Weaving pattern on the Kinnauri pattu
The importers of Bushahr and Kullu always thought it more prudent to sell off quality wool at higher profits than to use locally. Therefore, these strategies by Indian border kingdoms occasionally turned acrimonious and a situation of ‘cold war’ always loomed large over the interstate relations.
Wool trade has been a very important source of income for the princely states of the western Himalayan region bordering on Tibet since the olden times. The rulers of different kingdoms and principalities of this region fought each other to gain supremacy over the import of wool from the central Asian and western Tibetan marts, where the finest quality of wool has been available in the extensive trans-Himalayan steppes from the wild sheep and goats known variously as the shapo, argali, bharal, etc. These wild animals possess a coat of fine wool and fleece beneath their rough outer hair. They leave that fleece on the wild shrubs and rocks while rubbing their bodies against those. The Drokpa shepherds collect that fleece from shrubs and rocks and barter it for their necessities. Besides, the Tibetan shepherd dogs are also known to grow fine fleece. The extreme fineness of that fleece is attributed to the severe conditions of their trans-Himalayan habitat. It was probably that quality of fleece, called asli toosh and pashmina, which was used to manufacture the ‘ring shawls’ of the Mughal fame in Kashmir.
However, asli toosh (also called shah toosh, meaning the king of wools) has been too scarce to meet demand, so much so that in 1921, its annual import constituted only one-sixth of the total quantity of shawl-wool in Kashmir1. In fact, only the second grade fleece obtained from the underbelly of chikkoos (domestic goats) and wild animals in the trans-Himalayan cold desert was the major bulk of raw material for the wool industry of Kashmir, Kullu, Bushahr and other centres in the lesser Himalayan Indian kingdoms.
To meet the demand of industry, each of those kingdoms (now defunct) would vie to import maximum wool only to earn more revenue as none of those, except Kashmir, could convert the wool into the finished exportable products. In Bushahr, most of the imported wool was exported to down-country markets, and in Kullu, the entire import was sold off to customers of the Punjab plains. The importers of Bushahr and Kullu always thought it more prudent to sell off quality wool at higher profits than to use locally. Therefore, these strategies by Indian border kingdoms occasionally turned acrimonious and a situation of ‘cold war’ always loomed large over the interstate relations.
A major bulk of quality wool and fleece from Tibet began to go to Kashmir, probably under a treaty between Kashmir and western Tibet (Little Tibet), after the Kashmiri sultan Sikandar Butshikan (1389-1413) defeated the latter. This caused anxiety for the other Indian states, who found their stakes in the Tibetan wool market jeopardized. Thus, wool became the reason for discord between the Indian Border States, who had been earning considerable revenue from inter-border trade activities. The situation irked the Bushahr state particularly, because that adversely affected its age- old traditional trade relations with the western Tibetan kingdom. Besides, the Bushahri traders could get only second grade and discarded stuff. The estranged situation brought the rulers of Guge in western Tibet and Raja Kehari Singh (1639-1696) of Bushahr at war on the pretext of territorial dispute. This in turn was resolved by a friendship treaty (known as the Namgiya Treaty) and establishing matrimonial relations between themselves. There still exists a kothi, a castle-like imposing structure at village Sapani in Kinnaur, where Guge Rani, the Tibetan wife of Kehari Singh lived.
On the conclusion of that treaty, the border between Bushahr and Guge kingdoms was thrown open and the symbiotic trade started once again at Gartok in Tibet as the rendezvous for the business. To encourage import of wool and fleece, Bushahri ruler Kehari Singh (1639-1696) introduced trade fairs. Although he had his capital at Kalyanpur, he chose a spacious tableland downstream on the left bank of Satluj as a fairground for the trade fairs – the Loi, which in the local dialect means ‘wool’. His successor Ram Singh (1767-1799) developed it into the capital of Bushahr state and named it Rampur after his name. Later, when regular mule road in the Satluj valley connecting Tibetan wool-mart in Gartok with the Indian mainland was constructed, the Loi fair (now called Lavi fair) became an annual affair held during 11 - 14 November.
Palace of Guge Rani at Sapani (Kinnaur)
The improved trade contacts between the western Tibet and Bushahr caused consternation in Kashmir, where the government was earning huge revenues from wool textile industry with wool from Central Asia and Tibet. Besides, the loom-owners and intermediaries were making huge profits in the international and Indian markets by exporting woollen products. Kashmir had acquired a worldwide reputation for its richly embroidered and fine shawls to an extent that the West got to know about central Asian wool from Kashmir only. Hence, it came to be known as the kashmere although, the term—kashmere or cashmere—is misleading because Kashmir has never been the producer of fine wool – it was a consumer only. Therefore, Kashmir could not afford to lose exclusivity.
In fact, Bushahr was in no way a rival to Kashmir as far as the wool- based textile industry was concerned, because Bushahr hardly had any at that age. The local artisans consumed only an insignificant part of the Tibetan wool for their household handicrafts, especially in Kinnaur. For, the Kinnauras have themselves been producers of wool for their own use. They wisely exported the fine imported wool at a much higher price along with the local surplus during the Lavi fair. Nevertheless, Kashmir could not afford to see any other outlet point for the Tibetan wool, which was the mainstay of their shawl industry.
In fact, by tradition the fine wool (lena) and fleece (byangi) of Tibet went to Kashmir through Ladakh which held monopoly over the shawl-wool trade of Tibet because of the Gtin-sgan treaty of 1650 concluded between Ladakh and Tibet. That treaty specifically provided for cession of all territories east of Lhari stream at Demchok by Ladakh to Tibet in lieu of important trade concessions, including the monopoly of the wool trade from Ladakh and thence to Kashmir2.
Thus, having been deprived of the open purchase of Tibetan wool, the Bushahri traders had been smuggling it to their country (Moorcroft (c. 1821. 23). However, none of the contending parties objected to that clandestine traffic. First, because only a fraction of total export from Tibet went to Bushahr and Kashmir continued to monopolize the wool-trade in Tibet. Secondly, it was ordinarily not possible for Kashmir to watch movement of wool to Bushahr because of the geographical distance. Thirdly, the people living on both sides of the Tibeto-Bushahri border belonged to the same ethnic group and had traditional relations. Thus, they could move freely without any restriction and could carry wool and other commodities unchecked.
However, the situation improved for Kashmir when the Gurkhas occupied Bushahr between 1803 and 1815. The inter-border trade between Tibet to Bushahr was completely stopped. Besides, an outbreak of epidemic among goats in Ladakh and neighbouring areas of western Tibet in early 19th century further aggravated that situation. While Bushahr was put to grave loss, the Kashmiri traders found new sources of wool in Yarkand and Khotan, that Kirghiz nomads had been producing from their flocks.
It was at that juncture in 1800 that Kashmir shawls were commercially introduced in the West, where they became a craze. The European traders were seen vying with each other in purchasing the finest Kashmiri shawls, as Moorcroft’s archival records reveal3. The supply of fine wool at that juncture was not enough to meet the demand of market. That situation prompted adulteration and a consequential decline in the quality of output. The further decline in quality of Kashmiri shawls was yet to come.
The British Government of India that had high stakes in the commercial possibilities of the Tibetan and central Asian wool, was aware of the strategic and commercial importance of the western Himalayan kingdoms. However, it desisted from getting directly involved in the affair lest it should offend Kashmir. The Gurkha occupation of Bushahr state, and subsequent request for help by the then ruler of Bushahr, Raja Ugar Singh (1736-1810) prompted the British to intervene in the western Himalayan theatre. The British repulsed the Gurkhas from Bushahr in 1815. Mahindra Singh (1815- 1850), who succeeded Ugar Singh, was still a minor under the British overlordship. Finally, the borders of Bushahr extended to Ladakh and Guge in the western Tibet under the British.
One of the conditions of the sanad that conferred rulership on Raja Mahindra Singh under the British paramountcy provided that the state shall make available begar (compulsory labour) for the construction of roads in the kingdom to ensure free flow of imports from Tibet. Consequently, while up to 1818, even foot tracks were not available in the kingdom, trains of pack goats and sheep loaded with wool and fleece started reaching Rampur from Tibet and central Asian centres along the newly laid bridle road ‘for the British government’4. To encourage export of wool to the British territory and from there to England, a government agency was established at Kotgarh in 1820. However, that arrangement could not succeed for the lack of public support 5.
Increased inter-border trade activities between Bushahr and Tibet encouraged by the British patronage had a detrimental effect on the customary import of wool from Tibet to Kashmir, then under the Sikh rule. Since, the British Government thought it prudent to buy Tibetan wool, it offered higher price for that through Bushahri tradesmen. The trade flourished so much that in one instance, ‘one Tibetan trader from Namgia Lache, a country on the bank of Brahmaputra southeast of Manasarovar sold twelve hundred weights of wool in a single deal to a Kinnauri trader’6. However, that situation grossly violated the traditional Tibet-Kashmir trade pact. At that juncture, Kashmir was earning net revenue of rupees 12 lakhs annually from the imports of wool and fleece from Tibet, which started declining with the reduction in imports. It was noticed that at least 150 horse-loads of wool and fleece were being diverted to some other destination from Tibet. Thus, under the unsteady Sikh rule in Kashmir from 1819-1846, the Kashmiri wool dealers and the shawl industry were confronted with an overall difficult predicament.
The situation further worsened with the invasion and annexation of Ladakh by the Dogras under Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu. He detailed his general, Zoravar Singh (1786-1841), to invade the Tibetan kingdoms. He invaded Ladakh and advanced as far as the Lhasa Fort in his protracted Tibetan campaign, lasting seven years between 1834-1841, and established his rule on the ‘roof of world’. He imposed severe restrictions on the ‘traders’ committee’, which was responsible for export of wool and fleece to Bushahr. However, he eschewed any direct action against Bushahr lest the British troops stationed at Sabathu in the lower Shimla hills were drawn in on the pretext of protecting Bushahri interests in Tibet. Kashmir at that juncture was already passing through a traumatic period under the Sikh misrule. Afghan threats and Zoravar Singh’s Tibetan campaign had further created a feeling of insecurity among the wool traders. Consequently, a major bulk of Tibetan wool was being clandestinely diverted to Bushahr through different unguarded routes and the British were taking full advantage of that import. According to the statistics of import of wool from the western Tibet to Bushahr between 1837 and 1841, 1080 mans (432 quintals) of fine wool valued at rupees 55,529 arrived in Bushahr in 1837 which increased to 1840 mans (736 quintals) amounting to rupees 1,09,807 in 18407.
Zoravar Singh imposed punitive restrictions on the outflow of wool and fleece from Tibet to Bushahr. In one such incident, five Bushahri traders were killed for defying his orders8. These drastic measures caused reduction of the Tibetan imports in Bushahr, consequently only 169 mans (67.6 quintals) of wool and fleece could reach Bushahr in 1841.
The Dogras established their control over Spiti, thus cutting off the link between Ladakh and Bushahr. However, Zoravar Singh’s actions in Ladakh and other places in the trans-Himalayan regions failed to resolve the import situation in Kashmir. Tibetan traders became increasingly apprehensive of dealing with Kashmiri traders. Thus, import of wool into Kashmir continued to fall - this process was further accelerated when Kashmir slipped into the control of Dogras in 1846.
The British were conscious of the strategic location of Spiti for trade with Tibet. They watched the situation with apparent aloofness until they were driven into direct confrontation with the Sikhs in 1845, when the Sikhs invaded British territory in the Punjab plains. After the conclusion of Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, British interests in the western Himalayan border region grew deeper. According to the treaty between the British Government and Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu dated 16 March 1846, Spiti and Ladakh were devolved to Kashmir under Maharaja Gulab Singh. Later that year, the British bartered off Spiti to Kullu to gain direct access to the Tibetan wool mart of Changthang in Ladakh without attracting Kashmiri intervention. One clause of that Treaty provided that Maharaja Gulab Singh, while acknowledging the supremacy of British, would annually present them with twelve shawl-goats (six males and six females) and three pairs of Kashmiri shawls9.
On the other side, in order to attract import of Tibetan wool in Bushahr, the British impressed upon the ruler to undertake certain measures. J. D. Cunningham collected valuable data regarding import trade activities in Bushahr and furnished a report to the British Government. In that report, he suggested revoking of transit duty in order to encourage inter-border trade between Bushahr and Tibet10. That duty was revoked in 1847 but it reduced Bushahr’s revenue from import considerably. The British Government compensated that by cutting down the tribute amount from rupees 15,000 to 3,945. Abolition of transit duty attracted more Tibetan wool into Bushahri markets and the wool-based cottage industry in the entire state felt benefited. In Kinnaur, the wool-based handicrafts developed to form a class by themselves. The colourful Kinnauri blankets, gudmas and other items stocked the Bushahri markets and the annual Lavi fair looked richer and well stocked with wool and wool-products.
Cunningham had also suggested construction of improved road link to the western Tibetan wool marts from the Indian mainland so that the imports from Tibet to Bushahr and thence to the down country were safer and faster. Accordingly, in 1850, Wool Road from the western Tibetan border to Shimla, which popularly came to be known as the Hindustan Tibet road, was completed. Thus, the caravans of goonths (Tibetan ponies), goats and sheep laden with wool and other commodities started reaching Bushahr mandis from Tibet and further transported to Indian markets.
The Dogra rule in Kashmir pulled in ominous portents for the wool- based industry : the import of quality wool from Tibet became scarce because of the repression of Zoravar Singh in Ladakh and Tibet. Consequently, during the second half of 19th century, the supply of wool to Kashmir largely came from Turfan (Sinkiang), but that hardly met the demand of shawl industry in Kashmir. The scarcity caused a steep increase in the price of quality wool, which encouraged adulteration and decline in traditional standards. Further, to offset the deficit suffered in revenue on import from Tibet, the Maharaja imposed heavy taxes on the shawl weavers. They were required to pay a tax of rupees 47.50 per annum with a severe order to remain bound to their looms. That tax was later reduced to rupees 45.50 in 1867, but could hardly mollify famished weavers, who had to seek supplementary menial jobs for their wives and children to make a living, as Moorcroft noted. The Maharaja also imposed an ad valorem duty of 25 per cent on each shawl. A band of corrupt officials was assigned for its recovery. The illegal exactions of that group is said to have been to the extent of one-fourth the value of shawl11.
These factors grievously harmed the shawl industry. There was a steep fall in the quality of shawls; hundreds of harassed weavers abandoned their homes and looms to seek safer havens in Chamba and Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh where they developed hybrid versions of their craft under the native traditional influences. At other places in the Punjab plains, the degenerated form of Kashmiri embroidered woollen shawls of raffal (a mill-yarn made from the merino wool-tops) continue to be manufactured and sold off as the genuine Kashmiri product.
The British also intensified their interests in the commercial potentials of this region after getting involved in western Himalayan politics. In furtherance of that interest, they entered into a commercial treaty with Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Kashmir. A treaty between the Government of India and Government of Jammu & Kashmir was signed on 2 May 1870, which provided for the appointment of a British Joint Commissioner in Ladakh to oversee the central Asian trade and maintain the caravan highway from India to Central Asia over the Karakoram pass12.
An archival document of August 1868 in Rani Charak’s palace at Jammu reveals that the Dogra rulers of Jammu & Kashmir had appointed a Kashmiri shawl-traders’ agent in London to explore market for the sagging shawl industry of Kashmir around the 1870s. Andrew Wilson records that ‘the famous shawls of Kashmir are now somewhat at a discount in the world, except in France’…‘France alone takes about 80 per cent of Kashmir shawls exported from Asia; the United States of America takes 10, Italy five, Russia two, and Great Britain and Germany only one per cent each’13. Gripped by the severe famine of 1877, those were very bleak days for Kashmir.
While the wool trade and the shawl industry were passing through a critical stage in Kashmir, it was flourishing in Bushahr. To ensure fair and free inter-border trade between Tibet and Bushahr that mainly constituted wool and wool products, there existed a committee of the Bushahri and Tibetan traders at Gartok since the old time. That committee, having powers even to settle matters of life and death, remained functional until the 1950s. It fixed trading rates and settled disputes between the traders14. The traders of Bushahr belonging to the paraganas of Tukpa, Shua and Shalkhar in upper Kinnaur had customarily rights to trade with Tibet. They used to visit Tibet in groups duly escorted against the highway robbers, and transact business with their own traditionally defined Tibetan counterparts at Gartok. Each Bushahri group was allotted a defined place in Tibet to conduct its trade. Accordingly, the Tukpa group confined itself to Gyanam, Kangsang, Gianma, Murbhang, Dubgya and Marbuk villages. The Shua group was allotted Chhang, Rodu, Sangmang, Ladakh, Machang Gianma and Mongpa. The Shalkhar group was earmarked the area of Cho-Chalang and Chang-Gialang, but the Shalkhar traders were generally free to trade with any one they wished, because it is said that Gartok once belonged to Bushahr, and Shalkhar was a part of Gartok district15. With the brisk import of quality wool from Tibet, the pashmina shawl industry in Bushahr flourished. Besides, good quality pattus and white, thick and fleecy gudmas were also being produced in the villages of Sunam and Kanum in Kinnaur.
Wool trade during Lavi fair at Rampur
However, around the early decades of the 20th century, the shawl industry of Bushahr received a setback. Though, the shawls being produced at Rampur were of good quality, they were inferior to those produced at Sabathu, Ludhiana, Amritsar, etc. The latter were made from the wool imported from Tibet and Bushahr, because Bushahri traders sold the finest imported pasham at higher profits to the traders of down country during the Lavi fair. Thus, only the poor quality shawls were produced at Rampur from the discarded stuff16. Wool, pasham, sheep and goats continued to be the chief items of import from Tibet during the following years also.
Far removed from the Kashmir-Bushahr rivalry, the princely state of Kullu had been importing wool, sheep and goats from Yarkand and Tibet since long through Lahul without attracting notice of the either of two. The reason for that smooth sailing was that the wool and other commodities from Ladakh and other destinations in Tibet were brought to Kullu by the wandering Khampa and Bhot nomads, who bartered that with the Indian merchandise at the Patseo fair held on the right bank of Bhaga river in Lahul, wherefrom the wool was transported to Kullu. Besides, the Lahulas had free access to Ladakh and other places in Tibet from where they had been importing wool and exporting it to the traders from the Indian plains, among which, the agents of Dhariwal mills of Amritsar are also mentioned17.
However, the inter-border trade between Kullu and the trans- Himalayan destinations became difficult due to numerous political factors since the rise of Sikh power in Kashmir. The Ladakhis and the people of other chiefdoms in the trans-Himalayan region had suffered repression under the Sikhs and further when the Dogras came to power. They were equally apprehensive of the British intentions. In fact, the Tibetans had strong aversion for the Europeans, especially the Englishmen, according to Andrew Wilson. He recounts that he was prevented by the men at Shipki from proceeding further to Tibet because ‘they were under express orders from the Lhasa Government not to allow any European to pass—for the obvious reason that whenever Englishmen had been allowed entrance into a country they had ended in making a conquest of it’18.
Since the last decades of the 18th century, Kullu remained under the Sikhs and later it slipped into the British hands in 1846 after the conclusion of Anglo-Sikh war. The Tibetans under that situation were averse to any trade-pact with Kullu fearing that it could spread British influence in Tibet. Therefore, to discourage inter-border trade by the Lahulas, the Tibetan officials imposed restrictions, levied heavy duty on imports from Kullu and imposed tax on export of wool to Kullu, differentiating heavily in favour of trade with the native states19.
Therefore, it was the sheer tradesmanship of Lahulas that the import of wool and other commodities from Ladakh and other trans- Himalayan centres could reach Kullu and Mandi, and therefrom to markets in Punjab and the export of Indian commodities to Tibet. In that transaction, Lahula traders made maximum profits at both ends. To evade tax, they would take hard cash to Tibet to purchase wool and receive consignments from Ladakhi and Tibetan caravans at Lahul, thus escaping the notice of Tibetan officials. The other trick of the trade was to purchase wool in Tibet and carry that home on their own sheep and goats before the onset of winter, and at the onset of summer would move with their flocks to the highland pastures carrying Indian merchandise to Tibet. That way in 1916, the Lahula traders imported wool worth rupees 1.75 lakhs from Tibet. The import of wool and its price at Kullu increased considerably after 1917, owing largely to the demand for government purpose in the wake of World War I, because the British found Kullu a safer outlet for Tibetan wool to the Indian mainland, without agonizing the other border kingdoms.
The British temptation in influencing the inter-border trade between India and Tibet continued to mount until the British Government of India succeeded in establishing a British Trade Agency at Gartok under the Anglo-Tibetan Trade Regulation of 1914. However, the relations between the British Trade Agent at Gartok and the western Tibetan Government remained strained. The Garpon (Governor General) at Gartok, who represented the Dalai Lama’s central government, was adamant to admit the presence of British Agent in his court. Whenever the disputes related to the Indian traders, being British subjects, came for his consideration, he allegedly handed over biased verdict. The Jongpon (Governor) of Rudok, a district town and a trade centre north of the Indus, imposed 10 per cent duty on the Bushahri traders, while the Garpon of Gartok levied a tax of only two per cent on the Ladakhi traders. All those actions of Jongpon and Garpon contravened the Anglo-Tibetan Trade Regulation. Thus, the import of wool from western Tibet to the Indian Territory was becoming costlier and the British Government of India was losing its face in Tibet.
Therefore, to sort out the matter with western Tibetan officials at Rudok and Gartok and negotiate compromise, the Indian British Government deputed Sir Edward Wakefield, an ICS officer, to western Tibet in 1929 to meet the Jongpon of Rudok - he got the duty reduced from ten per cent to two per cent. However, his mission to bring the Garpon to term not only failed, but he had to agree (on behalf of the Government of India) to the two per cent tax already imposed by the Garpon on the Ladakhi traders20.
Wakefield mentions another trade centre, Nabra in Daba district of western Tibet south of Indus, where the traders of Garhwal across Niti pass used to gather and exchange Indian cloth for Tibetan wool21.
Thus, the wool has remained a cause of disagreement between the bordering Indian states and the British Government of India on one hand and the western Tibetan kingdom. The Indian states and the British government attempted to influence the trans-Himalayan kingdoms and Tibet in different manners mainly to divert outflow of Tibetan wool to their territories. The British even used wool as a political lever to manoeuvre events in such a way that all border states were driven into their dragnet. Although, the Tibetans resisted their presence, the British government succeeded in establishing its trade mission in Ladakh to control not only the central Asian and Tibetan trade, but also to covertly peep into Central Asia and Russia.
The wool trade between India and Tibet also continued along traditional lines, without much change despite the political manoeuvring by the British Government of India and continued even after India attained independence in 1947. However, in the wake of hostilities that the Chinese precipitated in October 1962 on the international border on the pretext of grazing rights for the goats and sheep, the inter-border trade between India and Tibet came to a grinding halt.
On 7 September 1993, after a gap of 31 years, a trade agreement was signed between the Indian Prime Minister and his Chinese counterpart, which provided for the resumption of inter-border trade between the two countries, mainly on traditional lines. According to that agreement, India may import wool, goatskins, pashmina, yak- hair, goats, sheep, horses, salt, china clay, butter and silk in exchange for traditional Indian merchandise.
Under that agreement, trade between the two countries was once again resumed on 16 July 1994 at Jiuba, the trade venue in Tibet. On that occasion, 63 Indian traders crossed over to Tibetan territory from Chuppan in Namgia village of Kinnaur with 27 mule-loads of traditional and new commodities22. However, none of the Tibetan (Chinese) traders could reach the mart due to the ‘sudden’ collapse of a bridge at Lapshak on the Satluj and blockade of the track. However, it is hoped that the broken threads will be mended and the inter-border trade resumes with renewed vigour at Jiuba in Tibet and Chuppan in India.
The author traces the trade of fine wool between Tibet and India, over several centuries. With the history of this trade as a backdrop, he analyses the relationships, the rulers, the anthropology and the politics of the times.
DR. O.C. HANDA is a scholar of history, archeology and Himalayan art and culture for half a century - he is an outstanding scholar of history and archaeology of the Himalayan region. He has undertaken expeditions, mostly solo, to the remotest corners of the Himalayan interiors. Having come from the civil engineering background, he underwent training in archaeology. He remained in charge of Museum & archaeology in Himachal Pradesh for several years. He has authored thirty two books on art, history, archaeology and culture of the Himalayan region, and edited several books.
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