Monday, March 30, 2020

Gendered roles and relationships in the Spiti Valley

One of the most unforgettable trips of my life has been the trip to the Spiti Valley in the Upper Himalayas in the summer of 2017. A pristine place, 4000 metres above sea level. It is a feat to be able to visit Spiti successfully and relish its scenic gems. The Nako Lake, The Tabo Monastery, The Key Monastery. Kibber Village, the highest post-office in the world in Hikkim, The Chandratal Lake, The Pin Valley, the Kunzum pass and many beautiful villages in the valley.
The trip entailed adventures of many kinds. Five women with a local driver on an Innova. Some of our misadventures included running out of gas in our vehicle, getting stranded for hours near Spillow on the Kalpa-Kaza road due to a landslide on one of the toughest adventure roads in the world, rising blood pressures and altitude sickness, a trip to the hospital where we encountered a person who had died due to altitude sickness. It wasn’t a conventional holiday but was filled with challenges. Most of all the challenges of acclimatising to the harsh terrain and low oxygen. It was a 12-day trip and each day was filled with a new adventure and excitement.
We were signed up for a volunteering program called “Live like a Local” with an NGO called Ecosphere. Ecosphere was established by Ishita Khanna, a social work graduate from TISS, Mumbai. Ishita is also my batchmate from Miranda House, University of Delhi where we studied Geography together from the year 1995-1998. Along with exploring the beautiful places, I was super-excited to see Ishita after 19 years. I am so proud of the work that she has done with the communities in the Spiti Valley. Her initiatives have helped in strengthening local livelihoods, promoting eco-tourism, building green-houses to grow vegetables, making artificial glaciers to store water for the dry months, bringing solar energy technology and many other positive changes for the villages in the valley.
Our guide informed us that people think of her as “God” in the valley. Indeed, when I visited the villages and interacted with the local people, I realised how she had connected them to sustainable technologies and to the rest of the world. Spiti is generally isolated. It has no airport and the road that connects it to Simla and Manali is dangerous at many points. Very few people venture to Spiti for vacations unlike Ladakh which has an airport. My eyes swell-up with tears every time I think of the challenges that Ishita has had to face to set-up Ecosphere and the personal sacrifices that she has made to live in the valley. For more information on Ishita Khanna and Ecosphere, google it up, there’s plenty to discover out there.

While there are many things about our Spiti trip, that I can write in this post. I can go on for 20 pages. But here I would mostly like to discuss the one most inspiring take- away from it – that is the gendered roles and relationships that I saw in Spitian families. In the Demul Village where we spent 3 days, we were in a homestay arranged by Ecosphere. The best way to understand the local culture of a new place is to stay with a local family.
The family comprised – grandpa, grandma, son, daughter, daughter-in-law and a cute little toddler called Sonam.
The women of the family worked outdoors in the fields, in a school and in the road construction work respectively, while the men took care of the cooking and child-care. What I observed in those three days was a reversal of gender roles from what we observe in the rest of India.
The daughter-in-law of the house laboured at a road construction project going on a few kilometres away from her home. The daughter of the family was a teacher in the local school. The son of the family packed lunch for the women when they left home for work every morning. He also cooked dinner every evening. He served tea and food to his parents and to the guests (that was us).
He did so with much cheer. As a part of our volunteering trip we tried to help the family with weeding their fields. We also signed up for a cheese-making and rope-making workshop.

It was grandpa who taught us how to make cheese from Yak Milk. He sat there churning the fat from the milk in a huge wooden bucket. It required a lot of upper body strength to do that. In the end he collected the cheese from the bucket and spread out the silvers on a sheet to dry them for use in the winter months.

The best part about being with this family in the homestay was to see how everyone was happy to serve each other without any of the conventional gendered hierarchies. Everyone did everything. Both men and women cooked when they wanted, worked in the fields and outdoors as and when they wanted. There was a mutual symbiosis instead of set gender roles and relationships and I loved this fluidity.
I kept thinking that the rest of India and the World has a lot to learn from these remote disconnected Himalayan communities on how-to live-in harmony with each other and the nature that surrounds us.
I would like to thank my friends and constant companions on this trip who made every moment of this adventure-trip cherished. Thanks to Anita Tikoo, Prabh Bedi, Deepali Jain and Garima Bhatnagar for making this trip to Spiti so memorable. A youtube video of the trip is available at – . Do watch it with subtitles.

About the Author: Kanchan Gandhi is a post-doctoral fellow at IISER, Mohali. Her research interests include – identity-politics, urban studies and disaster studies. She can be contacted at 

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