Stories from Kumik Village Zanskar

Stories from Kumik Village Zanskar

One of the goals of our research is to bring to life the realities of life in Kumik village in Zanskar and to make real the difficulties faced by the Kumikpa on a variety of fronts and equally the solutions that they come up with the tackle these.

This is a selection of anecdotes and stories from our research that struck us in different ways: from the perspectives of an old lady on water scarcity, to a ‘materialistic’ monk and the enthusiastic drinking of chang as a cultural cornerstone.

‘Don’t ask about water. There isn’t any.’

During an interview with an 81 year old grandmother in the village, she told a story about a particularly bad season almost 50 years back, when there was no water for a long period, which stopped them from growing anything.

They couldn’t feed their animals, so they took them to nearby Shila village (which has plentiful water supplies), but many still died. At that time there were no extra supplies or outside support and so without food or animals, they starved. This was an exceptional year. But she observed that it seems to have gotten worse every year, and all because of there being less snowfall. When we asked her about why she thinks this might be, her response focussed on morality and that being amoral and selfish brings the people less winter snowfall.

Many people in Zanskar and Kumik are knowledgeable about climate change, but it’s a lot less common amongst the older generation who generally haven’t been educated at all. It is particularly sad and ironic that some of these individuals look to themselves to explain the cause of this phenomena. This is also an interesting example of some of the ethical dilemmas you can face as a social science researcher on a completely random basis, and you have very little time to think of a fair response. In this particular example, is it ethical for a researcher to try to explain the idea of climate change – which would be a completely foreign concept to this elderly lady, or as we settled for, to say simply that weather is changing around the world and that we were sure it wasn’t her fault.

A Kumikpa grandmother and respected community member during the harvest.

A Kumikpa grandmother and respected community member during the harvest.

‘Even the monks are materialistic now’.

Globalization and the forces of modernisation are affecting Zanskar and the daily lives of all who live there. Since the area was opened up to tourism and outside markets really quite recently in the 1970s in some ways Ladakh is particularly vulnerable to these changes, which has been very documented by writers such as Helena Norberg-Hodge in ‘Ancient Futures’. What we found fascinating however was the contradictions and complexities in how this is played out.

Early in our stay we went to visit the Saani festival, a renowned and ancient tradition that draws in many tourists to see the colourful dances that the monks perform. In many ways the event is a performance of tradition and history, especially for the tourist income. Local men go round and through teasing and joking with members of the audience, collect money for the village community authority. The dances were impressive and the costume the monks wore incredibly bright and beautiful. However, a moment of great irony was their entrance dance into the square, which was preceded by a monk videoing the procession on a tablet. This moment embodied the paradoxes of contemporary globalistion; in Zanskar there is limited internet sporadically available at only two internet cafes in town, and the wifi at one of these cafes even less reliable. Tablets themselves are something you could only buy in Leh, or would otherwise have to bring in from elsewhere. And yet it was valuable for the monastery to have their own video recording for their own use and memories.

The Saani monks recording the festival dances.

The Saani monks recording the festival dances.

‘Chang-don’ and Community institutions

Chang, or barley beer, is the renowned customary drink of Ladakh. Home brewed from fermented barley, and taking on the colour of dishwater but the smell and taste (in my opinion!) of a combination of flat cava, beer and cider, it is an acquired taste but really quite enjoyable once you get used to it. Chang is also in some ways the cornerstone of Zanskari social meetings and collective work. Each family brews their own drink, and has a local reputation for the quality of their chang. When we joined the villagers for a day of harvesting and an afternoon of shifting rocks for the construction of a new prayer house everyone present worked really hard for a time, but when it came to a break, they sat together and shared chang and bread between the group. They made the most of this time to laugh, joke, share gossip and news and re-hydrate with plentiful chang, which we were all encouraged to enjoy heartily, hence the phrase ‘chang don’ or ‘drink up!’.  The discussions and chats which take place at such regular meetings may seem inane, but is actually an important example of informal community institutions. For example, the groups of villagers who meet to help each other with harvesting demonstrates the ‘moral economy’ of subsistence communities whereby the group of individuals help each other in return for labour help when it comes to their turn to harvest. The discussions which range from local gossip to discussions on the quality of the harvest exemplify the sharing of local indigenous knowledges and the reinforcement of informal community social institutions. And at the centre of these webs of informality seemed to be the communal drinking of chang, and the encouragement to enjoy and drink up, in the phrase ‘chang don!’, which roughly translates to ‘down it!’.

Some villagers and friends gathered during a get together, with plentiful chang.

Some villagers and friends gathered during a get together, with plentiful chang.

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