For 37-year-old Kunzang Ango, it is her first visit to Leh. It took her four hours in what was her first bus journey and Rs 200 to get here. Ango and nine other women from Skurbuchan village, more than 120 km from Leh town, have made the long journey lugging hand-knitted sweaters, socks, fresh farm produce like apricots, berries and a variety of lentils and pulses, to set up a stall at Aadi Mahotsav, the Centre’s first outreach programme barely a week after Ladakh was declared a union territory.
The festival had — for the first time — artisans from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Sikkim seeking possible patrons in Leh alongside 50 local artisans from the region. After stringent quality checks over the nine days of the fair, some of these local artisans will be empanelled by the Tribal Affairs Ministry, which is organising the event, for its upcoming editions. Interestingly, 80 per cent of the local artisans who had come were women.
For the women from Leh, it’s a journey of hope — towards greater economic mobility — as the fair offered the prospect of taking their wares to more takers from across the country. There is also the hope that one day, they will make longer treks to places like Delhi, Bhopal and Jammu, even if they have little knowledge about these places or their people yet. “While people from the rest of India will now come and earn in Ladakh, we should also be able to earn money from their areas,” she says, discreetly referring to the recent abrogation of Article 370.
Most women here — even those coming from the remote regions of Ladakh — are aware of the recent development and have strong views on it. Tashi Dolker, part of Ango’s group, says, “Unlike other parts of India where women choose whether to work or be a homemaker, Ladakhi women are all entrepreneurs. We run the house, earn money, travel in groups, take care of our farms and sell surplus produce. In Delhi, a banker is a banker and a grocer is a grocer, but here, even if you are in a government job, you may be selling milk in free time, and knitting sweaters on order during harsh winter months.”
It took them 15 days to hand-knit enough varieties of woollens for children and pack pulses and cereals for the stall. The group arrived with children and food essentials in tow, with a plan to stay put during the entire nine days of the festival, hoping to be empanelled.
At the stall, along with their handmade products, the women are also serving fresh food — buckwheat pancakes with warm garlic chutney, vegetarian momos and piping hot namkeen chai — food that is from an area closer to Kargil than to Leh.
While Ango’s group was the largest and had come from the farthest region, most others were travelling in groups of twos and threes, and came from neighbouring villages. They were hawking various products — apricots and jams and oil made from the fruit, knitwear, pashmina shawls and stoles, earthenware, and wood-carving products. But what united them was their hope — almost bordering on desperation — to end their economic isolation after “getting freedom from Kashmir”.
“We are selling the woollens at the same rate as in the village. We are not looking to make big profits. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that I am able to sell all that I brought and get to travel to Delhi to find a bigger market,” said 67-year-old Mamoona Khatoon, from the Muslim-majority village of Chuchot, on the outskirts of Leh.
Tsering Chawl, a pottery artiste, says it has taken her 10 days to create one pot, using cowdung and local clay, and it sells for Rs 200 in the local market, or fetches her Rs 400 if there’s a local exhibition. “I have heard that in places like Delhi and Mumbai, these things get good money, even though I don’t know where these places are,” she remarked, as her five-year-old looked on at visitors in amazement. Lobsang Dolma, another entrepreneur, says, “Even though we were insulated from the negative impact of commerce, we were also isolated. I hope that ends.”
The writer was a guest at the Aadi Mahotsav. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The road less travelled’