Photo Essays | Society | South Asia

The Rupshu Pastoralists

The Changpas hold on to ancient traditions in a fragile, disputed region.

By Sugato Mukherjee for
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Changpa horsemen race near lake Tso Moriri. Horse racing is an ancient and prestigious sport among the Changpa but has become infrequent.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

A young Changpa sets out with his herd. The Changpa follow the traditional system of grazing in which all families are allotted separate areas for livestock farming.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Prayer flags on the banks of Pangong Tso. The region remains a bone of contention between India and China and the ongoing dispute has adversely affected the fragile ecosystem of the Rupshu valley.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

The turquoise waters of Tso Moriri at an altitude of over 15,500 ft. The brackish lake is considered holy by the Changpas.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

The village square of Korzok. Once an important center of Central Asian trade route it is now the summer home of the Changpas.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

A Changpa woman knitting pashmina with her backstrap loom in her tent.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Though they lead a nomadic life most Changpa children attend school. Literacy has increased in recent years.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Changpa women in their traditional dress and headgear called perak. Once worn daily, perak is now only used at ceremonies and festivals.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Predominantly Buddhists, most Changpa carry prayer beads as a constant companion.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Chaam, the masked monk dance, in the courtyard of Korzok monastery in the heartland of Rupshu valley.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

A monk and a Tibetan witchdoctor praying together in Rupshu valley. In these remote parts Buddhist practices have been deeply influenced by Tibetan rituals.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

A Changpa rider is presented with the kaata, the ceremonial silk scarf, by a high monk. This is considered a great honour for a Changpa.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Rupshu Pastoralists

Three horsemen on the banks of Tso Moriri, at nearly 16000 ft. The Changpa view their animals as sacred creatures bestowed upon them by the gods of the valley.

Credit: Sugato Mukherjee

The high-altitude plains of Rupshu valley, Eastern Ladakh are home to the Changpa, a nomadic pastoralist tribe. For generations, they have lived in complete harmony with their land – a cold desert plateau with an average altitude of over 3700 meters, too inhospitable for farming and which remains under a thick blanket of snow for seven months a year. The traditional pastoral system of the Changpas is centered around their livestock – the Changpas rear yaks, sheep and horses; and the famous “pashmina” goats (whose soft wool is famous throughout the world). Their ancestral way of life has been the key to the survival of the Changpa, who have used their indigenous knowledge system to optimize the use of rangeland vegetation in Rupshu valley, where the grazing of yaks, sheep, goats and horses is regulated through a well-planned migration in a land characterized by a fragile ecosystem.

Predominantly Buddhists, the Changpas have shreds of animism in their religious beliefs that can be traced back to their herding tradition: for a Changpa nomad, his sheep are intrinsically sacred creatures bestowed upon him by the gods of the valley.

Rupshu valley is home to a few brackish lakes, the most important of which are Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso. It was on the banks of Pangong Tso that the Sino-Indian war of 1962 reached one of its fiercest climaxes, and the lake has remained a bone of contention between India and China. The ongoing dispute has posed a considerable threat to the fragile ecology of the area and consequently the lives of the nomadic tribe. The increasing attractions of alternative livelihoods, an influx of tourism in the area, and some significant climate changes such as unnaturally heavy snowfalls resulting in the deaths of livestock in recent years have only added to the threats that the Changpa now face.