Surviving porters of the Bhimphedi-Thankot trail remember carrying cars they never got to ride
Legend has it that the first ever car was driven in Nepal in 1922, when Britain’s Prince Edward (later King Edward VIII) rode across the border to hunt tigers in Kasara of Chitwan.
After that, Nepal’s Rana rulers got hooked to cars. They couldn’t have enough of them, but there were no roads to Kathmandu so cars (and the petrol to run them on) had to be physically carried over the mountains from Bhimphedi to Thankot by porters.
Cars would be stripped of their wheels and seats, and hundreds of young men from the villages of Makwanpur were hired to do the heavy lifting. Only in 1957, when the Tribhuvan Highway was finally opened, did the era of cars on human shoulders finally come to an end.
Of the many car porters, we tracked down five surviving ones in Makwanpur. One of them is Dhan Bahadur Gole, 87, who remembers being among at least 100 porters lifting the cars across rivers, and up and down two high passes on the eight-day journey.
Dhan Bahadur Gole, Jukta Bahadur Waiba, Pote Ghale, Hira Bahadur Ghalan, Iman Singh Rumba. PICS: CHANDRA KUMAR HATUWALI
“These days vehicles get paid to carry people, back then we were paid to carry vehicles,” recalls Gole, who helped ferry the first limousine, a Daimler, when he was only 17 in 1949. He would be paid five aana (less than a rupee) as payment, so despite his name, Dhan Bahadur did not get rich carrying cars for rich people. The cars were secured on long bamboo poles and would be called by the number of people it took to carry them, usually multiples of twelve: 32, 64 or 96.
Before they started carrying cars, porters like 86-year-old Iman Singh Rumba used to ferry luggage for royal entourages going up and down to Kathmandu from the Indian border. Rumba even helped carry Sita Maharani (Bhim Sumsher’s wife) on a palanquin when he was 15.
Hira Bahadur Ghalan, now 85, has lost count of the number of cars he helped carry over the mountains. Sometimes, cars had to be carried out of Kathmandu back to Bhimphedi, like when Bahadur Sumsher left Nepal and wanted to take his car with him. Till last year, Ghalan even kept the bamboo poles used for ferrying, as a souvenir.
“Last winter, we decided there was no use for it anymore, so we cut it up and burned it in the fireplace,” he says.
Jukta Bahadur Waiba, 85, has an exact count of the number of cars he ferried to Kathmandu: 40 between 1946 to1951. Today, despite his advanced age, he still makes a living running a water mill in Tasar.
Out of the five remaining porters, 81-year-old Pote Ghale of Sarbang is the youngest and is the only surviving car carrier out of the 23 from his village who did the job. “When the Ranas left Nepal in 1951, I was one of the porters carrying them and their luggage to India,” Waiba remembers, “some would be crying inside the palanquins.”
The porters got a bonus if they went faster, and Waiba was once paid extra for carrying a heavy-set Rana from Bhimphedi to Thankot in one day. Since lugging limos paid more, he switched from carrying people to carrying cars.
“We had to take bamboo poles, walking sticks and straw from home. The cars were fastened onto the poles and the straw was used to make slippers,” recalls Gole who still uses the palanquin from those days to carry patients to the health post.
Dhan Bahadur is living happily with his granddaughter in Chitlang, not far from the trail where he helped carry cars 60 years ago as one of the last car carriers of Nepal.
Credit: S. Dillon Ripley papers, 1943-1974, Yale University library
Nepal’s last car carrier, Suraj Kumar Bhujel