Skip to navigation – Site map
Book reviews

Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas by Karine Gagne

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal
Bibliographical reference

Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas by Karine Gagné. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2018, 231 pp + xxv pp, ISBN 97802957440011

Full text

1The book under review is an ethnographic account of Ladakhi society. The author attempts to understand how people live in this high-altitude trans-Himalayan region in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (in 2019 Ladakh became a separate Union Territory) and make their living in close proximity to nature. Living in the precarious natural setting of this cold desert gives rise to ‘the ethics of care’. However, the rapid socio-economic transformation of this society in the last six-seven decades has undermined traditional practices of caring for the ‘non-human’ world. Karine Gagné deftly weaves the story of this intricate change throughout the book.

2Caring for Glaciers focuses on two main traditional economic activities in Ladakh: farming and herding. Agricultural activities in Ladakh are mainly performed during the summer (April to September). This is a time of intense farming activities. Traditionally, the astrologer (onpo) sets the calendar for farming activities and associated rituals so that all households can start ploughing on the same day. In the past, families used to come together to help each other to finish their ploughing and sowing within a short time, all of which provided a festive atmosphere. The horns of dozos (bullocks) were decorated with oil and the animals were fed good food so that they could draw the plough efficiently. Ploughing and sowing were special occasions for Ladakhis and various rituals were associated with these activities, involving the propitiation of spirits and deities that reside in the mountains. One such ritual was to propitiate the spirit that resides in the glacier to ensure a regular supply of water to irrigate crops. In this ritual, called skyin jug, all the inhabitants of a village were required to climb a nearby mountain to reach a glacier where an experienced monk performed the ritual. The author contends that such rituals were a reflection of how people cared for nature.

3Livestock rearing is an integral part of traditional farming. In the past, each family kept a large number of livestock, such as oxen, cows, yaks, sheep, goats, horses, mules, etc. People maintained a close relationship with their livestock which they considered as their own children. During the ploughing season all livestock, except dozos, were taken to the high pastures (phu). Generally speaking, one or two members of each family worked as herders. During the summer, the latter used to drive livestock to high pastures and to stay there in temporary sheds. Rich nutritious phu grasses, it was believed, were good for livestock and improved their yield of milk. Milk was transformed into various dairy products. Ghee (refined butter) was the most prized because it had a high market value.

4Traditionally, the task of herding was entrusted to the younger generation since it requires physical strength and endurance. Herding calls for sound knowledge of the mountains and their routes and ‘[p]articipation in the pastoralist landscape generates knowledge through mobility in the mountains’ (p137). There are no fixed routes and a herder follows the livestock in its search for suitable pastures: the author refers to this as ‘wayfaring’. Herders closely observe the landscape and they ‘devote a lot of time to scrutinizing the landscape and listening to the surrounding sounds’ (p120). Herders are thus able to observe glaciers carefully and have consequently developed an ethics of care for them.

5However, Ladakhis’ traditional agro-pastoral practices have been transformed considerably over the last few decades. One major change is that young persons from the region migrate from villages in search of opportunities for higher education and employment. As a result, villages are only inhabited by elderly people who feel lonely and left out. This is particularly painful in the region’s harsh winter when they are confined to their homes. In the absence of younger persons, families rarely use dozos for ploughing and prefer to hire a tractor, which completes the task of ploughing in no time. This is convenient for people who come home to do this work by taking a few days’ leave from their employment outside the village. Consequently, it is not possible to observe the onpo calendar and to perform the various rituals. The coming together of families for ploughing and sowing has become a rare occurrence and the festivities associated with it are dying out.

6Furthermore, keeping livestock is a very labour-intensive activity. Elderly people find it difficult. Hence, the number of livestock kept by families has declined over the years. However, it is herding that has been badly affected. It is now very rare for a herder to take his livestock to high pastures and to spend time there in temporary sheds during the summer. Ladakh’s younger generation, so it seems, no longer wants to climb mountains and to roam the pastures with livestock. Thus, the author argues, they are unable to develop ethics of care. With the young generation opting out of farming and herding, it is becoming difficult to revive rituals that were used to sustain glaciers. This is the author’s central concern.

7Why has such a change come about in Ladakhi society in which performing a ritual like skyin jug is no longer possible? Karine Gagné finds her main explanation in the 1948 Indo-Pakistan war (a result of partition of the Indian sub-continent) and the Sino-India War of 1962, which transformed Ladakh into a frontier and a borderland. The author argues that the 1948 conflict marked the ‘changing of moral order’ in Ladakh. This violent conflict completely changed Ladakhi society, which believed in Buddhist non-violence and saw this event as ‘bad behaviour’. Ladakhis nevertheless helped the Indian army in the war. Because of this, the army gradually felt compassion and sympathy towards them. As more wars took place between India and its neighbours, the presence of the army became a permanent feature of this frontier region. The army regarded Ladakhis as brave, courageous (contrary to how the British saw them during colonial rule) and experts in mountain warfare. A large number of Ladakhi youths joined the Indian Army and many others rallied support for it. Collectively, these efforts led to the ‘emergence of the state’s affective feeling for Ladakhis’ (p79). Constant border conflicts made Ladakh a highly militarised borderland and its denizens, the author suggests, became ‘sentinel citizens’.

8The socio-economic transformation that Ladakh has undergone is in no way unique or exceptional. Such changes have taken place in many parts of India, but more so in the Himalayan region. Agriculture in the mountains is labour intensive with low returns, hence it is difficult in these modern times to encourage youths to stay in villages. Uttarakhand province in the Indian Himalayas, for example, has seen massive out-migration over the last fifty years and the situation in its villages is not very different from what Gagné describes regarding Ladakh. Educated youths prefer salaried jobs over farming. Modernisation, capitalism and globalisation have speeded up these changes since the late twentieth century (Daehnhardt 2020, Mamgain and Reddy 2017). However, the transformation of a region into the borderland of a nation does not suffice to explain these changes. Borderlands may sometimes undergo significant infrastructural development, better connectivity and a large military presence, which may indeed speed up changes, though this cannot be the sole reason for the change. Attributing every change in Ladakh to what the author describes as the ‘military production of the state’ is unconvincing. To use the term ‘military state’ (p81; whichever way one defines it) to describe the presence of the army in any border region in a democratic country where people enjoy – however imperfectly – freedom and liberty guaranteed by the Constitution is way off the mark. Devoting two entire chapters to wars and related issues is completely unwarranted.

9The author interviewed only elderly people who undoubtedly saw the past as a golden age. Their loneliness and inability to sustain agriculture and herding is obviously a painful experience for them. Yet Gagné did not attempt to understand the views of the younger generation about this transformation in Ladakh. How do they see this change? Is out-migration forced on them or did they choose it? The answers to these questions are important for understanding the process of change.

10For the author, who sees the traditional system as more caring of pastures, animals and glaciers, the change is without a doubt unwelcome. People practising subsistence farming in the mountains remain concerned about the state of their limited natural resources and therefore clearly care for them. However, the emergence of external opportunities creates a new context. How can elements of care still exist in this new situation? The author could have reflected on this question.

11Notwithstanding these observations, this is a good ethnographic study that helps to understand Ladakhi society through the lens of elderly people, and in particular how this society has changed in recent times. However, the major contribution of the book is the innovative application of concepts such as ethics of care, affect, etc. Gagné expands the ambit of ethics of care to the non-human world by successfully demonstrating how Ladakhis care for their land and animals. The ethical and moral conduct of Ladakhis, she contends, is drawn not only from Tibetan Buddhist cosmology but also from socially and culturally defined obligations and duties. For her, ‘care is therefore strongly anchored in a principle of reciprocity’ (p8). Similarly, the concept of affect is, on the one hand, applied by her to human–non-human relations which are seen to contribute to the development of ethical disposition. And on the other hand, it is seen by her as pivotal to the production of the state, and in particular of how ‘Ladhakis have come over the years to internalize their role in the military production of the state’. For the author, in the Anthropocene era, there is immense significance in the ethics of care for the environment in general and for glaciers in particular. She has successfully demonstrated how these ethics are being undermined and how the path to revive them is difficult and challenging. This book is of great use to ethnographers, sociologists and historians, particularly interested in Himalayan societies.

Top of page


Daehnhardt, M. 2020. Migration, Development and Social Change in the Himalayas: An ethnographic village study. London: Routledge.

Mamgain, R P and Reddy, D N. 2017. ‘Out-Migration from the hill region of Uttarakhand: Magnitude, challenges and policy options’. In Rural labour Mobility in Times of Structural Transformation, edited by D N Reddy and K Sarap, pp209–35. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal, « Caring for Glaciers: Land, Animals, and Humanity in the Himalayas by Karine Gagne », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [Online], 56 | 2021, Online since 10 September 2021, connection on 27 October 2021. URL :

Top of page

About the author

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal

Dhirendra Datt Dangwal is currently dean of the School of Liberal Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue European Bulletin of Himalayan Research sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Centre d'Etudes Himalayennes
  • Logo Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
  • Logo South Asia Institute
  • Logo School of Oriental and African Studies