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.

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