This essay has been written for everyone to know about the people of Zanskar, who live with heroism every single day. It is an attempt to showcase the daunting life of the men, women and the children – living in the same way since centuries amidst their love for each other and with their religious & spiritual beliefs. The articulate is a result of the inspiration derived from a documentary shown by Discovery channel on this subject and was released a few years ago. The ownership of the pictures used is not with the author and the attempt has been made to give due credit to the sources, for the same. There are a ‘few’ idioms in the essay that too are derivative from the documentary itself – in order to not to distort the facts.
There is this world cut off from everything, a world of mountains and devotions. A world, also where people struggle and suffer year around against harsh nature, against the cold, the wind and the ice.
Alexander Cunningham (Brevet Major, Bengal Engineers) in his book “Ladak”, published in 1854, said that one of the earliest mentions of Ladakh was made by a Chinese pilgrim, Hwen-Thsang, towards the middle of the seventh century. Hwan-Thsang stated that from Khiu-lu-lo (or Kullu, a hill district to the north of Shimla) at 2000 li (or upwards 300 miles) across the mountains is the kingdom of Mo-lo-pho which is also called San-pho-ho. The former is an exact transcript of Mar-po-yul, or “low land”, to distinguish it from the high lands of Chang-thang and Ngari. The other name of San-pho-ho is a literal transcript of Tsang-po, or the “river”, which is common designation for the Indus in Ladakh and in fact for any great river in the Tibetan language; San-pho-ho is therefore, the country on the Tsang-po, or Indus.
Ladakh is the region in the northernmost state of Jammu & Kashmir in India. It is the land of high plateaus and mountains which rise to an altitude up to 7000 meters. A smaller and a lesser known region lies in the south of Ladakh, called Zanskar. A river flows through the gorges of the Zanskar Mountains, formed by various tributaries and is popularly known as the Zanskar River. The river flows towards north-east to join the Indus River in Ladakh.
The Zanskar region is at a height of between 3500 & 7000 meters above the sea level. In the Himalayas at this higher altitude, winters start early and last for eight to nine months. At night the temperature drops to -35 °C. Slowly, day after day the ice closes over the swift running waters of the Zanskar River transforming it into the “Chadar”, the frozen river. The life then seems to be imprisoned in the mirror; the ice freezes everything, up to the farthest tributaries of the Zanskar for three-four months (from December to February). The frozen river then becomes the only passage linking this small forgotten kingdom to the rest of the world. A hazardous, affirmable, fearsome and fragile route, it is the partially frozen river; a 140 Km corridor stretching along the base of narrow gorges. As the only passage between Zanskar and Ladakh it is vital. Men fear, but at sometimes are forced to take it.
There is a lot of snow that falls on the narrow gorge, increasing the risk of avalanche. However, decades ago, it snowed much more than now. Apparently, when it snows, it is not so cold, the snow then melts, which means there is more water in the river. In the past, people on the Chadar would carry couple of pairs of goat skin shoes with the special smooth sole; more than one pair so that it can be changed if one gets wet or is torn. All sorts of obstacles delayed the caravans and that is why it used to take 8 to 9 days to walk through Chadar. At present, there is less snow comparatively, so there is less risk. Making good progress one can reach Leh in 4 or 5 days; one needs less food, so carries less and can travel faster as compared to the previous era. It is important to be accompanied by a guide; they know where the ice is thinnest. The Chadar is a very old route; Zanskari caravans preferred this route in winters so that they can trade with Ladakh, sell the Yak butter and buy spices, clothes, rice, salt etc.
Zanskar is connected to Kargil via road and the passage is operational for couple of months, in the summer, until the winters begin and the only road is also closed for larger period of year. The Zanskari anyhow feel closer to the people of Ladakh, Kargil being a Muslim area, the people of Zanskar and Ladakh share the common religion, culture and traditions. Once the winter begins and road to Kargil from Padum (the capital town of sub-district Zanskar) is closed, no truck is able to operate in and out of the region and hence, the villagers are dependent on the food stored during the warmer days, that has to last for 8-9 months or the other option is to walk through dangerous Chadar to reach Leh and trade for the necessities. The people of Zanskar are poor and most of them are farmers. They also work as guides in the summer, catering to the tourists, but the harsh winter brings unemployment for people and therefore, mostly all the able men from the six villages of the Zanskar region work as porters on Chadar in the winters.
Mostly in the month of January the temperature in the plains of Zanskar is -15 °C but yet it is considered fairly warm for that time of the year. Since the 1980s the road, trekking and humanitarian sponsorship have improved the living condition of the 12000 Zanskari. The upcountry is opening up, but slowly. Here, people share their world with Gods and Demons and ensure that any changes don’t annoy them.
As usual in many other rural parts of India, in Zanskar too neither girl, nor a boy chooses their partners. Everyone obeys their family – their father. He knows the best, what is good for them and everyone trusts him. The families and animals live in the same house; in the winters they hurdle together in the kitchen on the ground floor. Kitchen is the only room where the temperature rises above zero during the winters. The heat comes from the animals and dry dung burning in the stove.
Here, it is common for one woman to marry two or more brothers. Polyandry is tolerated in Zanskar so that the land is not split-up. Most often the Zanskari live in couples; no one can survive here alone. Winters are long and there is plenty of time to spend together and it is far too cold to be outside. The family and the village community are supported by mutual assistance and solidarity and yet life is happy here.
As the winters precede getting crueler and colder, the men in Zanskar get ready for a tough deal; they get hire themselves out to haul the timber at Chadar. This means leaving their family for couple of weeks, the time it takes to transport the wood (in multiple trips) and return, if the demons allow it as per their beliefs. The people here are affirmed on their beliefs; they are religious and superstitious and therefore always consult an astrologer before venturing onto the Chadar. If the ice cracks one can fall in water and would need help. If anyone falls sick, again would need help. This is why no one walks alone on Chadar.
All the men fear the Chadar but it is also the only way for them to earn little money in this extremely poor region. The timber is transported by truck to the slopes of Anumil village where the potters draw lots for their loads. The wages of the porters are based on the number of pieces of wood carried and not on the weight. Some can be twice the size of others but no one argues while drawing lots. Some hundreds of porters from the villages of the district gather at Anumil after walking for couple of days. The porters throughout the expedition spend nights in the natural caves in the canyon but, there aren’t enough shelters for all, even when they huddle in together. The others spend the night in open.
The wooden logs allotted are then tied up by each porter and further they take their respective load to the bank of the river. Early at dawn, the porters start hauling the wood to spot a place in the caves for the night stay, no one wants to spend the night in open. The porters are paid Rs. 150 for each piece of timber. Usually one porter carries 4 pieces and hence, earns Rs. 600 ($12.00) per trip. The timber costs much lesser than the transport which is 3-4 times higher than the cost of wood.
The condition at the Chadar changes intensely. Whenever it snows the temperature rises, as does the water level, the ice expands; cracks and creates small streams within the Chadar and thus the problems begin. Even if the ice is thick, it is exhausting to carry the heavy load of wood all day long, but the porters’ greatest worry is thin ice which gives way under their feet and suddenly starts to melt. When the ice loosens up, there is no place to walk and often there are no rocks on the bank which the porters can climb to continue their route. There is just a wall of mountains.
At times, the porters find no ice on the river due to the known hot water springs and there is a very little thin ice on either side of the river. After walking and pulling the logs for so long they cannot afford to go back. Sometimes there are huge rocks on the sides of the river which can be used to cross the iceless path, but with heavy logs of wood, there is no hope of climbing either. Therefore, the porters have no option but to cross the hurdle, continue walking on the thin ice on the bank of the river by having the logs of timber float in water and simultaneously pulling them while walking. It’s an exhausting and very painful job.
In the absence of ice, the porters even have to walk through the flowing freezing water. The temperature during a bright sunny day is at least -15°C. The porters have lived through out their life under such harsh conditions for almost 9 months every year; however, of course they do not react in a similar manner when they have to walk through the water which is 2 °C below the freezing point. On the other hand, there are men who don’t want to get wet and hence they opt to climb the wall of rocks, with their logs being moved by others in the water. They climb without any ropes, harnesses and the apt shoes. They are forced to climb up the cliffs, sometimes even risking their lives.
But, the icy water is no less fearsome.
Only the most courageous, who wade through the freezing water bare foot, reaches the shelter dry. The others continue to walk on the Chadar in wet clothes. Before the socks and the trousers can be dried, since they can stiff in the freezing temperature, it has to be pulled on wet. The boots that are second hand, used by the Indian Army, bought from Leh market often have holes. They are rarely needed to be removed to empty out.
Every evening after finding the apt caves the porters go out in search of fire-wood, to be used to light the fire, despite the hard day.
The river doesn’t freezes evenly and the porters have to find the strip of ice that can bear the weight of the man and his burden. While crossing through the narrow strips on the banks of the river with the logs there is always a risk of the timber logs felling into the flowing water and there are little chances of recovering it as the current could drag it underneath the frozen ice. For the porters too there is a constant risk of falling into the water. Even if they survive the shock of the icy water, most of them don’t know how to swim.
When the temperature at times rises, the level of the Chadar drops and the ice collapses. The blocks of ice then form dams and then the water over flows and re-flows before again freezing and leaving a jumbled up ice. The timber logs after getting wet becomes heavier and it is very problematic to haul these heavy logs through the jumbled up Chadar.
Since the river flows beneath the canyons in Zanskar, the destination to deliver the wooden logs is always quite high above the river. After leaving the Chadar, the porters do get rid of unpredictable hurdles but then they face the expected obstacles. For the porters physically, the hardest part begins after leaving the Chadar. They have to carry the wood hundreds of meters straight up, to reach the destined location. The wood by then becomes heavier than ever and porters can no longer slide them climbing through hills and rocky passages. The porters therefore carry the heavy logs at their back, straight up through the terrains and to save time, they carry all of their logs at one go. They climb the cliffs, cross through glaciers with the logs on their backs.
At times when the ice on the Chadar completely vanishes and there are no cliffs to be climbed on, the porters have to wait for 3-4 days for the water to freeze again and have to stay in open in the tough and dangerously cold conditions with temperatures dropping to as low as -35 degree Celsius.
The porters stretch themselves to make couple of such trip to earn the extra money every season.
These tough men fight against the atrocities of cold weather, all through their life and so does their families. The women, here, till date, give birth to children in lethal and fierce cold conditions in the absence of any proper medical aid – the survival being miraculous.
Though, a few foreign travelers have aided the establishment of schools in villages like Lingshed; however, there is of course no major school in the entire region. The villagers understand the importance of the education and hence, send their children to study in the Schools in Leh, living away from the family. The children are required to be with their parents at home before the winter starts, to help the family in farming. They, therefore, spend the entire winter back home with their own people. The sessions in the schools, in Leh, start by the month of February and in order to not to miss the studies, the kids too have to walk through the deadly Chadar to join the school.
The father or an elder male from the family guides the children to walk on the corridor of ice. They start the journey in the month of February so as to walk back, after dropping the children at Leh, before the Chadar melts as the road link to Padum is opened only by the end of March every year or even later.
The Chadar is in the most dangerous form in the later part of February as the days get warmer and the rising temperature softens the frozen ice. Because of the currents and the Sun at times, the ice changes all the time; within just a few meters of comfortable walk, it can shatter like a glass.
The venture with the kids becomes more dangerous as the children cannot walk quickly and of course cannot walk through the flowing, freezing water as the porters sometimes have to do. The parents in that case carry the children on their back along with their own and children’s luggage apart. When the kids are tired, the elders pull the luggage carts, with children sitting on them. There is no time to waste for a breather. It definitely becomes tough time for everyone and so they extensively pray to Gods throughout the expedition as they know there can be chances they might not be able to complete the journey. Everything, according to them, depends on demons.
The caravan of adults and children never carries a rope because roping up the entire group would take a lot of time. Everyone including the children bravely climb-up the rocky cliffs in the need of the hour. Regardless of their fatigue and tiredness they are always very careful, without getting distracted, listening to the sound of every step they take on the ice. No one ever complains and they keep walking to reach the caves – to not to spend the night in open. Life is hard here and they get use to struggle with it at a very early age.
By the end of the month of February, the jumbled up ice of Chadar is replaced with clear white flowing waters of Zanskar. The Ice trail thus, disappears until the next year.
The people of Zanskar are waiting for the time when they’ll be relieved of such atrocities after the completion of the road-link that is being built to connect Zanskar with Leh. The road is under-construction and it will take few more years before it will be completed. The construction of the road, due to the harsh geographical and weather conditions, is itself a commendable task and the Government is affirmed on completing the construction so as to provide better services to Zanskari. The road will be an all-weather road and will be in operation throughout the year. This will help the people to receive the transportation of goods throughout the year and they would have to take the journey through Chadar no more.
Despite being harsh, the Chadar is also a hot favorite among the adventurous class of tourists around the world and the trend is increasing every year. There are a few trekking agencies that organize very innocuous trekking through Chadar. The trek is considered not to be critical, as most of the time the trekkers just have to walk and in case of climbs to avoid hurdles, the best in class safety equipment are used, steered by experienced guides. The porters are arranged to carry the luggage. The treks are organized mostly after the mid of January, when the day temperature tends to warm up a bit at average of -15 °C and the Chadar. Trekking on Chadar after the mid of February is never opined.
In summers the Zanskar River is famous for white water rafting.
All of these increasing activities and the construction of the road have raised the expectations among the locals – for a better life. The men, though, are saddened that they will lose the job of working as porters in the winters – the only option for them to earn money. However, they do realize the fact that the road link will improve the living conditions for everyone and are certain that it might lead to new options of job creation. People are relieved that anyone who would be sick would not have to walk through Chadar to get the treatment and will rather be shifted to the hospital easily through road in case of emergencies.
Even though the road is being constructed, it will bring relief only to the people of the villages which are located close to the river. There are few villages like Ralakung (a village with only 6 families) that will never see a road link due to the peculiar geographical location amidst the huge Zanskar range. The families of the village and other villages alike have lived the harsher life since generations and will continue to live so. The Government has offered the people of such villages to come and establish the livelihood in the lower areas like Padum and has also offered them land for no cost; but then, who wants to leave their homeland. They are happy living in the place where their ancestors have lived through thousands of years – with love for each other, their religious and the spiritual beliefs.