Changtang ama-le

This page contains excerpts of several email letters written by Deb Van Poolen while in Ladakh, India.  

-Visiting Villages Skyurbachan and Takmachik 

-Barley Harvesting in Takmachik

-Grain Threshing

-Three Days of Farming in Ang Village (Irrigation, Fertilizer, Plowing)

Coming Soon:



-2010 Flash Floods in Ladakh

Visiting Skyurbachan

 ...we left leh by bus three weeks ago and followed the indus river to skyurbachan, a large village of about 2 or 3 hundred homes.  in the afternoon, we worked in a field, weeding between the 8-inch tall barley grasses, using hand-crafted wooden-handled tools with curved, steel, pounded and sharpened points.  we dug down into all the soil around the plants to disturb all the little weedy roots yearning for some of the precious barley's nutrients. 


the next morning in skyurbachan we were escorted up to the village's monastery.  every Ladakhi village has a monastery, though not all monasteries have monks living in them or regular ceremonies.  each time one visits a monastery, one gains a gorgeous view of the village and surrounding mountain ridges and peaks.  to reach the monastery, we climbed up for a couple hours.  upon arrival, we were greeted by a monk who used his key to open the two temple rooms for us.  one room had rock walls and ceiling and the other was more recently built.  each room was wall-to-wall paintings.  


Farming in Ang Village


Pre-planting Irrigation of Barley Fields

first day:  the village's supply of water comes from a small glacier above it, around the corner from the rock ridge which is visible from the front of the house and which blocks our view of the glacier.  rocks we viewed from the house are several hues of green, brown, red, and yellow.  ladakhis have various systems to share water equally throughout the villages.  the water sources include glaciers, streams, and springs.  ladakh receives and average of three to four inches of rainwater per year; thus ladakhis do not rely on rainwater for their basic irrigation, cooking, drinking or washing needs.  


on our host family's day to perform the big irrigation of the fields before the planting of the barley, the irrigation started with someone uphill of our fields releasing a strong flow of water to come down through various irrigation canals to reach our fields.  at the place where the water entered the field, small ditches were dug to direct the water to the different areas of the field.  there were about eight women out working with small shovels, or spades, to spread water around the fields which had a slight downward slope.  the ladakhis develop these skills as soon as they are strong and tall enough to hold the shovels, so they were very efficient.  after a full day of trying to learn this skill, i had a only a smidgen of an idea of how it works!  

there were many different systems going on at once, to dam the water in certain places and encourage it to flow to others.  we learned that several parallel streams were used perpendicular to the slope of the field, and from these streams the water was encouraged to spread out to all the dry areas below.  anna and i tried to do our best to help.  the most common advice given to us was:  "tsapik, tsapik!" which means "little bit!  little bit!". i was often digging too deep of mini-ditches and not realizing that the dirt one digs up can be used to dam the flow and encourage the water to move where you want it.  so the mini-ditches and the mini-dams worked together well. it was wonderful to see all the women working together, from 17 years old to probably 77 or older. 

Spreading Local Fertilizer

second day:  most ladakhis use mostly "local" fertilizer, which is completely composted animal, human, and food waste.  ("completely composted" means that all of the harmful bacteria initially in animal and human feces have been digested by organisms and turned into useful nutrients for growing food.)  we came to a field which had piles of the compost evenly distributed throughout the field.  today men and women were involved.  two or three people with shovels were stationed by the piles, putting the compost onto three burlap sacks next to the piles.  four others were working in pairs to carry the burlap sacks to be dumped all over the field equally.  two others were out in the field with spades, flipping the soil around to spread it even more evenly.  anna and it had the burlap sack carrying job, each paired with a ladkahi to make sure we did it right.  


plowing with view of takmachik

Plowing with the Dzos


third day in ang:  a dzo is a combination of a yak and a cow.  they are great field animals, being very strong and also docile.  in ang village, when we worked with tinles' family, two dzos were paired up to pull the plow.  the plow consisted of a hand-made piece of equipment which is all wood (a long 4" by 4") with a big piece of metal at the end which digs into the ground to break up the soil.  this is the way they plow this family's fields:  one ladakhi pulls the dzos which have a rope through their noses.  one person, usually a man, walks behind the dzo or dzos (sometimes there is only one dzo pulling a plow) to push the plow down into the hardpan ground and properly direct it.  then two other ladakhi women break up the big chunks of turned-up dirt, swinging a pick axe back and forth.  following them, anna and i and two others (the four of us taking turns) came through with rake-like wooden implements to smooth out the ground.  

this day of plowing was definitely the most fun and interesting because many people and meals throughout the day created a very festive atmosphere.  upon our arrival at the field in the morning, we had thukpa, a thick noodle soup.  tea was offered three or four times throughout the day, sweet milk tea and/or butter tea.  anna and i just drank WATER all day long, gallons of it! much chang (ladakhi barley beer) was served, with most of the ladakhi older men getting quite drunk by the end of the day.  they were a little buzzed by lunchtime, when twenty of us sat down in the field together to dine.  the system of cooperation we observed is that there are three families that work together to take care of the needs of each other's fields.  the family whose field is being worked do not participate in the field work; instead, they make food and tea all day for the laborers!  lunch was rice with beans and potatoes, some buttermilk with vegetables, and of course chang and tea were offered too.  we enjoyed the lunch immensely, which consisted of plenty of food and an hour and half break with lots of laughter and smiles all around.  

one of my favorite memories of the day was seeing the the toughness of one of the ladakhi grandmothers.  the field was her son's and daughter-in-law (probably handed down to them from the grandparents, who were both working in the field all day).  during one tea break i saw this grandmother leaning over, and i noticed blood slowly dripping from her nose onto the soil.  she grabbed a small leaf, rolled it up, and plugged her bleeding nostril with it.  she was visably not happy about it, but she made no fuss either.  that was that.  later, all during lunch and for the rest of the day, both of her nostrils were then plugged with larger leaves. ever been offered a plate of food by a woman with leaves sticking out of her nose? now i can say i have!  



Giclee' Prints

balsalmrootGiclee' prints of Deb Van Poolen's artworks are available for order.

To view the images, click  here.  

To order prints, click  here.

Ladakh, India

leh cityLeh city

Ladakh is a beautiful, autonomous region in northern India in the Himalayan mountains. Deb traveled to various fascinating regions of Ladakh between 2004 and 2011. Enjoy viewing some of her writings and photographs of those journeys