Come winter, vendors selling carpets and shawls, using all manner of transport ranging from cars to cycles, flow through the streets of northern India. While the carpets offered trace their origins to production centres in the extended tract between Jammu and Kashmir and the eastern borders of Uttar Pradesh, the shawls are mostly said to be from Kashmir. With manufacturers of woollen products in Amritsar and Ludhiana producing high quality fabrics for the winter, unscrupulous traders make bids, often successful, to palm off such materials as the output of Kashmiri artisans, and even as Pashmina. Kashmiri vendors are not insulated from such foibles and attempt to carry conviction by variously claiming long-standing sources of supply of this fine fibre in Ladakh and processing facilities in Srinagar town employing the finest of craftsmen. And many succeed by making patently deceitful assertions with a straight face.
The women who wear fine Pashmina shawls and the men who use that fabric to remain snug during winters are seldom aware of the origins of Pashmina, or the travails endured by the people that nurture, tend and protect the mountain goats that yield this wool. I was similarly placed until about four decades ago when I was afforded opportunities to visit highland Changthang (meaning northern plain), home to the Changpas who rear the Pashmina goat. About 170 km from Leh upstream along the Indus, the narrow valley cradling it gave up its constrictive embrace and allowed river waters the latitude that a wide and outspread bed affords. Meanwhile, our track had mutated from a macadamised one into an unmetalled one, and gradually narrowed until it disappeared. With that came the freedom to drive cross-country on any part of the widened valley in the southern segment of Changthang, with the surface occasionally marred by ruts left behind by vehicles loaded with supplies.
The contrasts between clear cerulean skies with scanty mottled clouds, mountain slopes presenting a variety of shades ranging from sandy brown to dark brown or even black, and the pure blue of the languorous waters of the Indus was striking. Grass, sedge, artemisia and the odd juniper bush, all low in profile, growing on the slopes rising gradually from the river towards the mountains a few kilometres away, did little to take away from the majestic panoramic vastness. And the sense of being alone and a non-entity in the grand scheme of things took charge, humbling one.
Southern Changthang in Ladakh can be visualised as three parallel enclaves, oriented roughly north west- south east, separated by mountainous continuums 5,000-6,000 feet above the valley floor. The Indus flows through the eastern-most limb, the smaller Hanle river in the central one, and the Tso Moriri, Kar Tso and Kyagar Tso, all very beautiful lakes, adorn the western one. Matching the adjacent Tibetan plateau in altitude and natural features, it is mostly arid, wind-swept, cold and exposed to high levels of ultra-violet radiation. Sparsely populated, including by people of Tibetan stock who had migrated here in the 8th century and then following the uprising against the Chinese in Tibet in 1959, this region plays host to a few villages and nomads living in small groups along the Indus. The latter migrate twice annually from summer grazing grounds to winter grazing grounds, traditionally assigned to each group, within Changthang.
Geographically isolated, the Changpas, numbering but a few thousand in that vast swath, spoke Byangskat, a Bodish language quite distinct from Ladakhi. Sanguine about maintaining their ethnic identity, the Changpas practised polyandry. In the absence of telephones and electricity, they remained cut off from modern ways. With feeble administrative presence overlaid with apathy, no development was visible and education and health facilities were virtually non-existent. With little scope for agriculture, livestock rearing was the main occupation and means of sustenance. Changra goats (Capra Hirpus Laniger, locally called Rama) for Pashmina, other goats and sheep for wool, yaks as beasts of burden and horses for travel constituted the usual holdings. Yaks and goats yielded milk, often turned into cheese, and yak hair was woven for creating roofs of rebos, yurt-like tents except that these had walls made of unhewn stone. And yaks, goats and sheep provided meat. The animals were corralled, traps set up, and sturdy youth would sleep out in the open with Tibetan Mastiffs for thwarting predation by wolves (shankus) and snow leopards.
With the advent of summer in June after an eight-month-long winter, the Changpas took to collection of Pashmina, which brought cash to sustain them for the rest of the year. Men pinned down one Pashmina goat at a time, upturned it, and ran a specially fabricated long-toothed comb, sometimes made of steel, over the undercoat harvesting some Pashmina wool with each stroke. Nearly 300-400 grams of this precious fibre was collected from each goat. Usually no more than 3 inches long and 14 odd microns in diameter, the fibre had been traditionally sold by weight to traders from Leh. The latter degreased, scoured, carded and spun the fibre for local production of shawls, while the Kashmiris took the unprocessed fibres, preferring to refine and spin fine yarn in the Valley for conversion into high quality cashmere fabric.
Pashmina products emanating from Kashmir have held their own against fine vicuna harvested from llamas in South America, deservedly attracting the attention of the affluent in tony stores in the West. What the Changpas recover for their Pashmina wool is miniscule and bears no relationship with price labels on these hand-fashioned wonders abroad. But that does not cause the Changpa inhabitants ensconced in the highlands to regret what they do for a living and they keep at it without demur.