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Last Woman Standing

Amrita Mukherjee | Sep 10, 2020

At 53, Tsering is the youngest shepherdess in her village. She is also the last surviving shepherdess in the family

Photo by Friday

The mountains look pearly, pristine and magnificent. But there are brown dots on the mountain façade. Suddenly, the brown dots start moving and from the middle of those dots emerges a lone figure with a huge wicker basket on her back, making her way with a stick through knee-high snow. The song on her lips leads 300 cashmere goats through dangerous crevices and prowling wild dogs to grazing ground.

The beauty and dangers of Tsering’s daily job hits you as hard as the cold mountain wind. At 53, she is the youngest shepherdess in the village of Gya in Ladakh, North India. She is also the last surviving shepherdess in her family. After her, there is no one to take on her mantle.

Tsering’s younger brother Stanzin Dorjai Gya had woken up at 2 am in a temperature of -32˚C and made that equally lonesome walk to the top of the mountain with his camera and tripod to get this shot. He could have used a helicopter or a drone to get his job done, but the award-winning filmmaker who has been the maker of 15 documentaries on Ladakh, believes a task is not well done if you can’t walk that extra mile.

It took Stanzin three years and many more such sojourns through the mountains of Ladakh, to bring out the reality of the existence of his sister Tsering. The documentary The Shepherdess of the Glaciers made by Stanzin and Christiane Mordelet has won so many awards and accolades solely because it brings to us a world that we did not know existed.

Stanzin and Tsering spent their childhood tending to the family’s yaks and goats. As a teenager, Stanzin went to an alternative school and then graduated from Jammu University, while Tsering, from the age of 10, learned every skill from her father to mind the goats and survive in the harsh terrain. She never went to school. “My father always said that to be a shepherd you need a head of steel,” said Tsering. “I keep that in mind. I am never afraid or never do I think of illness because it is all in the mind. I wouldn’t be mentally strong if I keep thinking of the dangers,” she said.

When their father expired, the responsibility of taking on the herd fell on Tsering. It wasn’t actually a choice, it was a given. No one else in the family had the skills to do that. At 27, she embraced her lonely existence with open arms, doing her work with exemplary diligence that the documentary testifies. The goats are her family and she is more than a mother to them. “It is always ‘us’ never ‘I’,” says Tsering emphatically. Her talks with them are endearing, affection for them unfathomable. She lives alone, up in the mountains for 11 months in a year, not for once coveting life in the warmth of the village or a family of her own.

“What my sister knows can’t be found in textbooks although sometimes she does ask my nieces if they have read about shepherds in their school books. My sister is a doctor, herbalist, weather forecaster, veterinarian, botanist, Himalayan guide, economist, philosopher and goatherd – she’s all of them rolled into one. She is carrying the fast-vanishing indigenous skills of Ladakh with her,” said Stanzin.

With her head wrapped in a scarf, face darkened by the elements, heavy winter clothing and worn-out shoes, Tsering looks like an ordinary woman from the mountains. “That is why I wanted to film her life to show the world how extraordinary she is,” said Stanzin.

The idea first came to Stanzin when he was travelling by train in Europe and three women came on board in their branded clothes and expensive perfumes. They started a conversation with Stanzin and came to the conclusion that he didn’t look Indian at all. Although they knew about his beautiful land of Ladakh they had no clue how Ladakhis looked. “When telling them about our life in Ladakh I realised how interested they were to know about my land. That’s when I thought, to the modern, urban world, knowing about my sister’s life would be fascinating,” he said. “Today Pashmina is famous all over the world which people are calling Cashmere in other places. People care about the animals also, the goats. But not enough credit is given to the shepherds who spend their lives raising the animals in very difficult conditions. My endeavour was to bring to the world the life of one such shepherd,” he emphasized.

When Tsering was first told about the idea of the documentary she was totally taken aback that she could be the subject of a film. And in the initial days when the shooting started with a full-fledged crew, she was rather uncomfortable and artificial with them around. “I realised I was not getting the essence that is Tsering, because she was too shy and wasn’t herself in front of everyone. That’s when I started shooting her alone. I would live for months with her in the mountains. I often slept in the open in my sleeping bag placed next to the goats. I kept tossing and turning in my bed, because I was lying on the camera batteries to keep those warm and functioning. Losing one battery would mean going down all the way to the village on horseback and losing precious days.”

Sometimes it happened that Stanzin would wait at the top of a mountain at the crack of dawn and Tsering would not appear as planned. She would have gone to another valley because of a miscommunication. After lugging 32 kilos of equipment to the top of the mountains, this could have been annoying but Stanzin treated it as the hiccups in the filming process and never for once lost patience and motivation to bring Tsering’s story to the world.

Tsering’s only connection with the outside world is a radio set that Stanzin once gifted her. It finds a pride of place atop the stone shelf next to the much-abused aluminium pots and pans. When Tsering is inside the tent making tea or cooking food for the goats, the radio is always on and Bollywood is oblivious of its reach at 19,000 feet.

“Sometimes when I sense the snow leopard around the tent I turn up the volume. It thinks there are lots of people around and leaves,” said Tsering. She has come face-to-face with the snow leopard innumerable times and Stanzin has taken shots of that too (although he refused to use those in the film because he felt it would take away the focus from Tsering), but she is never afraid. “It’s a symbiotic existence and we learn to live with the leopard, wolves, sheep and yak all together. In Ladakh everything exists together,” said Stanzin.

Tsering believes that too. That’s why she survives all alone up in the mountains, in a tiny make-shift tent with the snow leopards and wolves roaming around and not a soul to be seen for miles. When the snow leopard jumps into the pen, she jumps in too to save her goats. This has happened on numerous occasions. In the face of her raw courage the snow leopard has always had to bow down.

The only time Tsering was truly upset and cried for days was when a snow leopard took away 62 kids. “I had taken the herd grazing and had left the newborns behind in the pens. When I returned, so many were gone and through the night I could hear the mothers crying for their lost babies. I mourned with them for days. The pain of this loss was unbearable,” said Tsering.

Her day starts at 4 am tending to the herd. There isn’t a moment to rest as she helps them give birth to the babies, feed the kids and then walk for miles to help them find grazing ground. Then she walks to the freezing mountain stream to get water or she digs a hole in the snowy ground to extract it. It’s back breaking physical labour throughout the day, but she does it all with a smile. This petite woman can carry 45 kilos on her back up the mountains, walk 10 miles through the snow with her goats and survive happily on a most basic vegetarian diet and never think of a Sunday off in a warm bed.

“While I was with her, on a single day, 13 kids were born. Tending to a kid is like looking after a human baby. She has to guide them and teach them for almost a year before they are independent enough to follow the herd,” said Stanzin.

Tsering cannot bear to part with her herd. She is always with them. They are her happiness. She comes down for a month in summer to the village when the shearing is done and the goats are given a bath. She has her brother and his family living in the village home and they help her out with the task of shearing. These goats are the family’s source of subsistence giving pashmina, milk and manure for the barley fields.

The only time Tsering travelled out of Ladakh was when Stanzin took her to France to attend The Autrans International Mountain Film Festival where The Shepherdess of the Glaciers won five awards and she was invited by Christiane Mordelet and her team. A 5000-strong crowd was waiting for her, but she didn’t know their language. So she sang a haunting song, long lost from the cultural fabric of Ladakh. She made it to every newspaper the next day. But she wasn’t excited.

She was crying. “She was missing her goats dearly and wanted to get back home to them,” said Stanzin. But she was rather impressed to see a shepherd owning a helicopter in France and that’s when she asked Stanzin if something could be done for the shepherds in Ladakh who had to stay in make-shift tents in that biting cold for most part of the year.

That’s when Stanzin founded the Shepherds Association Gya-Miru Valley and with the money won in the awards and the money collected from the sales of woolen socks woven by the ladies of Ladakh, with contribution from filmmaker Christiane Mordelet and a bit of aid from here and there, 12 shelters have been built which the shepherds are using now. Four more are under construction. “Lots are drawn and people are allotted the shelters. Tsering hasn’t been lucky yet to be chosen. I hope she would be next year. But she is happy that her thought and our efforts are making the life of her fellow shepherds a little bit easier.”

That’s the essence of Tsering – a simple woman with a heart full of love for animals and fellow beings.

Link to original article: https://fridaymagazine.ae/life-culture/people-profiles/last-woman-standing-1.2309597

Blog

General Meeting March 2020

Guest Speaker – Ziraldo Aplaca Farm

Debbie Ziraldo of Ziraldo Alpaca Farm http://zalpacas.com/ delighted the audience at our March General Meeting with her interesting and entertaining stories about the history of alpacas, natural habitat and personal journey.
Please check Debbie’s website and Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Ziraldo.Alpacas
Ziraldo Alpacas is offering great fiber products and workshops.

Debbie also mentioned the importance of local farms and fiber producers. A special attention was given to Fibershed and we are strongly encouraging our audience to click on the following link for more information: https://www.fibershed.com/about/

Fibershed Mission and Vision

Fibershed develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers, by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, forming catalytic foundations to rebuild regional manufacturing, and through connecting end-users to farms and ranches through public education.

We envision the emergence of an international system of regional textile communities that enliven connection and ownership of ‘soil-to-soil’ textile processes. These diverse textile cultures are designed to build soil carbon stocks on the working landscapes on which they depend, while directly enhancing the strength of regional economies. Both fiber and food systems now face a drastically changing climate, and must utilize the best of time-honored knowledge and available science for their long-term ability to thrive.

As each Fibershed community manages their resources to create permanent and lasting systems of production, these efforts to take full responsibility for a garment’s lifecycle will diminish pressure on highly polluted and ecologically undermined areas of the world. (China produces 52% of the world’s textiles. The industry is the third largest fresh water polluter in the country.) Future Fibershed communities will rely upon renewable energy powered mills that will exist in close proximity to where the fibers are grown. Through strategic grazing, conservation tillage, and a host of scientifically vetted soil carbon enhancing practices, our supply chains will create ‘climate beneficial’ clothing that will become the new standard in a world looking to rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change. We see a nourishing tradition emerging that connects the wearer to the local field where the clothes were grown, building a system that can last for countless generations into the future.


Show And Tell

Coiled Shawl Pin

Wonderful pieces were presented from Nancy Latchford workshop “Coiled Shawl Pin”.

Learn to Weave

Colorful and well crafted creations were presented by these wonderful and talented weavers who took “Learn to Weave” workshop.

The evening continued with presentations from our talented guild members

…and also reminding our members that a vast selection of books are available to borrow. For more information and browse through our titles click here: Library

Blog

General Meeting 2020.02.04

General Meeting – February 04 2020

Jan Taylor, current president of the Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, showed her work to appreciative members of LDWS last night at the February General Meeting. In advance, Jan described the subject of her talk:

As a long time lover of textiles and more recently a bookbinder and box maker. I look for ways to combine the materials I like best in an interesting way. What motivates me? Two questions: Why? and What if…?”

Her curiosity has led her through a wide range of creative adevntures. From her early, post-high school cross stitching (with a twist!) through felting experiments to her most recent fascination with hand-built books and boxes, she has explored colour, shape, function, and materials. Currently, she is exploring the use of gold in books, boxes, and other creations. We look forward to inviting her back to enjoy her golden phase!

Contact Jan Taylor using the form below:

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Blog

Learn to Weave Spring 2020

The LDWS Executive wanted to let all of our members know that Boyle Community is Closed due to the Covid -19 situation. So all activities, meetings, and classes will be suspended till further notice. We will be monitoring the timelines and will do our best to keep everyone informed about when we are able to reconvene. If you have registered for a class  there will be some communication coming to discuss future dates. The Executive will be conferencing by phone/email this week to see the scope of the proposed closure. Perhaps this is the time to complete that project you have been setting aside, or get some fresh inspiration from your stash!

Stay Healthy,

Susan Roth
LDWS President, on behalf of the Executive

London District Weavers and Spinners Guild
Learn to Weave: Beginning Weaving Class
(Spring 2020)

-Learn how to warp a loom
-Discover basic weaving techniques & structure (plain weave & twill)
-Select appropriate yarns
-Plan a project
-Keep records of your projects
-Follow instructions for projects
-Learn weaving terminology and equipment

Saturdays,

March 28, April 4 and 18, May 2 and 9, 2020

Time:  10 am to 3 pm

Boyle Memorial Community Centre

530 Charlotte Street, London, Ontario

Cost:

$ 320.00  (Guild members); $ 350.00  (non-members).  

Includes all materials and use of Guild equipment.

Preregistration is required.

To register for this workshop please fill in the form below:

Registration is closed due to Covid-19 emergency


Blog

Learn to( Weave) Twine A Rug

The LDWS Executive wanted to let all of our members know that Boyle Community is Closed due to the Covid -19 situation. So all activities, meetings, and classes will be suspended till further notice. We will be monitoring the timelines and will do our best to keep everyone informed about when we are able to reconvene. If you have registered for a class  there will be some communication coming to discuss future dates. The Executive will be conferencing by phone/email this week to see the scope of the proposed closure. Perhaps this is the time to complete that project you have been setting aside, or get some fresh inspiration from your stash!

Stay Healthy,

Susan Roth
LDWS President, on behalf of the Executive

Learn to( Weave) Twine A Rug

Come out and join like-minded fibre enthusiasts to learn a new method (or hone an already known skill) to create rugs. LDWS’s own Dan Lajoie is leading a workshop on Rug Twining – Part One is on Friday March 20th from 6 pm to 9 pm Part Two will follow the next day on Saturday March 21st from 9 am to 4 pm. 
During this workshop, participants will learn how to plan a project like this including planning for your rugs’ size and design; warping a rug frame loom; preparing your weft materials and how to weave your rug using two basic techniques (standard and counter twining).
Dan has built specialized looms for this event which will be available for $15.00 (rental fee payable directly to Dan) to be used by registrants for the duration of the workshop. The looms will be available to purchase at the end of the event by anyone interested for $50.00 (minus the $15.00 rental fee already paid).
Dates:Friday, March 20, 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm AND Saturday, March 21, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm,  (includes a one-hour lunch)
Workshop Costs:Workshop – $80.00 (Members); $85.00 (Non-Members) includes class notes
Additional Costs:Loom Rental – $15.00 payable directly to Dan Lajoie at start of workshop.Participants will also be required to provide your own weaving material (weft) and prepare your weft material in advance of the workshop. Additional instructions about these required advanced preparations will be sent to participants once your completed registration form and full payment of the workshop registration fee have been received.

Sold out, registration closed.