Because there is little to do in the winter months, the summer is quite precious here in Spiti and everyone is quite literally out making hay while the sun shines. Since the days are pretty long in the summer, this means most people are working for nearly 12-14 hours in a day! What grows here is mostly green peas, lots of lots of barley (called tsampa here), which is the staple food, and some vegetables – but this is mostly only in greenhouses and not on the fields. Apples, apricots and a few other fruits have started growing in the last few decades because changing weather patterns have made the valley warmer than it used to be.
When we were up in the caves above Tabo, we saw people working in the fields below, and it was quite mesmerising to watch. On one tiny field there were about fifteen people working, all in perfect rhythm with each other, and we could hear the faint strains of some tunes. So when we asked about it, we heard about yet another of the wonderful systems of Spiti. Everyone works on everyone else’s farm. That way nobody has to work alone and when people grow old they can still farm. And these are not poor farmers who are unable to afford labour or tractors. They are all people who earn and live and eat well. They do it for the pride of the work and because they have loads of fun working and singing together.
So we went onto the fields to watch and film from closer up.
They were sowing barley when we went. They farm all the fields in rotation, and in the one afternoon we were there they completed work on two fields, each about a quarter of an acre in size. The whole process is like a beautifully choreographed piece. First a couple of people scatter the seeds across the field, then a few men run the ploughs in large semi circles, each of which is pulled by a pair of yak or cows, and the remaining 10 or so people, mostly women, but also a couple of men, follow the line of the plough in twos and threes, flattening the field and breaking up the large lumps of soil and rock with shovels. And for each part of the process there is a song. The men running the ploughs sing to the cows and yaks to calm them down and make them move, and you can see quite clearly that the ones who sing a lot don’t need to use the whip so much to make the cattle move. The women digging the soil sing a song that’s sort of like a rounder, that roughly translates (although I’m sure the original is much more eloquent) “forgive us for all our sins because we’re simple people and we don’t know what we do, and please don’t let our sins mix into the soil and let us have a good crop”. Simple and straightforward. What is really lovely is the way that the song helps them keep rhythm while they dig so that they don’t knock each other’s feet with the spades. When the people who are digging are done and waiting for the plough to run its next round they collapse onto the soil to take a quick break, but even these few minutes are filled with laughter and flirtation. One of the women said to me, we laugh a lot here, which is why our eyes are so small and our faces so wrinkled.
After twenty minutes or so of watching I was very tempted to try my hand at it, so I asked if they would teach me. The tradition is that when a woman first joins in to help on the field, she is offered flowers as a token of thanks. So although I was going to dig (and not necessarily be of any help!) for just a short while, I had a beautiful blue iris put into my hair J
It takes a little while to get used to the right-up-left-up digging rhythm but that really is only the beginning of the complex movement that happens. The feet of all those who are digging in a single line also do a coordinated back-front step dance which I tried to imitate, but I found myself nearly whacking the feet of the woman next to me so I decided to concentrate on just the digging! Since I have practically no strength in my arms I had to use my entire body weight to do any decent digging, so instead of the graceful and effortless side to side swing that the others were doing, I was hopping up and down and puffing and panting, which earned me the name ‘maindak’.
The other thing that the women do when someone joins in to work on the field is that they sing into the soil the name of the person working. So for a few moments, there was a whole line of women singing ‘Anushka Anushka’ while they were digging. Heh heh.
And after all of that I lasted about three or four rounds – it must have been twenty minutes or half hour at the most, which felt like eons – before giving up and collapsing onto the side of the field and going back to the much more doable work of taking photos and recording songs.
These were the two yak that were waiting while the farmers finished having their oranger than orange pooris with egg and tea
When we were walking back we stopped over to take a few photos of the lake and once we were done one of the women invited us to their village council meeting where the urgent discussion was what to wear for the buddh jayanti celebrations in kaza.