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Ancient Trade Partners: Bhutan, Cooch Bihar and Assam (17th - 19th centuries) Pommaret, Françoise Nov 30, 2000

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AND ASSAM (17th - 19th centuries)
Francoise Pommaret *
Western writers have often projected the image of Bhutan as
an isolated country, a kind of autarchic mountainous island.
This article is an attempt to show that, in fact, Bhutan
carried out a substantial trade with her southern neighbours
- Bengal (Cooch Bihar) and Assam (Kamrup) - at least from
the 17th century, if not earlier. This trade is documented in
British reports and Bhutanese historical sources, although
for the latter, references have been found dispersed in
biographies. Bhutan also appears to have been influenced by
the weaving and silk techniques of north-east India. Because
of trade links and the fact that Cooch Bihar minted money
for Bhutan, the latter was able to play a political role in
Cooch Bihar until this region was taken over by the British
in 1773. From that date, Bhutan was pressed by the British
to open her roads to traders, as it was the shortest route to
Tibet and Lhasa. However, Bhutan resisted but continued
trading in North Bengal and Assam, selling horses, wool
products, and musk, while importing cotton cloth,
broadcloth, tools, spices and tobacco.
Through this trade with Cooch Bihar and Assam, and by
acting as an intermediary for some of the Tibetan products,
Bhutan did play her part in the commercial exchanges in
north-east India.
Bhutan which practised a policy of isolation especially
towards the West, was nevertheless engaged in commercial
Research Fellow, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique,
(CNRS, ESA 8047), Paris France. I wish to thank Nicholas Rhodes for
his suggestions. A first version of this article appeared in French in
the Journal Asiatique, 1999 Vol. 287, 285-303. A certain number of
points have been added and this is a revised version.
 and political relations with her neighbours since a long time.
Even though, for religious, cultural and geographic reasons,
Tibet was the favoured destination, trade with the south was
just as active. In this article we will examine the trade with
Bhutan's immediate neighbours to the south: Cooch Bihar
situated in the west and Kamrup situated in the east (which
today are two Indian districts in West Bengal and Assam
respectively). According to the Bhutanese Law Code of
1729lxxii, two "Clerks for India" (rGya drung), were posted at
the frontier with India, to the east and to the west. These
posts show that, for the Bhutanese, the circulation of goods
was large enough to justify the presence of these officials.
Research in this domain is difficult due to the lack of written
sources on the subject in Bhutanese literature, which is
essentially of a politico-religious nature. It is only through
remarks scattered in some Bhutanese and Tibetan sources
as well as the accounts and correspondence of British
officials that we can reconstitute a picture, although still
sketchy, of the links between Bhutan and her neighbours.
Cooch Bihar (Bengal)1™"
According to Rhodeslxxiv, during the reign of the Cooch Bihar
King Nara Narayan (1555-1587), "there was a major trade
route between Bengal and Tibet passing through Cooch
Behar and Bhutan. This was recorded by the English
merchant and traveller Ralph Fitch in 1583, who noted that
musk, wool, agate, silk and pepper were purchased." After
the 16th century, the Narayani tanka, called rupee by the
British, which was probably first struck around 1583 and
took its name after the dynasty, became the most used
currency in Cooch Bihar, Assam and Bhutan.lxxv
One of the first contacts mentioned in Bhutanese literature
took place in the years 1619-20 when the hierach of Bhutan,
the Zhabs drung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), at the
request of one of his patrons Darchug Gyeltshen, went to
Chapcha which is located to the south of Thimphu on the
 route to Buxa Duarlxxvi in Bengal. lxxvii His benefactor knew
Prana Narayan (Pern Narayan according to Bhutanese
sources) (1633-1665), the Raja of Cooch Bihar, and informed
him that the Zhabs drung was in Chapcha. The Raja replied
by sending the Zhabs drung a letter and gifts: silver
trumpets, ivory, gold and silver coins and cloth. This is the
first report of coins from Cooch Bihar reaching Bhutan.lxxviii
To express his thanks, the Zhabs drung sent a friendly letter
and gifts, including amulets, silk and Tibetan horses with
saddles to the Raja. Later the Zhabs drung wrote to Prana
Narayan asking him to convert to Buddhism. The Raja
replied by sending him a volume of the Prajnaparamita
composed in 8000 verses (brGyad stong pa) written on palm
leaves. The Bhutanese obtained the right to raise taxes in a
part of the territory of Cooch Bihar along their frontier near
Buxa Duar.lxxix
From this date the two states had close relations. When
Tenzin Rabgye was appointed the 4th Temporal Ruler (sDe
srid) of Bhutan in 1680, an emissary of the daughter of the
late Raja Prana Narayan was present at the ceremony and
presented 700 gold coins and 1000 silver coins.lxxx
In 1682, Mahendra Narayan, the Raja of Cooch Bihar and
great grandson of Prana Narayan, appealed for Bhutanese
military aid to fight a Mughal expedition. This expedition had
been launched by Aurangzeb who wanted to impose a tax on
the small states of Bengal to finance his military campaign
in the Deccan. Tenzin Rabgye sent two small detachments
commanded by Zhidar, the "Chief of the Guests" (mGron
gnyer) of the Paro dzong and Trinley Lhungrub, the chief of
the Dalingkha dzong. It was at that time that a permanent
Bhutanese representative, the Gya Pchila (rGya spyi bla),
was posted in Cooch Bihar to look after Bhutanese
interests .lxxxi
The Mughal army routed the Cooch Bihar forces, which led
to a conflict between the two branches of the Cooch Bihar
 royal family. The Bhutanese found themselves involved and
it was in their interest to support the ruling branch.
However, their representative, Chamberlain (gZims dpon)
Norbu drung, made an unsuccessful attempt to mediate
between the two factions. Then the Bhutanese government
sent a military detachment to support the ruling family. lxxxii
But this action proved to be of no use as the Raja of Cooch
Bihar had to submit to the Mughals again in 1685.
However, these events show that Cooch Bihar and Bhutan
had some political interaction and that both the branches of
the royal family considered Bhutan as a potential ally. This
view was confirmed in 1690 when Prince Rupa Narayan
(1695-1715) of a collateral branch visited Bhutan and was
officially received by Tenzin Rabgye at the Tashichhodzong
fortresslxxxiii in Thimphu. Presents comprising gold, silver,
silk and horses were exchanged on this occasion. Rupa
Narayan ascended to the throne in 1695 and the good
relations between the two countries continued in the 18th
century. They were further accentuated by the fact that
coins from Cooch Bihar circulated in Bhutan and that Cooch
Bihar minted coins for Bhutan, for which it took a
commission. However, it is not yet known when the
Bhutanese started having their coins minted in Cooch Bihar
by sending silver ingots there.
This practice, which existed in 1785lxxxiv, continued till 1789,
when the British closed the Cooch Bihar mint. In 1783 S.
Turner mentioned1™™ the "commodiousness of this small
piece (the narainee, a base silver coin), the profits the people
of Bhutan derive from their commerce with Cooch Bihar".
The coins minted in Cooch Bihar didn't have a true
monetary value in an economy based essentially on barter,
but they were among the objects gifted by the Bhutanese
rulers during the distribution of gifts (man gyed) to lay
persons and monks. One such example is the distribution of
47,000 silver coins to all Bhutanese who paid taxes, officials,
monks and soldiers during the enthronement of the Zhabs
drung Jigme Dragpa in 1747.lxxxvi
 Since the 1650's Cooch Bihar had suffered revenue losses
when the Malla kings of the Kathmandu valley had imposed
themselves by force as the exclusive intermediaries for trade
between Tibet and India. All merchandise had to
compulsorily pass by the Kirong-Kathmandu or Kuti-
Kathmandu routes.lxxxvii Cooch Bihar had therefore all the
more reasons to stay on good terms with Bhutan, with which
it could continue to trade and obtain certain goods from
It was also in the interest of Bhutan which, as we have seen,
collected taxes in certain parts of Cooch Bihar, and which
considered Cooch Bihar as a market for her products, to
nurture these relations. An example, among others, is that
of Sherab Wangchuk, the 13th Temporal Ruler (sDe srid)
(r. 1744-1763), whose generosity is known of from other
sources, gave gifts, particularly cloth, horses and musk
regularly to the Cooch Bihar royal family as well as the
chieftains along the frontier.lxxxviii
The products that Bhutan imported or exported transited
mostly through Cooch Bihar, and through the town of
Rangpur, which is in present day Bangladesh. In the 18th
century Rangpur was the destination of the grand annual
caravan, which came from western Bhutan. The most used
entry point to Bhutan was Buxa Duar (Pasakha). During the
time of the 13th Temporal Ruler Sherab Wangchuk cloth
formed a large part of the imports (Benaras silk, cotton,
English flannel) and exports (Tibetan wool, Chinese silk,
Bhutanese cloth).lxxxix Horses, lac (Laccifer lacca), madder
used for dyeing, ivory, musk, gold dust, silver, amber, spices
and tobacco (even though it was theoretically prohibited by
the Law Code of 1729xc) were also traded.
J.B Tavernier, a Frenchman who spent few years (1752-
1765) roaming the region before becoming the governor of
the French establishment of Chandernagor near Calcutta,
was offered a small land in Cooch Bihar and built an
earthen and bamboo fort a few miles south of Jaipalguri in
 1757xci From there, he noted the presence of the Bhutanese
coming to acquire salt. He also tried, without success, to
trade with Bhutan. He remarked on the pinewood from
Bhutan, which would have made great masts for ships, the
fine woolen products, the aloe woodxcii, and especially on the
quality of the musk. However, he deplored that the
Bhutanese did not hunt the musk deer enough to generate a
good trade xciii
The French presence in this area was felt mostly through the
Arcot rupees from which the Narayaini coins were made and,
according to Rhodes, some Arcot rupees can still be found in
Bhutan and Cooch Bihar.xciv
During the later part of the 18th century, Bhutan became
more and more involved and influential in Cooch Bihar
affairs. In 1770 the king Dhairyendra Narayan (1765-1770 &
1775-1783) who had displeased the Bhutanese was deposed
and taken prisoner to Punakha. The Bhutanese installed
their own protege Rajendra Narayan on the throne but he
died two years later. Upon his death, the Bhutanese
installed Dharendra Narayan on the throne but this angered
many at the Cooch Bihar court.
The anti-Bhutanese faction who considered Dhairyendra
Narayan as a rightful heir, asked the assistance of the
British, who seized the occasion to reinforce their
domination over the region. Indeed, for the British, Cooch
Bihar was technically under their dependency as the East
India Company had governed Bengal since 1765xcv A
military detachment, which was sent to Cooch Bihar,
defeated the Bhutanese and in 1774 Dharyendra Narayan
was released by Bhutan. Cooch Bihar passed under British
sovereignty. Dharendra Narayan remained on the throne but
died in 1775 and was replaced by Dharyendra Narayan.
It is therefore in 1773 that Cooch Bihar disappeared
effectively as a state and the Bhutanese found themselves
face to face with the British. A period marked by acrimony
 and punctuated with skirmishes and wars settled over
Bhutanese-British relationships which did not improve until
the end of the 19th century.
Kamarupa / Kamrup (Assam)
The exchanges with this region allowed Bhutan to have
access to raw material and technical know-how which she
imported and transformed for her own use, as well as goods
from Burma and Yunnan.
Kamarupa, or Kamrup, on the south-eastern border of
Bhutan was a famous and prosperous kingdom since a long
time and, in fact, included what would become Cooch Bihar
in the 16th century.
Inscriptions dating from the 5th to 13th centuries indicate
that agricultural products, specially the areca nut (tambula;
latin Areca catechu) and betel (pan; Latin: Piper betel) were
commonly traded and they would later become a favourite of
the Bhutanese.xcvi The cultivation of silk worms was also
common.xcvii The silk produced was mainly for local
consumption. However, a part of the produce was exported
and a small quantity reached eastern Bhutan, as is the case
Lahiri wrote: "From very ancient times, Kamarupa was noted
for her textiles, sandal and agaru (Aloe trees) and it seems
likely that there was a route, although no archaeological
evidence is available, between Kamarupa and
Pundravardhana (North Bengal) along which these
commodities were taken to the main business centres in
Northern India. It is also possible that the route did not
terminate at Kamarupa, but may have extended eastwards
to South China through the hills of Assam or Manipur and
Upper Burma".xcviii
The Ahoms defeated the Kamarupa in 1228. The Ahoms
were   Shans,   a  branch  of Thais  who  came  from   Yunnan
 through Burma. They gave their name, which became
Assam, to this part of the Indian sub-continent, but the part
of Assam to the south of the border with Bhutan retained
the name Kamarupa, which was later abbreviated to
Kamarupa was on the trading route between south-west
China and India. Even though the existence of this route
seems well established, its importance as a trading route
and its age are controversial. Lahiri writes "There is nothing
to suggest that this route was in vogue in the late centuries
BC or the early centuries AD [...] Clear historical light on
this route is available for the first time in the 7th - 8th
centuries AD when Hieun Tsang and Jia Dan wrote their
Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who
visited what he called Ka-ma lu-po learnt from the people of
Kamarupa that the south-west borders of Sichuan " were
distant about two months journey, but the mountains and
rivers were hard to pass, there were pestilentrial vapours
and poisonous snakes and herbs".c The route existed and
was known but was less than engaging!
In an earlier article Liebenthal affirms that a route; the
"Tsang-k'o route" existed before the 7th century AD: "Before
644, perhaps already much earlier, there existed a route
leading into north-eastern Assam (Kamarupa) from Shu
(Szechuan). It began in the Yun-ch'ang district and led north
to the frontier which was always formed by the Chin-sha-
chiang (the upper Yangtse river). Then it led west, perhaps
through the Shih-men pass into Po-nan, on the western side
of the Mekong. Further west, it must have passed the
Namkin range before descending into the Brahamaputra
valley near modern Sadiya [east Assam] ".ci However,
Liebenthal added: "Pilgrims to the holy places of Buddhism
therefore tried to bypass Tibet in the south. They succeeded
in some cases, but the Tsang-k'o route never became a trade
 Lahiri makes the same remarks, based, among others
sources, on more recent documents: "For an insight into the
natures of routes and the mechanism of trade contact
through them, we have sifted some British records of the
19th century. There is, of course, a clear picture of routes in
these records but the routes by themselves do not suggest
significant contact and trade. These routes were not always
used for regular commercial traffic, and although there was
a certain amount of interchange of goods throughout this
region, this was achieved through a system of intercommunity barter".ciii
Even though it was short, and its existence confirmed by
Chinese travellers in the 7th and 8th centuries, this route
does not appear to have developed as an important
commercial axis because of its natural difficulties. However,
it is certain that a certain amount of merchandise was
exchanged between the two countries via Burma by inter-
comunity barter as well as by long distance caravans,
through the initiative of enterprising merchants. As for the
techniques of silk production, it propagated along this route
from south-east China to north-east India at the beginning
of the Christian era.civ
Centuries later, in the 19th century, when maritime trade
was well established between Calcutta and China, this route
was still being used: "Assamese merchants also went to
Yunnan in China by the line of trade through Sadiya, Bisa
and across the Patkoi range of mountains, and through the
Hukong valley to the town of Munkong from where they
ascended by the Irrawady to a place called Catmow. The
goods were disembarked at Catmow from where they were
conveyed on mules over a range of mountainous country
inhabited by the Shans into the Chinese province of
Regional trade was very active as Captain Welsh who led a
British military expedition to Assam (1792- 1794) reports. A
list   of   merchandise   drawn   up   by   this   officer   in    1794
 indicates that exports of the mountainous regions of Assam
existed: "From the eastern confines of Sadiya, there were
cotton, copper, spring salt and Agar (Aloe wood); from the
southern confines, the Nagas brought cotton, luckibilla (a
silk cloth), toat-bound (a silk cloth), and Kapor (embroidered
silk cloth)".cvi
It is known that the Kapor; the "Kavach Kapor", was a cloth
used as a talisman-cloth by Ahom warriors when they went
to war.cvii The term "Kapor" is probably the same as "Kapur",
used in eastern Bhutan to designate a raw silk cloth with
supplementary-warp threads.
The Indian Marwari merchants were already present in this
region of Upper Assam in 1838 and very active, as Captain
Pemberton remarked in his Report on the Eastern Frontier of
British India: "[There were] Merwaree merchants from the
western extremity of India at Sadiya. These merchants
imported broadcloth, muslin, longcloth, coloured
handkerchiefs, chintzes, and various other kinds of cloths,
salt and opium, liquor, glass and crockery ware, tobacco,
betel nut and rice for the troops".cviii
Another route also contributed to commercial exchanges in
the region: the Mon yul corridor. It was the shortest route
linking the south of Tibet to the Assam plains. It passed
through Tshona dzong (mTsho sna rdzong) and Tawang (rTa
dbang) to the east of Bhutan.cix
This sketch of trade routes in north-east India allows to
visualise the age old exchanges and the commercial context
which the Bhutanese found in this region. Although they
were quite isolated by the mountains, which made access to
the plains difficult, this did not prevent them from reaching
the plains. Historical sources attest to ancient relations,
which existed between eastern Bhutan and Assam. This
Bhutanese source is the "Gyalrig" (rGyal rigs) written by the
historian monk Ngawang in 1728 who relates the ancient
history of eastern Bhutan.
 According to this text it appears that on numerous occasions
clan chieftains from eastern Bhutan, and particularly the
Wang ma clan, whose land holdings are listed, had fiscal
and survey rights on the Assam The dates are not
very precise but could go as far back as the 12th century.
This implies that products from Assam, particularly textiles
arrived in Bhutan in relatively ancient times. The "Gyelrig"
even mentions a place, which seemed to be in eastern
Bhutan, where a market had been established: "A market
was established at Bhumpayer and the Atsaras of India, the
Tibetans, the Khampas and all the people of Monyul
gathered there".cxi
Other than the political links, which existed between the
chieftains of eastern Bhutan and Assam, some Bhutanese
travelled to Assam for religious and commercial reasons, the
two being often combined. The people from the east used to
go on pilgrimage to Assam in winter. Hajo, near Gauhati on
the northern bank of the Brahamaputra was and still is a
Buddhist pilgrimage site, which, according to local belief, is
Kusinagara, the site of Buddha's historical "death". It is
interesting to note that the site was opened apparently at the
end of the 16th century by Ngarig Gyelpo, a chieftain of
eastern Bhutan and his religious master. The "Gyelrig"
explains that "the Lama Tashi Wang and the chief of the Yo
dung wang ma clan, both of whom were patron and
chaplain, opened the route to the sacred sanctuary of
Kusinagara, in India, in such a way that in our days it is the
meeting place of pilgrims from India, Tibet, Hors and Khams
and (of all the regions) below Toe Ngari (western Tibet)" .cxii
As for the site of Singri (Shing ghi ri), thirty kilometres to the
west of Tezpur in Upper Assam and mentioned by the great
master Jigme Lingpa in the 18th centurycxiii, it was a
pilgrimage site for Tibetans and Bhutanese at least since the
14th century.cxiv
Hajo was from the 17th century a thriving pilgrimage and
trading place in Assam. The town was holy for the Hindus,
 the Muslims and the Buddhists, which gave it a
cosmopolitan population. The Muslims practised metal
casting and the nearby town of Sualkuchi became an
important centre of silk trade.cxv
Trade, linked among others, to pilgrimage, was active
because in the 19th century7™ "a person called the Wazir
Barua, of the Kalita family, had a hereditary charge of the
intercourse with Bhutan. He lived at Siliambari, one day's
journey north from the house of the Darang Raja. He had
some lands, and paid nothing to the king except presents.
All the messengers and traders of Bhutan, all servants of the
Deva Raja (Temporal ruler of Bhutan), must first go to
Siliambari. The Barua there levied no duties, but received
presents in order to prevent his throwing impediments in the
way of business, and no one was allowed to purchase at
Siliambari without employing him as a broker. The Bhutias
[= Bhutanese] were allowed to take a part of their goods for
disposal to Hajo which they visited every winter, being a
place of sacred pilgrimage".
Speaking of trade between Assam and the neighbouring
countries, including Bhutan, Bogle wrote in 1775 that "the
Bhutanese, the inhabitants of the country of the Gorkha
Rajah [Nepal], the people of Lhasa, and those of several other
countries located to the north west of the Brahamaputra
carried out uninterrupted trade with Assam" cxvii, and he
mentioned particularly the gold of Tibetan origin brought by
the Bhutanese.cxviii
During their pilgrimages the Bhutanese traded with locals
and imported products in the different markets of Assam:
Sadya, Barhat, Odalguri, Daranga, Siliambari. The east
Bhutan-Assam axis was particularly important for the trade
of cloth, with exchanges based on cotton, silk and dyes. It is
known that at a fair in Assam in 1875cxix, the Bhutanese
exchanged woollen blankets, madder, bags and more than
four tonnes of lac for cotton and raw Assamese silk textiles.
 The raw material used for making textiles were woven and
the motifs were adapted to Bhutanese tastes. It is probable
that Assam had a decisive technical and stylistic influence
on Bhutan. Spinning and weaving was widespread in Assam
as is reported in 1897: "From times immemorial the
inhabitants of this province have spun cotton thread and
woven cotton. Weaving among the Assamese forms a part of
a girl's education and part of a woman's ordinary household
duties".cxx As in Bhutan, weaving is a prestigious activity in
Assamese society where an experienced weaver is respected
and admired even today.cxxi Dyeing was also widespread in
Assam and the technique is the same in Bhutan. It consisted
of dyeing the threads and not the whole cloth once it had
been woven. The dyes were obtained from wild plants, which
were boiled in cauldrons to obtain the colour in which the
threads were soaked.
Assam was a great producer of the famous lac or shellac
(Laccifer lacca) which gave much prized red colour. For
example, in 1808, 10,000 maundscxx" of lac, valued at
Rupees thirty five thousand, were exported to Bengal.cxxiii It
must be from Assam that the eastern Bhutanese imported
the technique of using the secretion of this insect, which
also lived in their region, to produce lac. It was called
"gyatsho" (fgya tshos) in Bhutan and the translation of its
name indicates its origin as it means "colour/dye of India".
The method used to collect the lac was the same as in
One particular population, the Kacharis, also called the
Bodos in Assam and the Meches in west Bengalcxxiv, had
close contacts with the Bhutanese because of their
geographical position. The Bodos settled down in a stretch of
land just to the south of what became the border of Bhutan
in a region called the Duars of Assam by the British. The
Bodos were very active in the cultivation of silk worms from
which they obtained a raw silk called Endi. The Bodo women
spent a large part of their day weaving on a dorsal strap
loom. The other members of the family carried out domestic
 tasks for them. A good weaver could weave half a yard per
day and the price obtained for the cloth contributed
significantly to the family economy.cxxv This silk was prized
for its softness, solidity and warmth. When the Duars were
under Bhutanese jurisdiction in the 18th century and till
1865, the Bodos paid their taxes to the Bhutanese
government in grain and cloth. They manufactured two
types of textiles, the kharu and the dunko lepa especially for
Bhutan.cxxvi The remarks of Bogle in 1775 on the Duars
applied to Bodo productscxxvii: "where the land is cultivated,
it produced rice, mustard seeds, tobacco, a bit of opium and
about 40,000 maunds of fine cotton per year; to the east it
produced black pepper and munga silk (Latin: Anthera
A Pawn on the Regional Chessboard
From the end of the 18th century and George Bogle's mission,
the reports of British officials who travelled in the region
provide more and more precise details on the trade between
Bhutan and her southern neighbours. This interest was due
to several reasons: on one hand, the East India Company was
the ruler of the region; on the other hand, the trading
conditions between Tibet and her southern neighbours had
changed. It must be recalled that the kingdoms of the
Kathmandu valley were the exclusive intermediaries for trade
with Tibet. However, in 1769 the Malla dynasty was defeated
by the Gurkha dynasty who evicted the Indian merchants
from the Kathmandu valley and decided that the Nepali
routes would be reserved for Nepali traders .cxxviii Thus the
route from central Tibet to Bengal through Bhutan, which
was the most direct, became important for commercial
Bogle wrote in 1774 that "the annual caravan which goes
from here [Bhutan] to Rangpur is first of all the business of
the Deb Rajahcxxix, his ministers and provincial governors.
Each of them sent an agent with his tanyanzxxx, musk yak
tails,  rough red blankets  or  half-yard wide striped woollen
 cloth. The other Bhutanese travelled under their protection.
Almost all the goods they brought back in return - mainly
fine woollen cloth, spices, dyes, Maldacxxxi fabrics - goes to the
country of the Teshu Lamacxxxii, either as a tribute or for
trade. In the latter case they were exchanged for pelong
scarves, flower printed satins, tea, salt, wool etc".cxxxiii
For Bogle, preoccupied with British interests, Bhutan was of
no interest except as a centre and the route for Tibet-Bengal
trade. Its importance as a trading partner was insignificant.
He noted in a realistic manner that Bhutan was not an outlet
for products from Bengal.cxxxiv
In 1783, Captain Turner noted while crossing Cooch Bihar on
his way to Bhutancxxxv: "Coarse cotton cloths I understand to
be the staple commodity, and that they furnish the most
considerable part of the large returning cargo, which is
carried by the Bootea caravan annually from Rungpore".
Thus, at that time, Rangpur was the most important
commercial centre for the Bhutanese who arrived there in
February and March and left before the monsoons in May-
In 1794 Captain Welshcxxxvi gave us the same list of imports
from Bhutan. They consisted of musk, woollen blankets, yak
tails (used as fly swatters), small horses, borax, rock salt,
nainta (a type of cloth), goom sing (a brocaded cloth), and
doroka (a green, red and yellow coloured silk).
Kishen Kant Bose, who travelled in the western part of
Bhutan in 1815 lists the products exchanged: "Bootan
produces abundant Tangun horses, blankets, walnuts, musk,
chowries or cow tails, oranges and manjeet (madder) which
the inhabitants sell at Rungpore; and thence take back
woollen cloth, pattus (?) indigo, red sandal, asafoetida,
nutmegs, cloves, nakhi, and coarse broad cloths. From the
lowlands under the Hills and the borders of Rungpore and
 Cooch Bihar, they import swine, cattle, paan and betel,
tobacco, dried fish and coarse broad cloth".cxxxvii
In his turn, Captain Pemberton who crossed Bhutan from the
east to the west in 1838 commented on the state of the
Bhutanese economy, and once again noted the importance of
products from the plains: "The wealth of the country consists
almost entirely in the cotton cloths, silk and grain, drawn
from the Dooars in the plains".cxxxviii He mentioned also that
"coarse cotton cloths are made by the villagers inhabiting the
southern portion ofthe country above the Duars ".cxxxix
According to Pemberton, Bhutan imported cotton cloth, silk,
dried fish and rice from Assam, flannel and corals from
Bengal. These merchandises were then partly exported to
Tibet, from where Bhutan imported salt, musk, silk, tea, gold
and woollen blankets.cxl A part of these merchandises served
as currency for exchange of products from Bengal and Assam.
In 1905 White wrote that during his visit to the residence of
Tongsa Penlop (Krong gsar dPon slob) in Bumthang, many
young girls wove cotton cloth, but particularly silk cloth, and
the threads came from Assam.cxli J.C. White also noted in
1906 that "there is a great deal of stick lac grown in the valley
of Tashigong"cxlii and that is was, along with madder, a source
of export towards Tibet. The two substances, the first of
animal and the second of vegetal origin, which were used to
dye cloth red were, and still are today, exported to Assam, but
on a small scale.
Between the years 1920 and 1950 Nepali traders, the
Nyishangbas, also known as "Manangis" carried out lucrative
trade between Nepal, Calcutta, Assam the border of Bhutan
and vice versa. These enterprising businessmen contributed
to the exchanges in the region, particularly that of cloth and
dyes. Van Spengen described their trading: "Proceeding
northeastward by train (from Calcutta) into Assam, a whole
range of small and medium-sized towns came within reach of
the Nyishangbas, where they sold a variety of commodities to
 the local population. In this way, the Assamese towns of
Dhubri, Gauhati, Nowgong, Dimapur and Tinsukia were
visited regularly between January and March each year. Here
the Nyishangbas sold their Calcutta produced wares like
needles, safety-pins and synthetic dyes, and to spread the
risks involved, quantities of corals and imitation stones [...].
The dyes were sought after up to the Bhutanese border where
the better anday was produced. Here Tibetan Dupka
[Bhutanese] visited the Bhutan mela (fair) along the Indian
border, selling herbs and musk to the occasional Nyishangba
trader [...] The Nyishangba women searched the Bhutan mela
for wool which they converted to mufflers and blankets".cxliii
Towards the end of the 1940s these traders entered the
interiors of Bhutan to bypass the middlemen and to access
simples (medicinal plants) and musk. They went till Deothang
(bDe wa thang) and Tashigang (bKra shis sgang) in eastern
Bhutan, where they exchanged cloth, dyes, and imitation
The importance that these exchanges with Assam represented
for Bhutan, specially the east, is still reflected today by the
toponymy. A market called "Godama" exists at the border. In
fact, this name is a deformation of the English word
"godown", which designates the warehouses used to stock
According to these reports, it appears that, far from being an
inward looking country, Bhutan had well established
commercial relations with Cooch Bihar and Assam, which can
be dated to before the arrival of the British in these regions at
the end of the 18th century. Through local markets in northeast India, which since centuries had often been at the
crossroads of different trading routes, the Bhutanese had
come into contact with products from other regions. Bhutan
was also known as a potential, though limited, market by
foreign traders. But, in fact, it is her easy access to Tibet
which made Bhutan interesting for the British from the 18th
century. However, from the 1880's, the British seemed to be
suddendly disinterested by Bhutanese trade routes to Tibet.
 Without trying to explain this disinterest solely by commercial
reasons, it must be noted that the railway from Calcutta to
Darjeeling through the Bengal plains was constructed in
1882. Thus Kalimpong, Sikkim and the Chumbi valley offered
the fastest and most direct access to Central Tibet. The desire
to set up trade links with Tibet was one of the main reasons
for the military expedition led by Colonel Younghusband in
1904. It led to the establishment of British trading posts at
Gyantse (rGyal rtse) and Yatung (Shar sing ma) in Tibet.
This Bhutan-Tibet trading routes, complementary to the
Bhutan-Bengal/Assam routes, should be examinedcxliv in
order to have a more complete and accurate picture of the
trading exchange network in this region.
Transliteration of Persons and Place Names as They
Appear in the Article
For research purposes, the personal names have been kept in
transliteration in the notes and bibliography.
Ngawang Namgyal = Ngag dbang rnam rgyal
Darchug Gyeltshen = Dar phyug rgyal mtshan
Chapcha = sKyabs kra
Tenzin Rabgye = bsTan 'dzin rabs rgyas
Zhidar = bZhi dar
Trinley Lhungrub = 'Phrin las lhun grub
Norbu Drung = Nor bu drung
Paro = sPa gro
Dalingkha = brDa gling kha.
Tashichhodzong = bKra shis chos rdzong
Jigme Dragpa = 'Jigs med grags pa
Sherab Wangchuk = Shes rab dbang phyug
Ngawang = Ngag dbang
Ngarig Gyelpo = INga rigs rgyal po
Tashi Wang = bKra shis wang
Toe Ngari = sTod mNga' ris
Jigme Lingpa = 'Jigs med gling pa
xdPal 'Brug pa rin che mthu chen Ngag gi dbang po'i bka khrims
phygos thams cad las mam par rgyal ba I gtam, "Law Code" written
by bsTan 'dzin chos rgyal, 10th rje mkhan po, Folio 109b translated
by Aris 1986 : 149.
i Also spelt Cooch Behar, Koch Bihar. The name Koch comes from
the dynasty who seized power in this region at the beginning of the
16th century. The Koch dynasty was originally Bodos from Bihar who
had converted to hinduism and claimed to descend from Shiva. Cf.
Jacquesson 1999 : 232 and Nath 1989.
Rhodes 1999 : 2-4.
Rhodes 1999 : 15.
Buxa Duar is called Pasakha (dPag bsam kha) by the Bhutanese.
Aris 1979 : 214, and Lho'i chos 'byung, folio 28a-b.
Rhodes, personal letter dated 2nd February 98.
mTshungs med chos kyi rgyal po rje rin po che'i mam par thar pa
bskal bzang legs bris 'dod pal re skong dpag bsam gyi snye ma,
biography of bsTan 'dzin rab rgyas, written by Ngag dbang lhun grub
(1670-1730), 6th rJe mkhan po, rTa mgo, folio 161b-162a and
Ardussi 1977 : 390.
i Op Cit. biography of bsTan 'dzin rab rgyas, folio 127b and Ardussi
1977: 368.
i Op Cit. biography of bsTan 'dzin rab rgyas, folio 149a and b and
Ardussi 1977: 389.
i Op Cit. biography of bsTan 'dzin rab rgyas, folio 161b-162a and
Ardussi 1977: 390.
i Op Cit. biography of bsTan 'dzin rab rgyas, folio 231b-232a and
Ardussi 1977: 390.
i  Rhodes  1977: 3 citing the "Calendar of Persian Correspondence",
vol . VI, n° 1583.
i Turner 1971: 143.
i   Op cit., biography of Shes rab dbang phyung,  folio 30b-40a and
Ardussi 1977: 507.
i Boulnois 1997: 171-172.
i Chos rgyal chen po Shes rab dbang phyug gi dge ba'I cho ga rab tu
gsal ba'I gtam mu tig do shal, biography of Shes rab dbang phyug,
written by Yon tan mtha' yas,  13th rje mkhan po (1724-1783), folio
84a-b and Ardussi 1977: 519. cf. also Mynak Tulku : 1997.
i Aris 1994: 39-40. Cf also Mynak Tulku: 1997.
i Op cit., "Law Code", folio 107a translated by Aris 1986 : 14 1.
i This fort was called Fort Bourgogne. Deloche 1984 : 48.
i Latin: Aquilaria agallocha.
i Deloche 1984 : 135-136.
 Rhodes 1999 : 25.
Boulnois 1996: 16.
Pommaret 2000.
Lahiri 1991: 97.
Lahiri 1991: 134.
Lahiri 1991: 163-164.
Jacquesson 1999 : 221 quoting Watters 1904.
Liebenthal 1956: 11-12.
Liebenthal 1956: 15.
Lahiri 1991: 165.
Liu 1991: 69.
Basu 1970: 190.
Basu 1970: 186 and 190.
Das 1985: 230.
Lahiri 1991: 135.
The subject has been briefly addressed in Myers and Pommaret
1994: 47-69.
This term designates "Gates", viz. the plains regions which allowed
access to the eastern Himalayas. There are 18 Duars from Bengal to
Aris 1986: 71, citing the rGyalrigs, folio 49b.
Aris 1986: 71, citing the rGyal rigs, folio 50a.
Aris 1995: 17 and 66 n. 15.
Aris 1979: 113 and 188.
Jacquesson 1999 : 254-255.
Basu 1970: 192.
Bogle 1996: 80.
Bogle 1996: 82.
Hunter n.d.: 1, 144.
Basu 1970: 162, citing a Monograph on the Cotton fabrics of Assam,
Das 1985: 229.
The maund is an anglo-indian measure of weight whole value
varied from region to region, but was generally 82 pounds. Hobson-
Jobson 1968: 563-564.
Basu 1970: 187.
This Mongoloid population which must have arrived from the east
among the first waves of immigration into Assam is prehaps related
to the Garos of the Shillong region.
Endle 1990: 21-22.
Hunter n.d.: 1, 144.
Bogle 1996: 77.
Bogle 1996: 207.
 i   term  used  by  the   English  to  designate  the  Temporal  Chief of
Bhutan, the Desi (sDe srid).
i small horses.
i A town in north Bengal.
i Title used by the English to designate the Panchen Lama in Tibet.
The   word   "Teshu"   is   a   deformation   of  Tashi   (bKra  shis)   which
referred to the  monastery of Tashilunpo  (bKra shis lun po),  near
Shigatse (gZhis ka rtse), where the Panchen lama lived.
Bogle 1996: 73-74.
Bogle 1996: 207.
Turner 1971: 7-8.
Basu 1970: 190.
Bose 1972: 350.
Pemberton 1976: 34.
Pemberton 1976: 45.
Pemberton 1976: 46.
White 1971: 164.
White 1971: 190 and 201.
Van Spengen 2000: 181-182.
A preliminary study of the Bhutanese trading network was carried
out by Myers and Pommaret 1994: 47-69.
Books in Western Language
Ardussi, J. 1977. Bhutan before the British: a historical study,
unpublished PhD: Australian National University, Canberra.
Aris, M. 1979. Bhutan: the early history of a Himalayan Kingdom,
Warminster: Aris and Philips.
Aris, M. 1986. Sources for the History of Eastern Bhutan, Vienna:
Arbeitskreis fur Tibetische une Buddhistische Studien, Universitat
Aris, M. 1994. "Textiles, Text and context", From the Land of the
Thunder Dragon: Textiles art of Bhutan, D; Myers and S. Bean (eds.),
Salem-London: Peabody Museum-Serindia.
Aris, M. 1995. Jigs-med gling-pa's 'Discourse on India" of 1789,
Tokyo: The International Institute of Buddhist Studies.
 Basu, N.K. 1970. Assam in the Ahom age, Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak
Bogle, G. [1876] 1996. Mission au Bhutan et au Tibet, Paris: Editions
Bose, K.K. [1865] 1972. Political missions to Bhutan, New Delhi:
Boulnois, L. 1996. "Introduction", Mission au Bhutan et au Tibet, G.
Bogle, Paris: Editions Kime, 10-29
Boulnois, L. 1997. "Muse, or et laine: le commerce a Lhasa au
XVIFme siecle", Lhasa: Lieu du divin, F. Pommaret (ed.), Geneve :
Olizane; 163-189.
Das, N.C. 1985. "Weaving in the folklore of North-east India",
Folklore of North-east India, Souma Sen (ed.) Gauhati-New Delhi:
Omsons publications.
Deb, A. 1973. "Cooch Behar and Bhutan in the context of Tibetan
trade", in Kailash, vol.1, N°l, 80-88.
Deloche, J. 1984. Les aventures de Jean-Baptiste Chevalier dans
l'Inde orientale (1752-65), Paris: EFEO, CXL.
Eden, A. [1865] 1972. Political missions to Bootan, New Delhi:
Endle, S. 1990. The Kacharis, Delhi: Low Price Publications.
Hobson-Jobson. [1903] 1968. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hunter,   W.W.   [1879].n.d.   A  statistical Account  of Assam  in   two
volumes, New Delhi: Low Price Publications.
Jacquesson, F. 1999. "Abrege de l'histoire de l'Assam jusqu'a
l'installation anglaise", Journal Asiatique, t.287, n°l, 191-283..
Imaeda, Y. 1987. La constitution de la theocratie 'Brug pa au 17^me
siecle et les problemes de succession du premier Zhabs drung,
Unpublished These d'Etat: University of Paris VII.
Lahiri, N. 1991. Pre-Ahom Assam, New Delhi: Munshiram
 Liebenthal, W. 1956. "The ancient Burma Road - A legend?", Journal
ofthe Greater India Society, vol. XVI, n° 1, 1-17.
Liu, Xinru. [1988] 1991. Ancient India and Ancient China. Trade and
Religious exchanges AD 1-600, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Myers, D. and Pommaret, F. 1994. "Bhutan and its neighbours",
From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textiles art of Bhutan, D;
Myers and S. Bean (eds.), Salem-London: Peabody Museum-
Serindia. 47-69.
Mynak Tulku, "Religious and economic regional cooperation during
the reign of the 13th Desid Sherab Wangchuk of Bhutan",
Unpublished communication, New Delhi, 1997.
Nath, D. 1989. History ofthe Koch Kingdom (1515-1615),. New Delhi
: Mittal.
Pemberton, R.B. [1838] 1976. Report on Bhutan: 1838: New Delhi:
Pommaret, F. 1999. "Notes sur le negoce entre le Bhoutan, le
Bengale et l'Assam", Journal Asiatique, t.287, n°l, 285-303.
Pommaret, F. 2000. "Rouge est le sang: le betel au Bhoutan".
Opiums: substances de pouvoir et de la conviviailite en Asie, A.
Hubert and Ph. le Failler (eds.), Paris: l'Harmattan.
Rhodes, N. 1977. "The coinage of Bhutan", Oriental Numismatic
Information sheetn° 16, London: 1977, 1-13.
Rhodes, N. 1999. " The Koch Kings and their coinage", in The
Coinage of Cooch Bihar, N. Rhodes and S. K.Bose (eds.), Dhubri:
Library of Numismatic studies.
Turner, S. [1800] 1971. An account of an embassy to the court ofthe
Teshu Lama in Tibet, New Delhi: Manjusri.
van Spengen, W. 2000. Tibetan border worlds: a geo-historical
analysis of trade and traders, London: Kegan Paul.
Watte rs, T. 1904. On Yuan Chwang's travels to India, Rhys Davids
and Bushell (eds.), London: Royal Asiatic Society.
 White, J.C. [1909] 1971. Sikkim and Bhutan, New Delhi: Manjusri.
Bhutanese Sources
- dPal 'Brug pa rin po che mthu chen Ngag gi dbang pol bka phyogs
thams cad las mam par rgyal ba'I gtam. Dated 1729. Text included
in the IHo'i chos 'byung ff. 100b-115a; transliterated and translated
by Aris 1986: 122-165. Author: bsTan 'dzin chos rgyal (1701-1767),
10th rJe mkhan po. Text known as the bKa' khrims, "Law Code".
- Mtshungs med chos kyi rgyal po rje rin che T mam par thar pa bskal
bzang legs bris 'dod pa'l re skong spag bsam gyi snye ma. Dated
1720. Author: Ngag dbang lhun grub (1670-1730), 6th rJe mkhan po,
rTa mgo ed. ff.383. Biography of bdTan 'dzin rab rgyas (1638-1696),
4 th sDe srid.
- Chos rgyal chen po Shes rab dbang phyug gi ba 1 cho ga ra b tu gsal
ba'I gtam mu tig do shal, n.d., Mdo sde brag ed., ff.95, reproduced in
Masterpieces of Bhutanese Biographicla Literature, New Delhi,  1970,
431-617. Author Yon tan mtha' yas (1724-1783), 13th rJe mkhan po.
Biography of Shes rab dbang phyung (1697-1765), 13th sDe srid.
- Sa skyong rgyal po'i gdung rabs 'byyung hungs dans 'bangs kyi ma
rabs chad tshul nges par gsal ba'I sgron me. ff.54. Dated 1728.
Author Ngag dbang. Transliterated and translated by Aris 1986: 12-
77. Known as the rGyal rigs.
- IHo'i chos 'byung bstan pa rin po che'i 'phro mthud jam mgon
smon mtha'I 'phreng ba zhes bya bal gtor bor skyabs mgon rin po
che rgyal sras Ngag dbang rnam rgyal gyi rnam thar gyi go bde gsal
bar bkod pa, Nor bu sgang ed., ff. 151 Printed 1759. Author: bsTan
'dzin chos rgyal (1701-1767), 10th rJe mkhan po. Known as the IHo'i
chos 'byung.


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