19th century Tibet’s thriving Kashmiri community

Ajay Kamalakaran on how old Lhasa welcomed Kashmiri Muslims despite fears around the Great Game

19th century Tibet’s thriving Kashmiri community
At a time when Tibet was eyed as a prize in the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, the ‘roof of the earth’ was mostly closed off to outsiders. It was a popular belief in 19th century Tibet that the land would witness chaos in the distant future, and there was a particular fear of the British. The Tibetans of that believed that in two hundred years, the Tashi Lama would permanently move to the Utopian city of Shambala and that the so-called Phylings (Russians and British) would dominate the world, powered by their weapons and intellect.

Since Tibet was a forbidden land for almost all outsiders, the small community of non-Tibetans on the plateau mostly comprised of Chinese soldiers, who were staff of the Amban or Imperial Resident of China, merchants from distant Chinese regions and Nepali traders who controlled the flow of goods from Calcutta. There was also a scattered but thriving community of Kashmiris, Dogras and Laddakhis.

19th-century Tibet had a great appetite for Kashmiri wares, including shawls

The arrival of Kashmiris

The trade links between Kashmir, Laddakh and Tibet go back centuries and religious doctrines and philosophies flowed freely between the regions when Buddhism was the primary religion in South Asia. There is no record of any kind of large-scale immigration between the region, until after the advent of Islam in Kashmir.

The Muslim quarter of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa was set up by immigrants from Kashmir, who slowly crossed the Himalayas in search of a better living. “The main influx of Kashmiri and Ladakhi Muslim immigrants to Tibet, however, occurred during the mid-17th century reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama,” writes American scholar Dr Alexander Berzin. “They came to Tibet mostly because of widespread famine in Kashmir and settled in Lhasa.”  The Fifth Dalai Lama also gave the Muslim community land for a mosque and cemetery.

Kashmirs in Tibet were called Kachee, as the Tibetan word for Kashmir is Kachee Yul. There are almost no surviving stories of the Kashmiris who moved to Tibet in the 17th century, but later accounts show that they integrated well with the Tibetans, learning their language and even inter-marrying.

A Tibetan Muslim family of Nepal prepares to break their fast in Ramazan

Kashmiri merchants were allowed to make the arduous journey to and from Tibet, despite the fact that the Dogra government in Kashmir was looked uoon with fear

Accounts of a British Indian spy

Sarat Chandra Das, who was born in Chittagong in 1849, was one of the few foreigners who managed to get immense access to Tibet in the 19th century.  The British sent Das to Tibet on two spying missions, first for six months in 1879 and then for 18 months in 1881. Notes from his second trip were published in a book titled Journey to Lhasa. The Diary of a Spy. Although the book mainly focuses on his interactions with Tibetans there are many references to his interactions with Kashmiris, Laddakhis and Dogras.

In an entry dated December 13 (1879), he wrote: “Today some 15,000 persons assembled at noon in the marketplace to see the arrival of the Kashmir Envoy with his guards and escort in military dress. All the alleys of Shigatse, the courtyard Kesar Lha-khang, and the adjacent gardens were filled with people all eagerly waiting for the temo (sight). There was the envoy of the Maharaja with some fifty sowars, all in uniform, besides a hundred mounted followers of various nationalities, some Sikhs, some Mohammedans with flowing beards and white turbans, Laddakhis in clumsy lambskin dresses, Murmis from Nepal, Dokpas from Chang, few Nepalese and some Tibetans from Kirong. There were also with the Envoy a number of merchants dressed in princely style, and attended by servants in liveries of silk and broadcloth. Some of their ponies were also richly caparisoned with ornaments of silver and brocade of gold.”
The traders were subject to different laws than locals

Das was describing the envoy that the Kashmir government sent every three years with presents (called tribute) to the Grand Lama.  This ceremony  was welcomed in Tibet, where the government organized festivities all the way to the Laddakh frontier. The mission dated back to the end of the 1840-41 Dogra-Tibetan War when the Tibetans, with Chinese help, were able to stave off an invasion from Kashmir led by the famous general Zorawar Singh.

Kashmiris, Dogras and Laddakhis would often settle down in Tibet when they went as a part of this envoy. Many soldiers who were taken prisoner from the war also stayed back in the country. “Some of the Hindu Dogra prisoners also chose to settle in Tibet and embraced Islam,” Dr Berzin wrote. “They introduced the cultivation of apricots and apples into the country.”

The entrance to Lhasa's great mosque with writing in Arabic, Tibetan and Chinese

Tibetans also highly valued Kashmiri saffron. As a guest of a high-ranking official in Tashilhunpo, the Indian spy Das noticed a small saffron plant raised from some seeds that were brought from Kashmir. “This plant throve well, I was told, but yielded no saffron.”

Kashmiri merchants were allowed to make the arduous journey to and from Tibet, despite the fact that the Dogra government in Kashmir was looked uoon with fear. There was a large demand for dry fruits, shawls, saffron and several products from Kashmir. The merchants often had to deal with the region’s notorious bandits. The traders were subject to different laws than locals. Das wrote about punishments for erring merchants: “If he (a merchant) be a subject of some foreign government, such as China, Mongolia, Kashmir or Nepal, such fine, as is prescribed by law, is exacted from him. His goods are seized, examined, taken stock of, and after being securely packed, are sent with the owner in charge of the police to his own government, with a document complaining of his conduct, and stating the amount of the fine exacted from him.” Tibetans committing similar offences, on the other hand, were subjected to penal servitude for a number of years.

Kashmiris settled in many towns in Tibet. In Tsetang, a riverside city in the Yarlung Valley and once the fourth largest urban area in Tibet, Das noticed a considerable Kashmiri presence. He wrote, “There are four lamaseries around Tsetang, and in the town are some fifteen Nepalese, twenty Chinese and ten Kashmiri shops, besides native traders from all parts of Tibet.”

Muslims pray at Lhasa, capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region

Das’s only recorded direction interaction with Tibet’s Kashmiris was in Tsetang. He wrote: “Our guide procured lodgings for us in the house of a woman whose husband, a Kashmiri, had died a year or so before and who was now living alone with her husband’s son. The Kache (Kashmiri) received us very kindly, but after a short conversation with me he became alarmingly suspicious of my true character, and kept continually turning the conversation to the Shaheb-logs (Englishmen) he had known at Kathmandu, and the greatness of the Engrez Maharani (Queen of England).”  Das, who introduced himself as a pilgrim, would change the topic and talk about Buddhist monasteries and temples in the vicinity of the town.

Since Kashmir was not Das’s main area of interest, it’s hard to know how many Kashmiris he came across and what his observations were. Before 1959, the sparsely populated Himalayan region had at least three thousand people of Kashmiri origin. Some members of the community moved to the Kashmir Valley, fleeing with Tibetan Buddhists who left after the 1959 uprising against the People’s Republic of China. Members of the Kache community who live in Srinagar have visible Tibetan features, as their ancestors intermarried, but have maintained their Kashmiri identity.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and journalist, based in Mumbai, India. He tweets @AjayKamalakaran