In a small town flanked by the Himalayas, men once were the breadwinners. Today, a collective of women weavers are taking the lead.
A sleepy frontier village in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in North India, Munsiyari is now known as a base for high-altitude treks and spellbinding views of Himalayan snow peaks. Before the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Munsiyari had been a camp for the wealthy and nomadic Bhotia community. The Bhotia men traded mountain herbs, grains, and salt on the trade route between Uttarakhand and Tibet, crossing high Himalayan passes along the way. After the trade route closed following the war, the once-prosperous community dwindled and migrated to the plains in search of alternate livelihoods.
Almost six decades later, the Bhotia community is making a comeback, and this time is it thanks to the local women. The ladies of this close-knit community are wonderfully skilled, crafting exquisite products with traditional handlooms using skillsets and equipment that have been handed down through generations. The craft was previously used only for weaving shawls, scarves, and hats for household members. But now, with the help of a few cooperatives, non-governmental funding, and government regulations, this beautiful home-based industry has an expanding client base. Completely handcrafted, the weaving has a zero-carbon imprint and uses the wool of pashmina goats and angora rabbits as a sustainable way of ethical sourcing materials, making it a niche and cruelty-free local industry. If you’re looking for the world’s softest pashmina scarf, look no further than Munsiyari.
Top Picks for You
The Breathtaking Panchachuli Massif
The glorious range of Panchachuli massif dominates the horizon of Darkot village, around four miles from Munsiyari. A small town wedged in between India, Tibet, and Nepal, Munsiyari translates to ”place with snow” and is a popular starting point for many high-altitude trekking routes for the Himalayas.
The Hamlet of Darkot
The sleepy hamlet of Darkot, nestled in the folds of the mountainous landscape, has been a traditional base of the nomadic Bhotia community who traversed between Munsyari and the upper reaches of the Milam and Johar Valleys. The men of Bhotia once traded high-altitude herbs, grain, and jaggery for salt and wool from Tibet. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 put an end to this lucrative cross-border trading, and the Bhotias had to stop their seasonal migration and begin searching for alternate livelihoods.
The Art of Handloom Weaving
In an effort to support their families, Bhotia women turned to their time-honored craft of handloom weaving. Traditionally, weaving for the Bhotias was an art form that enabled them to weave beautiful hand-loomed goods for their homes and families. While rugs and bedspreads are still woven for personal use; shawls, scarves, gloves, and caps are woven for commercial purposes.
The Empowerment of Women in Darkot
Geeta Pangti is one of the women weavers of Darkot. Pangti says that village women weaving has resulted in unprecedented women empowerment in the area due to more economic leverage. Underage marriages have stopped and the ladies now have a stronger voice.
Authentic Pashmina Scarves
In the courtyard of a village home in Darkot, two Bhotia ladies stand with a pashmina shawl they have recently woven. While authentic pashmina products are hard to come by due to scarcity of raw materials and cheap import substitutes, there are a few women pashmina weavers in Darkot who sell their woven crafts through women-led initiatives based in Munsiyari.
Saras Market in Munsiyari
This photo shows two weavers working inside Saras Market in Munsiyari. Saras Market is a local women-led cooperative that primarily sells handknitted wool craft and handcrafted novelties made by women who work in shifts. In a significant move to recognize artisanship, each product carries the name of the lady who has made it.
The Highly Prized Angora Rabbits
Under a government scheme, the women of Darkot village were given Angora rabbits to rear in their own backyards. The fur of these rabbits is used to weave stoles, shawls, and caps from these highly-prized animals. Now almost every Darkot household rear this specific breed of rabbit, and the womenfolk tend to them personally, ensuring ethical and sustainable sourcing without harming or mistreating the animals. These two rabbits have been recently shorn of their fur, taking care to leave a healthy layer of hair on them.
The Finest Type of Wool in the World
At 12 to 16 microns, Angora fibers are among the finest types of wool fibers in the world. Silky, soft, and remarkably fluffy, Angora fur has better heat retention qualities than most types of wool. Additionally, Angora wool is perfect for people with animal hair allergies as the fiber does not have any allergenic properties inherent to other types of wool.
A Reminder of a Not-So-Distant Past
Pictured here is a 150-year-old mud-and-stone mansion in Darkot village that had belonged to an affluent Bhotia merchant during the heydays of their trade with Tibet. The three-story building had 54 rooms but now lies abandoned amid crumbling ruins, reminiscent of a glorious and not-so-distant past.
An Economic Resurgence Thanks to Women
Sushila Pangti sits on the stony outcrop of her ancestral house. In her seventies, Sushila has memories of the prosperous days of her community in her early childhood, traces of which can be seen in the intricate craftsmanship on the walls and columns of the old wing of this traditional building. But Pangti is happy with the economic resurgence in recent years led by women of the village.
A Camaraderie Amongst Weavers
The homesteads of Darkot village are always abuzz with the incessant, loud thuds of the handlooms spinning out the finest quality fabric. A sense of cooperation and camaraderie is palpable among the women weavers, who have known each other for a long time. The women help each other in their work and even introduce the odd traveler who comes in search of a particular woven product.
A Quiet Revolution of Women Empowerment
Prema Nikhurpa emerges from the front door of her new house with a small stack of her recently woven products. An unmarried, middle-aged woman, Nikhurpa is an important member of her paternal household and represents a generation of Bhotia women who have collectively engineered a quiet revolution for their environment and own empowerment.