Being a cultural anthropologist studying Himalayan cultures, I have had the unbelievable opportunity to live among the elusive and unknown Changpa tribe in the remote Himalayas, high on the Chang Thang plateau. I took so much away from that unforgettable experience, as there are infinite lessons to extract from their wandering culture. The Changpa are now an endangered culture, as their livelihood is based purely on a harmonious ecological balance and sacred relationship with their animals, which is now being affected by environmental changes and the unfortunate infusion of modernity, even to the farthest reaches of our planet.
Who are the Changpas?
In Tibetan, the word pa means ‘people of’, in so much that Changpa refers to ‘the people of the Chang region’ or ‘the people of the North.’ Changpas are indigenous Tibetans who roam freely across a vast and unexplored region of pristine natural beauty called the Chang Thang plateau, a high-altitude desert on top of the world. Expanding China, in the region formerly known as TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) and the mountainous regions of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, the Chang Thang region stretches over 700,000 square kilometers and has a high-elevation range of 4,000 to 7,000 meters above sea level. This environment is beautifully pure: a mixture of rolling alpine grasslands, snow-capped Himalayan peaks, and turquoise lakes, yet enormous and remote, barren and frigid, and is therefore uninhabitable by the general population. However, although being unhospitable terrain with subzero temperatures, the Changpas display survival mastery in this environment, which is impressive to witness.
The Changpas speak a dialect of Tibetan and Ladakhi and practice Tibetan Buddhism. They used to roam freely on the high plateau between India and Tibet, however their traditional route in Tibet has been closed and they are denied entry to their grazing lands. Therefore, the tribe has migrated and now roams solely in the Ladakh region. Since 2001, they have been considered a Scheduled Tribe, or a protected indigenous tribe, of India.
Changpas are fiercely traditional, unaffected by modern society (which is beginning to change) and live a life of complete minimalism and limited resources. They don’t even use a currency. They use beads and shells and mostly barter goods in lieu of using a currency. The most expensive possession a Changpa family owns is their animals and the mother’s perak, a long stunningly beaded headdress, made of large turquoise and coral chunks from ancient Tibet. The perak gets passed down through the women in a family, and travels with them on their nomadic path.
Pastoral Nomads: Raising Pashmina Goats and Yaks
The Changpas have a unique lifestyle in that they are high-altitude pastoral nomads. A high-altitude pastoral nomadic culture is one that is based around animals (pastoral), not having a consistent home (nomadic) and roaming in high altitude areas. This means that the Changpas own and raise animals: yaks and goats, which are considered central to their micro-society, and which determine all aspects of their lives. However, these are not just any goats. The Changpas raise changthangi goats, the only goats in the world that produce pashmina, the finest, softest, and most expensive wool. This is their prized possession, and key good to offer when bartering with local villages.
In harmony and ecological balance with their environment, the Changpas live a life of consistent relocation across the Changthang Plateau, in order to rear their animals, which is their livelihood. Through a practice called rotational grazing, they base their living locations on the presence of grassy fields and food for their grazing animals. They rotate through five or six locations in a year, allowing their animals to graze for a few months, and then moving to a new location, to find more food for their animals. Everything they own gets rolled up and carried on the backs of their yaks when it is time to move. They use the animals’ dairy products as a subsistent food source for their own family and traveling tribe, and also as a trade with villages that they may encounter, for items that they need. As they use their animals for products for subsistence survival, so too do they use the body parts of their animals when they perish. They live in yak skin tents called rebos, which use yak bones for the frame, and yak hair for the external insulation. They spin yak hair yarn on backstrap looms into all of their clothing and blankets to stay warm in subzero temperatures. They let no part go to waste, as they believe that their animals helped them to survive when they were living, and they will continue to do so when they die.
Making contact with the Changpas
Twenty years ago, I was in the Ladakh region near a lake called Tso Morari as an expedition anthropologist for a team of medical doctors serving remote Tibetan refugee camps, when I learned that the Changpas had set up a camp nearby. Having long been fascinated by them as one of the most intriguing Himalayan cultures, I asked if it was possible to be brought to their remote location. I discovered that it was possible, and that a guide and translator would take me in the morning. When I found out I would be able to visit them, I packed several pairs of sunglasses from our medical tent to hand out. The Changpas live at such high altitude under blazing sun, that most of them have an eye disease called pterygium. Knowing this, I wanted to help them by introducing sunglasses to shield their eyes from further damage.
Early the next morning, we set out on foot to locate one of their traveling villages high on the plateau. I will never forget the day of my arrival. From the lake, we walked about two hours into the plateau, absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful sunny day with the most piercing crystal blue sky because of the high-altitude purity. I carried my backpack full of sunglasses and water bottle, trekking through the rolling alpine environment, watching marmots pop out of their holes and then disappear. Eventually from a distance we saw some dots of brown and white scattered across the horizon. Feeling so happy to have found them, we walked in that direction and later realized that those scattered dots were in fact a rebo village of traveling Changpas. Feeling thankful and elated, we approached their camp.
Political Organization of the Camp
From an outsider, a Changpa village looks like a bunch of tents scattered everywhere with no organization or system. However, this is quite wrong. There is a village leader of every traveling village, called a goba. He is the village chief, and he makes all the decisions as to when it is time to pack up and travel again, where to take the animals to graze, where to set up the tents, etc. I was introduced to the goba, the village chief, and brought inside his tent to meet his family and to have some yak butter tea.
Inside a Rebo
Inside the yak hair tent, it was very dark and smoky. An old woman sat squatted at an open fire pit stove, warming the tea and fanning the smoke. I was urged to sit on a cushion, and then slowly started looking around. The rebo was extremely basic and harsh, with no modern items or comforts. There were some cushions, camping mattresses, a back strap loom, and a few clothing items. The focus in the rebo and in the Changpa culture is on the kitchen area, and on the hearth that keeps everyone warm throughout the frigid and relentless winters experienced at 16,000 ft. on a remote plateau. Women of the family constantly stoke the fire to keep the rebo warm.
Distributing Sunglasses and Dancing..
After tea, we went outside of the rebo, and the village chief called his people to come meet me and line up for sunglasses. One by one, Changpas emerged from their tents and walked in our direction. The population mostly consisted of elders and children, and some middle aged in between. I remember not seeing any teenagers or youth, and I later learned that they had all received tribal rights grants from the government to study at Indian schools. Seeking a modern way of life, they left their culture for an education and a different future. This was the first sign to me that things were starting to change for the elusive Changpas. Everyone lined up and I handed out sunglasses to cover their clouded red eyes, and one by one, the shock and gratitude set in of putting on sunglasses for the first time and feeling comfort outdoors, in terms of vision and protection. They were so thankful for sunglasses, and I knew that it would change their world. As a thank you to me, they gave me a special yak hair dress like they all wear. They had woven it themselves on a backstrap loom. It was made of yak wool and felt rough. They put it on me, and all of the women squealed with delight. They took my hand and skipped with me through the field, twirling and dancing in the sunshine, with their sunglasses on. They were so elated for something so small, as was I for this experience that I had dreamed of, sharing an exchange of humanity with these beautiful, rugged, unknown, and endangered people.
Invaluable Life Lessons Learned from the Changpas
My time with the Changpas was unforgettable and taught me a lot that I would come to use and rely on throughout my life. I learned about the delicate ecological balance of life, and that it is possible to have a harmonious relationship with nature and animals, as so many of our ancestors did before the concept of a modern lifestyle. I learned about absolute minimalism, and the nomadic way. Throughout my life I have always asked myself, ‘Could that easily fit on the back of my yak when it is time to move on?’ If the answer was no, then I didn’t acquire it. Instead, as I learned from the Changpas, I focused my energy on the experience of life, and not the things that a life can buy. I learned from them to focus on the small moments of utter joy, that can carry you through to the next, as I often think of the Changpas receiving their sunglasses and dancing me through their fields. From the Changpas I also learned powerful lessons about recycling, in that they use and reuse everything that they have, leaving virtually no trace of waste. They rear their animals, using their products for sources of survival when they are alive, and all bones and parts for survival, when they die. Every part is respected and utilized, and nothing gets discarded. Albeit hard in the west, I do think of this all the time as I cautiously recycle my trash and life goods. And last, I learned from them strength and endurance, and the indomitable human spirit. If a human culture can endure entire Himalayan winters in a tent, and if they can survive eating barley, and if they can find happiness with literally no money, then we have it all wrong. We as humans are capable of so much more than we know. And enough joy can radiate from our internal happiness, to carry us through all our lives, without one single material good or item, affecting our way. This is an inspiring message to humanity to live in the moment, be strong, be content, and leave nothing but a trace. The Himalayas are home to many cultures with a powerful message to humanity similar to the Changpas. If you seek, you shall find.