This nomadic tribe herds yaks, sheep, and horses against the stunning backdrop of this cold desert plateau.
The high-altitude plains of Rupshu Valley, in the eastern reaches of India’s Ladakh region, are home to the Changpa, a nomadic pastoralist tribe. For generations, they have lived in complete harmony with their land—a cold desert plateau too inhospitable for farming and which remains under a thick blanket of snow for seven months a year. The Changpas rear yaks, sheep, and horses migrating four times a year from one meadow to another with their animals, using them to produce cheese and milk. For centuries, the Changpas had preferred to live a self-sustained, secluded life, but they are slowly getting accustomed to the ways of the outside world, and visitors to Ladakh can now experience a close glimpse of their unique lifestyle and customs.
Rupshu Valley is also home to a few brackish lakes, the most important of which are Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso, two mesmerizingly beautiful, high grassland lakes that preserve exotic flora and fauna.
Yaks Are Important to Changpa Life
The barren landscape of Rupshu Valley, which ranges between 14,800 feet and 18,000 feet, is inhospitable for farming. The Changpas are traditional pastoralists and they rear yaks, sheep, and horses. Yaks are used by the Changpas as pack animals and as dependable sources of milk, hide, and meat.
The Bead of Prayers
The Changpas are devout followers of Buddhism, which preaches non-violence; but they have to kill their animals and sell them off for meat. As a form of redemption from this sin, the bead of prayers is a constant companion for most of the members of the clan, as they recite prayers and Buddhist chants.
Perak Is the Prized Possession of Changpa Women
The traditional headdress is a wide strip of leather covered with a blue cloth on which rows of rough-cut turquoise stones are attached. The heavy headgear has remained a mark of prestige and aristocracy through the years and is usually worn during festive occasions.
Tso-Moriri: The Largest High Altitude Lake in the Indian Trans-Himalayan Belt
The largest high-altitude lake in the Indian Trans-Himalayan belt, Tso-Moriri is ringed by mountains rising over 19,685 feet. The ocher harshness of Rupshu Valley magically metamorphoses into sublime languor as Tso Moriri announces itself—an ethereal pearl-shaped mass of blue in meditative repose, subtly shifting color throughout the day from an intense cobalt to a light sapphire. The brackish waters of this 16,000-foot high lake are holy for the Changpas and is a biodiversity hotspot for preserving endangered species like Asiatic wild bass, black-necked cranes, and marmots.
Horse Racing New Tso Moriri
A group of Changpa horsemen race near lake Tso Moriri. Horse racing is an ancient and prestigious sport among the Changpas but now has become infrequent.
The Traditional Pastoral System of the Changpas Is Centered Around Their Livestock
Their ancestral way of life has been the key to the survival of the Changpa, who have used their indigenous knowledge system to optimize the use of rangeland vegetation in Rupshu Valley, where the grazing of yaks, sheep, goats, and horses is regulated through a well-planned migration in a land characterized by a fragile ecosystem.
Livestock Is Considered Sacred for a Changpa Nomad
The Changpas have shreds of animism in their religious beliefs that can be traced back to their herding tradition: for a Changpa nomad, his livestock is intrinsically sacred creatures bestowed upon him by the gods of the valley.
Three Horsemen on the Banks of Tso Moriri at Nearly 16,000 Feet
Unlike other pastoral nomadic tribes, they do not travel from one climate region to another, but follow the route from one grassland to another, four times a year.
A Buddhist Monk and a Tibetan Witchdoctor Praying Together to Usher Well-Being Into the Valley
In these remote parts, Buddhist practices have been deeply influenced by Tibetan rituals, which predate Buddhism in the region.
Day’s End at Pangong Tso
Day’s end at Pangong Tso, the second-highest lake of Changthang plateau. Pangong Tso, which means “long, narrow, enchanted lake” in Tibetan, has been identified under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.