Shepherdess of the Glaciers

In these empty, empty, empty valleys, I am the only woman and the only shepherdess, but if there is a will there is a way. It’s really tough going in all these sharp edges and ridges; if you focus your energy in the heart and your head you can get there, there is no one to guide, you have to learn everything on your own.

This is a glimpse into the life of Tsering, a shepherdess from the far-off village of Gya which is at a distance of 70 km from Leh, in Ladakh. Shot at an altitude of 6,400 ft over a span of many years, Shepherdess of the Glaciers is an award-winning film by Stanzin Dorjai Gya and Christiane Mordelet. A first of its kind from Ladakh, it has received several national and international awards.

Amidst the vast stretches of rock and snow, across the remote valley of Gya-Miru, Stanzin Dorjay has documented the unusual life of his sister Tsering. At the age of 50, she is one of the last shepherdesses to graze her 300 sheep and goats, in her village. After the early death of her father, Tsering being the second eldest among her siblings takes on his job at an early age. She is the sole breadwinner of the family which depends on the sale of cashmere wool.

The bond that she shares with her animals is more than a maternal bond, for she is a midwife, a friend and a guide to them.

She walks for days from her village Gya to the mountains to find greener pastures for her herd, when the temperature drops below -30*C. She stations herself in a tent in the lonely and dry desert for several months during the grazing period. Apart from the extreme weather and difficult terrain, she also has to face the threat of wild animals.

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The bond that she shares with her animals is more than a maternal bond, for she is a midwife, a friend and a guide to them. In one of the scenes when she comes back to her village with the herd, we see her in grief as she loses many of them to the harsh cold weather. It’s a pain that she expects no one suffers from. To her, it pains more than losing one’s own children.

What keeps her connected to the outside world is her radio; tuned in to AIR. In the empty valleys, she seeks refuge in a radio – “The best friend is like my father, my mother, and my siblings to me. When it doesn’t work, I feel empty, as empty as if I’ve lost someone. Radio is useful too; if a wild animal comes along I turn on the radio very loud, and I see the leopard hesitate because he thinks there are a lot of people. I learn it all through the radio, how to keep your animals healthy, how to respect different traditions.”

Tsering is also a beautiful singer with a crystal clear voice. The documentary is interspersed with her singing. She finds comfort in listening to old songs. When she is asked how she feels living alone in the desolate valley she replies, “When I leave the family like this, I feel an emptiness and I get homesick, especially in the evening. It takes a while to heat the tent up. And it gets cold and there is no water! I feel so empty and I have to find a space for each object”.

What keeps her connected to the outside world is her radio; tuned in to AIR.

In one of the scenes, Tsering is heating the batteries of the radio to make them work and suddenly it starts playing Vande Mataram in the background. My mind couldn’t help but shift from this world of a shepherdess to our current political scenario of hyper-nationalism and wonder where is she going to fit in this frenzy of ‘empty’, ‘singular’ and ‘exclusive’ landscape of nationalism.

The film also portrays the many dichotomous lives that Tsering is living. She lives with her herd away from modern comforts with bare minimum sustenance, whereas her produce is fundamental in the running of the cashmere and modern cash-oriented industry. She is an unsung figure left out from the project of nation-building with no education, no facilities and comforts.

She belongs to a pastoral economy which is self-sufficient on animal and land produce. Each and every being in this economy is dependent on each other for their existence and one is incomplete without the other. It is this tradition which is in threat.

Due to various changes in the climate, economy and people’s living standards, no one wants to be a shepherd. What will happen to her and others like her who are in this tradition, whose only skills lie in herding, is one question among many that this film raises beautifully. In her own words – “No one wants to be a shepherd anymore, people are so fragile now that it’s very difficult”.

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Featured Image Credit: Visions du Réel

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