Book Reviews

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Living Fabric

Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya

Monisha Ahmed

2002 192 pp., 9 b & w plates, 178 color plates, 3 maps, 29 x 22 cm., hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-87-6 $50.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-87-8

Marg Publications, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, India
(Volume 56 No. 11 Sept 2004)

The Rupshupa are a tiny (population in 1993: 346) and dwindling nomadic community who roam Rapshu, the eastern region of the Changthang or “northern plain” of Ladakh. It is in this remote spot, one of the highest inhabited areas of Ladakh, that Monisha Ahmed stayed for extended periods with Namang Tharchen and his family. Living in a tent and moving camp along with Namang, she made an exhaustive study of the weaving traditions of the Rupshupa for her Ph.D. dissertation. Her book, Living Fabric - Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya developed out of this.
   Wool and weaving are central to the Rapshupa way of life—so important indeed that they believe that the craft of weaving was bestowed on them by the gods. Unlike the villages of central and western Ladakh where weaving is the preserve of men, or in Tibet where weaving is largely women’s work, in Changthang, both men and women weave. The articles woven by the Rupshupa are functional, and are fashioned out of lamb, sheep, and yak wool, or from goat and yak hair. Some of the finest pashmina wool (which is obtained from the winter undercoat of the pashmina goat) comes from the Changthong region; but it is not used for weaving. The Rupshupa admit that pashmina is too fine and difficult to weave with, and they sell the wool to traders.
   The main product woven by the Rupshupa is a woollen fabric called snam-bu which is used for making garments. Made out of a combination of lamb and sheep wool, snam-bu is woven exclusively by women using a simple twill weave . Snam-bu is single coloured - generally plain white, natural brown, or black. Though Ladakh has a rich tradition of vegetable dyeing, it is no longer alive today. However, with the availability of commercial dyes, snam-bu is often coloured. Red is a favourite shade.
   Women also weave container for food, saddlebags, blankets, and carpets. Here some simple decoration such as stripes, religious symbols, or dice patterns can be seen. The men weave saddlebags, blankets, and tents, but the yarn they use is never dyed and designs are seldom incorporated in their weaving except for specific identification patterns in the material for tents.
   Given the fact that the woven textiles and other articles of the Rupshupa arc not particularly remarkable for the intricacy of their technique or design, what, one might ask, prompted Monisha Ahmed to make such a painstaking study of them? The reason, she tells us, is that Rupshu textiles are not merely functional apparel or useful containers—“their colour, form, function, the fibres they are made from, and the designs they are embellished with, speak about life in Rupshupa”. And by examining the ritual symbolism of the animals they herd, the metaphors attached to the looms, and the myths that surround the activity of weaving, we can get a far deeper understanding of the culture, the belief systems, and the social interactions of these pastoral nomads.
   Thus, in Chapters 4 and 5, while the author provides a detailed technical account of the gathering and processing of fibres, and the different types of looms, she also explores the symbolism of the loom and the “ways in which fibres, weaving, and textiles are constructed, symbolized, understood, enacted, and experienced”. This experience, as she shows, is significantly different for men and women. Women weave on backstrap looms, men on fixed-heddle ones. The Rupshupa refer to them as female and male looms. Referring to the female loom, Abi Yangzom tells Monisha Ahmed: “We say that this warp is like the mother, and…the weft she inserts to make the cloth, is like a child conceived within her womb. As her cloth is made so the child inside her grows…” Sexual imagery abounds in the description of the fixed-heddle loom: The warp, strong and tightly twisted is said to represent the male; the weft, weak and loose in comparison, the female. The two are said to work together for the eventual birth of a “child”. Thus the Rupshupa looms are not just pieces of equipment, they are a means through which women express their fecundity, males their procreative energy.
   In Rupshu, the women weave practically all day, every day. Men weave only occasionally. A girl who cannot weave efficiently is regarded as worthless and not marriageable. A Rupshupa myth traces the origin of women to the bhud-mo, demonesses who were very strong and powerful, and no one could get any work out of them. One day a big lama came and told them that they must stop their bad ways, and taught religion to them. But the bhud-mo did not listen, so the lama taught them how to weave. Then the bhud-mo became women. The myth then goes on to warn women who don’t weave that they will become the demoness (bhud-mo) again, thus imperiling the order of the ordinary world.
   Ahmed sees in this myth an attempt “to hold down and suppress that which is uncontrolled and threatening (to Buddhism} - the feminine form”. Keeping a woman occupied will keep her from wicked thoughts and sinful action. Perhaps, though, the myth may have arisen in response to the sheer economic necessity of keeping women tied down to the unending task of weaving, from old Abi Yangzom, half-blind and arthritic, to sixteen-year-old Rinchen who confesses: “I long for the open space, and the freedom of doing what I wanted when herding… Here I have to sit cramped all day, my leg hurts, ray back hurts.”
   The life of the Rupshupa is an unceasing quest for fresh pastures for their livestock. They are obliged to pack all their belongings and move camp as often as ten times a year. In Chapter 7, Ahmed describes the structure and function of the black tent of the Rupshupa. Made out of goat and/or yak hair, the square, flatroofed tent which is woven by men, weighs 120 kilograms and is strong enough to withstand the severe winters of northern Ladakh, and sturdy enough to be handed down from generation to generation. In fact, the black tent is not only a moveable home, but also the essential link between father and son, defining lineage and the continuity of the male line. Ahmed describes a ceremony known as phog-srod “to take charge” (which seems strangely reminiscent of the podlatches of the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific, which involved the ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to confer status) when the black tent is ceremoniously bestowed by father on son, along with other gifts, in front of an invited audience of guests.
   In recent times, strong winds of change have been blowing across the Changthang plain. More and more families are selling their tents and livestock and moving to Leh, in search of a “better life”. More and more Rupshupa men are wearing shirts and trousers in preference to traditional dress. The black tent is being replaced by a white tent of cotton or canvas purchased in the markets of Leh. The government is encouraging the use of foot-looms in the region as part of income generating schemes. In this scenario, Living Fabric is an invaluable record not merely of dying weaving techniques, but also of a unique way of life that is disappearing fast.
   Living Fabric won the R.L. Shep Book Award in 2003, given by the Textile Society of America for the best book of the year in the area of ethnic textile studies.

Book review by Tulsi Vatsal

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