Nepali Times
Karnali’s salt caravans


A once-proud and self-sufficient people are now dependent on handouts. They want their dignity back.

Caravan had a lot of yaks. Stumbling yaks, yaks plunging to watery graves down vertiginous cliffs, recalcitrant yaks, charming yaks, unexceptional yaks-so many yaks, in fact, that you'd be forgiven for thinking the only animals involved in real-life caravans were, well, yaks, or the occasional cross-bred dzo. Yaks have traditionally commandeered high altitude roads like the one to Tibet, but caravans to and from the middle hills and the tarai are generally bhagris-sheep caravans-because yaks cannot survive at low elevations. And caravans were not ever oddities, the quaint custom of tiny nomadic villages, waiting to be made into an Oscar-nominated film. Yak and sheep caravans were in every corner of Nepal's remote and roadless western Karnali region.

The skilled people of the upper Karnali evolved the caravan as an ingenious response to their surroundings and climate to get salt from Tibet and food supplies from Nepal's middle hills and tarai moving where they were needed. Sheep were the perfect transition animal between Nepal's varied terrain and peoples. And now many sheep caravans in Humla are being replaced by mules on new Dutch-built horse trails and by trucks on roads-one of the many effects of economic, developmental and geo-political change that are making most caravans redundant. But we are getting ahead of our story.

A perfect Karnali day. The sky filled with flocks of seasonal migratory ducks. People say they head north in the summer to feed on Tibetan salt and head south during the winter to catch Indian Ocean salt. Karnali's caravan herders relate their own migratory patterns with that of the ducks flying along the Karnali watershed, the Ganga and out towards the Indian Ocean, back and forth, year after year. A more colourful version has the ducks flying down from Lale Mansarovar deafened by Tibetan salt and those returning blinded by Indian Ocean salt. That, people in the area will tell you, is why they always fly under a single leader who guides the flock and determines what altitude they should be flying at and what their bearing should be. This is more than a story for most caravan herders and their families-it brings home the need to obey the logic of natural laws even as they undertake their journeys of peril and profit. It provides inspiration for the long and bitter trip from the tarai to the highlands as they watch the birds honking high above.

The excursion arose, as so many historic trips have, in search for edibles, and more palatable meals. Food was short on the ground (literally) in the remote western regions of the Tibetan plateau, and salt was extremely hard to come by in Nepal's landlocked hills. The dangers of high passes and scary terrain seemed preferable to the malaria that traders would surely be possessed by if they were to bring in salt from the Indo-Gangetic plain. And there were vast open pastures in the Karnali valley for sheep, caravan-ready animals. The logistics of caravans worked out because of the complementary needs and skills of the people from northern and southern Karnali-interestingly, the names of both these broad groups are considered derogatory now. Natives of northern Karnali, Jadas are said to be people of Mongolian stock who entered Nepal through the high altitude Tibetan deserts and brought with them sheep-trading skills. The people of southern Karnali, Khasas, tell of being from tropical pre-Vedic and Vedic-Aryan stock. They brought their southern agricultural skills and introduced to the region red rice and metal weapons.

Between the northerners and the southerners, and with access to food and salt, the people of Karnali had a pretty good idea for a thriving business. Tibetan salt in Nepal was valued like gold. A sack of salt could be bartered for 15 sacks of rice here, and vice versa in Tibet. For as long as they can remember, virtually the whole of Karnali engaged in salt trading. The various nomadic Tibetan traders (collectively called Khampas) in western Nepal didn't acquire any permanent land and migrated between the tarai and the hills with families and livestock. Constant interaction with the Hindu Khasas of the southern middle hills, has meant the Tibetans adopted some of their ways, and ally themselves with people of southern Karnali. Humla and Mugu Khampas forge links with Thakalis and Gurungs, while Dolpo Khampas associate with the Magar. While the Khampas were always on the move, the semi-nomadic sheep caravan herders like the Humla Nyinba and the Sathi Kholya set up villages-every village and settlement in Karnali is where semi-nomads set up permanent homesteads. The herders usually pass through their homes twice a year, on their Tibet-tarai circuit.

When trade fades, so does the Karnali's economy and social fabric

From l to r: Humla herdsmen cross the border bridge into Tibet with Nepali timber to barter for food and alcohol, mountain goats with salt on their backs arrive in Mugu. The traditional trade routes from Tibet and India into Nepal in the early 1950s.

Canny Karnali traders therefore had extra rice from Achham and salt from Tibet. It seemed as dependable as the sunrise in the east-the land of salt was the north, Tibet, and the land of provisions was the Achham plains. It seemed as if the salt traders would tread this loop forever. The promises all parties involved made, the lengths they went to ensure trust and reliability created an aura around Tibetan salt that is evident even today. The Nyinbus of Humla still keep a wooden box full of old Tibetan salt in the most sacred room of their house dedicated to the family god. Humli Khampa people, who are now settled in Bajura are still reluctant to use the iodised salt distributed in Martadi. They continue to use salt from the Tibetan plateau. As a matter of course, the farmers from the south who barter their red rice and barley and salt traders in Tibet establish ritual friendships with people they deal with, sealed with a vow to Mt Kailash and the holy Manasarovar Lake. This pact on mutual objects of faith ensured there was no treachery or distrust.

The parties make their promise before a heaped plate of rice symbolising Mt Kailash and water in a kalash (a ritual vessel) standing in for Lake Manasarovar. Then dai chamal achheta (yoghurt mixed with rice) is shared by the new ritual partners. Once such a friendship is established, it is believed both their bodies merge into one and the relation is as permanent that of Shiva and Parvati, lasting as long as there is snow on Kailash and water in Manasarovar. An economic transaction changed into a social one, adding new meaning to an exchange between peoples of two different religions and cultures.

This economics of travel that arose from basic need put down roots like a wayward tree, penetrating every aspect of the lives of trading communities. Many of the resultant practices and phenomena took on a patina of natural, age-old phenomena and it was not until the caravans started slowly coming to a stop in the mid-1970s that they were revealed to be the centre of a vital web.
What forced the change? Geo-political realities and the inexorable march of "development". The Chinese arrived in the remotest parts of Tibet, India fought a war with China, Nepalis got more mobile-the country forged more roads and entered the jet, or at least chopper, age. Malaria was eradicated in the tarai, better health care and nutrition meant Nepal's midhill population increased, and changing patterns of population and consumption resulted in deforestation and eventually community forestry in the middle hills.

In the 1950s, with the Chinese presence in Tibet, the Bhotia, the Drogpa (Tibetan nomads) and the Taklakoti of Tibet, who barely knew what paddy and wheat looked like, started consuming rice and flour produced in China brought to them via the newly constructed highways on the high plateau. And so the land of salt also became a food supplier. The 1962 Sino-Indian war destroyed the traditional caravan trade between areas in western Nepal and bordering areas of Himachal Pradesh and Kumaon Garhwal in India.

In Nepal, meanwhile, new roads and a malaria-free tarai ensured that iodised Indian salt started making inroads into the condiment market. As the Indian salt trade started from the small haat bazaars (multipurpose markets) in the tarai after the eradication of malaria in the 1930s, the trans-Himalayan caravans moved their base to the plains. The Thakalis settled in Butwal, the Khampas of Mugu in Surkhet and the Sauka of Darchula, who started running yak caravans in Mahendranagar.

The Salt Trading Corporation started flying out iodised salt to the furthest reaches of the kingdom in an effort to combat goitre and cretinism. Wherever an airstrip was built, there was now a monetary alternative to the barter economy. The growing middle hill population started stripping forest cover and encroaching on public forest-making the denudation alarming enough for a community forestry programme to be implemented since the 1980s. This meant nomadic shepherds lost their customary rights to grazing grounds. After 1990, there was nothing to replace the traditional guarantee that caravans could use commons to camp or let their animals graze.

Among the first casualties of this rapid change were the haat bazaars along the Nepal-Tibet border. They used to be held every alternate year on the Tibetan and Nepali sides. But after the 1950 Nepal-Tibet treaty, this became history. Haat bazaars in the tarai, on the other hand, were flourishing with Indian goods and iodised salt. Migrant western hill people could fill many of their needs more easily at the bazaars in the south than in the north. Initially, the caravans with Indian salt meant alternative business and increased employment. Caravan runners started transporting Indian salt from the tarai up to the middle hills. More haat bazaars were started. The caravans of Karnali, especially those from Humla, played an important role in the establishment of hill towns like Silgadhi in Doti, Sanphe Bagar, Bayal Pata, Kuchchi Binayak in Achham, and Martadi and Kolti in Bajura. The caravans didn't just bring salt, but virtually every necessity. The Dadeldhura-Doti highway in the 1980s virtually wiped out the caravans. And when the Kohalpur-Banbasa highway was built, even the tarai haat bazaars dried up. And this was how salt started coming from the south and food from the north-once as unimaginable as a western sunrise.

After the trade stopped, people had to negotiate all over again how they deal with land, livestock, food and each other. The impact has been devastating. Border villages like Chala, Chyaduk, Dojam and Nepka of Humla district and Mugal of Mugu district are among the worst-affected. Tibetan was the language of commerce, so they acted as interpreters for the Thakuri landlords, given responsibility of the weighing procedures by the Rana rulers. They were paid in flour and as their livelihood depended on border transactions, they did not own much land or have any established agricultural base. When the salt trade ran dry, they had nothing to fall back on.

The caravan highway extended from Tibet to the tarai along the banks of the Karnali, the Seti and the Mahakali rivers. The open pastures were used by the caravans, and the sheep droppings were rich fertiliser. In Humla there was a system of collecting a royalty in exchange for allowing caravans the use of pastures. Now the market has dried up and the Humlalis have registered the pastures as private farms. With the yaks and sheep gone, they will have to find new ways to fertilise the soil. The change in the forestry act and lack of proper governance in recent years has led to a mass selling of sheep. Earlier honoured as a god of wealth, similar to the cow in Hinduism, sheep now fulfil the growing demand for meat, becoming the favourite snack in western Nepal's growing urban areas.

The urgency for border posts is obvious if you live in Humla. The biggest western Tibetan border town of Taklakot, adjoins Humla. When the caravans were still making their trips, Humlis were self-sufficient as far as food went, and the caravan used to supplement the scarce food supply in Taklakot. The Taklakot elite build up ritual friendships with their counterparts in Humla. When winter was around the corner, Taklakotis entered Nepal as far as Yalbang Chaur in Muchu Village District Committee to stock up on tito phapar (bitter buckwheat) flour, and bhuse jau (barley with a thick bark), which grows in Rodikot in Humla.

Taklakot is now connected by road to other centres of supply, and the market, which also catered to Humla, does not function anymore. Humlis are now completely dependent on the Taklakot market for food supply and commodities. Because there is no checkpoint or customs post at the border in Hilsa, Humlis must now travel at their own peril and dogged by considerable harassment to inner Taklakot to buy their basic needs. The price? Deforestation and alcoholism. In Taklakot, Humlis pay for food with Nepali timber sold for as little as 7 Yuan (Rs 56) per kg. Worse, Humlis are sometimes forced to barter the wood for thope, the local alcohol. (See 'Nepali timber to Tibet', Nepali Times #17)

The tradition of polyandry is also collapsing. The well-to-do Nyinba community, among others, had evolved a unique system of brothers dividing the caravan work equally amongst themselves and marrying a single wife. Since all the brothers' earnings from different sources went to the wife and relations between all the husbands and the wife were equal, the families prospered. "A wife from a good family, water from a good spring", goes a Nyinba saying. But now, as the sheep stocks are sold for meat, there are few or no pastures, the single wife will be married to many unemployed brothers. Many retired herders are now forced to take on a completely alien tradition: a single household with a sort of large joint family. In their old age some are settling down with individual wives and earning their livelihood running teashops and lodges in Simikot. Nyinba women who used to proudly wear along (traditional golden earrings), now line up in front of the Chief District Officer's office with a coupon that entitles them to 5 kg of rice. And these are people who were earlier among the biggest salt traders of the upper Karnali.
There is corruption and politics involved in the food coupons, tainting these straight-forward, honest and hard-working folk. One-third of the Himalayan region including Karnali once depended wholly on the caravan economy. Now, there is nothing to replace it. The Karnali is not the only region to be affected by these changes, but it is most desperate here.

The people of the Karnali have been proud and self-sufficient for centuries. They don't want handouts, they want a life of self-sufficiency and dignity. But the march of time, the encroachment of the outside world, and an uncaring faraway capital has forced them to speak out. And now that they are speaking out, the government considers them a nuisance. They are seeking their rights not as bohemian caravan runners romanticised in Oscar-nominated films, but as alert citizens of Nepal. All they are want is their dignity back.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)