Traders barter tradition for modernity
Barter trade has been an integral part of human civilisation, but over time, as people moved to cities, cash replaced kind
Kathmandu Valley’s Newa traders prospered from a trans-Himalayan barter trade between Tibet and India.
The yak caravans of Dolpo were immortalised in Eric Valli’s award-winning 1999 docudrama, Caravan.
Less well known are the Bhote Khampa migrant traders of Far Western Nepal, who were middle-men between Tibetan rock salt traders and grain-growing Nepali farmers from the lower valleys.
So little known were the Bhote Khampa that when Swiss social anthropologist Hanna Rauber came to Nepal in 1977 for ethnographic research, she struggled to obtain necessary letters from Tribhuvan University to begin her study.
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One reason was that parts of the region where she had planned to carry out research was a restricted area, but also because the ‘Khampa’ were mistaken for being Nepal-based anti-Chinese Tibetan resistance fighters at the time. Most people in Kathmandu did not understand that the Kh(y)ampa from western Nepal were totally different from the Khampa guerrillas from Eastern Tibet.
After finally getting their permits, Rauber and her research assistant Chakka Bahadur Lama met a group of Bhote Khampa people on their way to Bajura, travelling, observing and learning about their way of life.
Dauber’s book Of Salt and Rice, Life and Trade of the Bhote Khampa in Far West Nepal is an important documentation of the lives of these nomadic traders half a century ago. The book is divided into seven parts about life on the move, personal stories of the nomads, translations of sayings and songs, observations, photographs, maps and graphs. The epilogue traces changes in the community after the traditional trade ended.
The Khampas describe themselves as nomads with no permanent homes, who bartered Tibetan and later Indian salt for rice with Nepali hill farmers, moving in yearly fixed cycle over a geographically wide area from Purang in Western Tibet to Dhangadi in Nepal’s Tarai using flocks of sheep and goats to ferry the loads.
Tibetan salt was used throughout Nepal’s mountains for many centuries, with the Bhote Khampa relatively recent entrants to the trade. With genealogies going back six generations, Rauber traces the ancestry to one Khunu Samten who was imprisoned in Doti during the Rana period when Nepal was at war with Tibet.
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At the time, governments sent letters to announce the purpose and places of battles. When one such letter written in Tibetan was received in the official court, no one could understand the language. So they asked Khunu Samten to translate it, and he was subsequently hired as an interpreter. When the war ended, he was awarded a hat and letter designating him as a leader of six migrant households who were the founding barter traders.
Over the years, newcomers joined the group, often individuals who were forced to flee their hometowns in Nepal due to economic and politico-juridical issues, forming a distinct ethnic group that mainly spoke the dialect of western Tibet.
Rauber describes Bhote Khampa as ‘chameleon traders’, who assimilated Hindu ways and customs in order to gain access to customers. They grew their hair into a tupi, abandoned polyandry, stopped eating beef and yak, and over time adopted Hindu caste names like Thapa, Bohora, Singh Thakuri, Karki, Khunwar, Bhandari or Bogati to upgrade their social standing.
While on the outside it may seem like a survival strategy, one cannot disregard how Nepal’s state mechanism has always treated indigenous minorities as outsiders and forced them to erase parts of their identities to ‘fit in’.
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The Bhote Khampa had their distinct social organisation with rules of conduct, but whenever the community reached out to the government for support, their demands were rejected on grounds that they were landless.
For example, when they asked King Mahendra for land to settle in, they were offered farms in the Tarai, where the climate was not suitable for the highlanders.
Much later, when the group registered in 1991 with Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), the umbrella body of indigenous peoples, the District Administration Office in Bajura registered them as ‘Bhote Khampa’.
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While the group would have preferred being called just ‘Khampa’, the officers argued that the villagers called them 'Bhote' and that the ancestry originated from Bhot (Tibet). Humli, the genitive of Humla was dropped because they did not traverse the area anymore. The ‘y’ from Khyampa was dropped as they were no longer nomads.
Now, the Bhote Khampa no longer migrate from the Himalaya to the plains every year, instead trading and raising livestock. Their children go to school, and some have graduated from universities abroad.
Much like with Nepal’s other indigenous groups, the youth are abandoning old ways, and senior Khampa worry that their tradition, customs and way of life will be lost forever.
Hanna Rauber’s book is an important documentation of these nomadic Himalayan traders, their way of life captured at a cusp of change.