The Tradition of Weaving Amongst the Nomads of Rupchu

Rabari embIt is common to see the Rupchu nomads of Eastern Ladakh gathered in their pens after the sheep and goats have left for grazing. Two or three women will be weaving, an older woman will be spinning and another would be softening wool. A man will be making felt, another will be stitching up his tent, and a third would be weaving a bag to carry the grain. The children scrounge the pens for stray bits of wool and soon fill their small bags. These activities engage the nomads for most part of the day and as the sun sets they roll up their looms and vacate the pens for the livestock.

By their own narration, “In the beginning there was a God called Pullun Ripka Chen. He first made a man out of gold, but when he called out to him the man did not reply. Then Pullun Ripka Chen made a man out of silver, but again when he called out to him, the man said nothing. Then Pullun Ripka Chen made a man out of mud and when he called out to him, the man replied. This is how first man came to be. We are all descendants of that man. How do we know this? Look, if I scratch the skin on my arm like this, you see a brownish white colour underneath. This is the mud from which we were created.

The people of Rupchu venerate Pullun Ripka Chen. Apart from creating men and women, he is also credited with making the mountains, the plants, their sheep, goats, horses and yaks. It was Pullun Ripka Chen who taught them how to make their tents (robos), how to construct a pen for their livestock (Ihe) and how to make th eloom (takh) weave on.

They have a carefully worked out system of pasture allocation that prevents overgrazing of their land. At each place the nomads camp, there are demarcated areas where they graze the livestock (sanzam). Every morning, at around eight, the shepherd (lugsi) take the sheep and goat out for grazing. Sheep, goats and yaks are branded and each family will have their own mark to distinguish their livestock. The animals are marked either by cutting the ear or else strands of coloured wool or cloth are hung through a hole in their ear.

Evidently, Rupchu nomads subsist by rearing yak, sheep, goats and horse; trading and selling these and their products. Sheep wool is the primary material used for weaving but yak and goat hair are also used. Women first learn to weave around the age of fifteen or sixteen from their mothers and grandmothers. The training begins from weaving the woollen cloth or nambu followed with making blankets or suktul and small carpets or sukden. At first, the young girls find it tiresome to weave. Gradually, they realise the importance of weaving clothes for the entire family. Once the girls become competent, it is common for women to leave the family’s weaving on their young daughters.

Men begin to weave at the age of seventeen or eighteen years. The fathers, uncles and elder brothers teach them to weave strips that make up the tent. The nomdas distinguish between male and female weavers by their posture at work; while women sit and weave, the men weave on their knees.

In the present day, the nomadic way of life is undergoing tremendous change triggered predominantly by migrations from Rupchu to Leh. Overgrazing on the Changthang has resulted in depletion of the livestock and several families are forced to migrate in search of new pastures. The Rupchu nomads are completely dependent on nature and natural resources for survival and infringement on these may be devastating. This gets coupled with increasing susceptibility to illness and increasing emphasis on literacy from the government. Despite the remote location, some families send their children to school at Leh. The danger of sending the children to such schools is that after living in the town, they do not want to return to the way of life at Rupchu and tend to become critical of their parents’ lifestyle.

Furthermore, the government and non-government organisations working in the area seek to impose settled way of life upon the Rupchu nomads. When asked about their attitudes towards settling down, the nomads keep quiet and shrug their shoulders. The nomads know that even when they camp beside their store-rooms at Thuleje in the middle of winter, they still choose to set up their tents besides these structures rather than live in them.

– Monisha Ahmed

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