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Reconstructing Nineteenth Century Trade Route between Bhutan and Assam: Evidences from British Political… Ray, Indrajit; Sarkar, Ratna 2005-12

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 Reconstructing Nineteenth Century Trade Route between
Bhutan and Assam: Evidences from British Political
Indrajit Ray   and Ratna Sarkar
Recent studies contradict a longheld western perception that
Bhutan was a landlocked and isolated kingdom until the
recent times without any significant trade relation with the
rest of the world, i They have dug the contemporary
documents to prove her vibrant trade with the neighbours at
least from the seventeenth century onwards. Side by side with
the present jurisdiction of West Bengal, the kingdom carried
out trade with Assam in those days. The extent of her
historical interconnection with Assam is understood from the
evidence of seven duars (doors)2 between these two places. All
those duars were not, however, safe for long-distance traffic.
The problem of dense forest stood on their ways, and it was
compounded by the settlement of robbers and other antisocial people in their vicinities.3 Safety was ensured only in
the Banska duar through which ran, as the evidence in this
study suggests, a long-distance trade route between Bhutan
and Assam. The present article seeks to identify that trade
route, and to analyse its various facets. The route has not yet
been studied in any detail presumably because of inadequate
source materials. We seek to reconstruct it based on the data
and  information  from  the  reports  of two   British  political
We acknowledge Dr. D.P.Boot, Cartographer, Centre for Himalayan
Studies, North Bengal University for the preparation of maps in this
study, and also for his valuable comments. All errors, however,
remain with the authors.
Reader,  Department of Commerce, University of North Bengal,
Senior   Research   Fellow   (UGC),    Department   of   Commerce,
University of North Bengal, India
 missions, headed respectively by William Griffith4 and Robert
Boileau Pemberton,5 during the first half of the nineteenth
century. Those are supplemented, wherever necessary as well
as feasible, by other source materials.
Section I describes the historiography of trade route in a
nutshell along with the scope of investigation in this study.
Section II defines certain concepts that are involved in the
trade route study. Section III identifies the trade route
between Bhutan and Assam, and elaborates its various
characteristics. Major findings of the study are summarised
by way of conclusion in Section IV.
Section I: Historiography and the scope of study
Although trade routes played an important role in human
civilisation, it seems to have attracted less attention in the
literature than what it deserves. A 20-million strong records
at the Library of Congress database accommodate only 134
titles on Trade Routes.6 Likewise, only 264 trade
thoroughfares are referred in Melvyl database of the
University of California. Most of these trade routes belong to
what is popularly known as the Silk Roads.
The literature on the trade route dates back to the late
nineteenth century when the imperial conflict between Great
Britain and Russia in Asia generated a good amount of
academic interest on the ancient silk route. Since then, the
subject has been enriched so much so that it is now an
integral part of the historiography in Asia. A review of this
literature is available in Drege and Buhrer,7 and Morris
Rossabi.8 The existing literature, however, draws materials
mainly from two distinct sources, literal sources and
archaeological findings. While the earlier studies are based on
the former sources,9 the latter has gained popularity after the
excavation at Xinjiang during the early twentieth century.10
The present study draws exclusively from the literal sources,
especially from books and journals as well as the reports of
political missions visiting Bhutan from British India.
 The two branches of literature, mentioned above, perceive the
function of trade routes from divergent plains. Since the
literate sources recognise only the literate communities, the
trade routes in such studies inevitably highlight 'trans-
civilisation' exchanges. Archaeological evidence, on the other
hand, is able to acknowledge additionally the activities of
non-literate communities, and, hence, focuses on 'trans-
ecological' exchanges along the silk roads between the people
in pastoral settlements and the nomads in the steppes. A
synthesis has, however, been on the offing with the study on
the Eurasian steppe route by Franck and Brownstone.n P. D.
Curtain underscores the importance of such studies by
emphasising, "Goods normally pass across this ecological
divide with greater intensity than they do in more
homogeneous environment."!2 David Christian, however,
seeks to establish the trans-ecological exchange links along
the silk roads by way of analysing the nature of the goods
traded there. 13 Analysing the list of trade-wares published by
al-Muqaddasi in 985 AD, he argued, "Any list of goods traded
along the Silk Roads will show the presence of large amounts
of steppeland or woodland products, while some of the goods
produced in the agrarian world were made especially for
export to the steppes." 14 Recognising the importance of such
studies, the present article seeks to analyse the commodity
composition in Bhutan's trade routes to ascertain the nature
of exchange they represented.
Geography and history are the centrality of the historiography
of the silk roads. Various cities and towns located on them
are identified in the literature to analyse the role played by
trade routes in the exchanges of commodities, technologies,
styles, religionsj5 genes and disease vectors.16 In the
historical perspective, the literature narrates how the trade
routes emerged and flourished as a result of several large
agrarian empires like the Han, Roman, Parthian and the
Kusan,iy and subsequently waned with the rising importance
of the sea-routes, i8 While the historical aspects of Bhutan's
trade routes are kept outside the purview, the present study
concentrates mainly on their geographical outlines.
 The literature also attempts to develop the silk-road 'theory'.
Pioneers in this field are A.G.Frank,ig B.K.Gills,20 J.L.Abu-
Lughod2!, W.G.McNeill22 and others. The central hypothesis of
this group of writers is available in Marshal Hodgson.23 He
notes, "Just as the first urban, literate life would have been
impossible without the accumulation among a great many
peoples of innumerable social habits and inventions, major
and minor, so the great modern cultural mutation
presupposed the contributions of all several citied peoples of
the eastern hemisphere."24 Frank and Gills, in particular,
seek to establish an underlying unity of the Eurasian history,
which they believe to have nurtured a single world system
from 2000 BC onwards.25 In a similar tone, Haraprasad Ray26
underscores the unity of trans-Himalayan civilisation, and its
integration with the world system through the southern silk
roads where Bhutan's trade route was connected. The present
study does not, however, enter into this field of interest.
Section II: Definitions
The trade route literature does not formally define certain
frequently used concepts. The terms like nodes, links, paths,
route etc are loosely defined, and often used interchangeably.
For the sake of clarity, we define certain terms to be used in
this study borrowing from the literature of transportation
network modelling that has been growing fast over the past
few decades.27 There is, in fact, a conceptual identity between
these two fields. Similar to a transportation network, a trade
route is loosely defined as a specific configuration of certain
links connecting a given set of origin (O) and destination (D).
Two differences are, however, noted. First, trade route usually
refers to an extensive coverage between origin and destination
across the country boundaries, often across the boundaries of
the continents, which developed historically over a long
period. The transportation network is, on the other hand,
confined to a metropolis, or at best a conglomeration of
villages and a city. Secondly, trade routes were developed
with a single objective of the flow of trade (though used
subsequently    for    a   variety    of   purposes)    whereas    the
 transportation network is constructed for various purposes
like journey to work-place, journey to residence, shopping
and so on. In this sense, trade route may be considered as a
variety of transportation network. We use the following
terminology in this study.
Origin and Destination: Origin is defined as an important
place like a town or a city where commodities were assembled
for long distance trade. It might not be the place of
production, as understood in the present-day literature of
transportation network. In earlier days, the commodities that
were exported in bulk, were produced scatteredly in tiny
scales in the countrysides, and assembled by traders in a
transit point. That transit point is considered here as the
origin. Destination is likewise defined as a town or a city
where the merchandise was finally sold in bulk. It might not
represent the zone of consumption. The consumers might live
away from the place where the long-distance trade was
terminated. The word 'finally' has been incorporated in the
definition to accommodate the possibility of changing hands
in transit.
Node: In transportation network, a link is defined as a
transport infrastructure that connects two nodes. Thus,
nodes are functionally conceived to define the link.
Figure 1
In the above figure, A, B, C and D are the nodes and AB, BC
and  CD  are  links.   If a node  is  changed,   a different link
 follows. Thus, once the node is shifted from B to B', the link
is also altered. But any place that comes in between two
nodes, such as B//, in the same link is not considered as a
node in the transportation literature since it can not perform
the function ascribed to its concept. A node is, however,
defined here as a place in the trade route that assumed
importance in the past owing to the infrastructure supports it
provided to traders such as marketing facilities, convenience
and safety for taking rest, availability of food and drinks for
the traders as also fodder for pack animals and so on. Thus, a
place like B'/ that comes in between two nodes A and B may
be considered a node in our study if it provided nodal services
to the traders.
Link: A transport infrastructure that connected two nodes is
defined as a link. Under the above definition of nodes, the
direction of journey did not necessarily change even if a
journey shifted from one link to another.
Path: Path is defined as a set of links that connected a given
set of origin and destination. There may be more than one
path for a given O-D. Thus, for the origin (M) and destination
(N), there may be two paths, such as MabN and McN in
Figure 2.
♦ N
Trade Route: We are now in a position to formally define a
trade route. Trade route is a historically evolved network of
various   paths   k,   keK,   for   a   given   pair   of   origin   and
 destination, each path consisting of a number of links a, aeA,
and each link interconnecting two nodes, n; and nj, n, njeN.
This definition corresponds to that of transport network. That
there were a number of paths in the silk roads is recognised
in the literature. The German geographer, Baron Ferdinand
von Richthofen (1833-1905), who coined the term 'silk roads',
used it in plural form.28 'The plural form", according to
Christina, "is important because the Silk Roads consisted of a
constantly shifting network of pathways..."29 He further
noted, "[I]t is possible to trace in the writing sources several
arterial routes [paths, in our terminology] leading from China
to the west. They passed through modern Xinjiang (by at least
three major routes), through central Asia, and then either
through Afghanistan to Kashmir and northern India, or to the
Mediterranean..."30 The distinction between links and paths
in the definition of trade route is, therefore, important for the
sake of clarity in the literature.
Since a trade route is, according to the above definition,
constituted primarily of paths, links and nodes, the
description of a trade route is an account of these
constituents as well as their analysis from the viewpoints of
the logistic supports that they provide to the trade.
Section III: The Trade Route
Traffic in the Bhutan-Assam trade route accommodates
traders of two different origins. There were the Bhutanese
traders who travelled down to Assam for the disposal of
Bhutanese goods, and treaded back with the Assamese ware
to count profit in both ways. The people of Assam were not
interested in this journey.3! fne uncomfortable terrain and
climate in the hills might have prevented them from such
ventures. Secondly, the Tibetans used this route as a path in
the Tibet-Assam trade route, a broader network that formed
an important leg of the southern 'silk roads'.32 There was,
however, another path in the Tibet-Assam route that bypassed Bhutan. It ran via Tawang, a place directly controlled
from Lhasa, to Hajo in Assam through the Kooreah parrah
duar.33 Originating from Tawang a road, however, traversed to
 Tashigang in Bhutan to serve as a link between the two paths
of the Tibet-Assam route. These inner-connectivities with
Tibet explained why the Tibetan traders, the Kumpas,34
dominated traffic in the Bhutan-Assam route. It should be
noted that the Kumpas were so predominant in this route
that some authorities considered as the Kumpas even those
Bhutanese who lived in tents or in temporary booths, and
were employed in the carrying trade down this passage.35
While going to Bhutan under a political mission, Pemberton
noticed several caravans of the Kumpas proceeding towards
Assam. The missionary counted as many as 400 Kumpas in a
single stretch of the route.36 According to his estimate, more
than 2,000 kumpas were regularly involved in this trade
This traffic was not perennial in nature since the bulk of the
Assam-bound commodities were traded through seasonal
fairs.37 Though, in most instances, the fairs in Assam were
symbolic to some religious festivity, those were by and large
the spots of commerce. Assam's annual fair, however, took
place generally in the winter, and this timing was convenient
for journey in the Bhutan-Assam trade route. Roads were
least hazardous during this season. Numerous hilly streams
and torrents criss-crossed the route putting challenges to
journey during the monsoon. But in winter, they were tame
and could be crossed by traders and their animals in safe
along with their trade-wares. Many of them even got dried so
that traders walked along their beds comfortably rather than
going up and down through the uneven terrain of the
mountain. The weather in winter was also conducive for
journey in this region. This factor should be appreciated in
view of heavy rainfall in the places en route the journey. The
average rainfall was 254 cm in the hills and 178 cm in the
plain during the rainy season38 that extended over seven
months from March onwards.39 The travellers should,
therefore, complete their journey before the monsoon set in.
In his tour-diary Pemberton wrote, "They [the Kumpas] return
homewards during the months of February and March, taking
care to leave plains before the return of the hot weathers or
 rains, of both of which they entertain the most serious
apprehensions." 40
Pack animals were the only means of transport in this
mountainous route. Ponies and mules were employed more
frequently for the purpose. Bhutan breed the best pony,
namely the Bhutia Tangun breed,4! {n the early nineteenth
century, and those were evidently in great demand even in
the plains of Bengal. Traders preferred this animal as they
could easily negotiate the rugged terrain of the route, seeking
assistance only in steep ascents and descents. Griffiths noted
that the Bhutanese ponies were spirited, and understood
their duties perfectly. In the line of the march, they proceeded
orderly especially when the road was uneasy. They could
march in such roads at a speed of about 2.5-3.2 km per hour.
"In difficult ascents", he observed, "they are assisted by
pushing up and in descents they are equally assisted by
vigorously pulling at the tail."42 In later years, however, their
quality was deteriorated for the want of well-built stallion
which were exclusively employed in officialdom, and they
became, according to Eden, Vicious, obstinate, weedy,
wretched, animals compared with those of Thibet and
Sikhirn.'43 Their prices also became 'exorbitant' as the mares
began to be widely used for the purpose of domestic carriage
in the countryside. The mules were, however, relatively
cheaper. Sometimes, they were raised by crossbreeding the
Bhutanese pony and the Tibetan ass, but more frequently,
they were imported from Phari in Tibet. Their price in Tibet
was reportedly as cheap as Rs60-70.44 They were 'really
magnificent', as Eden described, and he 'never saw finer or
handsomer animals of this class.'45 But these mules were
more vicious and less manageable than the ponies. Ponies
and mules apart, sheep, goats and asses were also found
plying in this route with cargo. Available information suggests
that the Tibetan breeds were superior in this class of beasts.
The Tibetan sheep, for example, could carry a load of 15-20
kg each as against the carrying capacity of 6-12 kg for the
Bhutanese sheep and goat.46 The ass was, however, the most
robust animal capable of carrying about 40 kg each. But they
 were employed exclusively for carrying salt in this route. The
Kumpas of Tibet also employed the ewes and the yak as the
beast of burden but their uses were limited.
A striking variety was evident in the commodities of exchange
between Bhutan and Assam. The following table gives a
glimpse of this diversity. It is compiled from available
information about three contemporary fairs in Assam where
the Bhutanese traders largely participated. These figures,
however, exclude the barter trade that was reportedly
extensive in such fairs.47
Table 1: The commodities o
between Bhutan and Assam
Bhutanese Commodities
Assamese Commodities
27 nos.
7,596 mds
131 nos.
6,443 mds
25 nos.
Yak tails
165 nos.
Betel nuts
158 mds
21 mds
126 mds
198 mds
Eria      silk
1,207 pes
223 mds
1,467 pes
1,354 mds
2638 pes
10,000 nos
Brass pots
950 nos
Rock salt
Iron bars
275 pes
120 tola
6,673 nos
841 nos.
Source:  W. W.Hunter,
pp. 143-145
A Statistical Account of Assam,   Vol.   1,   1879,
 The table shows that ponies, rock salt, blankets, bee-wax,
spices and gold dominated the Bhutanese commodities of
exchange, and that the Bhutanese traders purchased mainly
paddy, rice, eria silk cloth, and various types of cotton cloths.
The Kacharee tribe of Assam reportedly wove certain varieties
of cloth like dunko lepa cloth and kharu cloth, included
under 'other cloth' in the table, exclusively for sale to the
Bhutanese traders.48 The nature of commodities in this
exchange, however, indicates that this trade route gave rise to
trans-ecological exchanges. Majority of the goods that Assam
exported through this route, as evident in Table 1, were the
products of advanced human civilisation. The goods from the
other end of the route were more of the kind of 'stepeeland or
woodland products'. We may cite in this context the products
like ponies, yak tails, sheep, dogs etc as the products of the
pastoral civilisation, and lac, dye, spice, bee-wax, raw rubber,
walnuts, chillies etc as the forest products. While discussing
the nature of this exchange Pemberton referred to the list of
goods as provided by Ralph Fitch in Hakluyt Voyages (1583),
and remarked, "However wonderful the variety of articles
which the improved manufacturing skill of Europe now
enables the merchants of Bengal to offer in barter for the
produce brought down by those of Tibet and Bhutan; the
latter bring to the market, in diminished quantities, only the
same goods which they imported three centuries ago."49 The
Bhutan-Assam trade route thus corroborates the hypothesis
of Curtin that historically the commodities usually passed
across the ecological divide.
From the tour-dairy of the missions we gather a fair
knowledge about the comparative speeds of travel at different
stretches of this trade route. The speed of traffic in this route
is expected to correspond to that of the missions since they
made the journey with the similar types of animals as the
traders. But two qualifications should be noted in this contest
that might cause variations in travelling speeds between
them. First, the missionaries carried with them only their
provisions whereas the traders moved along their cargo.
Second, the missionaries were completely foreigners to this
 land and climate; in contrast, the traders were regular visitors
in this route. But since these factors affect our estimation in
opposite directions, our judgement is largely balanced. Speed
is here measured as the distance travelled per day assuming
that each march, as reported in Griffiths's tour-dairy, began
at dawn and ended at dusk. With a total distance of 168 km
covered in 11 marches,50 the mean speed in this route comes
to around 15.3 km per day. Wide variations from this mean
value is expected to occur at different stretches of the route
because of the differences in their gradients, as seen in the
annexed map (Map 1). We have estimated that in the hilly
terrain, the speed was less than 14 km per day. On the plain,
in contrast, it was around 17 km a day. Pemberton himself
estimated that the average speed per day was nine miles five
furlong (i.e. around 14.5 km) for a journey in the hilly terrain
between Dewangiri and Poonakha, a distance of about 400
kms. In respect of this estimate, he observed, "In so difficult a
country, with heavily laden collies, [it] is as much as can be
calculated upon with any certainty, at that season of the year,
in which the journey was effected."5! fne speed indeed fell
drastically if the journey was conducted in rainy days.
Tashigang: The Origin
Tashigang was the origin of the Bhutan-Assam trade route. It
was an important place of Bhutan where Raja Chhogyal
Minjur Tempa, the third Deb,52 built a three-storied dzong
(the fortified monastery) facing the river Manas in 1667 after
extending his authority to eastern Bhutan.53 As the dzong
rendered protection to the people from wars and natural
calamities, human settlements used to spring up densely in
and around such dzongs. Tasgong's prosperity in the
contemporary Bhutan also emerged out of such a
development process. By the nineteenth century, it became a
populous settlement with an extended hinterland all around.
Because of this, and also since the dzong participated in the
border trade,54 markets were developed there with supplies of
both the Bhutanese and Tibetan commodities.55 Tashigang,
however, contributed a few commodities to those
transactions. Although there were good arable lands in its
 surrounding villages, surplus production seldom occurred.
Among the articles of export that were produced locally, stick-
lac56 was an important item. It was procured substantively
from the valley of Tashigang. Tashigang was also famous for
straight iron swords, known as das,57 3 feet in length with
spear and arrow head, which the neighbouring countries
highly acclaimed for. Iron ores locally available in the hills at
the northern foot of the castle were used for this purpose.
These apart, maddar (the raw material of manjistha, a dye)
and natural wax were collected from forests in its vicinities
and jubrung (a spice) was procured from the north-east
mountain for the purpose of export. But the majority of the
products that went down the route came from Tibet.
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In fact, Tashigang's importance as the origin was ensured by
its road connections with Tibet, as adumbrated above. There
were two paths between Tashigang and Lhasa, the capital of
Tibet, through the valley ofthe river Manas (vide Map 2). One
 of them ran via Tawang.58 In between Tashigang and Tawang
there were two rivers, the Gamri-chu and the Tawang-chu,
intercepted by a steep spur. A three-day march upstream the
Tawang-chu led to the Bhutan-Tibet Border at Dong Shirna
where a bridge was available to cross the flowing river. From
Tawang a road went to Tsona Dzong, and thence to Lhasa.
The bulk of the Tibetan trade was conveyed over this path to
the plain. There was another path in between Tashigang and
Lhasa. The northern hinterland of Tashigang was dotted with
villages. From one such village, Tashi yangtsi, ran a road
along the Ging-la to Lhasa via Donkar. According to White,
the Ging-la path was 'an easy and good trade route'59 which
the Assam-bound Tibetan traders used extensively during the
winter. The Tibetan merchants, however, brought with them
coloured carpet (especially red), gold dust, rock salt, chowries,
musk, Chinese silk, dye and bee-wax. The Bhutanese traders
used to purchase woollen cloths, rock salts and ponies from
Tibet for the Assam-bound trade.
Some products were, however, added to the merchandise in
the route. The products like walnuts, musk and caoutchouc
(raw rubber) were available mainly in the lower ranges (below
3,000 feet above the sea level). Sometimes, the travelling
traders added those to their merchandise from the places like
Dewangiri;60 but more often, local traders joined the caravans
with those commodities.
Tibetan traders apart, merchants of many distant places used
to visit this route when the communication between Bhutan
and Assam was open through the jurisdiction ofthe Paro Pilo.
The contemporary trade route6! passed through Kashmir,
Nepal, the Mooraug, Benaras, Sikkim, Bhutan and Assam,
and this constituted the southern leg of the Silk Roads. It
ensured as much as four times greater traffic in the Bhutan-
Assam trade route than what plied during the nineteenth
century. Both Bogle and Pemberton, however, noted that the
trade had diminished in the wake of 'the jealousy of the
Chinese administration' who sought to restrict the flow of
British produce  in her market.   Pemberton observed,   "The
 suspicious and monopolising spirit of the Chinese Viceroy of
Gortope is represented as almost effectually paralysing the
operation of his own subjects, and excluding them from the
advantages which would inevitably result from an
unrestricted admission of British produce to the boundless
regions of Tartary and Tibet."62 The Paro Pilo also contributed
to this decay by an attempt to monopolise this trade in
exclusion of other merchants.
Hajo: The Destination
The traders terminated their journey at Hajo in Assam.
Located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in the
erstwhile Kamrup district, the place enjoyed perennial water
transport facilities deep into the province of Bengal. The hill
traders disposed their commodities in the Hajo market where
 the people congregated during the winter on the occasion of a
religious fair at the Mahamuni temple. The temple attracted
the Hindus and the Buddhists alike. The Hindus believed that
a visit to this temple during this festival removed all the sins
of their misdeeds. The people of the Brahmrnical faith,
therefore, thronged on this occasion 'from all parts of India'.
The Buddhists were equally zealous about this place on the
faith that one of their great prophets and legislators was
present there. William Robinson described, "The pious
Buddhist too, imbued with the some faith, leaves his home in
the distant regions of China and Thibet, and crossing the
pathless tracts of the snowy Himalayas, burdened with the
load of his offences, hastens to make obeisance at the shrine
of his country's deity, and departs in joy and gladness,
lightened of his load."63
As at the other ends of the country, the fair at Hajo had a
predominant commercial character. The Bhutanese and the
Tibetan traders sold off their commodities in this fair to the
visiting pilgrims as well as traders. They were, however, less
interested in Indian currency in exchange although the
currency prevailed largely in Bhutan during the first half of
the nineteenth century.64 For making their return journey
profitable, they procured the Assamese commodities as much
as possible. Available information from three contemporary
fairs shows that from the proceeds of their sales, the hill
merchants retained only 35 percent in currency, and
purchased the Assamese goods by the rest.65 Staying for
about three months at Hajo, these hill traders trekked back
along the route in caravans.
Not that all hill traffic was terminated at Hajo. Though it
attracted the lion's share, a few of them were diverted to other
annual fairs at the base of the Bhutan hills. One such fair
was held at Udalgrri in Darang district of Assam during
February or March. Hunter described it as an important fair
from the viewpoint of 'trade with the Bhutias, and other hill
people living beyond the boundary [of Assam]'. He wrote, "It is
attended by Bhutias, Tibetan, and Kamputis, as well as by
 the people of the plains from all the surrounding Districts,
and a few Manipuris."66 Similar fairs were also held at
Kherkeria and at Doimara. Though these places belonged to
the territory of Bhutan, a large number of people from Assam
participated in those fairs, and a trade relation was ensured
between Bhutan and Assam.
Nodes and Links
Away from Tashigang the first resting place for the traders
was Rongtung, around 10 km from the origin. It appears from
the annexed map (vide Map 1) that the difference in altitude
between these places was around 2,000 feet so that the
journey was steep up the hills. Following the waves of the
mountains, the connecting link assumed a zigzag direction.
From Tashigang it descended gradually for a stretch of about
3km along the course of the river Manas running around
1,000 feet above its bed. The road subsequently met the river
Bamri, crossed it at its confluence with another torrent
without any support of a bridge, and then became very steep
upwards for a little long while. The steepness lessened only at
the approach towards Rongtung. The roadsides were not,
however, uniform all along. Till its stretch to the river Bamri,
the wayside places were largely barren, vegetated only with
coarse grasses, stunted shrubs and occasionally with long-
leaf pines. A few villages sparsely occurred about the Bamri,
and as the road reached nearby Rongtung, the terrace
cultivation appeared in sight. Rongtung was basically an
agrarian settlement where rice was cultivated in the summer,
and barley or wheat during the winter. There was the Castle
of Rongtung nearby a stream. Traders in this route took a
night-rest here for further journey onwards.
The next leg of journey was from Rongtung to Balphay, a
distance of around 10 km. The journey continued to be
ascending as Balphay was 1,600 feet above Rongtung (vide
Map 1). The link was very undulating in this area along the
slope of the hills causing the journey hazardous. From
Rongtung, the road inclined steeply, and only after crossing
some depressions, it got a relatively plain stretch through the
 woods of oak. The woods were neither dense nor continuous,
scattering rather here and there on the downs. Beyond those
woods, a sharp inclination followed again, quite abruptly this
time, leading the road to a height of 10,000 feet above the sea
level. The journey was difficult as well as hazardous. It was
particularly so at some places where the road ran along the
edges of barren summits that were covered only with brown
and low grasses. At the fag end of the journey, there was
descent for about 2,000 feet. In its downward course, the
road met a pagoda at a height of 8,000 feet above the sea level
before finally entering Balphay from its north-east. The place,
however, provided good accommodation. Most of the houses
were well-built, covered with split bamboo and secured by
rattans. Such precautions were necessary in this place as
violent winds blew here during the winter from the south and
the south-east. Cultivation was not, however, very developed.
The limited lands that were put into cultivation were meant
primarily for turnips, radishes and barely. The quality of their
yields showed that the soil and climate were not very suitable
for agriculture.
From Balphay the journey proceded to Sasee for about 18 km
through a headlong fall from 6,804 feet above the sea level to
4,325 feet (vide Map 1). The connecting road from Balphay
descended steeply for over 2,500 feet up to the river Geeri.
This link was conspicuously narrow here, and ran through
the decomposed flank of a mountain. An absence of mind
might cause fatal to a traveller. Griffiths noted, "It was of
such a nature that a slip of any sort would in many places [of
the road] have precipitated one several hundred feet."67 The
road then ran downwards over the bed of the river Jiri for
little more than a kilometre. This course was available only
during the winter when the river became dry. Leaving the
riverbed behind, the link took a turn for a continuous upsway
excepting a down of 500 feet, and encountered again the river
Jiri. Crossing the river finally led the road to Sasee. The place
was not at all a prosperous settlement in the third decade of
the nineteenth century. The houses were not as organised as
one found in Balphay. Cultivation was also little undertaken,
 and was confined mainly to barley, buckwheat and hemp.
The next node on the route was Khengumpa, approximately
16 km away from Sasee. Given the difference of longitude
between these nodes (vide Map 1), the link had to ascend by
2,700 feet. But the latter segment of the road was much
steeper than this as its former stretch was descending.
Initially the road from Sasee went downwards up to the river
Dimree. The river remained considerably wide even in winter
but could be crossed along with the laden animals. There was
another torrent a few kilometres away but it remained dry in
winter. In between these rivers, the road ran undulating. But
after crossing the torrent it became very steep upwards, and
continued to be so till Khengumpa was reached. The journey
on this link in caravan was difficult especially when it
proceeded through the open ridges of spurs at the approach
of Khengumpa. The roadsides were not, however, monotonous
in vegetation. It varied from the Bapeel vegetation near Sasee
through the humid and sub-tropical trees near Khengumpa.
There were the woods of fir as well as the forest of oak
resembling, according to Griffiths, 'much our well known
English oak'.68 Khengumpa was also a smaller settlement but
agriculture was relatively developed. There were a number of
valleys surrounding this node where cultivation flourished.
There were also plantations of tobacco and Bobosa (Clensine
Coracana) in gardens attached to the dwelling houses.
The journey then proceeded to Rydong. Around 18 km away
from Khengumpa this settlement grew on the bottom of a
rather narrow valley. Travelling traders used this node as the
final halting place before reaching at the plain. The
inhabitants took agriculture as the mainstay of their
livelihood. A good deal of barley cultivation came to notice in
this place during the winter. In contrast to the previous
journey, however, travel from Khengumpa to Rydong was
descending. It was from 7,000 feet above sea level to 1,900
feet. From the outskirts of Khengumpa the road was steep
and rugged passing along the open ridges of the mountains or
the narrow rock-corridors. During this journey the mountain
vegetation gradually disappeared and the looks of the plain
 came to notice as the road approached Rydong.
From Rydong the route went for about 11 km to reach
Dewangiri. It was the last halting place in Bhutan. There was
no human settlement on the waysides. The journey was easy
as the road was inclined very gently, and also because of the
bridge that was constructed on the river Diu. It was
mandatory for the visiting traders to Assam that they should
return back within a stipulated time. According to the custom
of this border town, the local king allowed the traders to cross
the border only when they left their brethren at the town as
security. These temporary inhabitants constituted a large
segment of population in this place during the trade season.
Dewangiri was, however, a densely populated place. The
people were mostly Bhutanese living in simple huts. A few
stone-built houses were also there during the first half of the
nineteenth century. Such houses were generally three-
storied. The owners used to occupy the middle floor while the
second floor was divided into several compartments for the
purpose of rent. The ground floor was left for cooking. Water
was, however, scarce as no stream or spring ran nearby. The
local people brought water from distant places by aqueducts
made of hollow trunks of small trees. Dewangiri had a special
attraction for temple. There were a number of Buddhist
temples where the travelling traders, by virtue of their faith,
should visit for blessings. An extensive market was developed
in this node for exchanging the hill products with the
products of the plain. The people from Assam, especially the
Kacharees, assembled in this market to trade on barter their
own products like rice and dried fish for the manjistha.
The next halting place was Ghoorgong, around 13 km away
from Dewangiri. The road descended steeply at its initial
stretch, and boulders scattering on the way frequently
obstructed the journey. Soon it met the Durunga, a river that
remained dry in winter. Similar to the river Jiri, this river bed
was used in winter by the caravans to march for a few
kilometres. Along the river course they left the hills and
entered Ghoorgong from its west. This first node in Assam
 was very close to the hills, and the intermediate gentle slope
was covered with fine sward. There was hardly any cultivation
in and around this place presumably because of unfriendly
soils. The people perhaps lived on pasturing.
Leaving Ghoorgong the route advanced to Hazareegong. This
was a 13-km journey. No land on the waysides was
cultivated; nor was there any trace of villages. Only the woods
of sirnool emerged occasionally in sight. The interception of
river was also minimal. Only once the river Mutanga crossed
the connecting road. Though this river remained wide and
violent during the rainy season, it was almost without water
during the winter so that the caravans could cross it without
much inconvenience. Hazareegong was, however,
predominated by the Bhutanese although it belonged to
Assam. Agriculture could not flourish here, as the soils were
less fertile. There was one resting-place at Hazareegong,
locally called wam-ghur, where travellers took rest at night.
From Hazareegong the road went to Dhamdhama at a
distance of about 15 km. The waysides were plain as before,
and covered with dense reed and grass jungle. Only a few
small and impoverished villages came on the way. This
stretch of land earlier accommodated some large villages, but
those were destroyed, as Pemberton noted, 'from the effects of
the hostile invasion by our troops under Captain Bogle in
1836.69 The connecting road bore a sign of negligence albiet
its jurisdiction under the British governance. It got better
maintenance only at the proximity of the mainland. A small
but rapid stream, however, intercepted the road twice with a
bed of pebbles. Fewer inconveniences were met to negotiate
these interceptions. But difficulties cropped up to cross
another river, the Noa Nuddee, at the fag end of the link.
Because of its sandbank and quick sands, any venture on
foot involved risks. Even in winter, the river flowed at a speed
of around 5 kmph for a width of 70 yards. Elephants were
usually employed here to ferry. On the bank of this river,
Dhamdhama was situated. It was basically an agrarian
settlement. The people cultivated rice as the main crop and
 the oilseeds the next. Sugarcane was also cultivated to some
From Dhamdhama the caravans advanced about 16 km for
the next halt at Nalbari. There was neither any river nor any
long stretch of woods on the way. The waysides were dotted
with villages, which, as Griffiths described, were concealed
under the bamboo bushes from the views of the travellers.
These villages also caught the notice of Pemberton. He noted,
"All the fruit trees common to Bengal were found growing in
profusion around the houses of the inhabitants; the herds of
cattle were numerous and in the finest condition, and
everything bespoke happiness and content.70 Nalbari was,
however, a busy commercial centre. A good number of
migrant Marwari merchants settled here during the
nineteenth century. These merchants owned several
warehouses for long-distance trade, and dealt mainly with
visiting traders.
The 27-km journey in the last leg, i.e. from Nalbari to Hajo,
ran amidst extensively cultivated fields and the clusters of
village, much similar to the preceding roadsides. There were
also a number of jheels, the big ponds, well stocked with
waterfowl and waders. The otherwise easy journey on this
plain was, however, circumvented by as many as four rivers,
at least two of which threw challenges to cross.
Section IV: Conclusion
This study thus shows that there was a lively trade route
between Bhutan and Assam during the nineteenth century.
From Tashigang in Bhutan it ran around 170 km to reach
Hajo in Assam with its intermediate stretch distributed
almost equally between the hills and the plain. The route
consisted of eleven links out of which six belonged to the hill
terrain and five in the plain. Journey on the mountain links
was tedious, and involved a good amount of risk. Adversities
were generated out of steep ascends and descends of the links
as well as from their narrow breaths over the open ridges of
the mountains. Though these hazards were absent in the
 journey on plain, the obstacles here were created by the rivers
which did not go dry even in winter. Most of the rivers in the
hills, however, remained dry in winter so that the travellers
walked over their beds in caravans.
This route assumed importance because of the fact that,
apart from the Bhutanese, a large number of Tibetan traders
used this course. There were two paths connecting Tibet with
this route through the valley of the Manas. Those are: a) a
path via Tashigang and b) a path via Donkar through the
Ging la. Caravans used to ply on this route during the winter
because of favourable climate and also to take advantage of
dry river courses. The pack animals that the traders used
consisted of ponies, mules and asses in the main, and sheep,
goat, asses, ewes and yak to some extent. The Tibetan species
dominated among the beasts of burden. Also the Tibetan
goods were predominant in the cargo. Either the Bhutanese
traders imported those from Tibet, or the kumpas directly
brought those down the route. The nature of the commodities
traded between Bhutan and Assam indicates that the trade
route gave rise to trans-ecological exchanges in conformity
with the hypothesis of Curtrn.
Abu-Lughod,   J.L.   (1989)   Before  European  hegemony:   The
world system, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bentley,  J.H.   (1993)   Old world encounters;   cross  cultural
contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times, Oxford:
Oxford University Press
Boot, D.P. The Dzongs of Bhutan', in Himalayan Miscellany,
Vol. 4, Centre for Himalayan Studies, 1990.
Boulnois, L. (1966) The Silk Road (trans.) D.Chamberlain
Christaina, David., 'Silk roads or steppe roads? The silk roads
in world history', Journal of World History, Vol. 11, No.
1, 2000.
Ciolek,   T.   Matthew.,   Digitising   Data   on   Eurasian   Trade
Routes: an experimental notation system
 http: / /
Curtain, P.D.  (1985)  Cross Cultural Trade in World History,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Das, Nirmala (1974) The Dragon Country, New Delhi: Orient
Longman Limited
Diamond, J. (1988) Guns, Germs and Steel, London: Vintage
Dorje, CT. (1995)A Political and Religious History of Bhutan
(1651- 1906), Delhi: Mrs Sangay Xam, Thimphu and
Prominent Publishers
Drege, J.P. and E.M.Buhrer, (1989) The silk road Saga, Facts
on File, New York
Florian,   M.   (ed.),   (1984)   Transportation   Planning  Models,
Amsterdam: North-Holland
Franck, I.M. and D.M.Brownstone, (1986)  The Silk Road: A
history, Facts on File, New York
Frank, A.G. (1998) ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age,
Berkley: University of California Press
Frank, A.G. and B.K.Gills (ed), (1992) The World System: Five
Hundred Years or Five Thousand, New York: Routledge
Griffith, William "Bhutan,   1837-1838" in Asian Educational
Services, 2003
Hodgson,   M.G.S.    The   Great   Western   Transmutation'   in
Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and
world    History,     Edmund    Burke    III,     Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Hopkrik, Peter (1980) Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The
Search for the Lost Treasure of Central Asia, Oxford:
Oxford University Press
Hunter, W.W.  (1879) A Statistical Account of Assam, Vol.1,
London: Trubner & Co.
NA   (1908)   Imperial   Gazetteer   of  India,   Vol.   XI,   Oxford:
Clarendon Press
Karan, Pradyumna P. (1967) Bhutan: A Physical and Cultural
Geography, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press
Kuloy,   H.   K.   ed.,   Political  Missions to  Bootan,   Manjushri
Publishing House, New Delhi, 1972.
M'Cosh,   John   (1837)   Topography  of Assam,   Delhi:   Logos
McNeill, W.H.  "World History and the Rise of the West" in
 Journal of World History, Vol.9, 1998
Pemberton, R. Boileu (1839) Report on Bootan, Bengal Military
Orphan Press
Pommeret, Francoise "Ancient Trade Partners: Bhutan, Cooch
Bihar and Assam (17th - 19th centuries)" Journal of
Bhutan Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Autumn, 2000
Ray, Haraprasad 'Trade Routes From Northern India and
Bangladesh to South and Southwest China: Some
suggestions for an integral economic development of
the region" in Asiatic Studies, Vol. 18, No.l & 2, 2000
Rennie, David Field (1970) Bhotan and the Story ofthe Doar
War, New Delhi: Manjusri Publishing House
Rhodes, Nicholas "Coinage in Bhutan" in Journal of Bhutan
Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn, 1999.
Robinson, Wlliam (1975) Descriptive Account of Asam: with a
Sketch ofthe Tea-Plant of Asam: to which is added, A
Short Account of The Neighbouring Tribes , exhibiting
their History, Manners, and Customs, Delhi:
Sanakaran Prakashak
Rossabi, Morris (1990) 'The Decline of the Central Asian
Caravan Trade" in Ecology and Empire, Vol. 1, Nomads
in the Cultural Evolution of the Old World, G.Seaman
(ed)Ethnographies /USC, Los Angeles
White, J. Claude (1971) Sikkim and Bhutan, Twenty-One
Years on the North-East Frontier, 1887-1908, Delhi:
Vivek Publishing House
1 Vide for example Francoise Pommeret in his article 'Ancient Trade
Partners: Bhutan, Cooch Bihar and Assam (17th - 19th centuries)',
Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Autumn, 2000, P.l. She
contested the hypothesis, advocated, among others, by CT. Dorji
that "The kingdom remained a sealed book for many centuries...."
See his A Political and Religious History of Bhutan (1651-1906), p.l.
2 The seven duars were Ghurkola, Banska, Chapaguri, Chapakamar
and Bijni in Kamrup district, and Buri-guma and Kullung in the
Darrang   district.   There   was   another   duar,   Kuriapara   duar,   in
 jurisdiction of Tawang Rajah. For details of these duars see William
Robinson's Descriptive Account of Asam: with a Sketch of the Tea-
Plant of Asam, p. 348, p. 294.
3 Regarding the forest of one such duar Kishen Kant Bose noted,
from Bijni to Wandipore in Bhutan through very high jungle to the
extent An elephant or rhinoceros cannot be seen in it when standing
up, In this jungle, when the sun shines, the heat is intolerable, and
when sun ceases to shine a person cannot remain in it without a fire
on account of innumberable mosquitoes and other insects with
which it is filled'. See Kuloy, H. K. ed., Political Missions to Bootan,
Baboo Kishen Kant Bose's Account of Bootan.(1815), p.355. For the
details of antisocial elements. See John M'Cosh's Topography of
Assam, p. 135.
4 William Griffith, Bhutan 1837-1838.
5 R.Boileu Pemberton, Report on Bootan.
6 T.Matthew Ciolek, Digitising Data on Eurasian Trade Routes: an
experimental notation system p. 2.
7 J.P.Drege and E.M.Buhrer, The silk road Saga, Facts on File.
NewYork, 1989.
8 Morris Rossabi, The silk roads: An educational Resource',
Education About Asia, Vol.4, 1999, pp. 16-20.
9 See, for example, L.Boulnois, The silk road, trans. D.Chamberlain,
1966; I.M.Franck and D.M.Brownstone, The silk road: A history,
Facts on File.
10 See Peter Hopkrik, Foreign devils on the silk road: The search for
the lost treasure of central Asia.
11 Franck and Brownstone, The silk road, pp.30-32.
12 P.D.Curtain, Cross cultural trade in world history, p. 16.
 13 David Christain, "Silk roads or steppe roads? The silk roads in
world history", Journal of World History, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2000, pp.l-
i4 ibid. p. 7.
15 por religious and cultural exchanges, see J.H.Bentley, Old world
encounters; Cross cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern
times, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993
16 For the spread of disease and the exchange of gene along the silk
roads, see J.Diamond, Guns, germs and steel, Vintage, London,
1988, chap. 11.
17 L.Boulnois, The silk road, p.60.
18 For the decline of land routes in the silk roads, vide Morris
Rossabi, The decline of the central Asian caravan trade' in Ecology
and Empire, Vol.1, Nomads in the cultural evolution ofthe old world,
ed G.Seaman, Ethnogtaphics/USC, Los Angeles, 1990, pp.81-102.
19 A.G.Frank, ReOrient: Global economy in the Asian age, University
of California Press, Berkley, 1998.
20 A.G.Frank and B.K.Gills (ed), The world system: Five hundred
years or five thousand, Routledge, NewYork, 1992.
21 J.L.Abu-Lughod, Before European hegemony: The world system,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.
22 W.H.McNeill, World history and the rise of the west', Journal of
World History, v.9, 1998, pp.215-236.
23 M.G.S.Hodgson, The great western transmutation' in Rethinking
world history: Essays on Europe, Islam and world history, Edmund
Burke III, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p.47.
24 Ibid
25 Frank and Gill, The world system.
 26Haraprasad Ray, Trade routes from northern India and
Bangladesh to south and southwest China: Some suggestions for an
integral economic development ofthe region', Asiatic Studies, v. 18,
no. 1 &2, pp. 118-119.
27 M.Florian, An introduction to network models used in
Transportation planning' in M.Florian (ed.) Transportation Planning
Models pp .137-152
28 The term he used is Die Seidenstrassen. Vide Drege and Buhrer,
The silk road Saga, p.6
29 David Christania, Silk roads or steppe roads? The silk roads in
world history, Journal of World History, v. 11, no. 1, 2000, p.2
30 ibid. p. 5
31 This is deducted from the evidence that the hill traders returned
back from Assam with merchandise. See W.W.Hunter A Statistical
Account of Assam, vol. 1, p. This is also no evidence in the literature
that the Assamese traders visited the hills.
32 Haraprasad Ray, Trade routes from northern India and
Bangladesh to south and southwest China', pp. 118-119.
33 R.Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.78.
34 Kumpa was the southern portion of Tibet lying between the right
bank of the river Tsanpo and the northern ridges of Bhutan. See for
details David Field Rennie, Bhotan and the Story of the Doar War,
35 William Robinson, Descriptive Account of Asam, p. 347.
36 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p. 19.
37 W.W.Hunter, A Statistical Account of Assam, vol. 1, pp. 143-145.
38 Imperial Gazetteer of India, vol. XI, p. 183.
 39 W.W.Hunter, A Statistical Account of Assam, vol.1, p.95.
40 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.79.
41 H.K.Kuloy, ed.,Political Missions to Bootan, the Hon'ble Ashley
Eden:Report on the State of Bootan and on the Progress of the
Mission of 1863-64, p. 124.
42 H.K.Kuloy, ed.,Political Missions to Bootan, Dr. William Griffiths:
Journal ofthe Mission to Bootan in 1837-38, p.328.
43 H.K.Kuloy, ed.,Political Missions to Bootan, the Hon'ble Ashley
Eden: Report on the State of Bootan and on the Progress of the
Mission of 1863-64, p. 124.
44 ibid.
45 ibid.
46 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p. 70.
47 W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Assam, vol.1, pp. 143-145.
48 ibid. p. 144.
49 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.81.
50 Willium Griffith, Bhutan 1837-1838.
51 R.Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.40.
52 The Deb Raja was the Prime Minister of Bhutan. He was the
principal organ of the Government. Under his control there were four
Governors or Pilo of four regions, Punakha, Paro, Wandipoor, and
Tongsa. See H.K.Kuloy,ed.,Political Missions to Bootan, Baboo
Kishen Kant Bose: Account of Bootan,(1815), pp.342-346.
53 Nirmala Das, The Dragon Country, p.70.
 54 D.P. Boot, The Dzongs of Bhutan', Himalayan Miscellany, vol. 4,
1999, p.99.
55 An   important   market   emerged   below   the   Tashigang   dzong.
[Pradyumna P. Karan, p.64.]
56 J. Claude White, Sikkim and Bhutan, Twenty-One Years on the
North-East Frontier, 1887-1908, p. 190
57 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.75.
58 ibid. p.78.
59 J. Claude White, Sikkim and Bhutan, p. 194.
60 The place is presently called Dewathang.
61 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.80.
62 ibid.
63 William Robinson, Descriptive Account of Asam, p. 259.
64 Nicholas   Rhodes,    'Coinage   in   Bhutan',   Journal   of Bhutan
Studies,Vol.1, No. 1, Autumn, 1999, pp. 105-107.
65 See Table 1 above.
66 W.W.Hunter, A Statistical Account of Assam, vol.1, p. 143.
67 H.K.Kuloy, ed., Political Missions to Bootan, Dr. William Griffiths:
Journal ofthe Mission to Bootan in 1837-38, p.280.
68 ibid, p.279.
69 R. Boileau Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.39.
70 ibid.


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