“I bet you met only cows, donkeys and a few dogs on the way up here,” smiled Tsering Angchuk, 62, when I met him in December 2016 in Sneymo village, 35 kilometres from the town of Leh in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir.
Most of the houses in this small village, with a population of around 1,100 (Census 2011) are locked for the winter. With temperatures plummeting to minus 13 degrees Celsius, residents prefer to move in with family members living in the warmer climes of Chandigarh, Jammu, Delhi or even Leh. “This leaves only a few people like me, with the cattle for company,” says Tsering, whose wife and three children are away, while he lives at a relative’s home taking care of their livestock – mainly cows and dzos (a hybrid of cows and yaks).
Tsering pours some hot Ladakhi tea ( gur-gur tea) for me, and a small wooden bowl of chaang(local beer made from barley) for himself; a few kittens jump into his lap as soon as he sits down. He enjoys being alone in the winters. This is when he can concentrate on what he really loves – weaving.
Winter in Ladakh reminds me of snowy childhood holidays in Sneymo, my mother’s hometown, family get-togethers and grandma’s bedtime stories around a bukhari (a metallic fire vessel). Walking uphill to Sneymo that sunny day after seven years away, I can see how much has changed in the villages of Ladakh. The once-bustling streets and fields are now empty, the villages are deserted – and not only in the winter – as people move permanently to Leh and other towns. Walking uphill that day, the landscape felt lifeless and barren
Tsering and his wife are farmers, and most of the summer months are spent in their fields, cultivating barley Ladakh’s staple crop, and in tending the cattle.
When he is not farming, Tsering weaves – he is a skilled and reputed weaver who is invited to many villages to weave his signature version of a woollen fabric called snamboo . One roll of this woven material is required to stitch the goncha , a traditional garment . Weaving, he explains, is a family occupation. “I remember my father being very strict when he taught me to weave. Tears used to run down my cheeks when I heard kids playing outside in the snow while I tied knots of woollen thread on the loom with aching – sometimes bleeding – fingers. Now I realise the value of this family skill, which fetches a substantial additional income for us.”
Tsering tried a lot to teach his son, who is in his early 30s. His son does weave sometimes and is quite good at it, but not as passionate about weaving as his father. “You cannot be very strict with kids these days!” Tsreing says. “They prefer to roam aimlessly in the Leh marketplace, picking at their phones. “
“Locally available wood is used for the frame ( thisha ) of the loom ( thagsha ), and for the boat-shaped holder ( rumbu ) for the spindle that weaves the horizontal threads into fabric,” Tsering explains. “Even the small bamboo-like pipes ( poori ) are a kind of grass found in plenty along the sides of freshwater streams.”
The weaves are of two kinds. “The simple one is the fabric with a right and a wrong surface, and the more complicated one, gyalog , is where both sides can be worn. The two styles are differentiated by the way the foot paddles are used.”