Y.S. Rana, Dharamsala- Dec 22 : The dislocation of the past 48 years has rapidly forced the Chang-pa to abandon their traditional occupation and way of life. Those still tramp from pasture to pasture with a herdsman’s tent of thick felt for home can now be counted on fingers.
‘Chang-pas’ are the people whom Tibetans call ‘western (chang) people (pa).’ Basically, they are Tibetans but specifically chang-pa is nomadic pastoral tribe which for generations has specialized in rearing pashmina goats. They are known as the ‘masters of pashm’ all over the world. Pashmina goats are only found in Tibet. It is the costlier item in the world.
The doubts about walled up hearts come crumbling down when one realized that how exposure to the new world had inflicted a great damage to the chang-pa and another fascinated tribe is on the verge of extinction.
For centuries this tribe followed its traditional way of life, following its herds of yak, sheep and goats down to the Tibetan plateau with the first storms of winter up to the high pastures of Ladakh after lambing time.
The Chinese invasion in 1962 has changed all for them. To control pashm business is also the one of the reasons of Chinese invasion. Majority of them crossed over to India and today they are settled around Dharamsala, Rupshu on the Manali-Leh highway and Chushul in Ladakh.
Until 1955, Kashmiri weavers got pashm from the tribe but thereafter Chinese began to sell pashm on the international market where it fetches a high price. Raw pashm as it is sheared off the goats is a dirty, smelly greasy, tangled mass of hair. That is where the Chang pa women come in. They wash it, card it and spin it on the old fashioned ‘Charkha’ (‘yender’ in Kashmiri) at home.
After spinning the yarn it is doubled and twisted on the yender with the aid of a large reel and tied in hanks, to be spread and smoothed by the hand of the master weaver. The last step in this painstaking process is bartering with the middleman. When the price is agreed upon, a small stick is taken up and each of the two parties holds an end of it and they break the stick. When they meet again to exchange pashm for goods, the two parties rejoin the stick to ascertain that each is indeed the one with whom negotiations had been carried out. They had to barter a load of pashm just for a few kgs of salt at the hands of Ludhiana traders.
Tsering a youth of chang-pa said that pashm has brought the hang-pa sustenance but it has also brought them assault and plunder. In the 19th century the Dogra ruler, Raja Gulab Singh ordered his army into Ladakh to seize control of the business. The Dogra raids continued for six years and resulted in a diversion of the trade via Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh ultimately winding up on the looms of the shawl-weavers of Amritsar in Punjab. The Dogra campaign finally compelled the Tibetans to sign an agreement to trade exclusively with the Kashmiris. This treaty continued in effect until the Chinese invasion.
The GenX of Chang-pa remember the old ways but they have sought the permanent house…finance their dreams with petty trading in Tibetan markets scattered in many places. The grandchildren of the refugees now long for education, easy way of life. Who wanted to be a free man roaming mountains if he can have a brick house with electricity, television, computer and roads said Tsering.
The high pastures of the Himalayas may green again. The snow will melt and leave the alpine grasses lush and flecked with flowers but the few remaining ‘western people’ may not head for the high slopes in near future. Sad, development takes its toll as world of master of pashm is on the wane. EOM.