Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Politics of Pashmina: The Changpas of Eastern Ladakh

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Politics of Pashmina: The Changpas of Eastern Ladakh

Article excerpt

From the looms in Kashmir to haute couture boutiques the world over, the warm undercoat of pashmina goats is a highly valued luxury fibre. Herded by nomadic pastoralists in eastern Ladakh, sometimes at altitudes as high as eighteen thousand feet, the trade in the fibre these goats yield is beset by controversy and intrigue. Setting the price involves much speculation and protracted debates, and deals are often struck even before the fibre has been combed off the goat's back. Salt and wool, and not pashmina, were once the nomad's from eastern Ladakh's main trading items. Though wool continues to dominate the field of trade, pashmina has emerged as the new product of commercial importance. Once sidelined in favour of pashmina from western Tibet, its demand within India increased when the border with Tibet closed in the late 1950s. Pashmina prices have escalated so rapidly that the increase has astounded many elders from these parts who remember the time when wool was more expensive than pashmina. However, they remain sceptical as well and wonder how long this windfall will last.

This article looks at transformations in the pashmina trade after 1959, and examines how in recent years this trade has changed the fortunes of the nomadic pastoralists of eastern Ladakh. Changes in the pashmina trade have meant an increase in the economic value of goats. This has led to shifts in livestock composition, as well as attitudes towards the goat, and these are looked at here. Finally, this paper looks at how the nomads have coped with the changing market and used it to their advantage.

Raising Pashmina Goats in Changthang

The Changthang (byang-thang) or 'Northern Plateau' is situated in Ladakh's easternmost portion, and extends from Durbook in the north, through Demchok and Koyui in the centre, to Rupshu and Kharnak in the east (Fig. 1) (1). Those who inhabit the Changthang are commonly known as Changpa (Northerner). (2) The Changpa are nomadic pastoralists and they herd pashmina goats, sheep and yaks. They are Buddhists and are followers of the Kargyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. (3)

Several groups of Changpa inhabit Ladakh's Changthang, each group inhabiting a different part of the plateau. While each community is generically referred to as Changpa they are also known by their specific places of origin. For instance a Changpa from Rupshu would be known as a Rupshupa, one from Kharnak as a Kharnakpa, and so on. Each group of Changpas usually migrate about ten times in a year, but each move and period of time spent at any one camping ground is not fixed and is dependant on the availability of grass and water. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, Tibetan refugees who followed a nomadic pastoralist life in Tibet have also been living in Ladakh's Changthang.

Pashmina comes from the winter undercoat or down of a particular variety of domestic goat (Capre hircus), which in Ladakh is known as 'pashmina goat' or Changra (lit. 'northern goat'). These goats are mainly raised in the Changthang region of Ladakh and parts of Nubra. In lower and central Ladakh there are pashmina goats, but they do not yield pashmina of a commercial value. Within Changthang there is also a variety of qualities of pashmina available, and the finest comes from the regions of Rupshu, Kharnak and Korzok which lie in eastern Ladakh. The main reason for this is the high altitudes at which the livestock are taken to graze.

The word 'pashmina' is derived from the Persian word pashm, which means wool (Ryder 1987: 3). In its raw unprocessed form pashmina is referred to as pashm, and the word pashmina refers to the cloth woven from pashm. However, the words pashm and pashmina are often used interchangeably in Ladakh when referring to the fibre. 'Pashmina' came to be known in the West as 'cashmere' because Europeans first encountered this fine fibre in Kashmir. (4) However, Kashmir was merely the route by which the fibre reached the Indian, and eventually the European, market in the form of finely woven shawls. …

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