Ladakh’s own wool Pashmina: A fine weaved story


By Shoba Jose George

Pashmina is not just an ordinary fibre but a speciality and a rich legacy of Ladakh, the high mountain region. Here’s a finely woven story about that.

It was February 2021, my first visit to the Changthang region, at an altitude of 15,000 feet, to see the Pashmina goats and meet the Changpas (nomads) who are at their temporary settlement. I had been planning this for a few months speaking to the many who were connected to Pashmina in Ladakh. After two days of acclimatizing, I was ready to go to the higher altitude. Jiwan and Urgyan from Mantra Himalaya came with her to Isuzu by 6.00 AM; I was excited imagining what this could be, yet not knowing what to expect. Jiwan informed me that most of the passes were closed due to snow, and we would need to take a longer route.

We started our drive, and I was mesmerized by the white landscape as we drove along the frozen Indus. I spotted the Kiang or the Tibetian wild ass, the Watse or the Red fox, and some beautiful wild horses galloping in this raw, rugged landscape. We drove for over 6 hrs till we arrived at Tso Kar, and finally, we located the settlement.

Our first encounter at this settlement was the watchful Tibetian Mastiff, I was warned not to get close. Hearing the barking of this guard dog, one of the ladies came out of the Rebo ( tents made of Yak wool). She was on her backstrap loom weaving a carpet using sheep wool, she would send it to Leh to one of the designer’s stores. She told us all the livestock were out for grazing, and we could see them if we went further ahead. We first saw the Yaks in their thick coat of fur grazing near the frozen lake. We drove down further on, we saw the first heard of Pashmina Goats. I jumped out of the Isuzu to be hit by the bone-chilling cold, not realizing the car heater kept us comfortable and ignorant f the -20 C outside.

The landscape and the goats were so surreal. I took off my gloves to take pictures and videos on my phone, soon, I could feel my fingers freeze. The beauty around me remains etched in my memory. Time stood still, I felt like I was watching a documentary, except…I was not in the periphery as a mere spectator I was part of the scene. We met the Shepard, and he took us up close to the goats. They curiously looked at us; some even came up close when I held my hand. The sun was setting, and they were returning to their settlements.

We went onwards to the camp further ahead, we were there just in time as the livestock were returning. There was excitement as the entire family prepared to get them all settled into their pens. The little ones would sleep in the Rebo with the Changpas to keep them warm. The Tibetian Mastiffs would stay awake, watching the wolves and snow leopards looking for easy prey. The almost purple blush on the children’s face was a reminder of the harsh winter; while the Changpas may not have been wearing their traditional attire and replaced that with ready-made sweaters and woollen caps… their lives was still what it has been for centuries.

Legend has it that a Pashmina shawl that travelled from Kashmir to Iran reached the hands of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte during his campaign in Egypt. He gifted this to his wife, Empress Josephine, who took a great liking to this delicate warm fabric that she soon owned over 400 pashmina shawls at the cost of over 20,000 gold francs. The Pashmina Shawl appeared in a French fashion magazine in the 1790s and was by now a fashion icon in Paris and soon to be the prized possession of the ladies of the high society in Europe.

Kings, adventurers, and explorers all had to ensure that on return home, the gift of love was wrapped neatly, and a Kashmir shawl was inside when opened. Nothing less could do. Well before Europe discovered Pashmina, the Mughal courts already flaunted it. It was an important commodity in the Caravans on the Silk route trade and was known as the “ Soft Gold”. Wars were fought, and treaties were signed to claim and control these pashmina trade routes.

Pashmina remains one of the most coveted fibres in the world and has its origin in this land of the High Mountains – Ladakh.

It is highly priced because it is one of the rarest fibres in the world, found only in high-altitude regions in the Himalayas and the central east. This fibre grows on the pashmina goats only in the winters when the temperature drops down to – 40 degrees at the altitude of about 17000ft in Changthang. The herbs grown at those elevations that the goats consume are also said to be one of the important causing factors in the high quality of the fibre.

This pashmina fibre is why these goats can survive the winters of changthang. Come spring, the fibre is naturally shed by the goats, and the shepherds comb off the moulted fibre from the goats. The annual yield of the raw pashmina fibre from one goat is about 250-300gm. Out of this, only 30% of the fibre is rendered usable. Hence, it takes the annual fibre from three goats to make one medium-sized pashmina scarf.

The most striking quality of pashmina fibre is its very good insulator. We Ladakhis have a saying that if you keep butter wrapped in pashmina and keep it in the sun, it won’t melt. Because the fibres are hollow and so very fine that the woven and knitted fabric becomes much lighter and softer than other kinds of wool. These properties make pashmina about eight times warmer than sheep wool.

Changthang, Changpas & Changra :

Changthang region in the Indian Trans-Himalayan area of Ladakh represents the western extension of the Tibetan Plateau. This important highland grazing ecosystem is home to nomad shepherds of Ladakh. Traditional pastoralism has been the only way of surviving in this high-altitude region. These nomads that move with their livestock across this plateau are known as the Changpa, or “people from the north”, and their livestock includes the Changra or the Pashmina Goat.

During the long winters of the Changthang plateau, from November to May, the goats develop a soft undercoat known as pashm which is known for its softness and warmth throughout the world. Then in spring, the whole coat is removed by hand with a comb.

Though all goats produce wool, herds’ intense cold and genetics are crucial to producing good pashmina. Changpa lives in tents called Ra-bo that are woven from yak wool, which is strong protection from the harsh winter cold, the sun and rain. Year-round they migrate with their flocks following an old established annual routine between the pastures anywhere between seven to eleven times a year.

The shepherd reports about the pastures being exhausted, and women talk to the chief about the water being reduced to a trickle, and the date is soon fixed to move the camp. There are three different communities of Changpas- Kharnak, Samad and Korzok; together, they make up a very small minority, numbering about 1200 persons only.

Pashmina goats are the mainstay of Changthang’s economy. Surviving the extremely harsh winters, with the temperature dropping to as low as – 40’C, the Changpa community have learned to coexist with their animals, wherein both depend on one another for survival. “We are the people who move behind the sheep and Goats” is how a Changpa described his life.

Changpas believe that their livestock is intrinsically scary animals bestowed upon them by the gods.

The daily routine of shepherds varies throughout the season. Taking the herd out for grazing and ensuring that all of them return safely is a major task. During the summer, the herders go out in the morning at 7 am and return approximately by 7 pm in the evening. The women generally wake up at 5 am in the morning to prepare butter tea for the shepherds.

The shepherd takes tea and food for the day to the field. The others eat in the tent during the day. While the shepherd herds, the flock women work with handicrafts on a portable loom, and the men make ropes. Some of the men also enjoy games like dice and cards when there is not much work. Milking of goats is done in the evening when the herd returns from the field. Female yaks are milked in the morning.

In the evening, when the herd returns, the nomads separate sheep and goats from the herd according to their age. The reason is to keep the old kids and lambs away from the mothers so that they do not drink milk from the mother. The kids are selected from the herd in the evening and tied up so that they will not mix up with other herds. Small kids and lambs are tied to prevent their wandering away, and female sheep and goats are tied for milking by the women. Barley is fed to them in a small cloth which is tied around their mouth in the evening. All the family members participate in the selection by running around in a circle to keep the stock together and collecting one animal after another.

The children play with the animals while running after them. During the shearing season, mainly in June, they are busier, typically in the mornings. They shear goats in the mornings when the animal has been empty stomach. It is done from 5 am to 11 am in the morning. In the winter, the women get up a little bit later, at approximately 7 am, and the herders return from the fields at 5 pm when the sun goes down.

The sun could be very warm during the winter. In December, the nomads sit in the corral, where it is warm with layers of goat and sheep dung and work on handicrafts. The women clean the corrals and dry dung for fuel. Gathering wool and working with the lambs and kids is done during the daytime. The animals are gathered together in corrals during the night to keep them warm. In the evening, the nomads go up to the hills and collect dung from yaks and plant roots that they use for fuel.

From time immemorial, this fibre was sent to Kashmir, where the weaving was done and sent out to the rest of the world. The movement to own the Pashmina from Fibre to fabric and create an economy has inspired organisations like LENA Ladakh, Looms of Ladakh and many more such enterprises.

I would like to talk about LENA Ladakh, an enterprise I work with, because we want to spread the word about them and their work.

LENA is a Ladakh-based slow textile label that crafts pashmina products where each stage of textile production is carried by hand, from spinning to weaving to final designing. Made by the skilled women artisans of Ladakh, each piece of LENA is a timeless heirloom that delivers extraordinary warmth and luxury for many generations. LENA helps to create sustainable and dignified livelihoods for women artisans of Ladakh using the local resource pashmina, thus providing a window to the world of pure handmade pashmina textiles from Ladakh.

When the founders Sonam and Ming returned to Leh after their PG in Delhi and Pune, they shared a vision to create a sustainable, Pashmina economy in Ladakh. They spent a lot of time on research and development and trained the women artisans to work on Pashmina. With their love for Ladakh and being mindful of the fragile environment of this land, they have chosen to follow production methods that have absolutely no impact on the environment.

The products are colours using 100% natural dye, using Marigold, Walnut, Rhubarb, Arnebia and source dyes like Indigo, Madder and Lac from south India. All the artisans are local women who hand spin, hand ply, hand weave and natural dye our local pashmina. So, from the source to the final finish, every step is carried out in Leh.

“Local artisans didn’t produce handloom products for commercial use since there was no economic return. Pashmina was always sold as raw material to outsiders. However, enterprises like us in Ladakh are trying to bring these artisans into the mainstream and create pieces which are traditional in style and contemporary in taste. Our products have received good response. This also allows us to preserve some of the dwindling crafts of Ladakh, besides creating a source of livelihood for these artisans. Our goal is to put Ladakh pashmina on international platforms and help strengthen the local economy.“ says Sonam & Ming.

Once an independent Himalayan country, Ladakh was located on the cusp of the Silk Route’s Southern Indian and Himalayan Route. Being at the crossroad of Kashmir, northern India, Tibet and the Central Asian territories of Yarkand, Khotan and so forth, Ladakh played a crucial role in hosting the traders from all the trading countries in Sarais ( resting place in Ladakhi ). The trade exchange would be carried in the Leh-Bazaar ( now known as Leh Old Town) and other trade posts in other regions of Ladakh, like the Chemrey oasis.

This constant trade flux made this a region of unique culture and traditions with influences from all the neighbouring countries regarding textiles, architecture, food and craftsmanship. This was undoubtedly a flourishing cosmopolitan with profound and deeply rooted culture and heritage.

 From eastern Ladakh, the nomadic tribes of Changpa would bring their caravans with pashmina, salt, borax and sulphur etc., loaded on their handsome bulky sheep (chang-luk) to the oasis of Chemrey where the trade would be carried for days and often be accompanied with music festivals and celebrations with all the nearby villages participating.

Western Ladakh’s Sham valley would have rich produce of dry fruits like apricot and walnut and food grains. Most of the economy was based on this trade culture where the livelihood of so many people, even those from the remotest parts of Ladakh, was centred around the trade – as merchants travelling through Ladakh, India and Central Asia, as countless no of porters assisting the merchants, as caravan serai owners and workers, as check post guards and so on.

Ladakh played a major role in being the most important pashmina trade post of the Silk Route. The pashmina collected from Western Tibet and Eastern Ladakh were to be sourced and traded only through Ladakh. Over the decades, the rulers from the neighbouring countries waged wars and plotted schemes to claim and control these pashmina trade routes. Many treaties were signed, and this pashmina politics eventually shaped the entire course of Ladakh’s political history.

Now the big question remains, will the new generation of Changpas keep this century-old practice? Many factors determine that. The children have been sent off to residential schools set up by the government, and one of the grandmothers had to share that the children no longer know how to “ Tie the Knot”.

Children usually learn the skills from the elders; now that they are sent away, they are disabled to continue the traditional Changpa living; they do not want to return to what they now feel is a harsh life. The compromise ..they go into the bigger towns and take up construction jobs and other such menial labour to stay afloat, leaving the families behind in the hope of what they imagined as a better life. Some of the Changpa camps see an ageing population left behind to do all the hard work which otherwise was shared between the generations.

But on the same note, I add, as the Pashmina economy develops in Ladakh, the pride of being a Changpa who looks after the Pashmina Goat is definitely not withered.

Also Read: The spirit of Kashmiriyat

(Shoba Jose George is the founder of The Extra Mile.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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