Ladakhis want to reclaim pashmina. But can they?

By Pooja SinghonMay. 14, 2021inEnvironment and Ecology

The Changthang plateau is home to the world’s finest pashmina. The government and design entrepreneurs want to create a global identity for the region’s star product, differentiating it from cashmere. But traditional herders want to quit raising the goats that provide the wool.

Changpas with their pashmina goats at Rupshu, Changthang. (Sankar Sridhar)

Jigmet Paley has a confession to make: He is really tired. The creases on his 35-year-old face are evidence. The limp in his right leg drives the point home.

For three decades, he has been waking up before sunrise in a house 16,000ft above sea level, to a daily routine that carries forward a centuries-old family tradition: rearing a rare goat breed that produces the world’s finest and most expensive wool, pashmina. Every morning, he leaves home for a six-hour trek with 130-odd goats in freezing temperatures in search of pastures across south-eastern Ladakh’s cold desert, the Changthang plateau. Every three months, his family of five and he, along with herd and homestead, migrate to greener pastureland on the world’s highest permanently inhabited plateau.

“My knees have given up,” Paley says, in Ladakhi. The father of four belongs to the 5,000-member pastoralist community of Changpas who, for centuries, have lived close to nature in Changthang’s high altitudes with their yak, camel and changra goats, 230km from the noise of Leh city. Over the past decade, however, the desire to live in a place that offers as many comforts as opportunities—an option their ancestors never had—has been growing. The charm of the familiar isolated life is fading, even if it means giving up on pashmina, a potential gold mine, produced only by the Changthang’s changra as a cold-shielding undercoat that is eight times finer than human hair.

“How much longer can we live like this?” Paley asks, pointing to the surroundings. We are sitting on the floor of his winter home—a tin-roofed 10x9ft room in Angkung hamlet, situated between the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges. This is where he stays with his family during the winter months, when the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Floral-print cotton sheets that were once pink and neon green decorate the lower halves of three of the four mud walls. A big square window behind Paley, framing a lone black-billed magpie gliding over a snow-covered open field, helps decide the time of day. Five sheep-wool carpets and a thap (a traditional stove) in the middle offer some warmth. Two solar energy-powered bulbs, a brown carton filled with essentials, and some utensils complete the list of bare necessities. No watch. No TV. No mobile phone. It’s like time has stood still.

Jigmet Paley with his family in Changthang’s Angkung hamlet. (Gulzar Hussain)

There’s no official data on how many Changpas have, or want to, quit their traditional way of life but conversations with residents across the plateau make their intentions clear. The pull of Ladakh’s tourism industry is the most tempting. The weather is harsh, and now unpredictable too given the impacts of climate change, and fodder for the goats is declining. It’s getting tougher to earn a livelihood, pushing more Changpas to settle down and become an agrarian community. In a February interview with Lounge, Leh-based wildlife biologist Tsewang Namgail, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, had outlined the impacts: “Changpas are settling near water bodies. They are in some cases draining the marshes and diverting water for agriculture. That’s affecting migratory birds. The whole system is stressed.”

More and more pastoralists are looking to the city, where they are often looked down upon for the way they look and live—this at a time when the Union Territory (UT) administration is trying to create a global identity for Ladakh with the help of pashmina.

“Ladakh’s identity is because of pashmina,” says Saugat Biswas, secretary/divisional commissioner, UT secretariat, Leh-Ladakh. Plans are being drawn up to offer incentives to the Changpas, encourage R&D on pure-pashmina designs, set up better schools, infrastructure, medical facilities and roads in the Changthang. The administration is creating awareness campaigns to showcase how different Ladakhi pashmina, thick, pure and strong, is from Kashmir’s GI (geographical indication)-tagged “Kashmir Pashmina”, the super-soft variety which often has to be mixed with other materials to make it tough enough for embroidery work.

Leh’s millennial design entrepreneurs too have become more active since 2019, the year Ladakh was separated from Jammu and Kashmir. They are focused on offering products worldwide that use local textiles and methods to popularise and create pashmina’s identity as a Ladakh, not Kashmir, product, and offer more sources of income for spinners, weavers and goat-herders. But without goat-herders like Paley, who are the source of the wool, these plans may never take wing.

A long wait

Paley was 10 when his parents died, leaving behind 500 changras. He dropped out of school to look after the herd. By the time he was 25, he had 200 goats. Now, he owns 130. “It’s not easy surviving in this weather (for both, people and animals). It rains too much or too little these days. Snow is also less…. Fodder becomes so hard to find,” Paley explains. In winter, when grazing is not possible, the Changpas depend on their stored fodder and rations from the government.

Lena (as pashmina is known in the local language) is gold but we barely make money from it,” he says. In 2020, Paley’s annual income was a meagre ₹45,000, though he sold 15kg of pashmina wool. A kilogram of raw wool fetches ₹3,000; the same price jumps to ₹11,000 for a de-haired and cleaned version. The same amount of pashmina fibre makes two shawls, each fetching ₹20,000 or more, depending on whether it’s on display at an Upper East Side shop in New York or at a Connaught Place store in Delhi. Whichever way you do the math, the Changpas lose. “We are the ones living in such harsh weather and we don’t get anything,” laments Paley. “What’s the point then?”

A surprise visit from two of his neighbours interrupts our conversation. One of them, in his 30s, is happy he has managed to collect ₹15,000 from various sources to admit his daughter, 9, to a private school in Leh. “She doesn’t like this life,” the father says.

Paley’s son whispers something in his dad’s ear. The 11-year-old has just joined a monastery to continue studying, after covid-19 shut his government school. “He’s telling me to leave everything and move to the city…become a labourer…lead a more respectable life,” Paley tells me. No matter where you go in the Changthang, “you won’t find many young people interested in pashmina”, he adds.

He isn’t wrong. Whether I moved further up, passing several Mani stones dressed in prayer flags dancing in the howling wind, to one of the largest Changpa settlements on the edge of the light-blue Tso Kar lake or went in the opposite direction, driving through deep purple, green and maroon mountains to reach Chushul village, I got similar answers: Youngsters want to study or build home-stays, not rear pashmina goats.

The Changpas I meet aren’t aware of the UT’s ambitious pashmina project. They don’t know the industry department is so invested in growing Ladakh’s ₹100 crore pashmina industry that it has filed for a GI tag for pashmina from Changthang goats. For, though Ladakh’s contribution to global pashmina supply is a minuscule 0.95%—annual production is only 55 tonnes—the wool measures a mere 12 microns in width compared to industry leader China’s 15.5 microns, making Ladakh’s pashmina the world’s finest.

“Pashmina has always been from Ladakh but most people think it’s Kashmir’s. We want the world to know that a pure pashmina product will never be that super-soft. Since it has a thin texture, it has to be handspun and manually woven, which gives the finished shawl a coarser feel. This concept of pashmina passing through the ring is a complete misconception; if a product does that, it’s not pure pashmina but pashmina mixed with silk or polyester or something,” says Biswas.

He knows the Changpas want to move out. “They won’t stay if they don’t see profit, which is, frankly, fair. That’s why last year we offered the package,” he says, referring to the release of ₹245 crore for core needs such as “critical infrastructural development”, housing, health, education and employment opportunities—something that is slowly translating on the ground. “We are working on giving them more incentives and facilities so they don’t leave. It will take some time but we are on it.”

Women hand-spin pashmina with the traditional spindle ‘phang’ in Phyang, a village on the outskirts of Leh. (Salil Dobhal)

Identity in crisis

When the Changpas comb off the undercoat of the goats—each one produces 250g a year—to protect them from the summer heat, the wool is put on sale. Independent buyers from around the country flock to buy, as do members from the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Marketing Cooperative Society.

The society cuts out the middleman and regulates the price of wool based on the global rate, after consultation with the heads of all 25 Changpa villages. At present, the rate is ₹3,000 per kilogram. “The rate has been the same for over two years; it’s not increasing because covid-19 has hit the luxury market,” reasons Stanzin Dorjay, a Changpa and the society president. Last year, despite the pandemic, the society bought 17 tonnes with government support of ₹300 crore, to stave off distress sales.

The raw material can’t be used as is because the goat-herders don’t segregate the goat hair from the wool. That is done by the society, which has the only de-hairing plant in Ladakh. Then the pashmina is sold for ₹11,000 a kilogram—the current rate. The price fluctuates depending on demand and quality. The society shares the difference with the Changpas.

Residents can buy for personal use, designers and apparel companies can purchase for commercial use. It is then taken to independent weavers and spinners, mostly women, spread across Ladakh. Spinning and weaving used to be a household practice during the long winters but the work is now often passed on to women who need extra income. While most can spin and weave other wools, pashmina requires well-trained hands.

A pashmina weaver. (Courtesy Lena Ladakh Pashmina)

After spinning, the yarn is dyed naturally at home, and is sent for weaving. From there, the product—shawl or stole—returns to the designer for final touches, or goes to karigars for embroidery like zari work. The whole shawl-making process takes about a month.

Kashmir’s artisans buy over 70% of the annual pashmina produce, Ladakh consumes 10% and the rest goes to Himachal Pradesh and other states. “All the 55 tonnes is consumed within India. It would be nice if we could export; it would fetch the Changpas more money, and they might decide not to leave this profession. But with corona, it doesn’t look like things will improve,” says Dorjay, adding that till the time “their (Changpas’) living is not improved, it is difficult to keep this traditional way of life alive.”

Gulzar Hussain, an ethnographer and founder of the Leh-based travel company Frozen Himalayas, agrees. Hussain, who has lived with the Changpas and studied the region for 10 years, adds: “Changpas don’t know how to spin or weave. If we train them, especially the younger ones, to do so, it’s unlikely they will leave. The entire craft can stay within the Changthang. Yes, it’s difficult to learn working with such a delicate material but we can at least start.”

In August 2019, Hussain, along with local teachers and international scholars, set up the Changthang High Altitude Nomadic Research Institute in the vicinity of the government school in Puga Valley, just 15km from Paley’s winter home, to study, preserve, protect and promote the nomadic way of life—its culture, arts, crafts, music, folklore, oral history, husbandry practices—and the high-altitude ecosystem of the plateau. Like the government school, the research institute offers education, boarding facilities, stationery and food—all free.

“Anyone can come and go. It’s a voluntary school. The idea is that besides learning about food science and wastewater management, children should know the significance of their culture’s folk stories…they should know that despite pashmina being a Ladakhi product, how Kashmiris brought it the attention it enjoys today,” says Hussain. “They should know everything and then they can decide whether they want a Changpa life.”

It’s true pashmina wouldn’t have been called “the royal fabric” without the exquisite work of hundreds of Kashmir’s highly skilled artisans. Mughal emperor Akbar was such an admirer of the shawls that he introduced the concept of dushala (double weaving so that both sides of the shawl can be used) and exported it to the Ottoman empire around the 16th century. The shawl had become a rage by the 18th century. French leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was so enamoured by it that he gifted one to his wife, Josephine.

That quality is missing today, complains Zahid Dar, a resident of Srinagar’s old city, whose family has been selling pure-pashmina shawls for over 50 years. “The market is filled with ‘pashmina’ from Mongolia, China. Ludhiana, Amritsar also make ‘pashmina’. Customers want pretty designs at low cost; people are making them,” says Dar, 41, who insists his products are pure. Over the past five years, he says, his sale of pashmina shawls has dropped by 20%.

“There are people who are particular about buying pure pashmina but even then the sales are declining because of cheaper alternatives,” he says. “Even the quality of pure pashmina has gone down.”

A few designers in Leh, who had bought raw pashmina directly from the Changpas, have similar complaints. When I ask Tundup Namgail, the Leh district sheep husbandry officer, if pashmina quality has indeed declined, he doesn’t give a straight answer. “The nutritional quality of fodder has declined over the years, which might be resulting in dandruff in the wool,” he says.

Does it have anything to do with the Himalaya steadily becoming warmer? “We don’t know. But because of urbanisation and migration of Changpas to cities, the populations of changras and sheep have declined by 30% (at present, there are 200,000 changras in Ladakh). And the grazing land for the existing changras is reducing.” The government has recently started a GIS (Geographic Information System) project to identify how much fodder is available.

Dorjay is quite certain global warming is hurting fodder quality: “Most Changpas are complaining about the reduction in fodder every year. When I was growing up, we used to get so much snow during winters…even under 10 blankets we would be shivering. I remember seeing 6-7ft snow in the 1970s-80s. Now there’s hardly anything…less snow means poor to no fodder.”

The other reason is India’s border conflict with China. A Changpa in Chushul, near the border, complains that despite repeated requests the army is not allowing 80 families, each with at least 100 changras, to use the pastures for grazing. “Already 40 families have given up pashmina and moved to Leh. If they (the authorities) continue to behave like this, then how will we feed our goats? We will also have to quit.”

Biswas refuses to comment on this.

A style fix

But Biswas does talk about the government working with the National Institute of Design and National Institute of Fashion Technology on design innovation. One plan is to create a yarn bank to provide pure pashmina yarn through the year. “To develop such a repository, we will buy from the cooperative and then train more people in spinning and weaving pashmina, and give wages to create yarn. It will take time since pashmina requires special skills but we want to start work this year itself,” he explains.

This is also the mission of Leh’s design entrepreneurs, who have studied in metros and returned home in the hope of shaping a Ladakhi identity. They are trying to create their own interpretation of local textiles and garments, while finding ways to provide employment opportunities outside farming for women.

Sonam Angmo and Stanzin Minglak’s joint venture Lena Ladakh Pashmina, for instance, started as a “slow-textile” label in 2016, with two weavers and five spinners. Today, it employs seven weavers and 37 spinners, including some schoolgirls in Leh who work part-time to learn the craft. “We are trying to revive interest in the dying skill of making textiles by hand; basically, keeping it very Ladakhi,” says Angmo, a science graduate.

Leh-based Lena Ladakh Pashmina label focuses mainly on creating pure-pashmina shawls and stoles with natural dyes. (Courtesy Lena Ladakh Pashmina)

The Ladakhi style, Minglak explains, is spinning with a willow spindle instead of a charkha, plying with the same spindle, and hand-dyeing at home with flowers and herbs. “Ladakhis have only focused on sustenance, on surviving harsh weather conditions…which is why you never saw any luxury product coming out of here. Even pashmina was just produced and sold outside. Now, it’s time for us to reclaim our identity.”

Namza Couture’s Padma Yangchan and Jigmet Disket, too, are working with local artisans and textiles like nambu (sheep wool), spuruk (textured sheep wool from the Zanskar region), yak and camel wool, and pashmina, to shine a light on their culture.

“The plan is to create a contemporary vocabulary with traditional designs (think pashmina cape with zari work, free-flowing jackets with embroidered swan, long jackets with traditional patch prints) to show the expanse of Ladakh,” says Disket, who also makes dyes at home with onion, sunflower, roses and other natural ingredients.

Leh’s Namza Couture works with local textiles like nambu (sheep wool), spuruk (textured sheep wool), yak and camel wool, and pashmina, to shine a light on their culture. (Courtesy Namza Couture)

The duo, who took part in the 2019 London Fashion Week, also runs a Namza Dining space to promote Ladakhi cuisine. “The world is so used to the feather-like pashmina products that they don’t believe us when we show them the pure fabric. It’s going to be a long journey to inform the world what real pashmina and Ladakh are,” adds Yangchan.

Cooperatives like Looms of Ladakh are pitching in by offering training in weaving and spinning to women. “It’s great that the government is focusing on pashmina but there’s also a lot of potential in other local wool and textiles,” says co-founder Abhilasha Bahuguna. “They should be given enough attention now so that they don’t suffer the same fate as pashmina.”

Leh’s Namza Couture works with local textiles like nambu (sheep wool), spuruk (textured sheep wool), yak and camel wool, and pashmina, to shine a light on their culture. (Courtesy Namza Couture)

Where’s home?

Around four years ago, an informal survey by sheep husbandry officer Tundup Namgail showed 80% of Changthang residents would like to quit the Changpa life. “That number might have increased,” he says.

Nawang Zangpo was one of them. At 45, he sold his 200 changras, moved to the outskirts of Leh, opened a small restaurant in mid-2018 and sent his children to a private school. His project didn’t survive the pandemic. Three weeks ago, he bought 200 changras and now divides his time between Leh and Changthang.

There was another reason too, though he dismisses it initially. Eventually, he opens up: “My wife and I thought it would be a more comfortable life here (Leh) but people look at us differently. They say we stink, we have lice…,” says Zanpo, in Hindi.

The discrimination is common. “It can be subtle, like they won’t talk to you in the first instance, or pay enough attention. But many of the people I know have been told to go back to Changthang. It’s strange that being a Changpa, the maker of the world’s best fabric, is a bad word.”

Why not return home then? “I want my children to go to a good private school, learn, stay far away from this (Changpa) life. They are still small, they can make a new, respectable life for themselves. That’s my dream now.”

Jigmet Paley, too, has a dream. He wants to be a driver. Kunzang Tsmeo, his wife, wants to open a small restaurant to serve eggs to tourists. “We have lived life with less. We want to live life with more. We don’t know if we will eventually like it but it would mean giving up on a gift our ancestors gave us. Would that be a fair trade?”

First published by Mint on 8 May 2021

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