The tarai is becoming indistinguishable from the plains as its environmental and cultural uniqueness is undermined. Traditionally, it was the place where transition from hill to plain took place.
Observers of the economic interaction between hill society and that of the plains tend to perceive the tarsi as supporting forms of socio-economic organisation which are representative of the plains. Insofar as the tarai has today almost ceased to exist, such a perception is not inexact. With an almost relentless momentum, the “plains” (more importantly, the kind of society and economy they support) have in many areas and in a series of waves advanced right up to the northern foothills. This phenomenon, however, is recent.
Some early descriptions of the tarai make interesting reading. Tavernier, a French merchant, who travelled through much of India in the mid-17th century describes the area lying to the north of Gorakhpur thus:
From Gorakhpur to the foot of the high mountains there are still eight or nine days’ marching, during which the caravan suffers much, because the whole country is full of forests, where there are numerous wild elephants, and the merchants instead of sleeping at night must remain on the watch, making large fires and firing their muskets to frighten these animals.”
The later observations of Kirkpatrick (1793) and Hamilton (1820) in this respect are also quite similar.
Until very late, therefore, the greater part of the tarai consisted of undisturbed forests. It was a kind of no-man’s-land for agriculturists both to its north and south; an area into which periodic forays of agricultural expansion could be made. Bishop Heber, who journeyed through the area to the north of Bareilly in the 1920s found “cowmen and woodmen” corning down to cultivate suitable patches of land from the north of the tarai. The dividing line between agricultural and forest areas was, nevertheless, an uncertain and fluctuating one and the advance of cultivation was not steady and irreversible. There were times and places where the forest rejuvenated itself. Remnants of old habitations are to be found in the midst of forested area even today. It was not till the coming of modem medicine, the increasing pressure of a growing population and the commercialisation of timber that the tarai lands underwent a qualitative change.
In short, the tarai has not been the place, as is the case today; where the mountain and the plains met. Instead, it was a strip which divided the two. However, any economic and cultural link between the mountains and the plains had to pass through the tarai. In the north you had the treasures of the Himalaya like the musk and herbs, South of the tarai were the urban bazaars of the Gangetic flatlands, where produce of the trans- and mid-Himalaya acquired monetary value. The barter system between the subsistence-oriented hill society and the commercialised plains was carried out through the tarai.
This trans-tarai trade used to be significant. Mirza Haidar Dughlat, a 16th Century noble of the Mughal court, tells us that Tibetan nomads exchanged Himalayan produce for “cloth, sweets, rice and grain”. According to Dughlat, the Tibetan trader-nomads were known to carry as many as “10,000 sheep-loads”. Himalayan produce was capable of being carried over considerable distance. According to records, in the 1620s, Kashmir walnuts were exported to Agra and musk from the hills of Himachal Pradesh to Lahore. Lac from Assam was exported in large quantities to China and Japan. Nor was the money involved insignificant. Tavernier, the Frenchman, in 1966 bought Rs 26,000 worth of musk in Patna!
While the tarai might not always have been the focal point in the mountain plains nexus, its inherent economic importance was growing steadily on account of its dense forests and rich pastures. In 1809, the rent of the pastures in Morang district gave the Nepal government revenue of Rs 24,000. This compares favourably with the “land rent” of the district, which was Rs 54,025. The duty on Morang’s timber was Kathmandu’s second largest source of revenue,
The tarai was an area that Kirkpatrick in 1793 called “an almost inexhaustible source of riches”. For the sake of the countries and states of the region, let us hope that Kirkpatrick was right.
Chetan Singh is a historian at Himachal University in Shimla.