Friday, November 19, 2021

Book Review: 'Caravan to Lhasa: A Merchant of Kathmandu in Traditional Tibet'

Bedtime stories told to children by their parents often leave indelible impressions on their minds. When these children grow up to become adults and have their own children, the stories are passed on, from one generation to the next. Fiction writers like Leslie Marmon Silko and Chinua Achebe drew extensively from the oral traditions of their culture and shaped these into tales for their readers. In the book Caravan to Lhasa, Kamal Ratna Tuladhar does the same; he recounts the same “staple bedtime stories” that he had heard from his father and his uncle. But Tuladhar’s stories are not mere figments of a storyteller’s imagination, nor are they your traditional lok kathas. These are real tales of real people--revolving around adventures that his father and uncles had actually lived through.

The story is about the caravans the Newar traders in the “good old days” (from 1920 to 1960) used to take to Lhasa. It is about their perilous journeys back and forth, wherein they consistently encountered bad weather, dangerous beasts, and dodgy bandits. The blurb in the back of the book aptly describes the entire book in one sentence: “Tuladhar captures the spirit of a vanished era, one in which the sense of adventure and the willingness to take risks was not only essential for the success of trading ventures, but a way of life.”

The word ‘Tuladhar’ refers to someone who handles weighing scales in Sanskrit. As the name suggests, Tuladhars have a history of trade, particularly in establishing commercial connections with foreign countries. The history of their trade with Lhasa goes way back to seventh century when Nepali princess Bhrikuti was married to Tibet’s King Songsten Gampo. As mentioned in the book, the individual merchants and the artisans who went as escorts to the Princess were the precursors of the larger trade between Kathmandu and Lhasa that was to follow. Despite some fluctuations in the relationship between Tibet and Kathmandu, the trade continued for many years.

The Newar merchants, and especially Tuladhar’s grandfather, father and uncles were involved in the transportation of goods like wool, gold, musk, textiles and factory products across the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau. They established shops and business firms in Lhasa, where they would sell these products, most of which were especially imported from Calcutta in India. The Buddhist Newar traders also built temples and erected sculptures in Tibet, and in this way, not only shaped the commerce, but also the culture of the region.

In narrating several accounts of his father’s and grandfather’s journey from Kathmandu to Calcutta to Kalimpong to Lhasa, Tuladhar offers glimpses of the vibrant history of the Newar community. Penned in accessible language, the stories read like the fictional accounts of some imagined adventurer. Caravan to Lhasa is very visually-descriptive and will allow for vivid pictures to form in the reader’s mind. For instance, in describing his father’s condition whilst dealing with excruciating weather on the way to Lhasa, Tuladhar writes thus: “He was immobilized on his horse because his limbs were numb with cold. The others had to lift him off the saddle and carry him inside like his body was in a plaster cast.” Various intriguing historical facts inserted into the account also make the book quite captivating. “Newcomers from Kathmandu would let their jaws drop when they saw the street vendors selling bullets like they sold cigarettes at home.”

The book also incorporates several letters of correspondence between his father and uncles. In addition to these, there are relevant photos and scanned copies of several documents, all meant to prove the authenticity of the tale. The author also cites from various historical accounts written by travelers, as well as takes cues from oral history. For example, he has mentioned an interesting poem, written by an unknown poet, which describes the farewell ceremony that would be held before the traders left for their difficult voyage: “Accepting the sagan with his right hand and wiping away the tears with his left hand/ my husband walked away without looking back.” Caravan to Lhasa is so much more than a history book, incorporating as it does bare facts while at the same time presenting them in a very lucid and entertaining--almost fictional--manner. I might have approached this as a story about adventure, but it would be equally appealing to the many who might regard it a reliable source of information about the history of Kathmandu-Tibet trade.


Published: December 16, 2011 / The Kathmandu Post 


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