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Toothless Shepherds

At Photoksar on the way out, we spent a rest day, waiting for it to stop raining (an exercise in futility, as it turned out). In the afternoon, as we walked along the river, a bunch of village women descended upon us. They had seen our cameras and come to take a look. Ancient, weather-beaten, toothless, and dirty as they were, I was horrified at the thought of their grime-encrusted hands all over my precious camera. And yet, they were a rather shy, simple lot, easily pleased – how could I refuse? I allowed them to peek through the viewfinder and they giggled and went away thrilled.

They flocked around the tea-stall nearby, talking and laughing. Then, they headed off across the river to gather up their flocks of sheep and goat, who had been grazing on the other side. What a sight it was! Long tunics waving, arms flapping, hair flying and voices rising they hounded and chased the poor critters into seven distinct groups. How they knew which group each sheep and goat and lamb belonged to I have no idea, but they were all quite clear about it. They grabbed them by the leg, by the scruff of the neck, by the ear, by the tail, by any part they could get hold of, all the while flailing at one to shoo it away, rounding up another, and holding a baby lamb in one arm. The animals themselves seemed to have no inkling which family they ought to be with, which is strange considering that they should be used to this routine by now.

Once a couple of women had got their flock together, they started trying to herd them across the river. The animals were most reluctant, as the river was swollen and they had significant stretches of water to cross at either end of the bridge. The women had very definite ideas about the path the goats should and shouldn’t take to cross the water and the goats also had quite definite ideas, which, unfortunately, did not coincide. To complicate matters, as one herd of goat and sheep were sent across, the second herd tried their best to follow, which was not at all to the liking of the herders of the second herd. They tried their level best to hold the second herd back, while at the same time not allowing them to go wandering off to graze or, worse, to mix with any of the other five herds waiting to cross. It really was a circus. At 14,000 ft, such acrobatics would have had me gasping for breath, and watching the acrobatics had me almost rolling with laughter!

Wool Workers

At Lingshet, the last stop on the trek before we turned around, at a secluded corner of the rather spread-out village, we wandered across a wool weaver. He was sitting at his loom – literally a “hand loom” consisting of a motley collection of wooden logs roughly fitted together – working on a partially-finished roll of woolen fabric. This fabric was not the heavy, coarse material blankets are made of, but the lighter and less rough material used for clothing. The roll, once completed, would fetch Rs 2000 in the village, he said. If he worked at it all day, he would finish one roll in one day; but he worked at it only in the afternoons and tended to his fields in the daytime. The fabric was not colored; that would be the buyer’s prerogative.

At the other end of the spectrum from this plain, rough woolen fabric were the exquisite (though dusty) wool carpets that we found in even the poorest homes. In Leh, in one corner of the bazaar were clustered four or five carpet shops. At one of these, we stopped to look, buy, and chat. The carpet seller belonged not to Ladakh, but to Benares. The carpets were made in Benares, he explained, and he and the other carpet sellers brought their stock up to Leh when the tourist season started around June each year. From June till the end of December, they stayed in Leh, selling carpets not only to tourists but to the local residents as well. Towards the end of each year was the Ladakhi festival Lhosal, and at this time they sold almost all their stock. Amongst Ladakhis, carpets were considered a traditional gift for all occasions, he said, from weddings, to festivals, to deaths. People even used them on their animals. Those who could not afford to pay for carpets traded sheep’s wool, which the carpet sellers would take back to Benares for the next year’s supply of carpets.

While dispensing tea and gossip, the carpet seller also made an earnest sales pitch, which involved ripping apart one carpet, pulling threads from another and all but setting fire to the one we had selected, in an effort to prove that it was genuine wool and a superior product (unlike the others) that we would not regret buying. It was fully washable, he assured us, and was all set to pour tea on it to demonstrate his point when we decided to put an end to his antics by buying it.

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Lamayuru, Wanla, Honupatta, Photoksar on the Map

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.