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Two Nineteenth Century Trade Routes in the Eastern Himalayas: the Bhutanese trade with Tibet and Bengal Sarkar, Ratna; Ray, Indrajit 2006-12

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 Two   Nineteenth   Century  Trade   Routes   in  the   Eastern
Himalayas: the Bhutanese trade with Tibet and Bengal*
Ratna Sarkar** and Indrajit Ray***
From the early modern era, Bhutan had been carrying out
regular caravan trade on the rugged Himalayan terrain with
Bengal on the south and Tibet on the north. This is evident in
the contemporary Bengali Uterature, which refers to several
Bhutanese commodities, and also in the writings of foreign
traveUers. In 1626, a foreign traveUer noted that Bhutan was
"well provided with Chinese merchandise such as silk, gold
and porcelain"11, and those came through Tibet. According to
an eighteenth century document, her annual trade was worth
of Rs 200 thousand with Bengal and Rs 150 thousand with
Tibet, including China.22 The trade continued, and perhaps
flourished, during the nineteenth century. In this century, we
are told of an annual event of Bhutan's royal caravan going to
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and also her trade with Rangpur,
a business city of contemporary Bengal. The trade seems
largely to be of a transit character since several export
commodities - salt, gold, tea, pearls and corals, for example -
were not of Bhutanese origin. Both Bengal and Tibetan goods
could be noticed in either route along with Bhutanese
commodities. The transit nature of this trade came in the
UmeUght when the British administration in Bengal
temporarily sealed the Bhutan border. It jeopardized the
Bhutanese trade with Tibet and China since "in truth the
We acknowledge Dr. D.P.Boot, Cartographer, Centre for Himalayan
Studies, North Bengal University for the preparation of maps in this
Senior   Research    Fellow    (UGC),    Department   of   Commerce,
University of North Bengal, India
Reader,  Department of Commerce, University of North Bengal,
1 Deb, Bhutan and India, p. 56.
2 Gupta, British Relations with Bhutan, p. 19.
56 |
 Bhuteahs have nothing to give in exchange for the
commodities of other countries."3 It is highly probable,
therefore, that the Tibetan and Chinese traders could be seen
in the Bhutan-Bengal route, and the Bengali traders in the
Bhutan-Tibet route. In fact, a sixteenth century merchant
Ralph Fitch noted in his travelogue the movement of Chinese
caravans in the Bhutan-Bengal trade route.
In this background, the present article seeks to identify the
routes of trade between Bhutan on the one hand, and Tibet
and Bengal, on the other. It discusses various travel
characteristics in these routes, and describes their origins,
destinations, nodes and links, as defined in an earUer article.4
Data and information available in the late eighteenth and
nineteenth century reports of various British poUtical
missionaries Uke Bogle (1774), Turner (1783), Bose (1815),
Griffiths (1837-38), Pemberton (1837-38) and Eden (1863-64)
have been used. There are four parts in what foUows. The first
two parts concentrate on the details of the Bhutan-Tibet route
and its travel characteristics, respectively. The foUowing two
parts deal with the sirmlar descriptions of the Bhutan-Bengal
There were four alternative routes between Bhutan and Tibet
that traders used at different periods: (1) Paro-Lhasa, (2)
Punakha-Gyantse- Shigatse- Lhasa, (3) Bumthang-Lhasa, and
(4) Tashigang-Lhasa. Though these routes had a common
destination, viz.  Lhasa, which happened to be the greatest
3 Eden, "Report on the State of Bootan and on the Progress of the
Mission of 1863-64" in Kuloy (ed.), Political Mssions to Bootan,
p. 129.
4 Ray and Sarkar, "Reconstructing of Nineteenth Century Trade
Route between Bhutan and Assam: Evidences from British Political
Missions", Journal of Bhutan Studies, Volume 13, Winter, 2005,
57 |
 trade centre in Tibet, they had different origins, viz. Paro,
Punakha, Bumthang and Trashigang. These origins assumed
different levels of importance in Bhutan's domestic trade at
different historical epochs, with their rises and faUs being
occasioned by frequent enmity and rivalry among their
regional chieftains. There were, indeed, road linkages
amongst them so that gradual diversion of trade from one
centre to another was possible. All the routes were not,
however, competitive. For instance, the Trashigang-Lhasa
route was meant for Assam-bound traffic whereas the Paro-
Lhasa route carried Tibetan traffic that were destined to
Bengal. The present article takes up the Paro-Lhasa route in
view of the availabiUty of requisite data and information, and
also the thrust area of this study that includes the Bhutan-
Tibet route side by side the Bhutan-Bengal route.
Both in Bhutan and Tibet, the state was grossly involved in
the country's external trade so that the benefit of trade went
largely to the king, his nobles and other associates including
the monasteries. On the Bhutanese trade CoUister observed,
"[A]ny trade in more valuable goods was entirely for the
benefit of the Deb Raja and principal officers."5 In Tibet, they
were, according to F. Grenard, the great nobles and
monasteries "who together with the state were the only
merchants on a large scale."6 Other similarities were also
noticed in the ownership and execution of foreign trade in
these countries. First, since the big merchants Uke the king
or his nobles did not participate in the detailed execution of
trade, they used to employ trade agents and professional
persons to accompany the caravans. These people, therefore,
got a share of trade benefits. Secondly, both countries allowed
small merchants to carry out trade on their own. They traded
mostly with their counterparts in the neighbour countries,
but sometimes with their big merchants as weU.
In the cross-border trade these small merchants disposed of
5 Collister, Bhutan and the British, p.21.
6 Grenard, Tibet: The Country and its inhabitants, p.286.
58 |
 their wares in transit points with a view either to avoid the
hazards in the forward trade, or in submission to the
prevaiUng custom. The prevailing custom was that a
particular group of merchants dominated a given stretch of
the route. Thus, for example, the Bumthang merchants
controUed the trade route from Bumthang to Lhasa whUe the
merchants of Punakha controUed trade in between Gyantse
and Shingatse, and monopoUsed trade up the valley of the
river Mo Chu to Lingshi La.7 Lastly, although the major trade
was carried out by the state in both countries, production
was left entirely to private enterprises. Productive activities,
basically primary in nature, were undertaken by farmers who
sold their output in local markets to the state agents, the
Lamas, the grandees and foreign traders. Traders had no
large stake in production. Purchasing goods from local
markets, they "fit out large caravans to carry it to places at
several months" march.8
Although temperature during the winter dropped to the
freezing point in the Himalayan kingdoms, it was by far the
best season for caravan trade. The chance of rain was least;
also the river beds were dry so that the caravans could
smoothly proceed along those beds minimizing their toil and
fataUties. Food was cheap, especially barley, meat and wine,
and easUy available in the route-side locaUties.9 Also, this was
the season when farm activities were slack, and farmers had
time to vend their crops and to opt for subsidiary jobs. In
Tibet, for example, farmers in winter "proceeded to northern
Tibet to lay in their stock of salt, obtained from the salt lakes
that found there. Then these men start for Bhutan, Nepal or
Sikkim, to seU their goods in those places."10 Despite snow
and frost in the route, therefore, "winter was the best season
to travel to Lhasa"11 for the purpose of trade. The average
7 Karan, A Physical and Cultural Geography, p.47.
8 Grenard, Tibet: The Country and its inhabitants, p.286.
9 Das, Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, p.85.
10 Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet, p. 458.
11 Das, Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, p. 85.
59 |
 temperature was around 20 C in this season.
Caravans were led, human beings apart, by a host of animals
Uke mules, ponies, horses, yaks, sheep etc. who could
negotiate the narrow rugged paths in mountains. On the
point of pack animals, however, differences were noticed
between the Bhutanese and Tibetan caravans. Horses
dominated the caravans of Tibet as those were low-cost
animals there. Because of their cheapness, even the Tibetan
farmers employed them for carrying loads from the field - a
feature never found in Bhutan.12 Bhutanese caravans, on the
other hand, were dominated by human beings, especially the
woman folk. Turner wrote, 'The modes of conveyance here [in
Tibet] for baggage are altogether different from the usage of
the inhabitants of Bootan, where every thing, without
exception, is loaded upon the shoulders of the people, and
where, to their shame be it spoken, the women bear the
heaviest share of so laborious an employment."13 SimUar was
the opinion of Bogle. He reported, 'The only way of
transporting goods in this hilly country [Bhutan] is by
cooUes."14 Unlike porters in the plain who carried loads on the
head, Bhutanese porters fastened the burden upon their
backs with a short stick in hand to support it at the time of
rest. Even a girl of eighteen years of age could carry a weight
of 70-75 pounds, and marched at 15-18 miles speed a day.
This job was not, however, class-specific in the Bhutanese
society. When caravans passed through a viUage, its dweUers
were recruited at the behest of its headman, and were relieved
at the next convenient vUlage of recruitment. There was no
market rate of wage for this unskiUed job; the pleasure of the
caravan-master was all what determined it. 'This is a service
so weU established that the people submit to it without
murmuring.  Neither sex,  nor youth,  nor age exempt them
12 Mehra, Bhutan: Land ofthe Peaceful Dragon, p. 18.
13 Turner, An Account of An Embassy to the Court ofthe Teshoo Lama
in Tibet, p.208.
14 Ramphell, Bhutan through the Ages, vol. 2, p. 148.
60 |
 from it."15
Both the Bhutanese and the Tibetans extensively used yaks
in their caravans. Because of their heavy body weight and
shorter legs, these animals could easily negotiate the rugged
mountain passes against strong winds and water currents.
They were also least selective in their diet, being satiated with
whatever grass, soft or hard, was available wayside. The
caravan-master was thus relieved of arranging fodder when
yaks were in job. They evidently marched 9-10 miles a day in
mountains and at about 16 miles on the plain though horses
could run at double this speed.16 Caravans of sheep were,
however, generaUy popular among the nomads in hiUs.
Sirmlar to other historical trade routes in the world, the
traders in these Himalayan tracks preferred larger sized
caravans presumably on account of the economies of scale
and also out of fear from brigands. A source suggests that
each caravan in these routes consisted at least of eight
hundred animals and ninety men.17
Exports from Bhutan consisted of her domestic products like
rice, woollen cloth, munjeet (a type of dye) and wrought iron,
as well as imported products from Bengal such as English
broad cloth, indigo, tobacco, coral, leather and sandal-wood.
Since Tibet was sterUe in grain crops, her people necessitated
for their UveUhood the import of rice, both boiled and
parched, along with wheat and flour. WhUe much of these
imports were domestically consumed, some food grains were
also re-exported "for the Chinese functionaries and
officials".18 Next to food came garments in importance,
especially wooUen products and broad cloths. These imported
garments were fashionable only among the nobles, including
the lamas, as the common people were to satisfy themselves
with coarse woollen dresses and cloths woven domesticaUy.
15 Ibid.
16 Grenard, Tibet: The Country and its inhabitants, p. 289.
17 Ibid., p.287.
18 Ibid., p.295.
61  |
 Imported woollen cloths found an additional extensive outlet
in temple decorations. For their cotton garments, however,
Tibetan women preferred the colour of white, in addition to
Ught-blue and russet,19 and to sustain whiteness in cloths
perhaps, the imported indigo was in great demand. For
industrial purposes, again, Tibet imported wrought iron that
was manufactured in Bhutan out of her own deposits of iron
ore at Paro. This was used for the manufacture of small arms
in an arsenal located at Dib near Che-Cho-Ling.20
Bhutan's import from Tibet consisted of raw wool, musk, tea,
silver, gold, embroidered sUk piece-goods and rock salt. Some
of these were domesticaUy available in Tibet while others were
Chinese in origin. Among the domestic products, gold was an
important mineral that was deposited in the form of gold dust
at Thokjalung and Chakchak in the Ngare province in
western Tibet to some extent, and richly in its central
provinces. It so abounded in the country that, according to
Hue and Gabet, even "the common shepherds have become
acquainted with the art of purifying these precious metals".21
Another important item was musk that hunters gathered
from deer. Musk deer inhabited the forests in Kong-bo, Tsari
and Lo where dwellers hunted them to barter for their daily
necessities and ornaments. Although it had low market price
in those places, especially at Lo, exorbitant transportation
costs were involved because of high risk and danger from
highway robbery—only "uncommonly adventurous [people]
proceeded thither to get a supply from the natives".22 Tibetan
rock salt was also an item of import in Bhutan which she
largely re-exported to Bengal. Bengal had no other source
than this though it had high demand on account of prevailing
19 Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet, pp.452-453.
20 Ibid., p.447.
21 Referred in Colman Macaulay, 'Memorandum on our Relation with
Tibet' in Sharma and Sharma, (eds.), Encyclopaedia of Tibet, Vol. 2,
Travels and Memoirs of Tibet, p. 19. This part was taken from Report
of Mission to Sikkim and the Tibetan Frontier, 1884.
22 Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet, p. 450.
62 |
 socio-reUgious and medicinal practices. As noted above, these
salts were extensively available in north Tibet. Last but not
the least, Tibet was a bulk exporter of raw wool. Rearing of
sheep was a household activity in Tibet that generated
substantial raw wool. It was partly used domesticaUy in the
thriving wooUen industry at Lhasa and its surrounding
districts, and partly exported to neighbouring countries.
About 1500 mule-packs of wool were annually exported to
Bhutan in the late nineteenth century.23
Part II
Paro: The Origin
Paro was historically developed as a fort town in a valley. The
fort, locaUy caUed dzong, was constructed more than four
centuries ago for the protection of cultivators and also to
appoint government officials such as penlops and dzongpons
to administer the country. Under the dzong's protection from
wars, internal disorder and natural calamities, an extensive
human settlement encompassing various economic activities
and institutions, including markets, was developed within a
periphery of quarter a mUe from this dzong. There were long
stretches of good arable land in the valley, especially at its
lower elevations and in the plain, which afforded the
cultivation of rice and wheat. Also, its hUl contour, a few
kilometres away, contained a significant quantity of iron that
was extracted in a naive way for the purpose of construction
and industries. Local people separated iron from sandy soils
by using a magnet, and heaped it for sale as iron dust.24 In
fact, a nearby hUl was called Chakolah, 'Iron Mountain',
because of its iron deposit. In the late nineteenth century,
23 Ibid., p.448.
24 Eden, "Report on the State of Bootan and on the Progress of the
Mission of 1863-64" in Kuloy (ed.), Political Mssions to Bootan, p.92.
63 |
 there was an iron ore mine at a distance of two days' journey
from Paro.
Owing to its location advantages, Paro emerged as an
important trade centre in the eastern Himalayas. It was
connected in the north with Phari, an important commercial
town of Tibet,25 and in the south with Rangpur in Bengal.
While describing its locational advantage in the eastern
Himalayan trade, Eden observed, "Paro from its situation
should be one of the largest cities in the East; situated in a
perfectly level plain, easy of access from the low country, only
two easy marches by an exceUent road from one of the chief
marts in Thibet, it ought to be the entrepot of the trade of
Thibet, Tartary, China, and India".26 Because of these
advantages, Paro's market was dotted with a large number of
big depots containing various imported products Uke broadcloth, cotton-goods, cutlery, rice, corals, tea, spices, kincobs,
leather, and misceUaneous articles of European manufacture
along with rock-salt, musk, gold-dust, borax, and sUk.
Lhasa: The Destination
Lhasa, the largest as well as the oldest city of Tibet, was set
up in about AD 400 by King Srong-tsan-Gampo. The major
domestic products such as gold, raw wool, woollen products,
rock salt and musk that Lhasa exported, have already been
discussed. Among other domestic products that found vent
from this place were borax, drugs, ponies, brass utensUs and
incense sticks. Apart from these domestic goods, a variety of
foreign goods were available in Lhasa because of her excellent
Unkages with two major countries in Asia, viz. India and
China, and this ensured her as a unique destination for trade
between Bhutan and Tibet. On the east, it was connected
with China from primeval time. From this path went an
extension westwards of Lhasa towards Kashmir and India
25 Ibid., p.90.
26 Ibid.,
64 |
 providing it accessibUity to those places. On the north east, it
had a road link with China extending to Manchuria, and on
the west with Leh, "the capital of the farthest outlying
province of Kashmir-Ladak".27 Its southern border was
connected with a number of places in Bhutan, that we have
already noted, and also with Nepal and Sikkim.
Bounds      j^-1 Route
Pass I 1   „     ,
-■-   I Hot Spring
Map 1
Source: Compiled from L.A.Waddell, Lhasa
and its Mysteries: "With a Record of
the E-xoqdition of 1903-1904
Lhasa's well-knitted road network with the Himalayan
kingdoms generated two important characteristics for her
trade. Firstly, a number of non-Tibetan merchants, especiaUy
Kashmiris,    came   to    settle   in   Lhasa,    and   ran   trading
27 Holdich, Tibet, The Mysterious, p.44.
65 |
 enterprises. Akin to the role of the Jews in European trade,
the Kashmiris used to play a pivotal role in the east
Himalayan trade over China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and
Bengal.28 Secondly, commodities from several countries
adorned the markets of Lhasa giving it a cosmopolitan
character. China provided it with tea, sUk, carpet and
porcelain articles, and Mongolia supplied it leather, saddlery,
sheep and horses. Rice, sugar, musk and tobacco came from
Bhutan and Sikkim, and broadcloth, indigo, brass-works,
coral, pearls, sugar, spices and drugs from Nepal. Though a
number of goods from Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim were made
in India, Indian goods were also supplied there directly
through Lhadak. In response to the demand from travelUng
traders in the city, however, a number of hotels and inns
sprang up in Lhasa. On the fringe of its every market place
one encountered a chain of eateries where various meats and
flour predominated.29 These eateries revealed the nonresident character of the trading community at Lhasa.
Nodes and Links
From Paro the first resting place for Tibet-bound caravans
from Bhutan was 14 km away at Dakya Dzong (vide Map 1), a
walled fort that was constructed to combat the Tibetan
invasion. The intermediate road, moderately ascending, ran
through a vaUey of pines, and met with scattered vUlages on
the wayside, which thrived primarily on breeding tangan
horses. Agriculture was only a subsidiary occupation there.
The dzong, however, provided shelter to traveUing traders
along with their animals in stables. Taking night stay there,
they proceeded along the vaUey towards a Tibetan border, the
viUage Sana, on the same ascending road. DweUers in this
border mostly wove coarse wooUens, again with agriculture as
their subsidiary Uvelihood. There was a guard house there
'where a party of Booteah was stationed, who permit no one
28 Collister, Bhutan and the British, p.21.
29 Landon, Lhasa: The Mysterious City, Vol. II, pp.275-276.
66 |
 to pass their frontier, without a passport from the Daeb [Deb
Crossing the border the journey graduaUy entered into a
difficult phase with the road passing through a chain of
snow-capped mountains and dense forests. These high
inclines were favourite habitats of chowry-tailed cattle which
the natives haunted to gather chowry to sell. For taking short
rest in this tedious journey often did the traveUers sit in
cavities of the rocks that sprang naturaUy on the way. Such a
natural shed was Gasa, which, as Turner noted, "served as a
resting place for traveUers passing to and fro."31 About 21 km
march ahead this path led traders to Phari, the first node in
Tibet. The land here was rocky so that cultivation was
impossible. Only hunting and gathering were the means of
livelihood. Chowry-tailed animal and musk deer were in
plenty, and the local people earned on them. There was,
however, a fortress in that place where travellers took night
shelter. Alternatively, they could proceed five km farther to
Chugya to rest at the Chasa Goompha where Phari Lama
stayed. He was the most influential person among the herds,
and also the governor of a vast range of rocks and deserts.
The next important commercial town in this route was
Gyantse, 132 km from Chugya. Several villages stood on this
way for the caravans to stay at night. Those were Tuna,
Dochen, Chalu, Shamda, Kangamar, and Saogang with
distances from each other varying in the range of 12-24 km.
Most of them were insignificant hamlets at the lap of
mountains. Only Kangmar and Saogang had some
importance in the contemporary business. The former's
importance was due to its strategic location as a junction of
two paths, one proceeding directly to Lhasa and the other via
Gyantse (vide Map 1). Since the former was a shorter path,
the Lhasa-bound traveUers preferred it in most cases. The
30 Turner, An Account of An Embassy to the Court ofthe Teshoo Lama
in Tibet, p. 183.
31 Ibid., p. 193.
67 |
 importance of Saogang was due to the existence of an old fort,
and also a monastery, where traders could stay comfortably
at night. The road in this stretch, however, ran mostly
through vaUeys. Some of these valleys were extensive while
others were narrow. They were cultivable somewhere but dry,
rocky and totally unfit for cultivation elsewhere. Many springs
and lakes came up on the way, and they were hot beds of
superstition in the locaUty. People could read, for example,
the evil design of the forthcoming events from the Lake
Ramtchieu. Again, a hot spring in between Saogang and
Kangamar was believed to cure all the diseases under the
sky. Turner wrote, "The virtues attributed to this spring, were
various and powerful, not being confined to invaUds of any
particular description, but extending to aU the sick and aged,
whether they seek a cure from infirmity or from disease."32
Whatever their superstitious values, there is no doubt that
these springs and lakes provided much-needed water to the
moving caravans along this route.
The caravan thus reached Gyantse, the 'dominating peak'. It
was one of the earUest settlements in Tibet where goods from
south Asia were exchanged with those from central Asia. It
had road connections with India, Nepal and Bhutan on the
one end, and Ladak and central Asia on the other. Caravans,
therefore, regularly visited this place from Ladak, Nepal and
upper Tibet with goods such as gold, borax, salt, wool, musk
and furs for exchange with the central Asian commodities like
tea, tobacco, sugar, cotton goods and hardware. Gyantse
itseff was a great producer of wooUen cloth and carpets, and
the third largest market for these products in Tibet. For the
purpose of exchange, however, traders flocked in an open
place at the entrance of a great pagoda. The Monastery levied
taxes on the goods transacted there, and also on the
buUdrngs that surrounded the market accommodating
various business activities. Some of the caravans coming from
Bhutan terminated here while others progressed further.
32 Ibid., p.220.
68 |
 The next three important nodes were Gobzhi, Ralung and
Ngartse (vide Map 1). The distance between Gyantse and
Gobzhi was about 24 km, and that between Gobzhi and
Ralung about 21 km, both of which were covered in a day's
march. For the longer distance between Ralung and Ngartse,
viz. 30 km, the caravans often took a halt at Zara, 11 km
from Ralung. Gobzhi in the Tibetan language, however,
signifies 'the four doors'. The place, indeed, represented a
gateway to four different routes, three important trade paths
to Lhasa and a fourth of lesser significance33, and these gave
it a place of prominence in the contemporary trade. A fort
stood there to protect the caravan. Trade apart, the
settlement also thrived in agriculture with its surroundings
cultivated extensively with barley, peas and mustards. Some
medicinal plants, especiaUy larkspur and aconite, were also
gathered and processed here for export to India.34 Ralung, the
next node, was not, however, that much important from the
viewpoint of trade. It was the headquarters of the Drukpa
Sect of Buddhism that controlled all the monasteries and
temples of Bhutan, as well as the Governor of Trongsa who
was the temporal representative of the Dharma Raja, the
spiritual head of Bhutan.35 The caravan traders found it a
convenient place for rest at night. Ngartse was also preferred
for the sake of security and convenience that was ensured by
an existing fort.
Four more nodes, however, followed at Yarsig, Toma-lung,
Chusul and Nethang (vide Map 1). Their respective distances
from one another were 17 km, 20 km, 11 km and 32 km. Of
these, Yarsig and Chusul were more important from the
viewpoint of trade. Yarsig was significant as it was directly
linked to Shigatse, a commercial town of Tibet. Some
Bhutanese caravans visited Shigatse instead of Lhasa, and
also some Bhutan-bound trades were originated there.
Chusul was comparatively a larger human settlement where
33 Waddel, Lhasa and its Mysteries, p.280.
34 Ibid., p.281.
35 Ibid., pp. 283-284.
69 |
 houses were buUt of stones. It housed two forts, one of which
was the old castle of Chusul. Waddel remarked, 'These two
forts had evidently been of enormous strength, and this
marvelously strong natural position ...[commanded]
effectuaUy the trade routes from India, Nepal, Bhutan and
Shigatse to Lhasa."36 Nethang was, however, historically a
reUgious place where a number of monasteries and shrines
were situated. Of the two remarkable shrines in this place,
one was attributed to the King Ralpachan, who ruled during
the ninth century A.D., and the other was the tomb of Atisha,
the great Buddhist monk from India who migrated to Tibet in
1038 A.D., and reformed Lamaism.
SimUar to the previous stretch, the road ran here mostly
through disjointed vaUeys along the rivers that endowed
them. While the journey through the vaUeys was smooth, it
became difficult at the confluences of vaUeys, which were
often occupied by the passes or hiUs. Such a difficult journey
confronted a nine-km path on a mountain between Gobzhi
and Ralung. Waddel noted that more often than not goods feU
from pack animals in this steep road, and "the faUing of any
load delayed the whole of the column behind it".37 Similar
chaUenges were encountered along the Kharo pass between
Ralung and Ngartse, and along the Kamba pass between
Ngartse and Toma-lung. There was another three-km stretch
away from Chusul where the road ran beneath overhanging
granite cUffs. So accident-prone was this stretch that on a
stone the people engraved their goddess of mercy, the Tara,
"who guards the traveUer from the dangers of the falUng
rocks, and of the seething waters below his path".38
From Nethang travellers were to go for 21 km to reach Lhasa.
The journey continued to be risk-prone, and became stUl
more hazardous as the road advanced through undulating
terrains of mountains.   On this difficult leg was engraved,
36 Ibid., p.317.
37 Ibid., p.282.
38 Ibid., p.316.
70 |
 perhaps for the sake of eternal blessings, a massive rock-
sculpture of sitting Buddha facing Lhasa. Only two km ahead
of the destination the road finaUy entered a fertile valley with
aU evidences of advanced cultivation. The journey became
relaxed passing by the side of scattered viUages, monasteries
as well as wild flowering plants that were much to the
resemblance of European wUdflowers.
Part III
The Bhutan-Bengal trade route claims antiquity on the
strength of evidence from the seventeenth century foreign
traveller Ralph Fitch. It came to further UmeUght and got the
state patronage in Bengal during the eighteenth-nineteenth
centuries because of the colonial government that looked after
the trading interests of British goods in general and that of
the EngUsh East India Company in particular. The route's
importance to the British administration was not due to their
interest in Bhutan per se, but in Tibet and China, which were
accessible from Bhutan. EarUer, India used to carry out
substantial trade with Tibet and China via Nepal, a
connection that was lost in 1768 when King Prithvi Narayan
Shah of Nepal reserved the right to trade in this route only to
the Gurkhas. The East India Company then sought a vent for
their Tibetan and Chinese trade through Bhutan. Though the
Bhutan-Bengal trade route was thus primarUy intended for a
wider trade network encompassing Tibet and China, it did
boost up the exchange of goods between Bhutan and Bengal.
Bengal government patronage of Bhutanese trade in Bengal
took place in various ways. In the first place, Bhutanese
traders had attracted earlier a duty of Rs 2000 at Rangpur39,
which was the largest destiny for Bhutanese commodities in
Bengal. They were subsequently exempted from that duty.
Warren Hastings, the Governor-general of India, personaUy
took initiative in this regard. In a letter to the CoUector of
39 Firminger (ed.), Bengal District Records, Rangpur, Vol.1, p.70
71  |
 Rangpur, he stressed, "Having determined to abolish all
duties on the Bootea trade to Rangpur, either on the sales or
purchase of their horses or other merchandise, we desire that
you will carry this resolution into execution".40 Secondly, the
government reimbursed the expenses of the caravans coming
from Bhutan, and also those relating to the construction of
stables in Rangpur.41 Thirdly, there had earUer been a ban on
the purchase of oU and dried fish in Rangpur by Bhutanese
merchants. On the complaints received from them, Warren
Hastings removed all those bans. He instructed, "[T]he district
official should] issue Perwannahs to the Zeminders and
officers of the districts in which the Booteas have been
accustomed to buy these articles, to protect and assist them
in carrying on their trade and to allow their oil and dried fish
freely to pass the different chokeys and gauts."42 Fourthly, the
government extended civic facilities to the Bhutanese and
Tibetan traders who visited Calcutta every year in winter to
sell their wares. A Buddhist temple was also constructed near
Calcutta, which they could use as a meeting place, a place of
night halt as well as for the purpose of prayer.43
These policies were evidently based on the proposal of George
Bogle. Bogle believed that the duty on the sale of Bhutanese
horses should be removed in exchange of some benevolent
measures from the end of the Bhutan government. He
advised, "The Bhutanese should be free to sell their horses
anywhere in Bengal free from any duty or any other
hindrance...and that in return the Deb should allow all Hindu
and Mussalman merchants freely to pass and repass through
his country between Bengal and Tibet."44 Bogle was aware
that the Deb Raja had been stubbornly resisting the entry of
40 Quoted in Firminger (ed.), Bengal District Records, Rangpur, Vol.1,
41 Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.77.
42 Quoted in Firminger (ed.), Bengal District Records, Rangpur, Vol. II,
43 Deb, Bhutan and India, p. 138.
44 Collister, Bhutan and the British, p.21.
72 |
 European traders in Bhutan. If the BengaUs were allowed to
trade there and use it as a transit point in the Tibetan trade,
the interests of English broadcloth and other products would
be promoted. Moreover, he pointed out, "[T]he Company may
be greatly benefited in the sale of broadcloth, iron and lead
and other European commodities by sending proper persons
to reside at Rungpore to explore the interest...of Bhutan..."45
The marketing interest of British commodities, especiaUy
broadcloth and iron, thus underpinned the British policy
towards Bengal's trade with Bhutan.
There were eleven entry points, locally called duars, between
erstwhile Bengal and Bhutan. Out of these, five duars
belonged to the district of Jalpaiguri in Bengal and six to the
district of Goalpara in Assam during the nineteenth century.
The duars with Bengal were Lakhimpur, Kumargram, Balla,
Chamurchi and Buxa. The caravans from Bhutan travelled
mostly through the duars Kumargram, Chamurchi and Buxa
because of the lack of penetrabiUty at Lakhimpur and BaUa.
There was, however, a controversy regarding the popularity of
Buxa vis-a-vis Chamurchi as a duar to Bhutan. Pemberton
believed that traders disliked Buxa because of its steep,
narrow and uneven paths, which were fatal even to pack
animals. According to him, "It appears that the merchants
who convey their goods from Tibet and Bootan to the town of
Rungpoor in the plains, all travel from the northern frontier of
the latter country through the districts subject to the Paro
Pilo...and instead of crossing, as was generaUy supposed, to
the left bank of the Tchinchoo, near the confluence of that
river with the Hatchoo, continue to travel along the right
bank, by a route which leads to a viUage called Doona,
between Dalrmkotta and Cheemurchee. It is described, as
infinitely more easy of access than the road by Buxa
Dooar..."46 Turner, however, did not agree with him. He
believed that the journey of caravans that used the Buxa duar
involved lower costs.   Other authorities also  confirmed the
45 Ibid., p.8.
46 Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.48.
73 |
 preference of the Buxa duar among traveUing traders. The
duar at Kumargram was, however, important because of its
connection with Kalikhola, a big trade centre in Bhutan that
was situated at a tri-junction between Bengal, Assam and
Although the Bhutan-Assam trade route was conspicuous by
the absence of traders from the plain, Bengali traders
frequently travelled in the Bhutan-Bengal route side by side
with hiU traders like the Bhutanese and the Tibetans. George
Bogle vouched this in a letter to the Governor-general of India
in 1774.47 A contemporary Bengali pUgrim also confirmed the
presence of plain traders in this hilly route. He noted, "Many
Bengal merchants had made their way through Bhutan to
Tibet."48 Moreover, available evidence confirms that traders
from the plains were not discouraged by authorities either in
Bhutan or in Tibet. According to a source, "Many merchants
had...brought their commodities to market...The authorities
were most heartily disposed to continue the commercial
intercourse. There were no complaints of impediment or
loss."49 This was a significant development in the nineteenth
century in view of the earUer attitude of the Deb Raja to
exclude traders from the plain in this route.
SimUar to other trade routes in this region, the Bhutan-
Bengal route became active and vibrant only in the winter
season. According to the Collector of Rangpur, "The Bootan
caravans generally arrive at Rungpoor in February and
March, and return to their country in May and June."50 Note
that the monsoon arrived in the sub-Himalayan Bengal
around early June so that the caravans from Bhutan
scheduled their departure from this place prior to its onset.
47 Markham, Narrative ofthe Mssion of George Bogle to Tibet and of
the journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, p. 53.
48 Quoted in Collister, Bhutan and the British, p.23.
49 Gupta, British Relations with Bhutan, p. 54.
50 Quoted in Pemberton, Report on Bootan, p.77.
74 |
 The beasts of burden in this route were similar to those in the
Bhutan-Assam trade route.51 Cart was, however, never used
here for transportation presumably because of its risk and
inconvenience in an inclined road. Rather, the practice was to
suspend goods on both sides of the animals through a
connector of jute ropes, caUed taat. The people accompanying
those beasts were called bolodia.52
From a contemporary source, Pemberton prepared a Ust of
Bhutan's import and export from Bengal. It appears from the
Ust that the principal export items included tangun,
munjistha, blankets, cow-tails, wax, musk, walnuts, lac,
China sUk, and silver. Tangun was by far the most significant
item. An estimated number of 400-500 tanguns were
annuaUy sold in Bengal and fetched about Rs 30,000-
40,000.53 Munjistha, a dye material, came next in importance
with its annual value of trade standing at Rs 7000.54 It was
extensively used in Bengal's cotton textile industry. Other
important items were blankets and cow-tails amounting in
value to Rs 2580 and Rs 550 per annum respectively.55
Bhutan's import from Bengal included chiefly broadcloth,
indigo, goat skins, and copper. There were also imports of
endy cloth, coarse cloth, googol, sandal wood, country gunpowder, dried fish, tobacco, betel-nut, cloves, nutmegs,
cardamom, nukher, camphor and sugar. It is noteworthy that
Bhutan's trade balance with Rangpur ran a deficit in most
years with import exceeding export.
51 Ray and Sarkar, "Reconstructing of Nineteenth Century Trade
Route between Bhutan and Assam: Evidences from British Political
Missions", Journal of Bhutan Studies, Volume 13, Winter, 2005,
52 Barman, Uttar Banglar Sekal o Amar Jiban Smiriti, p. 11.
53 Firminger (ed.), Bengal District Records, Rangpur, Vol.1, p.46.
54 Martin, Eastern Bengal, Vol V, Rangpur and Assam, p.710.
55 Ibid., pp.710-711.
75 |
 Part IV
Paro was the origin of the Bhutan-Bengal trade route. Since
we have already described the place in detail in Section II we
avoid its repetition here. The destination of this route, and its
nodes and Unks are discussed below.
Rangpur: The Destination
Rangpur gained eminence as a destination of hUl traffic on
the strength of its transport linkage with important
commercial towns and cities in the country. Its transportation
was entirely river-borne. The river Tista on the bank of which
the town was situated was linked with the Brahmaputra on
the west and the Mahananda on the east. The Mahananda in
turn flows into the Ganges. Rangpur was thus endowed with
the transportation facUities of the two great rivers of Eastern
India, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Because of these
Unkages Rangpur emerged as a centre of exchange between
the hUl products coming from Bhutan and Tibet, on the one
hand, and the products available in eastern India, on the
The principal commodities that the Bhutanese traders
purchased from Rangpur were broadcloth and indigo. The
imported EngUsh broadcloths in Calcutta were made available
in plenty in Rangpur so that the lull markets in Bhutan and
Tibet for English products could be explored from Rangpur.
In fact, this was the business strategy of the East India
Company, which they nurtured by posting their agents at
Rangpur. The other product of significance, viz. indigo, was
manufactured in Rangpur itself. About 13,000 acres of land
were annually put into cultivation in this district during the
mid-nineteenth century.56 While the big manufacturers sent
their output directly to Calcutta, the smaller ones sold their
products   to   the   local   user-industry   and   the   Bhutanese
56 Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, p.246.
76 |
 traders. The Bhutanese demand for this commodity may be
assessed from the fact that when the Rangpur fair was
discontinued in 1832, about 1000 maunds of indigo were to
be brought from Rangpur to Jalpaiguri mainly for sale to
Bhutanese traders.57
The exchange of goods from the hiUs took place in fairs that
sprang up at different places in this region. Those fairs were
generally held in winter and continued roughly for four
weeks. The biggest one took place at Darwani where,
according to a contemporary source, around 50,000 visitors
participated. In addition to the traditional products, various
live animals like elephants, camel, sheep etc were sold here
from the neighbouring states Uke Bihar. SimUar fairs were
also held at Panga, Barabhita, Badarganj, Birat and Rangpur.
The Rangpur fair was, however, sponsored by the
government, who provided the entire organisational
expenditures. Bogle started this fair in 1780. There were no
state interventions or intervention of any local bodies in the
affairs of these fairs. Bhutanese merchants were, as Bogle
remarked in 1780, "left to the freedom of their own wiU in
buying and seUing, [and] went away very weU satisfied".58
Nodes and Links
From Paro, Bengal-bound caravans descended along the
banks of the river Pa-chu in the south-east direction, and
took a halt 16 km away at Paku, which was situated at the
confluence of the Pa-chu and Ma-chu. On the wayside valley
of the river grew a few prosperous vUlages where inhabitants
were mostly the arm-guards and officials of the Paro fort.59
Sometimes, the caravans halted at the vUlage Essana, close to
Paku, which was basicaUy an agrarian settlement. Paku had
57 Ibid.,
58 Quoted in Deb, Bhutan and India, p.cliii.
59 Eden, "Report on the State of Bootan and on the Progress of the
Mission of 1863-64" in Kuloy (ed.), Political Mssions to Bootan, p.91.
77 |
 its importance in the contemporary business network
because of its road Unkage in addition to the present one,
with Tassisudon (presently called Thimpu), the capital of
Bhutan (vide Map 2). From Paku, however, the caravans
changed their direction, and proceeded southward towards
the border of Bengal.
The first place of commercial interest in this route was Buxa,
a place on the Cooch Begar-Bhutan border around 110 km
from Paku.
ugua ^
£rjcli Be W*j
<       sj9
In between Paku and Buxa there were several vUlages where
caravans might halt at night. More prominent among such
viUages were Chupcha, Chukha, Murichom and Jaigugu (vide
Map 2) with successive distances at 27 km, 28 km, 20 km
and    19   km.   TraveUing   traders   preferred   Chupcha   and
78 |
 Chukha for the existence of castles there where they felt safe
at night. Murichom and Jaigugu were, however, prosperous
agricultural settlements, and traders could rest there at night
along with their pack animals. The road in this stretch ran
through the slopes of mountains and narrow vaUeys along the
river-bed. Some mountains were almost barren while others
were cultivated on the jhum technology. The importance of
this stretch of the route is understood from the existence of
an iron suspension bridge over the river Teemboo in between
Chukha and Murichom. It was 147 ft in length and 6 ft in
breadth, and could be raised vertically up to about seven feet.
Every caravan, however, took a halt at the commercial hubs
of Buxa. It was situated at the base of several mountains, and
spacious enough to accommodate a great body of human
settlement. Turner described it as "a place of great natural
strength". He continued, "[BJeing a frontier station of these
mountains, [it] has been rendered stUl stronger by the aid of
art, which has been most ingeniously employed to strike off
the summit of the hUl, and to level an extensive space,
capable of affording accommodation to a body of men,
sufficiently numerous for the defence of this difficult pass,
against all assault".60 Because ofthe importance of this place
as the entry point of their trading world, Bhutanese traders
performed various rituals at Buxa. One such ritual was to cut
off the tails of their horses. Obviously, it disfigured the
appearance of tangans, and accordingly, depreciated their
market value. The British government in Bengal, however,
persuaded them to aboUsh the custom by providing Uberal
rewards. There was a hearsay that for this liberal reward of
the government the place was referred as the T)ounteous
pass' or the Buxa duar.61
The next important commercial town in this route was Cooch
Behar, around 48 km away from Buxa. Unable to cover up
60 Turner, An Account of An Embassy to the Court ofthe Teshoo Lama
in Tibet, pp, 39-40.
61 Ibid., p.40.
79 |
 this distance in a day, the caravans used to take breaks at
Minagoung and Chichakotta viUages that stood on the way
between Buxa and Cooch Behar. While Chichakotta housed a
fort that attracted the traveUers to stay at night, Minagoung
was preferred as a halting place by the Bhutanese caravans
as weU as Buxa-bound traders from the plain. In this stretch
from Buxa to Cooch Behar, however, the hilly terrain got
flatter and plain. But the slope declined so gently that, as
Griffith described, "the boundaries of the HUls and those of
the Plains were but Ul-defined".62 Consequently, the journey
in this segment was smooth and comfortable in contrast to
the hazards of the previous legs. The connecting road
sometimes ran through the heart of dense foothUl forests,
sometimes over grass land, and occasionally by the side of
wild pineapple orchards. In the season, pineapples were
available here in plenty, and Turner reported that "no less
than twenty may be bought for a rupee, about the value of
half a crown".63
Many traders from Bhutan terminated their journey at Cooch
Behar, disposing their wares there. It was a commercial
centre that developed from the sixteenth century onwards as
a centre of exchange among various traders from Tibet,
Bhutan, Sikkim and India. In addition to various agricultural
products that grew in and around Cooch Behar, several
merchandises from Patna, Rajmahal and Gaur64 were also for
sale to the Bhutanese traders. Hunter noted, "The Bhutia
trade with Bengal was carried on formerly, as now, through
territory occupied by Koch chiefs; and when a party of
Bhutias arrived in Kuch Behar, it was customary that they
should be maintained at pubUc expense."65 This explains the
importance of Bhutanese traders in the commerce of Cooch
62 Griffiths, "Journal ofthe Missions to Bootan in 1837-38", in Kuloy
(ed.), Political Mssions to Bootan, p.302.
63 Turner, An Account of An Embassy to the Court ofthe Teshoo Lama
in Tibet, pp, 13-14.
64 Deb, Bhutan and India, p.55.
65 Hunter, Statistical Account of The State of Kuch Behar, pp.412-413
80 |
The last leg of the journey was from Cooch Behar to Rangpur,
and that covered a distance of approximately 82 km. Since
this was an extensive human settlement, the caravans did not
find any difficulty to find their places of rest at night. Often
did they stay at places like Ghiddildow, Pahargange,
Badaldanga, MangaUiaut, Saftabarry and Calamatty. Most of
these were agrarian viUages. Only MangaUiaut was a large
manufacturing town that stood at the border of Rangpur and
Cooch Behar. Excepting innumerable rivers that the caravans
were to cross, there was no hazard in this journey.
The trade routes between Bhutan and Tibet and Bengal that
this study elaborates were thus very active during the
nineteenth century. The Bhutan-Tibet trade route that ran
about 410 km from Paro to Lhasa belonged largely to the
territory of Tibet with Bhutan accounting for only one eighth
part of this stretch and three links out of 26 total Unks as
identified in this study. It was thoroughly a mountain route
posing various hazards and threats to travelling traders. That
was why the speed of caravans here was as low as less than
16 km a day on the average. There were, however, three other
contemporary trade routes between Bhutan and Tibet, which
originated from different places of Bhutan but were all
destined to Lhasa. AU these trade routes treaded through
mountain passes and river vaUeys. The route under study
contained four such passes, viz. Tremo, Tang, Kharo and
Kampa, with the Kharo pass at the top in terms of elevation.
In contrast to the Bhutan-Tibet trade route, the Bhutan-
Bengal trade route belonged mostly to the plain land. Only a
part of its 268-km long stretch from Paro to Rangpur had
alternating inclinations of hilly terrain. Gently climbing down
from the mountain, it passed amidst century-old human
settlements in the plain. Expectedly, the average speed of
caravans in this route was higher, about 21 km per day.
81  |
 These trade routes assumed importance because of the
presence of BengaU traders along with the Tibetans and the
Bhutanese. The travelling of Bengali traders along these
routes contributed significantly to the exchange of knowledge
and culture between these Himalayan kingdoms and India. A
scrutiny of traded commodities in these routes, however,
indicates that Bhutan acted as a transit trade point between
these two large countries.
Barman Upendra Nath,  Uttar Banglar Sekal o Amar Jiban Smiriti,
Jalpaiguri, 1392 (Bengali Year)
Collister, Peter (1970) Bhutan and the British, London, 1987.
Das,  Sarat Chandra  (1902)  Journey to Lhasa and  Central Tibet,
Bibliotheca Himalayan  Series   1,  Volume   1,   New Delhi  (First
Published 1902)
Deb, Arabinda (1976) Bhutan and India: A Study in Frontier Political
Relations (1 772-1865), Calcutta
Firminger, W.K. (ed.) (1920) Bengal District Records, Rangpur, Vol I,
1770-1779, Calcutta, 1914, Vol. II, 1779-1782, Calcutta
Grenard,  F.   (1974)   Tibet:  The Country and its inhabitants,   Delhi
Gupta, S. (1974) British Relations with Bhutan, Jaipur
Holdich, Thomas (1983) Tibet, The Mysterious, London,  1983 (First
Published 1906)
Hunter, W. W. (1983) A Statistical Account of Bengal, London
Karan,   Pradyumna   P.   (1967)   Bhutan:   A   Physical   and   Cultural
Geography, Lexington
Kawaguchi, Ekai (1979) Three Years in Tibet, Bibliotheca Himalayica,
Series 1, Volume 22, Kathmandu (First Published 1909)
Kuloy,   H.K.   (ed.)   (1972)   Political Missions to  Bootan,   Bibliotheca
Himalayica, New Delhi (First Published 1865)
Landon, Perceval (1978) Lhasa: The Mysterious City, Volume II, Delhi
(First published in 1905)
Markham, C.R., (1971) Narrative ofthe Mission of George Bogle to
Tibet and of the journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, London,
Bibliotheca Himalayica,   Series   1,  Volume  6,   (First published
Martin,   Montgomery  (1976)   Eastern Bengal,   Vol  V,   Rangpur and
82 |
 Assam, Delhi (Reprint)
Mehra, G.N., Bhutan: Land ofthe Peaceful Dragon, New Delhi, 1978
(First Published 1974)
Pemberton, R.B., Report on Bootan, Calcutta, 1838.
Ramphell, Norbu (1999) Bhutan through the Ages, Vol. 2, New Delhi
Ray,    Indrajit    and    Sarkar,    Ratna    (2005)    "Reconstructing    of
Nineteenth Century Trade Route between Bhutan and Assam:
Evidences  from British  Political Missions",  Journal of Bhutan
Studies, Volume 13, Winter, 2005
Sharma, S.K. and Sharma, Usha (eds.) (1996) "Travels and Memoirs
of Tibet", in Encyclopaedia of Tibet, Vol. 2, New Delhi
Turner, Samuel (1971) An Account of an Embassy to the Court ofthe
Teshoo Lama in Tibet, Bibliotheca Himalayica, Series I, Volume,
4, New Delhi, 1971 (First Published 1800)
Waddel, L. Austine (1975) Lhasa and its Mysteries: With a Record of
the Expedition of 1903-1904, Delhi (First Published 1905)
83 |


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