Tucked beneath a staircase inside a building in Leh’s scruffy Main Bazaar, Ladakh Nature Products shines out as a true cultural gem. Since opening in early June the shop has been buzzing with interest from locals and tourists drawn by its display of spirited creations, including traditional Ladakhi wool coats and pointy-toed shoes, knit and pashmina wear, Ladakhi animal dolls, and a variety of innovative accessories and souvenirs. In a town filled with Tibetan and Kashmiri souvenir shops mostly selling the same things, this tiny shop marks a big step forward in the revitalization of authentic Ladakhi culture.

Founded by local artisan Tsering Dolma and her husband Sonam Jorgyes, Ladakh Nature Products (a.k.a. Ladakh Rural Women’s Enterprise) is a non-governmental organization dedicated to supporting Ladakhi women and preserving traditional knowledge through the production of handicrafts made with local natural materials. All goods are sold at fair prices and all profits are channeled back into the organization’s work to train and support women artisans across Ladakh.

Wools from sheep, yak and pashmina goats are the organization’s primary raw materials. The pashmina comes from Changthang, a bitterly cold high-altitude plateau in Ladakh that is shared with Tibet and inhabited by Changpa nomads. Pashmina goats are only found at elevations of about 10,000 feet in the Central Asian mountains of Ladakh, Tibet and Turkestan, and it has become increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain their undercoat fleece famed for its softness and warmth. Natural dyes are used whenever possible, including indigo, walnut bark, rhubarb root, nettle, onion, carrot leaves, wild rose and various local grasses.

Tsering Dolma, a remarkably independent and visionary woman, brings a lifetime of artisan experience to her work. As a child she began learning from her mother, a skilled traditional artisan, and as an adult she has 20 years of professional experience with LEDeG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group). The inspiration to create women’s self-help groups came to Tsering during a trip to Rajasthan in 2001 with LEDeG when she visited the Barefoot College and women’s handicrafts organizations in villages around Udiapur. Upon returning home, Tsering began forming women’s groups for income generation and empowerment through LEDeG in different locations across Ladakh. She also began giving trainings in fiber arts and since 2001 has given over 80 trainings in skills such as spinning, knitting, weaving, sewing, felting and natural dyeing. The trainings last from one week to three months and are open to all women interested. In Spiti Valley, Tsering trained women to make their own traditional indigo and tie-dye (thigma) wool shawl, as that knowledge had been lost there. Traditional culture is disappearing rapidly in Ladakh and without this kind of organized effort it could be lost in a generation.

Situated in the high Himalayas of India, Ladakh was once a part of the Guge kingdom of western Tibet and today is home to one of the most intact Tibetan Buddhist societies in the world. In 1974 Ladakh was opened to the outside world and every year brings changes and challenges to the region, including climate change and influences from India and the international community. Ladakh is still primarily an agrarian society, but as it becomes more globalized new values and economies are taking hold in the areas of government, military defense, education, tourism, consumerism, food, environmentalism, non-profit organizations, and so on. Despite this, very few employment opportunities exist in Ladakh, especially for women, and lack of money means exclusion from the new forces shaping their lives and the futures of their children.

Traditionally, Ladakhi women (and men) work at home. During the short summer when crops are grown, most women work in agriculture and animal husbandry, and during the winter when the average temperature is below freezing, most women have little to do and artisan work is a valuable use of their time. Presently, approximately 70 women from ages 18 to 80 work with Ladakh Nature Products. Most of the women work in small groups in their villages, and a few are individual artisans who work at home. Some also work as temporary day laborers for the Indian army’s Border Roads Organization cleaning snowfall and debris from the roads, and during their lunch breaks and commutes do knitting for Ladakh Nature Products. Tsering supplies the women with the raw materials they need (mostly wools) and buys their finished products at fair prices to sell at the shop in Leh. The women are grateful for the income, social empowerment and self-confidence they derive from this work. In Zanskar, the women have been so successful in selling their wool knit clothing directly to foreign trekkers that last year they made a Buddhist pilgrimage to Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, with the money they earned.

On August 6, 2010, the Ladakh region suffered a rare and serious flash flood that took hundreds of lives, damaged towns and villages, and left thousands homeless. In particular, the village of Choglamsar near Leh was devastated. The flood washed a good part of the town down to the Indus River taking people, homes and everything else in its path. Immediately, the Ladakhis began helping each other through the crisis. Tsering donated all of her new clothing to those affected and then started two income generation groups for 20 women. She held a basic handicraft training and women came to learn, support each other and start rebuilding their lives. Today these women still work together doing knitting and animal doll felting work, and the social support it provides them is critical for their financial and emotional well-being. “They could not live alone and were crying and crying,” said Tsering, “but slowly with this work they became much happier. It is still very hard for them. Many women lost their families, their homes, everything.” A visit to meet these women one afternoon quickly became a roomful of tears.

Back in Leh, tourists marvel at the animal dolls made by the women in Choglamsar, unaware of their heartache but sensing the kindness and care in the handcrafted gifts they are receiving from them.

For more information, visit ladakhnatureproducts.com.