The high-altitude region of Ladakh never ceases to amaze with its varied shades of beauty. A piece of paradise tucked in the Himalayas, Ladakh is unlike any other terrain on earth. But, who could guess that Ladakh is also the home to an endangered art of copperwork, which sustains only because of the efforts of some Ladakh natives. Thanks to the efforts of the older generation, some younger people are carrying forward the artisanship.
Thetan Wangyal, 65, lives in a remote village in Zanskar named Tsogsty. He began learning the art of metalwork from his father at the age of 25 and started making copper kettles, spoons and cup-lids. With time he learned to add more designs using silver, bronze and at times gold in his artwork.
During the last 40 years Thetan has curated numerous copper artifacts. His work does have a market thanks to the Ladakhi household tradition where the kitchen and dining areas are richly decorated with copper artifacts. These artifacts are viewed locally as a sign of prosperity.
Thetan receives a few orders every season from nearby villages. The work is hard and progresses slowly. With traditional tools and techniques, it needs a lot of patience and grit to beat and shape the copper into the final product.
Some artifacts, like a dragon kettle, have fine designs engraved on silver and brass as well; such designs may take as long as two months to make.
Tsogsty is one of the last remaining villages of Ladakh where this work is still preserved. The village also houses two other elderly artisans, both more than 60 years old.
Chilling, Sumda Do and Sumda Chenmo are the only other villages in Ladakh where this art sustains. Lack of appreciation and appropriate markets have made many such masons give up this work. Only 10-12 artisans pursue this art full time for a living.
Wangdus is one of the younger artisans in Sumda Chenmo to take up this art. He does it more or less as a hobby and makes small items such as cup lids and spoons.
Due to sporadic orders and low returns, artisans like Wangdus refuse to do this work full time. In summer they prefer farming, taking care of their livestock and harvesting fruits from trees. But in winter the scenario changes completely. The coldest season is considered the best time to do this work since other activities are nigh impossible to do. The small workshops, usually just 5 by 5 feet in size and with a coal fire to melt copper, make for a cosy environment in the blistering cold. The air jingles to the bells of artisans beating metal across the village.
In another village though, called Sumda-Do, there are two artisans, a father and son, who do this work full time. Their little shop is located on a roadside in the village.
Sadly, not many know about this centuries-old art heritage of Ladakh.And going by current trends, it may not last much longer given the youth's disaffection with it. The work is difficult and there is not enough market for these artifacts. Among unpredictable orders and low returns, the younger generation prefers to go to the cities to earn their livelihood, rather than staying back in the village for a career where patience is not always rewarded.
Another drawback of this copper work is the presence of toxic physical conditions. The sulphur fumes of coal fire and fumes of melting metals can cause lung diseases in the long run; it is also difficult to work in a sooty and dusty workshop for long hours.
But there is still some hope! With Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) and its initiative called Mountain Homestays, things are improving. Lack of reliable and affordable electricity was a major hurdle for the continuity of this art. While Sumda Chenmo was solar electrified by GHE in 2014, Sumda Do and Tsogsty also received renewable solar power in 2016. In addition to this, Mountain Homestays was launched in 2016 to promote tourism to these villages.
Engaging tourists in the daily lifestyle of villagers and artisans is helping us spread awareness of this art globally. The tourists take back with them authentic copper artifacts, thus contributing to the livelihood of these artisans.
Mountain Homestays will soon be launching an e-commerce portal where one can directly buy artifacts from different villages of Ladakh, helping to preserve this fading art.