While it is unclear when and how salt was first introduced to Nepal’s culture and cuisine, what is clear is that Tibetan salt was once the foundation of our Himalayan economy and livelihood.
From the Walung, Lhomi, Bhote, Sherpa, Byasi Souka, Mugali, Nyinba, Dolpo, and Nisyangba, the ethnicities on Nepal’s Himalayan rimland from Taplejung in the east to Humla and Darchula in the far west have historically shared socio-cultural and religious ties with Tibet.
The relationship between the southern flanks of the Himalaya with the Tibetan plateau extended to trade at a time when agriculture and livestock were the main means of livelihood on both sides of the mountains. Before 1850, Nepal imported rock salt, wool, powdered gold, horses and yaks from Tibet, and exported grain, spices, knives, fabric, handicrafts and more.
In 1774, Prithivi Narayan Shah’s Gorkha expansion had led to the annexation of regions controlled by Darjeeling as well as the town of Bijaypur in the Limbuwan region which was then ruled by Sikkim.
This angered the Tibetans, effectively souring relations and bringing trade to a standstill. This caused a shortage of salt in Nepal, which traders would try to remedy by smuggling it through high Himalayan passes.
Nepal and Tibet fought wars in subsequent years over minting coins to trade disputes. But this did not affect the secret crossborder trade since the Nepal-Tibet border was so rugged and remote it could not be fully policed.
Nepal and Tibet finally signed a treaty in 1856 to officially resume cross-border trade, allowing free travel and trade to resume.
Historian Baburam Acharya in his journal China, Tibet and Nepal notes that Nepali merchants bartered rock salt bought down from Tibet for grain from Nepal’s south. In the absence of common currency, bartering these goods was the main form of trade. This barter system remained in place until 1959, writes Wim van Spengen in his book Tibetan Border Worlds: A Geohistorical Analysis of Trade and Traders.
The people of Tibet’s Changthang Plateau were largely nomadic, while Nepal’s ethnicities were more settled into farming and pastoralism in the upper reaches of the Tamor, Arun, Dudhkosi in the east, to Budi Gandaki, Marsyangdi, Kali Gandaki in central Nepal, and Bheri, Karnali and Mahakali in the west.
Low agricultural yield in these semi-arid trans-Himalayan valleys meant that the communities traditionally depended on cross-border trade with Tibet.
Because merchants would have to be away to engage in trade for long periods of time, they divided roles, particularly among brothers, with some of the family members tasked with transporting and trading salt, and others staying behind to manage their homesteads.
For this reason, polyandry was convenient and accepted in Himalayan cultures. One woman married to all brothers meant the family remained together with centralised resources, and the women did not become widows if one brother died during the perilous Himalayan traverses.
Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf spent much of his life in Nepal, studying Nepal’s cross-border trade with Tibet, publishing his book Himalayan Traders in 1988. He explores how the market for Tibetan salt extended from Nepal’s high mountains to the foothills and the southern plains.
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