Photo Essay: Yak Herders’ Vanishing Way of Life

For hundreds of years, nomadic Dokpa yak herders moved between the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan valleys of Sikkim, following migration patterns that were crucial to their culture and their livestock. Yaks had the opportunity to breed beyond their own gene pool; young people could meet potential spouses from a wide variety of families; Dokpas ran lucrative cross-border trade operations and visited sacred places where they performed important Buddhist rituals. With the outbreak of hostilities between India and China in 1962, however, the frontier between India and Tibet was sealed. Dokpa migration routes were severed and families were trapped on whichever side of the border they happened to be on when it was closed.

Life for the nomads became increasingly difficult as they struggled to adapt their age-old survival strategies to their newly restricted territory. For those stuck on the Sikkim side, many challenges — including land mines that blew up their yaks and economic oppression by local, non-nomadic Lachenpa people — arose and persist to this day.

With their herds suffering and their future bleak, Dokpas began abandoning the mountains a few decades ago. Today, virtually every family sends their children to boarding schools run by the Tibetan government, in Indian cities as far away as Varanasi and Bangalore – and most parents know that their children will never return to the incredibly harsh life of herding yaks between 14,000 and 18,000 feet above sea level. These photos are part of a project that I’ve been working on to document Dokpa life in north Sikkim, before it disappears forever.

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Credit
Michael Benanav

Gelik left his life as a high-altitude yak herder about 20 years ago to move to the Tibetan settlement of Ravangla. He explained that when the border between India and Tibet was sealed, all Dokpas thought it was a temporary response, and that after some time they’d be allowed to migrate again. But they weren’t, and as a result, the yak-herding life became too difficult. He wants to go back to Tibet once before he dies.

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Michael Benanav

Samten Doma milks a yak in the mountains of north Sikkim. She spends winters in the Tibetan settlement at Ravanlga, in Sikkim, and goes to the mountains to help her husband — who lives with the yaks year-round — in summer.

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Credit
Michael Benanav

Every morning, many Dokpas — who are Buddhist — pray and make offerings of fire and flour.

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