Caravan to Lhasa: Its Review, Major Themes, and Abstract
Sungoh Yoon

In the travel account and story of the lives of his grandfather, father, and uncles, the author, Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, presented an elaborate and colorful description of the caravan trade and commerce centered on Kathmandu, Lhasa and Kolkata. Along with the life story of his family who were Nepalese—or more precisely, Newar—merchants, the author introduces the overall background surrounding their lives as caravan traders. Not only was the natural environment—altitude, topography, climate, etc.—described vividly with specific details, but also various aspects of the society and culture and even important events in both Kathmandu and Lhasa were introduced.

As the author lived during the early twentieth century, even though neither Kathmandu nor Lhasa were directly exposed to the influence of major global events—e.g. WWI, WWII, political changes in China, etc.—the areas in which the caravan trade of the Newar merchants was centered were not completely isolated from the outside world. There were already commodities from the outside traded in the markets of Lhasa such as watches, bicycles, and motorcycles. Moreover, modern products and inventions were also introduced; e.g. electricity, train, radio run by a wet battery, etc. What is even more intriguing is the fact that the local society in Lhasa was very dynamic and rather far from inert. The local economy flourished as merchants from many areas came with their goods to trade in the Lhasa market. Eventually, many new advanced techniques were developed and already in use to overcome various commercial issues from setting up proper exchange rates among diverse currencies to using hundi notes as a way of carrying large amount of money for a long distance.
There were several important ceremonies held by the Newar merchants. The sagan ceremony was for the merchants who were about to embark on their journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa. Since the caravan journey to Lhasa was fairly dangerous due to climate changes and potential for bandit attacks, the ceremony was devoted for wishing the traders with safe trip and good health. Thus, at the event the family of the merchants gathered and provided the traders with food, while the oracle chanted mantras to bless them. Although the religion held an important place in the Newar society—e.g. religious celebrations, alms-giving to the temples, etc.—they were also very secular and dedicated to pursuing economic interests; even some of the religious ceremonies were in held in congruence with wishing for success on their commercial activities. As non-religious activities, they staged Hindi plays in Lhasa as a way of exchanging cultures and played sports games together like football and tennis.
Political events and social changes often had direct impact on the lives of the Newar merchants involved in caravan trade from Kathmandu to Lhasa, along with in Kolkata. Thanks to the treaty concluded in 1856, the Nepalese merchants were exempt from custom duties on goods brought into Tibet. However, political changes did not always favor the Newar traders. With abrupt invasion and the consequent occupation of Tibet by the Communist government of China in 1950, the merchants living in exile in Lhasa faced uncertainty about the future of their commercial activities. Especially in 1959 which is the same year when the fourteenth Dalai Lama went into exile in India, the author’s family also decided to permanently withdraw from Lhasa and instead initiate a new business—bus company—in their hometown Kathmandu. Of course, this was possible mainly because the political and social conditions in Nepal improved thanks to democratization in 1951 and subsequent economic development provided better opportunities for new business activities.

Review and Introduction to some of the Major Themes
Born into a Nepalese merchant family, Kamal Ratna Tuladhar left an elaborate documentation of the lives of the Newar merchants who conducted trade across a long-distance ranging from Kathmandu and Lhasa in the course of early to mid-twentieth century. Along with the caravan journey of the Newar traders, their ways of life—which encompasses tradition, custom, socio-political conditions, economic institutions, along with changes within them—are described in great detail as the author covers the story of his father Karuna Ratna Tuladhar and uncles. While the overall lifestyle of the Newar merchants are depicted in general, by and large the contents are mostly conveyed through the life story of his father who, born in Kathmandu, stayed in Lhasa for 17 years as he took charge of his family’s ancestral shop in 1935 upon the death of his father.
Perhaps the book might have been a mere description of caravan journey of the Newar merchants migrating from Kathmandu to Lhasa to conduct trade, but the author added a series of rich description of the overall background, including changes in political conditions that affected commercial activities. Hence, as a way of shedding light upon the strength of this book I concentrate on the background information provided by the author rather than simply summarizing the life story and caravan journey of his father and uncles.
First, the Newar culture is introduced through the descriptions of custom, traditions, lifestyle, and even legends. Throughout the story of his father and uncles, the author covers various rituals and ceremonies. Newar merchants of Nepal not only believed it inauspicious to stay abroad for nine consecutive years, but also those who returned were required to fulfill the so-called “ritual quarantine”, which lasted for two weeks. They were not allowed to go into the family kitchen and chapel. Moreover, they were to have only one meal per day and the dishing was their responsibility. Then, a purification ceremony and a feast with their relatives and friends were conducted as this ritual approached toward its end. Finally, their discharge from the ritual quarantine was confirmed with a written permission of the royal priest.
The author’s father took over the family business in Lhasa upon the death of his grandfather in 1935. The author briefly describes the procedures after his grandfather’s death, which serves as a window on Tibetan funeral proceedings. Although he was originally a Nepalese, his funeral was conducted in a Tibetan style, known as the “sky burial.” His dead body was disintegrated and then presented to the vultures as if it were mere pieces of meat. Later when the father’s departure date and hour for Lhasa was appointed, a farewell event, called the “sagan ceremony”, was conducted. Along with the Tibet-bound merchants, the whole family gathers to perform the ritual of worshipping the Ganesh, known as the god of good fortune, while the family priest recites the mantras. Since the word sagan originally means food, boiled duck eggs, smoked fish, and rice beer are served to all the participants. In addition, as a way of wishing safe trip for the merchants who are about to leave for a long journey full of uncertainty to a faraway place, small cloth-made figures of Bhindya, known as the patron deity of traders, and Buddhist manuscripts are presented as amulets or good-luck charms.
The people of Kathmandu, including the Newar merchants, were generally very religious. Their life was centered on devotions and sacred festivals, striving in their daily life to accumulate religious merits; from praying at the house of deities every morning to praise their family idols to building small stupas which were placed in front of the Buddha’s image. They also never spared any money on contributing to religious institutions and ceremonies. They, including the Lhasa Newar merchants and the author’s family, joyfully funded monasteries and religious communities.
The author also provides a window on the social relations, encompassing family structure and Newar merchants’ exile community in Lhasa. In the early twentieth century, the size of average Nepalese family was relatively large; each household was made up of four generations, amounting to about forty-eight people living under the same roof. Eventually, huge amount of food had to be cooked in cauldrons to serve a crowd of family members as if they were having a feast for every meal. They also kept a few livestock—e.g. cows, ducks, horse—for both pragmatic purposes and religious merits. In addition, as the Newar merchants went on long journey to and stayed in Lhasa for a long time, they established local community of their own, called “pala”, in the foreign country. The Newar community in Tibet was more or less similar to “Asan”—a plaza where bazaars and festivities took place in Kathmandu—as they both served the center of social life. Especially, the community house, which was more or less like the huiguan in China, located in the center of every pala was the very place where the Newar exiles gathered to celebrate various festivals together, reinforcing intimacy among them and providing each other with emotional support at the same time.
The social conditions and political circumstances surrounding Tibet and the Himalayan trade routes introduced in the account of the lives of Newar merchants are more than enough to enable the readers to reconstruct the actual background of their stories. A plethora of political changes were sweeping across the region and thus affected the commercial activities of the Newar merchants as they conducted business not only in Lhasa but also across a wide swathe of area from Kathmandu to Tibet. That Sikkim was already a British protectorate since 1904 allowed the author’s father to pass through it in 1934 as he moved toward Lhasa. The author described the changes brought about by the British military expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband in 1904. Not only was a new trade route running through Sikkim opened, but also the former major entrepot Kathmandu lost its status since the merchants started to directly ship items purchased in Kolkata to Lhasa rather than via Kathmandu.
The political situation was not always stable and brought about unexpected changes. There was direct military confrontation between Tibet and Nepal in the mid-nineteenth century. Under several pretext—e.g. mistreatment of the Nepalese merchants and mission, Tibet’s neglect of the border issue between the two countries–Nepal invaded Tibet in 1855. With the outbreak of this abrupt military conflict, the merchants in Lhasa, including those from Newar, were so intimidated that they became reluctant to go out of their homes and even dug up their own wells in the courtyard to secure potable water. It was very fortunate for the Nepalese merchants that not only the warfare did not last long but also and more important they now became entitled to exemption on Tibetan custom duty. However, as a part of courtesy to a Tibetan mule driver who was carrying the Nepalese merchants and their goods to Tibet, the author’s father had him deal with the tax payment issue at the checkpoint. In addition, this was also the spot where the Tibetan officials checked the goods brought into Tibet, searching for contrabands like tobacco which was illegal in Tibet.
Modern infrastructure had also been established in the early twentieth century in this region. Thanks to its construction in 1928, the author’s father was able to take the train on his journey to Lhasa, instead of riding on oxcarts through the dense jungle “Char Koshe Jhadi” which was notorious then for its malaria. Moreover, by the 1920’s, people in Kathmandu had just started to use electric power and thus each household was allowed to light up only one electric bulb according to government regulation. Located between Tibet and India, Phari served as a major transshipment hub and thanks to its importance a British post office was established. However, the postal system was in its mere pristine stage and thus operated in a complicated manner; letters from Kathmandu to Tibet required two sets of stamps, one British and later a Tibetan one by the time it reached Phari or Gyantse. This inconvenient stamping was again necessitated in a reserve direction if the letters were now being delivered from Tibet to Kathmandu. In addition, due to Tibetan government’s mistake the postage stamps had once been produced without perforation, holes around the stamps.
In the third chapter “Lhasa”, the author covers a wide range of issues as he continues to narrate the story of his Newar merchant family. A series of ceremonies held in Lhasa are introduced. First, as for the newcomers to Lhasa, the Newar merchants gathered to host a welcoming party. They moved together to a large field out of the city gate called Chyanakhya to conduct the sagan ceremony; once again, as the priests prayed out loud for the newcomers they were provided with food such as dried fish, meat cake, and rice beer. As they approached toward Lhasa, they passed by the huge stupa—Chibha Dhwaka (stupa gate)—on their way. Then, at the century of the city, Barkhor, they presented offerings to idols and deities of another stupa and community house of Ghorasyar pala.
Major areas are introduced with colorful details. Located at an altitude of 3,800 meters, Gyantse had already served a medieval fort and a religious center with its huge Buddhist temple erected in the 15th century. In the author’s father’s time, it was a flourishing commercial center with its famous handicraft industry known for its excellent woolen carpets. As for Barkhor, it was also very important for its role as both a business area and a ceremonial route.
There are even some pieces of information pertaining to things taking place at the very bottom level. The author first mentioned that bullets were traded in Lhasa and thus the newcomers from Nepal where selling bullets was prohibited were very surprised by it. Then, that the prisoners were allowed to go out with their handcuffs in order to beg for food once a day was also very interesting to learn from the description. There were introductions to various occupations; e.g. the banjas, who served as staff for the Gyorasyar shop, were categorized into three groups and their salaries were fixed accordingly. The concept of la was introduced as the author explained the Tibetan mule drivers who were individually assigned to take care of nine animals, consisting a la. As for the diet of the Newar merchants in Lhasa, they were described to have adapted themselves to the Tibetan custom—e.g. having Tibetan bread for lunch, etc.—on one hand, but on the other side they could not forget about rice. Since rice was not grown in Lhasa, they were all imported and eventually very expensive; half rupee for four manas (1 mana = 1 pint) of rice in Kathmandu, whereas in Lhasa one mana of rice cost three rupees. Moreover, unlike the Tibetans who deemed animals sacred, the Nepalese merchants fed themselves with various types of meat from sheep, yaks, and goats. In addition, they enriched their menu with momos which is a type of Tibetan dumpling, noodles, dried meat, baji or beaten rice, mutton curry, etc. Furthermore, the writer mentioned that due to scarcity of wood in Lhasa, dung cakes were generally used as fuel with the exception of feasts where wood was burned.
The commerce in Lhasa was not only prosperous, but was rather more than fully fledged. The Nepalese merchants at the Ghorasyar shop had to stay highly aware of the changes in bullion prices in Kolkata since they were involved in transshipping goods to and fro the two areas. They even had their own emblem for their pala just like many palas in Lhasa did. They spent their evenings on organizing their account books. There were no income taxes in both Tibet and Nepal in this time. Furthermore, there were merchants from many different places, even from relatively faraway areas; e.g. Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, etc. As much as the diversity of the merchants’ origin, the commodities traded in Lhasa was indeed directly reflective of merchants’ backgrounds. For instance, the Tibetan nobles bought horses from the Silingbas who came from Siling in northwestern part of China. These merchants came to Lhasa in mule, camel, or yak caravans and stayed in their tents set up out of the city. Along with the barter system, even cash was used for transaction purpose. Cloth was the major commodity traded in Lhasa. The World War II caused inconvenience to the textile merchants due to ration imposed on essential goods, but they were also wise enough to rather take advantage of wartime shortage in Kathmandu, reaping more profits from increased demands. There were also nomads who brought precious metals to trade for goods in Lhasa. In addition, manufactured goods from the world outside of Lhasa was traded , especially Rolex and Westend watches, Humber bicycles, and motorcycles.
The Nepalese merchants traveled in the three major commercial areas—e.g. Kathmandu, Lhasa, and Kolkata in India which was then the largest market where modern products were available—mainly for business purposes. As they conducted trade in these areas, they not only just adapted to the local circumstance by putting on the local costumes and eating the food available in the area but further exerted efforts to learn the vernaculars. Moreover, some of the Newar merchants traveled to other areas within Tibet such as Changthang and Chamdo to secure wool and tea, respectively. As a natural result of such globalized business environment and trading practices in Lhasa, many types of currencies circulated and were in use for transaction. Along with the Tibetan currency sang—ten shokang for one sang, and fifty sang for one dhorje—Indian rupees were used and thus there was already an exchange rate set up in the mid-1940’s; three sang and three shokang for one rupee. Finally, as way of facilitating the money transfer, hundi notes were widely used.
As for the remainder of the Lhasa chapter, the author enumerates some of the major events that his father witnessed and directly experienced. In 1939, the fourteenth Dalai Lama paid a visit to Lhasa and so the people in Tibet all gathered to welcome him. In 1945, with the crash of an American airplane near Lhasa the Newar traders were now more directly introduced to the reality of the Second World War. In the following year, Ganga Lal Shrestha, whose Nepalese political movement led to the revolution of 1951, visited Lhasa. Another major theme was the celebrations for the Newar merchants living in exile in Lhasa, especially the Mohani and Swanti festivals. In addition, that a replica of an idol called Bhindya was carried all the way from Kathmandu to Lhasa was another major event for the Newar merchants. Once again, the Nepalese traders gathered in Kuti to hold a community feast called dey-bhoy to celebrate this delightful occasion together. Finally, in the 1940’s, there were several public performances to foster cultural exchange among the people from diverse backgrounds all living in exile in Tibet. Thus, by and large these performances were not religious and were mainly devoted to performing Hindi dramas on stage.
Last but not least, this travel account provides elaborate and colorful information on almost every aspect of the Newar merchants’ lives, perhaps down to the level of what might even be considered as mere trivia. As the author’s father and his colleagues journeyed to Lhasa, they stopped at an inn at Nyadha and later cooked meal for themselves. The author mentioned that even Nepalese upon leaving their home country had to forget about Caste-related norms, especially by whom the food had been prepared. This indicates that the Caste system was effective in Nepalese society in the early twentieth century. Moreover, the author provided details on the food that the merchants took on their caravan journey; e.g. “tsampa (roasted barley flour mixed with Tibetan buttered tea and kneaded into dough), thukpa (noodle soup), large momos (dumplings), baji (rice flakes), large chunks of boiled meat, Tibetan tea in bricks.” Furthermore, the author explained in fair detail the issue of potential danger caused by bandit attacks. Finally, with major political events and social changes in both Nepal and Tibet—the democratization of Nepal in 1951 and its following economic development, the exile of the fourteenth Dalai Lhasa to India in 1959 and rising doubts and anxiety about the future of Tibet—the Newar merchants ceased their caravan trade and switched to new businesses in their own country; as for the author’s family, his father and elder uncle established the Nepal Transport Service which became the first bus line in the new democratized state.