The extraordinary 500-year-old legacy of Ladakh’s surviving copper craftsmen

“Back in the day, our ancestors would source copper from the nearby village of Alam,” explains Ishay Namgyal. “But now, the mines are becoming increasingly inaccessible, the workers ready to dive deep are few, and less are the takers.”

Ishay Namgyal uses a goatskin igniter for the heating process

Ishay Namgyal uses a goatskin igniter for the heating process

The coal-firing technique used by Ishay Namgyal was derived from medieval-era goatskin igniters. A natural pneumatic gear, covered in goatskin to insulate the heat, fires the stove on which metal is cleaved and shaped. With his bare, freckled hands, Ishay then patiently uses a tack hammer to carve beautiful indentations.

The Future

Out of Ishay Namgyal’s seven children, one was a monk who recently passed away. He remembers his late son with a wistful glint in his eyes. In those same eyes, I sense pride, too, in the quiet empire he has managed to build from the difficult terrain of the Chiling Sumda village. Across the Indus banks, it is located on a plateau that requires a mini-trek of sorts, and is heavily camouflaged by waving willows. Any cellular or internet network is off the grid and had the village not served as the base camp for the famous Chadar Trek, it would perhaps be off the map too.

“My youngest son handles the commercial and marketing arm of our business,” he says. “There is a lot one can do. He spreads the word in Leh and Delhi. But I don’t worry about all that. If I was in it for money, I’d be working somewhere else.”

Merchants sell pickles and stainless steel utensils in the village

Merchants sell pickles and stainless steel utensils in the village

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