Out-migration is a growing problem for traditional pastoral communities of eastern Ladakh, according to Monisha Ahmed, who was quoted in an article in The Hindu on Sunday. Dr. Ahmed’s findings appear to complement, and perhaps vary a bit, from the research results of Sarah K. Goodall, whose work on migration from eastern Ladakh was reviewed here in September.
The particular focus of Ahmed’s work is on the weaving of the Rupshupa, the herding people of the Rupshu region of eastern Ladakh, on the border with Tibet. Apparently they believe that their work was instituted by the gods and therefore is sacred,. Their weaving arts are based on their belief that Dugma, wife of the mythical King Gesar of Ling, continues to work at her loom, finishing one row per year. Completion of her project will bring the world to an end.
Ahmed indicates that men do most of the weaving throughout Ladakh. It is taboo for women to touch a loom in some areas, much less to actually weave fabrics. If a woman were to do so, the mountains would collapse, the woman’s hands would burst into flames, she would become infertile, and so on. Not so in the Rupsha region, where both the men and women weave. Ahmed maintains that there are few ethnic communities around the world that allow both men and women to weave, though it is unclear from this news story if she is aware of the advances of some women weavers such as those in Teotitlán, Mexico.
Threads of gender prejudice are woven through the work of the Rupshupa weavers. In the creation myth of the Rupshupa, according to Ahmed, “weaving was the means by which recalcitrant demonesses were transformed into women, and women are obliged to weave regularly to avoid reverting to being demonesses.” The men of Rupshu don’t face such dangers since they are believed to have superior merit.
Ahmed has spent years roaming with the Rupshupa around the Changthang, the name for the highlands of eastern Ladakh and much of Tibet. She describes the religious motifs that the weavers incorporate into their designs: lucky signs, motifs that ward off evil spirits, natural symbols, and the like.
The steady trickle of out-migrants, particularly young people going into Leh to get work, has increased quite dramatically in recent years, she says. The pastoral peoples had been able to stay in their mountains due to the high prices paid for the wool from the pashmina goats, used to make Kashmir sweaters. But recently, the crush of Tibetan nomadic refugees, whose animals use the same pastures as those of the Rupshupa, has diminished the numbers of goats the Ladakhi people can keep.
Ahmed notes that about 30 young people, out of her study population of 400, have migrated recently to Leh, a significant percentage. The young people in Leh are not especially happy with their menial work, so they have little time to weave. Their elders, left back in the Changthang highlands, lack young people to help out with the herding and heavy task like hauling water. They too, with the disruption to their communities, are finding they have less time for their weaving.