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Tea Leaves

Geopolitics threatens nomads and luxury shawls

Ladakh military clash disrupts supply of premium cashmere wool

An aerial view of Leh, which has become a new home for herders after being pushed from their traditional pastures due to an India-China border standoff. (Photo by Minaam Shah).

High on the roof of the world, crisscrossed by imposing Himalayan peaks and deep gorges, lies the remote northern frontier of India, under siege from China's People's Liberation Army.

Covering roughly 60,000 sq. km, the Ladakh union territory, formerly part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (now a neighboring union territory), has long been a spiritual destination for travelers from around the world. The regional capital, Leh, is a place of exploration and mystique, dotted with Buddhist monasteries, and is an especially important destination for Buddhist pilgrims.

But the plateau is also home to the prized Changthangi or Ladakh Pashmina goat, native to the region, which yields some of the world's finest and most coveted cashmere wool. Most is woven into exquisite -- and expensive -- shawls, sold in luxury stores from Sydney to New York.

After being driven out of their grazing lands, herders fear that their livestock, including pashmina goats, is at risk of starvation and death. (Photo by Minaam Shah).

Thanks to its harsh and forbidding landscape, with temperatures as low as minus 50 C in winter, Ladakh has for centuries been a largely unexplored world of myths, gods and legends, unreachable until recently by all but a few outsiders. For a small group of people, however, this beautiful but menacing place is home.

There are fewer than 150 double-humped camels left in Ladakh. The animals are prized possessions for nomadic herders in the area.(Photo by Minaam Shah).

The local Changpa nomadic community has been roaming this vast landscape for centuries, constantly moving cattle and goats in search of fresh pastures, and sleeping wherever its members make camp. Their territory stretches as far as Tibet, and their nomadic existence permeates all aspects of their culture.

Now, this ancient lifestyle is under pressure. Last May, the Chinese army made a sudden move into the disputed border area of Ladakh, catching both the Indian government and the nomadic community off guard. Within days, China consolidated its position by bringing in reinforcements and deploying heavy artillery.

To stem the Chinese advance, India responded with a military buildup, and a standoff ensued. On June 15, the two armies clashed in the Galwan region of Ladakh, killing 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops.

In late August, India sent thousands of troops to take possession of heights giving them a strategic vantage point over Chinese border positions. But the deadlock continues in spite of eight rounds of military-level talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, which fought a brief and bloody border war in 1962.

The biggest price, however, has been paid by the Changpa nomads, who have suffered the loss of their cherished pastures. Most of the grazing lands in Ladakh are located near the largely unmarked border with China, and were the first to fall to the invading soldiers.

This shawl with detailed embroidery took six months to make. (Photo by Minaam Shah).

As a result, the nomadic community has migrated to Leh, where laboring work is available, while many of the group's animals have scattered. "It is an exodus on a major scale, yet no one seems to care," community leader Rigzin Spalbar told Nikkei Asia. He is right. The Indian government has done little to help, denying access to pastures remaining under Indian control on the pretext of security, according to the nomads.

The outskirts of Leh are littered with thousands of cattle and Pashmina goats, most of which are growing thinner day by day. I saw a young boy on a camel, calling and whistling to keep his livestock engaged. When I asked him how important the now restricted pastures were to his dozen Pashmina goats, he told me that they have medicinal flowers which the goats need to eat in order to stay healthy. "If they don't eat it, they normally die," he said.

In a normal year, the Changpa produce nearly 50 tons of Pashmina goat wool, which provides enough money to support the entire community. In many ways, the income from the wool is like a piggy bank for the Changpa, providing a secure source of earnings on which they can always fall back, allowing them to roam with their herds without worrying too much about their livelihood.

But in the last six months a quarter of newborn Pashmina goats have died after being pushed out of their grazing lands. Nowhere is this shortage being more felt than in neighboring Kashmir districts, where the pashmina industry supports nearly half a million people.

The Khardungla pass in Ladakh's Leh district. For Leh's nomadic herders, "the top of the world" is home. (Photo by Minaam Shah).

From the end of June every year, massive piles of Pashmina wool start arriving in Kashmir towns, destined for the spinning wheels of local women, who weave it into the finest of fabrics. Artisans then decorate the pashmina shawls with tapestries and elegant patterns, which can take months or even years to complete.

"The crisis in the pashmina industry is [falling] on our heads," said Sheikh Ashiq, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "A huge number of Kashmiris are part of the pashmina industry. There are dyers, artisans, weavers all waiting for new consignments of pashmina to arrive from Ladakh. And these aren't well-off people. The shortage of pashmina is pushing many into poverty here."

This is not good news for Ladakh's nomads. As time passes, artisans in Kashmir may be forced to look elsewhere for cashmere. Few are hopeful about 2021. Reports from Beijing suggest that China is unlikely to vacate the heights it has occupied. Instead, it is deploying more troops and buildings military bases. For all practical purposes, Beijing's regional ambitions represent the death knell of the nomads and their animals.

When I asked the nomadic boy about his community's fears that it might never recover its traditional pastures, he remained optimistic. "All the world's rich wear cashmere made from our own Pashmina goats. If they won't protest to help people like us, perhaps they will do something for their pashmina shawls," he said cheerfully.

Sadly, however, Western demand for cashmere shawls is unlikely to save the nomadic lifestyle of the Changpa, who nowadays account for only a small proportion of global cashmere production. Most of the world's supply comes from Mongolia -- and China.

Minaam Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist who covers South Asia.

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