Glimpses of a fading culture in Uttarakhand’s mountains

As glaciers shrink and streams dry up, Bhutia communities are struggling to keep their cultural heritage alive in the Indian Himalayas.

Monks at the Phuktal Gompa Buddhist monastery located in the remote Lungnak Valley in south-eastern Zanskar, in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, in Northern India. Image: sandeepachetan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

At 2,200 metres above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, in a small museum overlooked by snow-capped peaks, the essence of a community’s metamorphosis is locked behind glass displays.

Objects preserve snatches of past generations of the Bhutia community: pieces of clothing, jewellery, household items, faded photos, and maps, curling at the edges.

Once the guardians of the Indo-Tibet trade route, the Bhutia used to be one of the more prosperous high-altitude communities of Kumaon, the eastern region of what is now the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which adjoins Nepal.

Over the past 60 years, their way of life has changed dramatically. Trade routes closed after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and in search of livelihood opportunities, Uttarakhand’s Bhutia community relocated from the Johar Valley in the high mountains to the towns of the Himalayan foothills.

Today, rather than trade and commerce, they make a living from livestock, agriculture and handicrafts.

One of the foothill towns they moved to is Munsyari. It was here, in 2000, that local historian Sher Singh Pangtey established the Tribal Heritage Museum. Inside, rows of black and white photographs are interspersed with coloured prints from the 1980s. The images depict scenes of village life in parts of Johar Valley that are now being abandoned, capturing the memory and melancholy of a time that has long passed. 

Earlier, we could plan and prepare better for migration. Now it rains when we least expect it, making the journey that much tougher to make with all our rations and supplies.

Pushpa Laspal, local, Mapang 

No Bhutia households live in the Johar Valley permanently now; only the army and road workers remain year-round. Around 20 families continue to divide their year between the Johar Valley and Munsyari. Simply known as ‘migration’, many complete the annual process of returning to their native land at the beginning of May and descending every winter as a way to hold on to their farming lands, slowly dilapidating ancestral homes and a sense of belonging. 

It is a journey of about 50 kilometres, rising 1,220 metres in altitude, between Munsyari and Milam – the highest village in the Johar Valley that is still inhabited. Men and women, including the elderly for as long as they are able, continue this gruelling journey on precarious terrain, navigating narrow paths at the edge of precipices, through rockfalls and rain; wading across streams that sweep away old paths and create new routes nearly every season; and passing through valleys of awe-inspiring vastness and unmatched beauty.

The changing climate in the high Himalayas, however, has made this journey harder and more unpredictable. By 2012, the average annual temperature in Pithoragarh, the district where Munsyari lies, was 0.58 degrees Celsius higher than it was in 1911 – a bigger increase than any other district in the state. Rainfall has become more erratic.

“Earlier, we could plan and prepare better for migration. Now it rains when we least expect it, making the journey that much tougher to make with all our rations and supplies,” says Pushpa Laspal, who sells food to travellers and road workers out of her kitchen in Mapang village to make up for lost income from trade and agriculture.

This year, for example, unexpected early rainfall delayed people’s journeys to the end of May and early June. Climatic changes like this add to the strains on the Bhutia, driving the loss of traditional culture in Johar. 

One of the most prominent examples of this is the majestic Milam glacier – the main source of water for inhabitants of the valley. For decades, scaling the glacier has been the ultimate prize of trekkers seeking to conquer a tough route. Old photographs of trekking routes show an abundance of streams and water bodies, and elderly residents tell The Third Pole that the glacier used to reach “just past” Milam village.

Now, the snout of the glacier has receded to 8 kilometres upstream of the village. Between 1954 and 2006, the Milam glacier retreated by 25 metres a year on average: fast enough to make an alarming difference down the line.

Today, as the water supply moves further from the village, farming and daily life in Milam is becoming increasingly difficult. 

Traditional water mills called gharats were once common across the mountains of the Himalayas, used to grind grain. Rising temperatures and reduced water flow in many rivers and streams has made gharats a thing of the past. Occasionally, abandoned mills can be spotted by what little is left of once-powerful watercourses.

Bhutia culture fading fast

For more than a decade, work has been underway to build a road connecting Milam to Munsyari, currently due to be complete by 2027. By then, it is likely that much more will have faded from Bhutia culture than the hike to reach the higher altitudes. 

From food habits to clothing, and from livelihoods to daily routines, change has crept almost unnoticed into the lives of the Shauka community, as Bhutias in Kumaon are known locally. 

Butter tea, previously a year-round Johar staple, is primarily a winter drink now because of its warming properties – or served as a beverage to curious visitors trying it for the first time. A compact, modern butter churner used to make the drink has taken the place of the traditional dumka, a huge wooden container that now lies neglected in most kitchen corners. The former is easy to carry and more convenient for making smaller quantities of tea. 

Dumcha, a traditional chutney made from a mix of several heat-inducing herbs, is consumed mainly in upper Johar today. For those who have moved to lower altitudes, where temperatures are more forgiving, the concoction has lost its appeal. Popular herbs like gandrayani and jumbu that need colder temperatures to grow could once be cultivated at lower elevations. Now, shopkeepers in Munsyari say they have to be grown at higher altitudes, then dried and transported, resulting in the cost shooting up tenfold. 

Previously, a wide variety of crops was cultivated in the Johar Valley. Now only potato farming persists, which requires much less water, older people across the valley told The Third Pole.

In a corner of the Tribal Heritage Museum of Munsyari hangs an anwal coat, a thick, double-woven shepherding coat worn by locals for protection from the cold and rain. Previously popular due to its warmth and water-resistance, it is used by few now, the display information in the museum observes.

Before 1962, the Bhutia in Kumaon would weave with yak wool and pashmina, trading other goods for goats from Tibet. But, like the anwal coat, the thick komaul and odre (traditional long dresses made from wool) have fallen out of fashion, and have been replaced by cotton sweatshirts. Now, most clothes made in the region are kurtas (long cotton shirt) and angora wool caps to be sold to tourists. 

Damyanti Pangti, a weaver in Darkot, a village in Munsyari sub-district, reminisces about her father-in-law who only ever wore handmade clothes made by his wife. Pangti, who was taught to weave on a traditional loom called a khaddi by her mother-in-law, says yak wool is too warm to be worn in today’s warmer temperatures, not to mention expensive. 

Will she pass on her weaving knowledge to her daughter, who is studying medicine in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh? She’s doubtful: it is the older generation who are trying to straddle the old world and the new, desperate to hold on to remnants of their culture.

Nevertheless, Pangti tells The Third Pole that she feels fortunate to have learned this traditional craft. She has been able to adapt the technique to lamb and angora wool, which are much softer on the skin and more popular with tourists. In this way, she has been able to make a living. 

Recently, women in Munsyari tell The Third Pole, their women-led cooperative has noticed a renewed interest in traditional clothing. The cooperative, called Saras, was founded in 2008 and works with about 50 women around Munsyari. There have been a few bulk orders for coats made from traditional yak and pashmina wool – and not just the angora wool products they make to suit modern preferences. These usually come from Him Kutir, an NGO, which sells them in city shops or at exhibitions.

What does the future hold for the next Bhutia generation?

Further changes have arrived as the next generation of Bhutia search for livelihood opportunities. With the treacherous higher altitudes increasingly free of snow earlier in the year, young people now embark on a new, risk-laden path altitudes to collect yarsagumba, the prized caterpillar fungus used in traditional medicine. 

Longer warm spells with earlier snowmelt and later snowfall have increased the foraging window for the fungus, which is near impossible to detect when buried under snow. But one wrong step in this environment could mean a fatal fall: narrow paths are flanked by sheer drops; routes are dotted with crevasses; breathing problems are common in the thin air; and conflict between groups over territory is not unheard of.

The wait for the snow to melt during springtime used to be much longer years ago. Just a few more warm weeks mean much more fungus can be collected. However, longer picking seasons have exacerbated the impact on ecologically sensitive zones, by opening up routes to areas that were once perpetually snowbound, locals and people involved in the trade told The Third Pole.

On a hot summer afternoon in the market near the Tribal Heritage Museum in Munsyari, a group of teenagers are buying ice lollies at a local store. They discuss an upcoming litter pick in Munsyari organised by the local youth club, with the aim of raising broader awareness about environmental issues and climate change

The teenagers voice their vision for a modern, environmentally conscious future in which sustainable tourism becomes the norm – with proper waste management, sensitive development, wildlife tours and homestays. It is through such livelihoods opportunities that they want to forge a new path for the community. 

Somewhere in between these shifting worlds runs the hope that the old and the new shall find a middle ground, and the heritage of the Bhutias of Kumaon will not be lost for good.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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