The salt of the earth
While it is unclear when and how salt was first introduced to Nepal’s culture and cuisine, what is clear is that Tibetan salt was once the foundation of our Himalayan economy and livelihood.
From the Walung, Lhomi, Bhote, Sherpa, Byasi Souka, Mugali, Nyinba, Dolpo, and Nisyangba, the ethnicities on Nepal’s Himalayan rimland from Taplejung in the east to Humla and Darchula in the far west have historically shared socio-cultural and religious ties with Tibet.
The relationship between the southern flanks of the Himalaya with the Tibetan plateau extended to trade at a time when agriculture and livestock were the main means of livelihood on both sides of the mountains. Before 1850, Nepal imported rock salt, wool, powdered gold, horses and yaks from Tibet, and exported grain, spices, knives, fabric, handicrafts and more.
In 1774, Prithivi Narayan Shah’s Gorkha expansion had led to the annexation of regions controlled by Darjeeling as well as the town of Bijaypur in the Limbuwan region which was then ruled by Sikkim.
This angered the Tibetans, effectively souring relations and bringing trade to a standstill. This caused a shortage of salt in Nepal, which traders would try to remedy by smuggling it through high Himalayan passes.
Nepal and Tibet fought wars in subsequent years over minting coins to trade disputes. But this did not affect the secret crossborder trade since the Nepal-Tibet border was so rugged and remote it could not be fully policed.
Nepal and Tibet finally signed a treaty in 1856 to officially resume cross-border trade, allowing free travel and trade to resume.
Historian Baburam Acharya in his journal China, Tibet and Nepal notes that Nepali merchants bartered rock salt bought down from Tibet for grain from Nepal’s south. In the absence of common currency, bartering these goods was the main form of trade. This barter system remained in place until 1959, writes Wim van Spengen in his book Tibetan Border Worlds: A Geohistorical Analysis of Trade and Traders.
The people of Tibet’s Changthang Plateau were largely nomadic, while Nepal’s ethnicities were more settled into farming and pastoralism in the upper reaches of the Tamor, Arun, Dudhkosi in the east, to Budi Gandaki, Marsyangdi, Kali Gandaki in central Nepal, and Bheri, Karnali and Mahakali in the west.
Low agricultural yield in these semi-arid trans-Himalayan valleys meant that the communities traditionally depended on cross-border trade with Tibet.
Because merchants would have to be away to engage in trade for long periods of time, they divided roles, particularly among brothers, with some of the family members tasked with transporting and trading salt, and others staying behind to manage their homesteads.
For this reason, polyandry was convenient and accepted in Himalayan cultures. One woman married to all brothers meant the family remained together with centralised resources, and the women did not become widows if one brother died during the perilous Himalayan traverses.
Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf spent much of his life in Nepal, studying Nepal’s cross-border trade with Tibet, publishing his book Himalayan Traders in 1988. He explores how the market for Tibetan salt extended from Nepal’s high mountains to the foothills and the southern plains.
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The Salt Economy
From 1850 to 1959, the indigenous peoples living in the highlands from Taplejung in the eastern Nepal to Humla in the northwest and Mahakali in the far west engaged in the ‘salt economy’ — trading Tibetan salt with the Nepalis across the central hills and the plains.
The Walung ethnic group settled on the banks of the Tamor in Taplejung’s Olangchungola, Yangma and Ghunsa regions. Their job was to transport the salt from Tibet down to Maiwakhola, and exchange the goods with the Limbu indigenous groups in the central mountains. The Limbus would then take the salt down to Dharan to barter for grain and cloth.
Meanwhile, Nepal’s Bhote and Sherpa put down roots where the Arun river originates in Sankhuwasabha’s Thudam, Ritak and Topkegola regions. A little further downstream lived farmers from the Lhomi community. The Bhotes and Sherpas would barter salt for the potatoes and grains grown by the Lhomis. Similarly, the Sherpa of the Khumbu region bought and transported rock salt from Tingri in Tibet across the Nangpa La and traded it with the Rai people from down valley of the Dudh Kosi.
In western Nepal, Mustang’s Lowa tribe settled along the Kali Gandaki and carried Tibetan salt to Thak Khola, where they bartered it with the Thakalis who took it down to Pokhara and Kathmandu.
Meanwhile, the Nisyangbas of Upper Manang used to trek even lower to trade salt in Pokhara and Baglung, eventually expanding to Calcutta and the British East India Company, and later to even Burma via Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok.
In fact, so impressed was King Mahendra with the Nisyangba traders that he issued special passports to Nisyangba merchants in 1960, allowing them to expand their transnational trading bases as far as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
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After Prithivi Narayan Shah’s conquest of Kathmandu Valley in the 1770s, Sankhu became also a major trading post, and would remain one until 1967. Tibetan salt from Sankhu Customs was traded in the markets of Kathmandu from where it would reach the Tarai.
The Mughals and Karins settled near the Karnali River and indigenous to Upper Mugu used to travel to Tibet twice a year to import salt and wool. The salt was then exchanged for grain in the lower Mugu and Jumla to the Matwali Chhetris, who would go on to sell the goods in Jajarkot and the Tarai. Communities in northern Humla also traded salt for grain with the Thakuri in Bajhang and Bajura to the south.
The Dolpopa of the Upper Dolpo transported salt and wool on sheep, mountain goats and yaks to exchange for grain in the Tarali Magar village as well as to the Hurikot and Kaigaun villages in the Tichhurong region. Some of the last of these yak caravans were depicted in Éric Valli's Oscar-nominated film, Himalaya.
In the far-west, the Khas Thakuris of the Byasi Sauka, Hikila and Sunsera communities brought salt from Taklakot in Tibet, trading it across Baitadi, Doti and Bajura.
The salt economy strengthened ties not only between the people of Tibet and the Nepal Himalaya, but also fostered personal relationships between individual Nepalis and Tibetans, so much so that the exchange of कोसेली presents between Nepalis and Tibetans was as commonplace as the buying and selling of salt.
The salt trade also cemented lasting bonds between communities of the high Himalaya and the mid-mountains. The Nyinba tribe of Upper Humla were closely linked to the Khas of Limal, while the people of Upper Mugu had ties with the Khas of Lower Mugu. The Tarali Magars and Matwali Khas people of Dolpo, as well as the Lowa and Thakali of Upper Mustang had strong family bonds. The Sherpa of Khumbu similarly built relationships with the Sunwar and Rai communities to the south, as did Taplejung’s Walung with the Limbu community.
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By 1959, with China’s annexation of Tibet and later with the Panchayat system in Nepal, there were stricter border controls and the salt trade started declining. In addition, the activities of Khampa guerrillas based in Nepal who launched cross-border raids on the Chinese military led to tighter controls at the border.
There was also an imposition of high taxes and quotas on the production of salt making it an expensive commodity. The popularity of Tibetan salt also waned when awareness spread that the lack of iodine in it led to goitre and cretinism among Nepalis.
The Salt Trading Corporation was established in 1963 which coincided with the spread of new roads and airports. Gradually, salt imported from India replaced Tibetan rock salt in Nepal. Indeed, sea salt from India reached Nepal’s mountains faster and was cheaper than rock salt, and its transport by road and even aircraft was subsidised by the state.
The loss of the salt trade dealt a heavy blow to the economy, and ultimately changed the socio-economic status of the trans-Himalayan regions. Traders and their families were forced to migrate or take up alternative occupations. In Olangchunggola in northeastern Nepal, the decline of the salt trade destroyed the local economy, impoverishing families.
Read also: Gift a goat to Tibet nomads in Nepal, Nepali Times
The salt trade disruption caused a mass exodus of Nepal’s Himalayan communities to Taplejung, Dhankuta, Kathmandu and even Darjeeling. The Thakalis of Mustang moved to Kathmandu and engaged in international trade. The Sherpas of the Khumbu region found alternative employment in mountaineering and tourism, while some communities in Dolpo and Mugu clung to the declining salt trade.
The end of the Nepal-Tibet salt trade also stopped cross-border community and family links. The cessation of the trade also led to a loss of skills, art forms, livelihoods and traditions like the salt-carrying yak and sheep caravans. Now, there are motorable roads in most places where the caravans used to traverse.
Some former salt traders now rear livestock, but the closure of pastures in Nepal and Tibet have affected herders on both sides of the border. This in turn has resulted in the decline of wool production and traditional apparel like bakkhu and docha, leading to a loss of knowledge, skills, craft, art forms and festivals, particularly among younger Nepalis.
The Nepal government could have introduced alternative livelihood programs to offset the effects of the termination of the salt trade, made worse by the Himalayan barter economy being affected by monetised trade. Communities have not had time to adapt, since many of these changes came within a generation.
The Himalayan region, which used to export grain to Tibet in the past, has now been reduced to importing rice and other food items from Tibet. Himalayan self-reliance has been replaced by dependency and hyper-consumerism. Gone are vestiges of the salt-economy and the socio-cultural ties it fostered.
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(Jag Bahadur Buda is a student of anthropology. Adapted from the original in the March issue of Himal magazine by Shristi Karki.)