The Things They Carry: Heritage and sustainability in Ladakh Basket’s mission

In the land of high mountain passes, life is transcendental. Nestled in some of the mighty mountain ranges like the Himalayas, Karakorum, Zanskar and Ladakh, this cold high-altitude desert is known for its vibrant culture, wonderful and serene people, and breath-taking monasteries. For those who have visited these special places, many admit to having fallen in love with not just the locations, but the lifestyle they found there. Be it a town or its villages, Ladakhi people know their landscapes and seasons are often austere, so they live according to what their ancient tradition has taught them. This is crucially reflected in the things they carry with them. One such object that stands as testimony to Ladakh’s indigenous culture is the hand-woven basket—the tsepo woven from chipkiang grass.

Those who have spent time in Ladakh or studying the culture, have surely seen men and women carrying this hand-woven basket everywhere. They carry almost everything in it: from firewood to vegetables, from manure to animal feed, and even babies! Ladakhis carry not only things in this basket but the stories of different villages, different customs and different practices. The tsepo carries love. This durable, beautiful basket can be seen as a traditional bag that helps people carry things far and wide over difficult terrain.

As Ladakh has a short agriculture period due to the extreme winters (that typically last six months or more), locals survive the plentiful snowfall in winter by keeping themselves busy making hand-crafted materials. Usually, women knit items like socks, gloves, and sweaters out of sheep or yak wool. Carpets, tsug-den, are woven from materials such as cotton, wool and yarn. It’s the men who traditionally weave the tsepo, the grass baskets. Ladakhis share a cultural relationship with the basket that goes back to the roots of their civilisation. However, in recent times, this relationship has been altered due to various external factors.

With the increasing influx of tourists and the desire to cater to their needs, a lot of traditional practices are being overlooked by people in Ladakh. Attracted by the tourism industry, people also migrate to cities, in search of a better life, in the hope of better opportunities. But they leave behind their culture and practices. It is not just the handicrafts, like the basket, it is also the potential loss of a cultural lifestyle and heritage. This societal transformation that we were seeing was just one of the many reasons we knew we wanted to do things differently.

Ladakh Basket was founded to provide Ladakhis with better opportunities in their towns and villages. With the intention of reviving some of what has been lost and encouraging the preservation of Ladakhi traditions, Ladakh Basket aims to collectively work with farmers, producers and craftspeople to deepen sustainable practice in agriculture and handicrafts. The social enterprise trains Ladakhis in improving green farming techniques, producing organic foodstuffs and championing local artisans. It’s a platform that aims to revive, celebrate and share the unique narrative of the Ladakhi people and their relationship to their land. We do this by improving livelihoods by selling these distinctive indigenous products and produce with our local co-collaborators. We’re expanding supply chains, market opportunities and revenue streams for local families, and we couldn’t be happier with the incredible response we’ve had. Started by a team of three young Ladakhis, this venture is an outcome of the Naropa Fellowship, an intensive post-graduate, academic programme focused on creating and nurturing agents of change who will work towards fostering an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and growth while preserving the cultural heritage of Ladakh and the Himalayan region. Ladakh Basket provides an online and offline platform where local farmers and artisans can sell indigenous products not just to the rest of the nation but promote it among local Ladakhis as well. We also sell and ship internationally.

The problem the founders of Ladakh Basket identified was that there wasn’t a single platform catering to Ladakh people and their land. We felt that Ladakh was slowly losing its essence. We saw that many had stopped using agriculture and traditional handicrafts as their livelihood option and instead, were pursuing other options like the tourism industry or hospitality. Ladakhis felt they could make more money that way and we couldn’t really argue with that. But we also knew that we could make traditional and sustainable ways of livelihood popular again by making them more profitable. Ladakh Basket aims to do exactly this. Since every region in Ladakh produces their own unique indigenous products, this initiative will bring all these products onto one platform –Ladakh Basket.

“My father was a trained basket weaver,” says Tsultim Palmo “Unfortunately, due to a prolonged illness, he was forced to quit the work he loved the most.” Tsultim is a 42-year-old artisan from Tarchit Village in the Leh District in southern Ladakh.

“This made him worry about the raw material that he had collected,” Tsultim continues, “because if it’s not utilised, if the grass isn’t woven, it will spoil. This affected his health further. To stop him from worrying, I told him that I would weave the baskets. It was a difficult task. I failed initially but with practice, I learned the art and I am still weaving baskets for my community and my people,” she said. Tsultim is only one of a handful of women who are weaving baskets today. Now she’s working with Ladakh Basket, proudly helping to revive an ancient tradition, transform people’s perceptions, and earn a decent income for her family.

Ladakh Basket is intimately familiar with the sensitive environment of this high land, with its deep valleys and arid plateaus that incredibly, grow some of the sweetest apricots in the world and the finest barley grain. To this end, all packaging of our products uses only eco-sensitive material, such as recycled craft paper, and less plastic and our materials are chosen to have minimal impact on energy and natural resource consumption during their manufacture. Empowering farmers and local artisans cannot come at the cost of damaging the ecosystem. Ladakh Basket wishes to remain true to the intentions of the basket that people use for carrying everything they love. And just like this ever-dependable basket, our platform is committed to offering the same intention – a place for carrying and telling the story of every incredible Ladakhi product.