21-27 March 2014 #699

Nepal’s last car carrier

Cars are supposed to carry people, but in Nepal people carried cars
Suraj Kumar Bhujel in MAKWANPUR

SURAJ KUMAR BHUJEL
IRON MAN: 89-year-old Dhan Bahadur Gole, the last known survivor of porters who carried cars for a living, rests outside his house in Chitlang, Makwanpur.
In his hometown in Chitlang, Dhan Bahadur Gole is affectionately known as the "gadi bokne buda'" (car carrying old man). At 89, Dhan Bahadur is the last known survivor among porters from the region recruited by transporters to transport motor cars to Kathmandu in the 1930s. This was before the serpentine Tribhuvan Highway linking the capital to the Indian border was constructed in 1956, and the only way to get to Kathmandu was on foot or to fly. Cars bought mainly by the Rana or Shah nobility were brought to Calcutta by ship, driven sometimes up to Bhimphedi and then carried over the mountains by porters.

Dhan Bahadur helped ferry his first car, a Daimler, when he was only 17. He was in a team of 64 other porters and the journey from Bhimphedi to Thankot (see map) took eight days. He would typically receive 5 aana (less than a rupee) as payment, so despite his name, Dhan Bahadur did not get rich carrying cars. The cars were secured onto long bamboo poles and bigger cars required up to 96 porters to heave up the trails. “We didn’t even know the model of the cars we were carrying, we just called them 32, 64, 96 depending on the number of people carrying them,” Dhan Bahadur remembers.

Right photo: VOKLMAR WENTZEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
BACK BREAKING: A team of sixty porters carry an old German-made Mercedes en-route to India as a trade-in for a shiny American model in January, 1950.

His only preparation before every journey was to weave two pairs of straw slippers. “A pair was never enough, sometimes we would wear down two pairs of slippers even before we reached Chitlang, and so we had to make more on the way,” Dhan Bahadur recalls. The Tribhuvan Highway followed another route to Kathmandu via Palung, but now the road has arrived even in his home village of Chitlang.

Over a period of twenty years, Dhan Bahadur says he carried about 30 cars. When he was not carrying cars, Dhan Bahadur would porter other goods including tobacco and sugar from Bhimphedi to Thankot on his back. Once the highway was completed and jobs as a porter were hard to come by, Dhan Bahadur started selling handmade products in Thankot before opening his own farm back home in Chitlang.

“All the three porters from my village who worked with me, including the group leader, are all dead,” says Dhan Bahadur. Married thrice, Dhan Bahadur has two sons and lives with his granddaughter and her family in Chitlang.

Credit: S. Dillon Ripley papers, 1943-1974, Yale University library

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