlement were not occupied and just created a silent crowd of monochromatic mud buildings. A few households were huddled together with enclosures around them to pen the cattle. Memorial Chortens enclosed the settlement from the western side testifying to the religious feelings of the inhabitants of the place.

Changpas prefer cremation to all other ways of disposing dead bodies like abandoning them to the vultures and other wild animals which is done when the wood is not available. The bones of the dead are mixed with their dust and clay by a lama who moulds it to number of chortens near the living settlement as memories.

The life was different afterwards. I had a happy inspiration from my being in Karzog. Now it was possible to mingle with the people I had been thinking about for so long. The gradual increase in interaction with the people enriched the base of my stay. I remained wary of the consequences of theoretical barriers of anthropology as well as kept in mind the methodological cautions gained from my past field experiences. An affectionate kind of respect for the people helped me in knowing them better and in understanding their unique rationale. I participated in religious and other ceremonies either being a friend or an invitee and took photographs only with their permission and a promise to send them also. Sometimes sensitivity of the events never allowed me to even think of the camera. Initially their confusion regarding us was natural as we didn't fit the categories of usual visitors - we didn't have orange hair and dangling cameras, we were living there for a long time and had very less money and food and of course never gifted them money, or took indiscriminate photographs and seemed to be enjoying their company and the local food. In fact we ourselves became subjects of some anthropological enquiry by the villagers. We had a small rebo of our own which we pitched alongside their rebos on our visits to their campsites on the pastures around the Tso. We were recognised by our names and slowly the familiarities reached a state of helping out a better understanding of each other.

Changpas never came through as being 'primitive'. Their social structure and world view, their concepts of economy and political philosophy are indigenous and in great harmony with what their natural environment has gifted them. Scrupulously, they remain close to the parameters of their lives unlike the so called civilised people. They are not backward or retarded people even though it may be expounded by the now obsolete evolutionism. Changpas have in one realm or another a genius for invention and action that leaves the achievements of other civilised people far behind. Nor do Changpas lack history, although its development often eludes us. In their evolution, the harsh natural environment and the mental constructs and skills have been decisive in determining their means of survival. Everywhere the soil weathered from rocks, and containing abundant sand and scree is suitable only for thin vegetation and the land is too dry and elevated for cultivation and therefore fit only for pastoral uses, for which the Changpas have adapted themselves perfectly with their nomadic lifestyle. The whole families move with their animals in summers as well as the cold winters for the pastures and live in the rebos made up of yak wool. Pastures land and campsites are predetermined. It is assigned by the Goba, the political chief, to a particular group of families for a certain period. Normally a stay at one site lasts for one to two months which depends on the amount of grass. The number of rebos depend on the size of the available pastures and can range from two to thirty rebos on one site. They carry their rebos and all their household items on the backs of the horses and yaks. They also have small store houses in Karzog for their food supplies and wool as it is hard to carry everything from camp to camp. They keep on visiting Karzog for ration supplies and for their social and religious duties towards gooimpa.11 Karzog monasery is around 500 years old and was built by Tsering Tashi Namgyal, the forefather of the King, Tsering Dorjee. A double storied palace and cluster of 38 houses also accompany gooimpa in the vicinity of the Tso. The number of houses are increasing with many Changpas acquiring land around the village for cultivation, though most of the community is still nomadic. Pasture sites are located on the slopes near Karzog, around the Tso and never more than a 2 days' ride on the horse. We preferred to walk in order to visit the camp-sites. The nearest camping site at Yarlung - Marlung consisted of just 3 rebos. In spite of just the basic familiarity with their language which lies between Ladakhi and Tibetan we had a good conversation going with words and gestures as we were offered generous amount of Solja - the butter tea and Phemar a rich blend of Tsampa, fresh butter and some sugar. The men were away at the village and the older children had gone herding their goats and sheeps on the meadows which lay a 1000 m higher. The women almost single-handedly managed the household or weaving on the ingenious loom rigged with a waist belt and some stones.. The fabric for rebos are woven on the same kind of loom but exclusively by men. These rebos are similar to the typical design all over the Central Asia with a near circular plan, external wooden props an opening in the roof above the hearth. The yak wool fabric is durable, weatherproof and breathable, just what is needed for the extreme winter conditions. Inside, the sides of the rebos are stacked with all their food supplies, household goods and stacks of woollen carpets and blankets which the women keep weaving. The wool of Rama (goats). Luk (sheep) and yaks are their wealth. Most other subsistence needs are procured in exchange of the wool. Lena, the precious of the lot is extracted from goats and is sold to traders from Ladakh or Himachal and eventually finds its way to Kashmir and then the World over. The sheep wool from the Luk is also high quality and coveted in Himachal and Ladakh and traditionally was the currency with which Changpas established trade relations with other communities. Their barter trade with Tibet, Spiti, Zanskar, Lahaul and Baltistan constituted exchange of wool and yaks for all other essential goods as well as horses and donkeys.


  1. Local pronounciation of gompa or monastery.


In their social life, Changpas traditionally practice a rare form of marriage - fraternal polyandry, the marriage of one women to several men who are brothers. Two brothers with a common wife and their immediate off-springs live together in a household which is an economic and social unit. The middle son is donated to the monastery and rest of the unmarried children live with their parents. Harsh environment and limited resources have contributed to evolve a particular social structure where Primogeniture and fraternal polyandry exists in order to sustain their wealth and resources in balance.

During the three months of stay in Rupshu I got a good glimpse into the lives of Changpas and the changes occurring in their society due to modern influences. By the time we left Karzog after 3 months we were pals with Angyal, Lundup, Dolma, Thinley, Sonam, Gikmet, Gikmet's brother Angchuk and most other children of the school as we occasionally used to help the lone teacher in teaching them and trying to make their mundane syllabi slightly more fun. Our stay also gave us the opportunity to attempt a climb, Mentok I on the western shores of Tso.

Attempt on Mentok I
(by Paramjit Singh)

After two and a half month stay for anthropological work at Karzok (4600 m) on the shores of Tso Moriri in Rupshu, Alka Sabharwal and Paramjeet Singh attempted to climb Mentok I (6200 m) by the southeast ridge, on the western shores of Tso Moriri between 19 and 26 July. The hitherto good climbing weather of this high desert took a turn for the worse as monsoons hit Rupshu full bloodedly on the 20th. An intermediate camp below the snow line was set up at 5200 m with the help of Tashi, a local nomad friend, and his mule. After unsuccessfully waiting a day for the weather to clear, a double ferry through treacherous moraine took them to the climbing camp at 5400 m. Next day was spent reconnoitering up to a prominent shoulder at 5600 m on the SE ridge and preparations for the climb. 24 July started with inclement weather, the death of their MSR Whisperlite stove and Alka displaying mild symptoms of altitude sickness. The shoulder was reached at 10 a.m. from where the climb started on the predominantly rocky ridge, which meant steep scrambles through unstable boulders. Climbing unroped through worsening weather the climbers were forced to seek intermittent shelters in fissures between boulders against driving snow. Weather began to clear up around 2 p.m. but the winds stayed dramatic and climbers were very nearly blown-off on two occasions by high velocity gusts.

Mentok I

Mentok I

Top of the prominent rock step at 6100 m was reached around 3 p.m. from where the ground was technical mixed on the narrow ridge. A Survey of India cairn with a pole was clearly visible on the summit. (A surprise as there were no records of a previous ascent). The prospect of technical climbing in high winds at a late hour was enough to scare them into turning back. Climbing down the treacherous ground on the ridge with depleted energy required a lot of physical and psychological effort. Camp was reached at 7.30 p.m. and in spite of Alka now suffering from full blown AMS. further descent in prevailing weather was ruled out for the night. The climbers descended next morning to the lake, leaving behind even thing but minimal gear and first aid and trekked back to Karzok village. Next day Paramjeet accompanied by Tashi returned to the climbing camp, partly on horseback, to retrieve all the gear and clean the camp sites. On the whole a very satisfying climb. The presence of Tso Moriri and the typical vast landscape of Changthang make climbing these mountains in Rupshu a truly spectacular experience. (As is usual in all our trips all the garbage generated in our 3 1/2 months stay in Ladakh, was carefully sorted, vegetable matter fed to cattle etc., paper and card packaging thoroughly incinerated and buried deep, and all plastic, foil and metal garbage and used batteries brought back to Delhi for disposal).


An account of an anthropologist living in the remote area of the southeast Ladakh, Rupshu. Peak Mentok I (6200 m) was attempted.


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