Story and Photography by Rhett Kleine
The Tibetan Plateau, often referred to as the roof of the world. One can’t quite grasp the truth in this name until they see the snow-capped Himalaya disappearing amongst swathes of stark white clouds. The Changpa Nomads have called this dusty plateau home for more than a millennium.
Their lives revolve around their goats and yaks. The yaks they keep for wool, milk and occasionally meat, but their goats’ fur is what keeps the nomads in such an unyieldingly brutal environment. The fur makes pashmina, a material highly sought after in the neighbouring Kashmir Valley, where it is made into the shawls, scarves and rugs the region is renowned for.
Since the nomads began raising herds the main problem they’ve faced is the wolves and snow leopards that stalk through the hills. Striking at night, they will sometimes take up to five goats at a time. However, a new threat is looming, one that doesn’t claim just one or two goats, nor one that can be deterred by the watchful eye of the nomads’ Tibetan mastiffs.
It is climate change.
The Changpa make their home 4500m above sea level where water is scarce. For them the streams and springs that flow down from the glaciers as they melt are the very lifeblood their way of life relies on. But the Himalayan Glaciers that provide water have begun to disappear, and without the Glaciers, this would mean the end for the Changpa.
Tsering Lhoma barely stands over five foot, she is 72, has six children and 100 goats. Like her parents before her she too is a nomad. She moves with the seasons. As it warms, she heads higher into the mountains. As it grows colder, she moves further down to wait out the winter snow.
Her day is spent leading her goats. By herding them up into the mountains she keeps them fit and allows them to feed from greener pastures.
The Changpa are staunch Buddhists, and as Tsering walks she threads her prayer beads through her leathery hands. While traversing the hostile slopes, watching her footing upon the thick sheet of slate that covers her path, she chants “Om mane padme hum” - a popular Buddhist mantra. Usually it is repeated in a monotonous, tone deaf dribble. Tibetan Buddhist, usually try to chant it as many times as they can, believing it brings good luck.
Tsering however sings it, without rush or hurry. It’s quiet, not for performance or praise, but for herself and her goats. As the day moves on, she will stop and sit, resting while the goats continue on. Taking the same path through the hills everyday they now naturally know where to go. Tsering looks back on the nomad settlement, their tents now tiny black and white specks in the distance.
Back around the nomad camp, the crisp mountain air is humming with the chants being played over speakers standing outside a small brick building where a puja is being held. For Buddhists it is a time for worship and devotional attention. It is during the Puja that monks come to deliver teachings to the nomads, who in their isolation have little access to Buddhist teachers who can cultivate and reinforce their faith. As they sit and chant, butter tea is brought around for worshippers – the creamy brew warming the frostbitten lips of those in prayer.
It is here that Rapgol Tsultim, voices his concerns for the future of the Changpa. Born in Tibet before moving to India to escape persecution, Rapgol, was born into being a nomad. He is a nomad because his father and his fathers’ father were nomads before him. He has led his flocks around the mountains of Ladakh for more than fifty years.
“With the glacier there is big change, thirty years ago the glaciers would melt very slowly. Now they melt very fast,” he says.
Each year the glaciers reform smaller and smaller, if the streams and springs that run down from the glaciers are the lifeblood of the Changpa, then the glaciers are the beating heart of their epoch enduring way of life.
“Our drinking water and springwater is from the glacier, as the glaciers get smaller and smaller, we have water shortages. Our main source of water is from the glaciers.”
Rapgol isn’t the only Changpa to be aware of what the shrinking glaciers might foreshadow. His fellow nomads Sonam Wangchuk, Jigmet Lodoe and Pema Tsering have all watched as the glaciers, year by year, have begun to disappear.
The nomads have already seen fundamental parts of their lifestyle disappear due to the shortage of water. Rapgol explained how they are no longer able to grow crops as they once did.
“Before 20 years ago we used to farm barley and vegetables, back then we had plenty of water for irrigation. These days the farm is not possible.”
The empty irrigation ducts, lie like a skeleton unused across the dust strewn plain. The fields that they encompass, once green and full of life, are now dead and empty. Only the remains of goats that didn’t make it back before sunset fill the empty space.
Since industrialisation, human development has had an increasingly negative affect on those who are most reliant on the land – the indigenous peoples of the world who have for millennia lived in harmony with their environment. As the seas rise and glaciers fall, they are and will continue to be the early casualties before the greater onslaught. Their way of living, the wisdom they hold that we could learn from to revert the climate crisis, is slowly slipping away. The greatest fear now is that we won’t recognise how vital the knowledge of people like the Changpa is before it disappears.
For now, the Changpa have little option but to arise each day and hope that when they lead their goats into the hills that the springs and streams are still flowing. When the glaciers finally disappear, the hills and mountains of the Himalaya will no longer hear Tsering’s song.
Rhett is a third year Documentary Photography student. He has documented stories across India for the Water Story project. These stories have ranged from the effect that contemporary Hindu festivals have had on Bangalore’s waterways in the south, to the Koli, further north, who are stone-age fishermen indigenous to the Maharashtra coast. Then to the Changpa Nomad’s in India’s northern peaks. Recently Rhett has covered how lockdown exacerbated Australia’s already high rates of domestic violence. His work ultimately aims to strike a deeper chord with audiences in how we understand the human condition and how we relate to the environment around us. See Instagram @rhettdoesphoto