Sunday, March 5, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti : Women of the North

(Ladies tilling a green peas field in the lap of the mythical Chau Chau Kang Nilda in Langza)

“Aao, chai peeyo?” (Come, have some tea with us?) The women called out to me as I was walking through the fields. I shyly refused the offer but they were pretty insistent. So I joined a group of four ladies who were tilling and watering a field sown with green peas. One of the ladies poured out a cup of tea for me and handed me a cup. They also offered me some Channg(barley beer) which I politely refused. About half an hour ago, I had passed the ladies and asked them the direction to Dorjee uncle’s home. I had brought the pictures of his grandchildren; Sonam and Tenzin, which I had clicked last year during my stint in ‘Life as a local’ with Ecosphere.  So while, we were sipping tea, I told them I told them about the weeding and watering that I did in Life as a Local when Dorjee uncle was the coordinator and also how I loved Spiti and that it was my third time there within a year.

(Strength through togetherness; the women here working together in routing the water through a field. All the women instead of working on their own respective fields choose to work collectively on a single field at a time, as a result the work for each individual becomes less and all the fields can be irrigated faster. Collective work also means more tea and more chhang!)

One of the ladies casually said “aap yahin par aajao Piti mei hi rehne”(You should come up here in Spiti and live here forever). I laughed and asked “aap mujhe rakhenge yahan?” (will you keep me here?) to which one of the ladies replied “Han han kyun nahi agar aap hum sab ko Dilli laajayein!”(yes, yes why not? Only if you take all of us to Delhi with you). All of us laughed together and I didn’t realize when my cup of tea was filled again. 

The Spitian society can’t survive without its women. They, for me, are the most important pillar of this society. Everything that happens here involves the ladies in some or the other way. Even the men in Spiti won’t refute my claim here. 

Every time that I’ve come here and lived with the people in Spiti, I’ve always gone back as a better person with a deepened respect and love for women not only here but throughout the world.
Life in Spiti is taxing and more so for the women. Most adult women here wake up at early hours of the day and sleep only after the rest of the house has slept. In the summer months, they do most of the work in the agricultural fields ranging from tilling, sowing, watering and weeding. They work long hours in these fields under the scorching summer sun. They take care of their children, husbands and even the livestock animals. They get the household chores done. They do almost everything and do most of the things with better efficiency than men. 

It’s a fact well known that women do much more than the credited for, especially in the hills. By the looks of it, men don’t do much work when compared to women and that is actually true in most cases except in a few households in the villages where men may go to work in Kaza or as guides, cooks and porters during the tourist season. Very few men spend their time in fields,  even though they can found at homes tending to the children. Men are mostly concerned with the matters socio-political matters of the villages. 

But, for me, the greatness of women in Spiti does not stem from this comparison of men and women and the amount of work they do. Comparison is a cliché which glorifies one side and defames another. 

(a lady benevolently serves food to the men who had been shepherding the livestock for the day at the Yulsa meadows above Demul)

The greatness of women in Spiti stems from their attitude towards their lives. In midst of recent discussion on feminism and equality in the modern world,  to an uninformed person, the lives of women here must like look like an epitome of struggle, oppression and backwardness but when you come here and take a proper look into their lives and talk to them, you realize that this is not even remotely true. 

Once I met a lone woman working in the fields in Demul. She must have been older than 50 years though I didn’t ask her age. When we got talking, I asked her what her daily routine is in summers. She said, she wakes up at 6am every morning, she milks the cows first and then goes off to the fields to water them(it is essential to the water the fields early in the morning before the sun becomes too strong), then she gets back home and sends her grandchildren to the school while her daughter-in-law  goes to the fields. Then she performs a few household chores at home before returning to the fields as her daughter-in-law goes on to daily work for the PWD. She generally takes a thermos of tea and some lunch with her for the field and returns in the evening, when she and her daughter in-law prepare the dinner. She told me she slept at 11pm every day. 

I impulsively asked her “Don’t you get overburdened by this routine? Don’t the women do too much here? Don’t you feel the men should more work?”

She smiled, maybe at my naiveté. “Sometimes, yes. It gets very tiring for us especially during the summers, but that’s no reason to give up. That’s how it always has been because that’s how our society has been shaped, the women have been granted this privilege of doing the important work and that we can do so much work is matter of pride”  

(Some respite from the monotony of daily lives on the day of devta pooja at Yulsa meadows.. :))

The group of ladies that I met in Langza were so eager to go to Delhi but when I asked them if they would like to give up living here for the comforts of Delhi, they immediately said no. “There’s everything in Delhi but it’s not our home, we can’t live without talking to each other but there people don’t talk to each other”. 

On being asked if she had any problem with men not working as much as women, one young woman in Demul said “it does not work like that here, we don’t see how much work men do or don’t, for us the essence of good living is determined by our togetherness and understanding. So for me it doesn’t matter what men do. They shouldn’t do bad things like overdoing alcohol and gambling because it has a negative impact on all of us”.

(This image is perhaps my most favourite image from Spiti. For me, it exemplifies the human connection that forms between people when they begin to know each other. When I clicked this picture, I wasn’t an outsider who had just come to be at the right place on the right time, people knew me, kids knew me and they were comfortable being themselves around me. Ladies generally don’t like their to have their pictures taken that too by strangers but when I asked this resplendent mother-daughter do, they said yes without hesitation. That means a lot to me.)

Of course, these are only few instances when I talked to the ladies, but to me the idea was clear. Yes, people especially women have a tough life here and they can choose to not work and ask the men to do more work in the sheer spirit of equality and feminism. But they don’t that simply because they understand their importance in the Spitian society, they know that without their support, this society would collapse. So they’ve embraced their roles as the strongest pillars of the society. To an outsider, it seems like too much of a responsibility but for them it’s a privilege. It’s also true that sometimes, it’s becomes too taxing for them and even more difficult when men take to lethal addiction like alcohol and gambling but they just don’t give up and for me there lies their true beauty and magnificence. 

If there has to be something done in the valley, its women who come forward every time. Be it generation of alternative source of income through cultivation of seabuckthorn, the wonder berry whose bushes were earlier use as cattle-feed and fences or the beautiful handicrafts and hand-woven woollen products. 

(My wonderful hostess making the daily “Chalo hum dono chai peetein” tea for us. Initially, I used to call her aunty, but slowly as we got familiar, I felt more comfortable in calling her amma(mother). She didn’t want me to click her picture because she thought she was too old for a picture, despite my endless efforts at convincing her that she didn’t look old which was my genuine belief.)

In my little stints in the villages of Spiti, the good fortune of living with the people and essentially the ladies have always been the silver living of my experiences in the valley. The most deep-rooted of them being the week I spent in Demul this time where a wonderful lady hosted me for a week. I came to her house as a tourist and left as a family member.

Even after working in the fields throughout the day, she always had a smile upon her face as she entered the house and would say “aajao hum dono chaii peetei hai”(come, we’ll have a cup of tea together) 

(This was what happened when I told Gatuk’s mum (who had hosted me in my first visit to Demul) that she had the best smile in entire Demul :) )

The women here have made realize that it does not take great deeds to become good human beings. The graciousness in their embrace of their lives has been a life changing insight for me and it has helped me become a more compassionate human being.  

(Winter musings: In winters when the fields are shrouded with snow and there’s not much work to do, women focus on their other talents; beautiful mats of vivid colours and design and woollen products like gloves, mufflers and socks.)

(Leading the way through the fields and through life. )

As new frontiers open up, young charismatic women of Spiti are carving new paths, as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and entrepreneurs and yet the spirit of womanhood remains ingrained in them deeply wherever they go and in whatever they do. 


  1. It's all about teamwork and togetherness and helping each other and work as a community and thats the difference between us and them. Our doors are closed and we want to be better than the others and will work our things first then help others but over here it's the other way around.

    I love how the lady answered your question ''the women have been granted this privilege of doing the important work and that we can do so much work is matter of pride.”. It's all about the perspective and how we look at things and life in general. There is so much that we can learn. It's all about the basics.

    Life As A Local is on my agenda as well and I hope I get to experience this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Very nice blog describing lesser known facts about life at spiti