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The first word : Long ago in Ladakh

MAR 09 - The five men in the photograph didn’t make it into any text book. Nobody gave them any medals, nor did the government issue postage stamps in their honour. No statues of them stand anywhere, nor are there any streets named after them. But these unassuming merchants from Kathmandu were part of a breed that made Nepal, once upon a time, a trading power in the Himalayan region.

For centuries, generations of adventurous traders like them have kept the flag flying on the legendary Silk Road that zigzags between China and Europe. These ‘banjas’ or merchants kept shop at bustling bazaars and dreary outposts on the trade route, traversing the windswept plains in mule caravans. They were the frontline troops of the Nepali business houses based in Lhasa.

The accompanying picture was taken in Leh, Ladakh, and dates from 1932. Clad in sheepskin overcoats and fur hats, the banjas are, from left to right, Mohan Man Tuladhar, Jit Man Tuladhar, Bekha Ratna Tamrakar, Dev Ratna Tamrakar, and Kanchha Baniya. These traders were attached to the business house of Dharma Man Tuladhar who had a string of shops in Tibet. His firm also owned a store in far-off Ladakh.

Dharma Man was from Tanlachhi, Kathmandu. Descended from a long line of merchants, he went to Tibet in the 1890s and took the wheel of the ancestral business in the tradition of his predecessors. Dharma Man presided over a flourishing period of his family firm, and the profits allowed him to sponsor restoration projects of holy places upon his return to Nepal. Among his notable undertakings, he headed the renovation of Swayambhu in 1918 which was the last major overhaul done to the stupa before the most recent one in 2010.

Dharma Man’s business house was one of the larger ones among those belonging to Nepalis in Lhasa, and he had a presence in major towns on the trade route like Shigatse, Gyantse, and Phari. Like many other traders, he also maintained business offices in Kalimpong and Kolkata in India where the overland part of the Silk Road terminated. Ladakh was at the outer reaches of the business network where Nepali merchants operated.

Ladakh lies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir at India’s northern tip. Its culture has a strong Tibetan influence. Located at a height of more than 3,000 m between the Kunlun mountains in the north and the Himalayas in the south, Ladakh is divided into two districts, Leh and Kargil. Our heroes were based in Leh. Kargil was where Indian and Pakistani forces slugged it out in 1999. In the past, commerce flowing between Turkestan, Tibet, Punjab, and Kashmir passed through Ladakh due to its location at the crossroads of key trade routes.

Nepal’s position straddling the trade system linking South and Central Asia made it a natural intermediary. And apart from merchants, companies of craftsmen trekked over the mountains to create Buddhist art in the highlands. Since the traditional Tibet trade ended in the mid-1960s, a way of life that helped to enliven the culture and economy on both sides of the Himalayas has been gradually receding from memory. And these merchants only remain in ballads and a few photographs.

Nobody knows how long our traders in Ladakh remained there or even if they returned to Kathmandu. The trans-Himalayan trade was a hard life, and many are the stories of merchants who succumbed to the altitude and cold. My grandfather was one of the Lhasa traders who didn’t make it back. He was returning home as he had fallen sick; and died on his horse a few days into the journey, slumping over in the saddle as his illness worsened. And so in 1935, my late father cut short his schooling to go to Tibet to take over the family shop. He was among the last of the old merchants. Barely a decade since he returned to Nepal after a stay of 17 years in Lhasa, the Tibet trade had become history.

As heir to an illustrious heritage, I used to imagine myself becoming the head of a business conglomerate. With my hair (what remains of it) starting to turn grey, I have come to realise that it is a distinct non-possibility now. And so I write about my forebears in order that the stories of these adventurer merchants get told, even if they don’t get any medals or have statues erected in their honour.

Posted on: 2012-03-10 09:06

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