At the Foot of a Zanskari Glacier

Camp at summer pasture (doska) in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Camp at summer pasture (doksa) in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)

A recent conversation in Zanskar, a region in the Himalayas of northern India,forcefully showed me how people can express their common concern for glaciers through  frameworks so different that they can be challenging to bring together.

My first visit to Pensi-la

My daughter and I entered Zanskar in June this year by the road from Kargil, the only thoroughfare that connects this subdistrict with the rest of India. On this road, I was welcomed by Pensi-la, a name that stands both for a pass at 4400 meters elevation and for the biggest doksa (summer milk camp) of the region, located just below the pass.

Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)

The doksa is watched over by Drang Drung, an impressive glacier of the Greater Himalaya Range, which dominates the landscape as one moves towards Padum, the small capital city of Zanskar.  Its length of 23 kilometers makes  Drang Drung Glacier the largest glacier of Zanskar, and the second largest glacier in the entire region of Ladakh, a broad mountain region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, known for its strong cultural, linguistic and religious affinities with Tibet.

Zanskar comprises a population of about 14,000, whose subsistence is mainly ensured through agro-pastoralist activities. The pastures of Zanskar are fed by glacier meltwater, which is the lifeblood of this part of India, where rainfall is scant. At the foot of the Drang Drung glacier, women spend the summer with their dzomo, the female yak and cow hybrid. There, they milk their animals, churn their milk into butter, and prepare cheese and yogurt. At night, they sleep in their pullu, basic shelters made of stone.

Milking a dzomo at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Milking a dzomo at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)

But nights are short in the doksa: women wake up every day at 2am to milk their large herds. Then, as soon as the sun rises, the dzomo make their way to the foot of the glacier, where they spend the day. Dairy products from Zanskar, known for their richness, are famous throughout Ladakh. In a recent speech, the Dalai Lama extolled their virtues, as they are the product of animals that feed on the medicinal plants that grow at the foot of Zanskar’s impressive glaciers. The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism encouraged Zanskarpas to commercialize their dairy products by emphasizing their very unique qualities.

A return visit to Pensi-la

My daughter and I returned later in the summer to the doksa in Pensi-la, with our friend Stanzin. I wanted to understand more fully the lives of the women in this area. We pitched our tent next to the pullu of Dolma, a woman in her sixties, who has spent her entire life in these high pastures. After a freezing night, DOlma invited us in for breakfast in her pullu. During our conversation, she reflected on the milk production of her animals. She can see that over the years, this vegetation has become sparse, creating difficulties for dairy herds.

In her view, this decline in pastures can only be the result of the decreased winter snowfall, which has contributed to a reduction in the size of the glaciers. “This is the lack of luck of people today,” Dolma lamented, “in my younger days, the glaciers were immense. What does future hold, I wonder.”  Her perception coincides with the findings of  scientific research by Ulrich Kamp of the University of Montana and his associates, who have documented that Drang Drung Glacier has receded over 300 meters between 1975 and 2008.

Preparing cheese at Pensi-la, Zanskar (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Preparing cheese at Pensi-la  (source: Josianne Robichaud)

According to Dolma, these changing meteorological patterns do not happen on their own. Rather, they are the result of people’s increasing greediness. In the doksa, where pastoralist activities have decreased over the years, this is manifested by people being more interested in “running after money” than taking care of animals.

The attitude of the local population is not the only thing to have an impact on the weather, she suggested. As we were sitting in Dolma’s pullu,drinking tea and eating barley bread she served us with fresh yogurt, rainfall started to seep from the roof, a precarious combination of metal and plastic sheets. The past few days had been rather cold and cloudy at Pensi-la, not common for the month of August. Dolma explains that such weather has come because a team of scientists is going inside the valley that leads to Drang Drung Glacier.

The same kind of rain event occurred a few years back, when two scientists stayed in the nearby Chalung valley to observe a glacier. “They came with big instruments and maps,” remembers Dolma, “knowing exactly where to go.” But the deities that dwell in the area had become jealous of this presence and thus, for the duration of the scientists’ one-month stay, the weather was inclement. “One should be careful with the glaciers,” noted Dolma.

Two dzomos at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)
Two dzomos at Pensi-la (source: Josianne Robichaud)

Despite their different approaches to the glacier, the scientists and the pastoralists at Pensi-la have a point in common: a shared concern for the loss of the ice summits of this region. These glaciers are slowly vanishing, changing the landscape of Pensi-la. “You may find the Drang Drung beautiful, but it is never impressive as it was,” Dolma told me. As we left Pensi-la later that day, the clouds in the sky started to disperse. We passed in fron of the Drang Drung and saw the team of scientists coming back from the glacier towards their camp. As I watched the glacier shining in the sun, I thought of the mountain and reflected on my own concerns for its future.


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