In the midst of the rugged mountain landscape of Ladakh, a high altitude desert in Northernmost India, stands Puga Residential School, the only human-built structure in the vicinity. Here, 90 children of the Changpa, the pashmina goats herding nomads, stay and go to school—a privilege that children of these families have only received quite recently.
The Changthang region in the Western Himalayas in Northern India represents the western extension of the Tibetan Plateau, an important highland grazing ecosystem for the nomads. The landscape is dry and scarce, with a chilly wind blowing at the time of our visit in September, about to give way to freezing temperatures and snow for the winter. The natural conditions make life hard, and there is little direct refuge to the nomads without the help of their animals.
The Changpas live in perfect harmony with nature and their livestock - horse, yak, sheep, and goat from which they get wool, meat, milk and fuel (animal waste). The domestic goats of the nomads in Changtang reportedly produce the finest cashmere wool or 'pashm' in the world. There are approximately 10,000 Changpas in Ladakh, but only 6,000-7,000 of them still follow the nomadic tradition.
The nomads are constantly on the move from one place to another in search of pasture land for their livestock. They live in huge tents made of the yak wool, which is very warm. Summers are warm and winters are harsh, cold and windy with temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees Celsius. For winter, the Changpas have permanent shelter made out of mud-brick and stone.
Like most nomadic communities, the Changpas´ traditional lifestyle is under threat. Their grazing lands fall astride with the Indian and Chinese, which is under heavy surveillance due to political tensions. There is a declining demand for the nomads' produce (mutton) due to a prohibition of the meat by Buddhists and competing imports from Ladakh. During the winter when the road is blocked with snowfall, there is not enough food for the cattle, so many of them die.
Modern lifestyles and the corresponding influx of packaged goods has also made a profound influence on the younger generation of nomads, leading them to seek a more 'desirable' life outside their traditional communities. Because the nomadic lifestyle is so tough, some parents prefer to send their children away to study and work in cities. But, while these children acquire a modern education, they become disconnected from the centuries-old way of nomadic life.
It is crucial to make the youth aware of their own culture to strengthen their identity, so they can make informed choices for their future and appreciate their background, even if they would not want to continue the profession of their forefathers. Moving into the cities has been drastic to the self-esteem of many nomad children because traditionally, the nomads have been looked down upon by the many, so are an easy target for bullying.
On the other hand, the rural population moving into the city of Leh (the biggest city in Ladakh) is not very viable from a wider perspective. The natural resources and infrastructure are in no way sufficient to cater to the exploding population that urbanization is causing.
Nomadic Center for Arts and Crafts
Frozen Himalayas, an adventure company started by two brothers from Ladakh, have supported the nomadic school in Changtang for the last 7 years. In that time, they gained insights on the problems that nomads and their children face.
They started with personal hygiene classes with the children, as there were big gaps in basic knowledge and children fell ill constantly – a situation that could be drastically improved by small steps like basic handwashing. They then wanted to build a smart class inside the school and start Nomadic Center for Arts and Crafts to offer the children and youth an opportunity to learn about the traditions, livelihoods, and crafts of their ancestors.
Building the class was a challenge in itself, because none of the building materials, not even wood, is available in the region due to its landscape and remoteness. Once the classroom was ready, two women from the Changpa community were hired to teach traditional pashmina handicraft techniques to the children. Soon, the center will start a project for children to collect and record the history and traditional knowledge of their community, information that is in danger of being lost.