Under the Roof of the World

Trans-Himalayan Caravans:Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh

by Janet Rizvi; Oxford University

Press, Delhi; pp 392;

ISBN 0-19-564855-2

Known as the Roof of the World, the Pamirs constitute geomorphologically and geopolitically an interesting physical feature. Unlike those of other continents, these Asian mountain ranges do not follow any directional pattern. They seem to resemble a spiral nebula, spinning away from a central knot in all directions. In the north-east, the successive Tien Shan and Kun Lun ranges enclose between them the Taklamakan desert and the historic Silk Road passing through the ancient trading centres of Yarkand and Kashgar. Between Kun Lun in the north and the Karakoram and the Himalaya in the south, lies the forbidding western Tibetan Plateau. The Hindu Kush curving to the southwest forms a barrier between the Indo-Gangetic plain and Central Asia's fertile Ferghana Valley, home to the fabled cities of Samarkand and Tashkent.

In the centre is the nucleus, the high Pamir Plateau. This region is made up of towering snow-capped mountain ranges with peaks of more than 20,000 feet, narrow gorges of fast-flowing mountain streams that are tributaries of the Subcontinent's principal rivers, high-altitude alpine meadows and numerous ice-covered passes. Hardy hill folk inhabit the area.

This inhospitable terrain was the scene of frenetic geopolitical activity during the latter half of the 19th century. The Russians were extending their empire through Central Asia. The Chinese were probing westwards to define their outermost limits. The British believed that the Russians had their eyes on India and were manoeuvering to forestall them. While foreign agents and adventurers swarmed about trying to figure out and thwart each other's intentions, explorers were busy tracing the courses of mighty rivers and surveying the topography. Their exploits have been recapitulated in some excellent accounts by John Keay in his When Men and Mountains Meet, Charles Allen in A Mountainin Tibet and Peter Hopkirk in The Great Game. They, however, focus on the exploits of the Europeans. The indigenous people figured only incidentally.

Janet Rizvi's Trans-Himalayan Caravans restores the balance. She deals largely with that segment of local society whom she rather generously calls "merchant princes" and with peasant traders in Ladakh. While others have relied on the archives, and the memoirs of the Great Game's principal actors, Rizvi has instead carried out extensive fieldwork and used the oral method as her main research tool. The result is a unique and valuable social and economic history of a relatively unknown region. She has skillfully woven the information gleaned from her fieldwork to present a composite and rich tapestry of trade across the mountains.

Against the region's economic backdrop, Rizvi discusses in depth the long-distance trade beyond the Karakoram, between Leh in Ladakh and Yarkand in the north and. Lhasa in the east, besides also looking at local exchanges. Her account provides fascinating details about the trading groups, the commodities exchanged, and the mechanisms of exchange. Particularly striking are the descriptions of market locations, the different trade routes, the difficulties of access, the modes of transport—the caravans of loaded donkeys, horses, sheep and yaks trudging the icy trails hugging the steep mountainsides. The book's value is greatly enhanced by the beautiful relief maps of the area that expertly side-step the cartographic sensitivities of the region's governments.

Rizvi plots the axis of trade across the mountain frontiers. For long, Leh was the pivot of the commercial link between the Punjab and Kashmir in the south and Turkestan in the north. Central Asian products found their way over the centuries into India through the Karakoram pass and Leh. Some of it was diverted at Leh to Lhasa from the time when Ladakh became an independent kingdom with direct treaty relations with the Tibetan authorities. The difficulties of the two routes limited the trade mostly to small-bulk but high-value goods such as precious metals (gold and silver) and stones, musk, saffron, shawls, yak tails, and so on. The trade in dried apricot from Central Asia was also significant. And so were Tibet's tea bricks as they were the only source of supply for domestic consumption in this region; interestingly Ladakhi merchants often paid for it all in silver from Yarkand.

Pashm and toosh were, however, the most important items. The trade in these was critical to the economy of Ladakh and Kashmir. Pashm, the fibre from the undercoat of domestic goats raised on the high altitude pastures of Ladakh and western Tibet, is used in Kashmir and the Punjab for the manufacture of the exquisite, soft-textured pashmina shawls and lightweight cashmere fabrics. The Chang-pa nomads are one of its largest producers. These shawls have also provided the world's textile industry with its peculiar oriental designs based on pinecones that are known as "Paisley". A still more superior and finer fibre is toosh used in producing shahtoosh ('royal fleece') shawls. Toosh is obtained from the fur of the Chiru (Tibetan antelope). Ladakhi traders dominated in these two items, and most of the trade, from the northern reaches of the Karakoram and western Tibet, passed through Leh to weavers in Kashmir. A small part also found its way through the Kulu valley into the Punjab's shawl factories.

There was also large-scale local trade all along the border. The peasantry on both sides carried on this trade and in Ladakh they were known as Shamma traders. Generally the goods exchanged were of the subsistence variety, consisting mostly of pastoral and agricultural products. Barley grown by Ladakh's farmers was traded in the neighbouring Tibetan villages. The trade in butter, which was extensively used all over the region, took place generally in the winter months. Besides being the cooking medium and an essential ingredient of salted tea, it was also of ritual importance. Votive butter lamps are a necessary feature of the family shrine in every Buddhist home. In exchange for barley and butter, Shamma traders brought back salt from the lakes in western and southern Tibet.

The difficulties of communication limited the volume of trade. Its relatively small volume, however, did not affect its importance in the economic life of the local communities. Most of the trade followed traditional trails, skirting the sides of the mountains, using the few fords across fast-flowing glacial streams and going over the narrow passes. Because of the difficult terrain, the caravans made frequent halts to rest the animals and graze them in the pastures. Although the traders' destination was usually a recognised market, the goods were exchanged in every village the caravans passed through. There were regular fairs like the famed one at Gartok, just north of the Mansarovar lake. The traders would halt for a couple weeks at these fairs or markets, completing deals and soliciting custom for the coming year. Then would begin the slow, long trek back home.

The centuries' old trading pattern between the Ladakhi peasantry and their Tibetan counterpart was rudely interrupted in the 1950s when the Chinese occupied Tibet. It would, of course, have been interesting if Janet Rizvi had also analysed the impact of the disruption of this traditional trade on the fragile economy of these communities of the high plateau. But that is only a minor slip in a book that combines absorbing narration and scholarly insights on a region of the world which is quite well known but little understood.

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