Life in Kharnak Zara

Dr. Mohinder Kumar
Kharnak-Zara village is a transit mobile tent-dwelling-based settlement in far flung Nyoma block of Leh district where Rabos (tribal nomads) lived since centuries. Term ‘Rabo’ stands for nomad households who rear pashmina goats and live in tents. Tents are made from yak wool. Earlier tents used to be made from Pashmina wool. Pashmina wool of Nyoma block is considered of best quality and is costlier. Pashmina wool of Durbuk block is of ordinary quality and cheaper. Therefore, Pashmina tents may be seen mostly in Durbuk block and least in Nyoma block.
Entire settlement moves together after few months. It is a transit camp of Rabo nomads living in tents made by black Yak wool, which were earlier used to be made by costly white “pashmina” wool. Size of Rabo nomad settlement is very small as compared to normal villages of Kashmir and Jammu regions. Nyoma block is a part of vast Changthang area bordering China dotted with scattered Rabo nomadic population who rear Pashmina goats and Yaks for living. Yak and Pashmina goats of Kharnak (and neighboring Korzok) are considered the best in Laddakh.
About 30 years ago, there were 60 tents (households) of Rabo nomads in Kharnak-Zara. Of these, 40 nomad households have migrated to Leh. At present, there are 20 Rabo nomad households. They are all Buddhists, Scheduled Tribes and speak Laddakhi language. They trace their lineage to Tibbetan Buddhists, some of whom arrived in Nyoma by migrating from Tibet through Nepal. Their cultural tradition includes all forms of worships which they follow in village individually as well as in congregation. However, they would not go and participate in prayers and worship functions of nearby Samad (Rukhten) nomadic village. Rather they go to Gompa of neighboring Daat village. Kharnak nomadic people have great faith in the teachings of His Holiness Dalai Lama, their spiritual Guru.
Rabo nomads’ participation in political process is marked by affiliations and shifts. Earlier they were aligned and identified with BJP but now they are tied up with Congress party. Gram Panchayat elections are also held in their so-called “village” where everyone participates to elect Sarpanch and Panches. Sarpanch of Kharnak Zara is also Rabo nomad. He is perceived as “very honest” by the people of Kharnak village. He would be willing to extend helping hand liberally even as earlier Sarpanch was not perceived so good. Residents (nomads) are provided help in registration for ration cards. They have also got identity cards from SDM, Nyoma. They also have their voter cards, which is very important for political survivability and free expression of collective existence. Notably their nomadic counterparts in Jammu region, i.e. Bakarwals in contrast are not yet issued voter cards.
The reason some nomad households in Rabos tribals migrated from Kharnak-Zara village is not sudden exodus but gradual decline of grass cover, which adversely affected their existence over the years since 1980. By 1985 many of these nomadic households had got migrated. Some adjoining tribal settlements witnessed less migration and some others relatively more. Now those nomads who have stayed back in tent-settlements, their children used to go to a Government tribal school in Nyoma, 30 km from Kharnak-Zara. Therefore, it helps elderly members of Kharnak (and neighboring Samad and Korzok village) nomadic families to continue life as Rabo nomads while new generation would decide its own course after completing education -whether to search for Government jobs or wander for wage-employment or go back to tents with  pashmina goats and yaks, which are their main economic assets.
Goats in Kharnak-Zara village get proper vaccination each year in veterinary center (mobile visiting services). Some MNREGA works were implemented in Kharnak-Zara but their nature, type and specification somehow may not be ascertained or seen except in nallah works.
Kharnak-Zara is not accessible by any road after arriving at Dibling ‘village’ from Leh by Leh-Manali highway in the vast spread of sandy valley, which is last point of road connectivity coming from Leh. From Dibling one has to reach Kharnak-Zara (3 km) without any road; the vast unlimited expanse of sand, sand dunes and sandy hills has to be traversed to reach Kharnak-Zara. The area is in real sense “cold desert” during winter and “pleasant desert” with minor cold conditions during July. But there is no question of streetlights since there are no streets, no lanes, no poles, no houses/ structures, but only transit tents set up in secluded interior place near a nallah. Transit settlement is provided with a hand pump for drinking water. Dispensary services are available for first aid and minor ailment or injury. Some person runs a fair price shop (mobile) by visiting village once during each month. For going Leh, Kharnak villagers first walk down to Dibling at Leh-Manali road (3 km), then take a “lift service” by requesting any vehicle passing by. There is no bus service from Dibling. Exposure of Rabo nomadic village to Leh city and towns and to the world outside is marked by experiences of a life in transition.
All animals and small ruminants reared by Kharnak Rabo nomads, particularly of weak health face serious difficulties during winter nights in open sky. Poor availability of feed/grass makes survival during night most difficult. All Rabo settlement tent dwellers in Kharnak-Zara face most difficulties in winter due to heavy snow fall and cold climate in similar way. Dry grass for sheep/goats is supplied by State Government though it is far less as compared to the requirement for optimum quantity of feed. However, vaccination of animals is done by veterinary practitioners from time to time, which helps in prevention of deaths and checks morbidity rate, keeping ailments to the minimum. To save family from chilling cold during winter Rabo nomad settlement uses the strategy of burning dry dung cake (of Yaks) during night. There is a “jungle” in Kharnak area; nomads bring small wood collected from there for bonfire around tents. Rabo nomads revealed an interesting fact, which may or may not be scientifically correct, according to which keeping pashmina goats outside in the open during cold winter night helps in increasing growth of pashmina wool. Therefore, they follow a practice of open enclosures for small ruminants during night even in cold winter season. They are more particular on this aspect and feel that by keeping goats in covered sheds during winter nights, the growth of wool declines. They rationalize their argument by proposing a view that small ruminants (sheep, goat) died in winter more due to poor diet and health than due to cold.
Nomad settlement of Kharnak Zara reported a difficulty in education of children due to absence of mobile school facility in the area. All Rabo settlement dwellers in Kharnak-Zara faced difficulty of education in similar way. A Government tribal school at Poga village is situated, 30 km from KharnakZara, but it is felt not very comfortable by them. This is a residential school which provides food, books, fee for education, hostel stay, uniform, sports training, etc. free of cost to all students of Rabo nomads. However, Rabo nomads are yet to decide and weigh their options between having mobile school (hitherto non-existent) and tribal school (existing at Poga village).
Rabos are accustomed to living in cold environment, an art learned gradually by process of assimilation and adaptation over a long-period of hundreds of years of nomadic life. If medical treatment is required, State Govt. has made arrangement of a compounder and a nurse in a mobile tent which functions as mobile dispensary, particularly during winter season. Mobile dispensary accompanies nomadic tent settlement wherever they move. However, dispensary medical staff is not available full time in summer as they would go back to Leh. Nevertheless medical services are available full time in winter. Medicines are supplied to the nomad settlement of Kharnak free of cost.
The pattern of transit and movement of Rabo nomads of Kharnak zara is typically like other Rabo nomads of Samad and Khorzok villages in Nyoma block and nomads of Durbuk block. They followed a similar pattern of staying/ camping/ moving, based on stay in tent for a period of one month, or two months or maximum three months, by moving at five or six places within same area during a year. Rabo nomads’ movement/transit and stay pattern was entirely different from Bakarwal nomads’ movement and stay pattern. The latter traversed a long distance stating from Jammu Division to Kashmir Valley or even up to Kargil in Laddakh, and returned by same route. In contrast, Rabos followed a restricted and circular movement in limited area. They would stay in the same circular area for 12 months in a year: Kharnak Zara (June, July); Pankchang (August); Yangang (September, October, November); Kharnak Daat (December, January, February); Tamar Che (March, April); and back to Kharnak Daat (May).
Most of the Rabo nomads of Leh district are settled in two blocks, viz., Nyoma block, which is 200 km from Leh town, and Durbuk block which is 150 km from Leh. In Nyoma block bordering China, Rabo nomads are concentrated in villages of Kharnak Zara, Samad Rukhten, Kordok (Kurzok) and Chagga. Villages are essentially tent settlements which keep moving in transit camp with a change in climate and in search of grass and water from nallahs. Exact population of Rabos was not readily known but it was understood that their numbers were in thousands. They had inhabited in this area since several hundreds of years, facing extreme weather conditions by getting accustomed to cold winters. Freezing cold, no vegetation for most parts of year, some vegetation (grass, bushes) in summer, lack of water, storing summer grasses for winter season, no cultivation, etc. are the characteristic features of the area. Nyoma block has 43 villages. Severe hardship is felt by Rabo nomads in three villages of Kharnak Zara, Samad Rukhten and Kordok. They live amidst heavy snowfall, no tree cover, little grass and no farming, no water (except snow-melt/glacier nallahs).
There is only vast expanse of sand. A majority (70%) of the nomads today lives in tents and 30% nomads have constructed kutcha houses to live in a settled State for three-four months; then they put the house under lock and key, and keep moving for 9 months as semi-nomads, for instance in neighboring Samad settlement. Rabo nomads’ life that was accustomed to physical movement on same pattern for centuries is now on way to social transition on new pattern of forces dictated by modernity. They own cars and are getting used to modern ways of life, but still feel not fully changed. They are in a process of transition for the past 30 years. Only the force of time decides whether they shall get “settled” in new evolving social structures.
For full text see
(Author works for NABARD. Views expressed are personal)