Buddhism, Himalayan Trade, and Newar Merchants

By Professor Todd T. Lewis

College of the Holy Cross, USA


Himalayan Frontier Trade: Newar Diaspora Merchants and Buddhism


The civilization with its roots in the kathmandu valley has for at least 1500 years dominated a territory extending beyond its immediate culture hearth zone, An elevated malaria-free valley roughly twenty mile in diameter, pre-modern Nepal was the most attractive and productive settlement in the region due to its fertile soil, reliable rains, pleasant climate, and trade location. Itself a frontier "satellite" which ahs absorbed many influences for India and, to a lesser extent, Tibet, the Nepal Valley always retained its political independence for distant empires. The Kathmandu valley's enduring autonomy and cultural vitality is shown in the survival of a unique Tibeto-Burman language, Newari.


By the Licchavi era (400-800 A.D), it is clear that a core civilization existed in the Kathmandu Valley that was indicized tot he extent of rulers making Sanskrit inscription to record local proclamations. Hindu, Buddhist, and even Jain traditions were imported and by the Gupta era "Nepal" was well-known in the Gangetic plains. While we now have basic information about early Nepal's society and culture from these record, there are only scant references to the limits of Licchavi rule. This early civilization extended to the Banepa Valley immediately tot he east and may have reached to Nuwakot. there were likely traders centered in the valley who also established relationships with small settlements on the connecting Indo-Tibetan trade routes several Licchavi Inscription mention "caravan traders"-- but to date no records of these sites have been discovered. Rotes through the central Himalayas are mention din Sanskrit pilgrimage guide texts of this era and they support the notion that there have been regular avenues of human passage across central Himalayas for the ancient period onward. 


In the early Malla period (1100-1480), evidence of Newar expansion emerges, especially for Dolakha, Across the mid-hills, territory was carved up among hundreds of petty-stares, with local ruling elites exercising control over subsistence farmers and pastoralists through in-kind taxes, trade tolls, and military coercion. Trade routes to Tibet via Humla, Mustang, Kiyrong, khasa, and Wallangchung channeled north-south relations. Across the mid-hills, a dominant trade routes passe for Jumal to Pokhara, to Nuwakot, to Kathmndu: and from there toe Dhulikel, Dolakha, Bhojpur, Ilam, and Darjeeling, Even before the Shahs, the Kathmandu Valley's metalworkers, artists, weavers, musk/gold/silver traders were linked by middlemen --both Near and others-- to the greater regional economic system that radiated across the hill hinterlands, India, and Tibet.


The eventual conquest of the Nepal Valley by Prithivi Narayan Shah of Gorka (1769) was a landmark event that altered the course of Himalayan history. Most of the Former regional policies shifted in response to the new states many action directed at unifying a single nation: with Kathmandu now at the galactic Center governing a broad territory, this led to unprecedented changes. Setting definitive modern borders and setting up Nepal's nation bureaucracies in law, military, traffic, etc. caused populations across the hills to reorganize, sometimes in new configurations and under new names, and to fundamentally redefine themselves so as to prosper. Analysis of this era in terms of the Nepal state as a dual frontier state underlines the fact of relations shifting across the region, complicated by the changes in the Tibetan policies northward and with the Translation from Mughal to British imperial dominance southward.


Trade Across the Mid-Montane Region


 It was natural that the conquering shah rulers recruited individuals for the Kathmadu Valley to perform the tasks necessary for national integration., New society was known for its literate elite, successful businessmen, talented artists, and skilled agriculturalists, For the Newars in the Valley, the Shah conquest presented opportunities for exploiting their skills in each of these spheres. Thus, many Newars migrated across the new Nepali empire: some left under contract with the state to supervise government mining, minting, weaving, and other types of production. In the first decades of shah rule, Newars were close allies in meting the rulers' ongoing, practical need to supply military garrisons. Merchants also went out pursue trade opportunities along the administrative networks being created by the new state's organization.


For venture some Newar entrepreneurs, new economic niches, new economic niches emerged, alliances developed, and settlements grew across the frontier zones. Success fueled continued Newar migration, coalescing in their dominance in major towns though our mid-mountane Nepal. Migration corridors developed between specific Valley sub-communities and distant satellite towns as all-Newar and non-Newar client-patron relations developed Allied with the state's extensions across the hills in allied with the state's extensions across the hills in all domains but soldiering, and aware of new state laws and procedures, Newars acquired land and created new settlements that partially ruplicated their core society and its traditions, Entrepreneuring, money-lending, and action as craftsman/ artisan collectives that provided valued household gods, many Newars exploited the possibilities created in the wholly new world of the Shah state. Some became community leaders, including prominent Newar politicians of recent decades; others exploited local poeople mercilessly; there were still other Newar niches and Newar ethnicity in these sites is complicated yet again by many men intermarrying with non-Newar women.


For many, this migration was permanent and many contemporary descendants no longer retain relations with kin in the Valley. Newar migration continues until the present: the  1981 census shows that roughly forty percent of those who identify themselves as "Newar" live outside  the Kathmandu valley proper.   


If a bazaar in the Nepalese mid-hills is significant, Newar trading families will likely be there. Throughout Nepal, Newars have been active in pursuing the business opportunities that have unfolded concomitant with economic modernization.


Newars migrating to the mid-montane region transplanted both the Hindu and Buddhist religions caste rituals, architectural styles, distinctive festivals and a host of dialects. Ties with the core area have been preserved in many domains, especially in (individuals of the Sakya and Vajracarya castes), and in pilgrimage choices.   


Newars in Lhasa


Since antiquity, Valley merchants were well situated to control the flow of Indo-Tibetan trade goods going by caravan in both directions, From the Malla ere onward, taxes on trade were a major source of revenue for the Newar kings. One decisive component in the Shah conquest of the Newars was Prithivi Narayan's success at cutting off the flow of trade through Kathmandu, depriving the Mall a kings of revenue and undermining the Newar traders' support of their own After the British Younghusband Expedition opened up the shorter (and there fore superior) trade route to Tibet through Kalimpong, by 1908 Newar traders had lost their advantaged position in the Lhasa trade, though many moved their operation eastward--Darjeeling and Calcutta-- to carry on business, they were also involved with minting the money of Tibet, a very lucrative business which dates back to as early as the mid-Sixteenth century and dominated in the introduction of commercial photography.


To trade effectively in Tibet, Newar families sent their brother or sons to the major cities--Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse---to live for years at a time,.. These men learned to speak Tibetan, took part in the cultural life centered on Buddhism, and many married Tibetan wives. Newars in Tibet were of several kinds: some extended successful family businesses from Kathmandu and prospered dramatically; others attached themselves as salesman servants to the dominant Newar trading houses, making little more that a modest wage; and still others went to start new businesses that often failed because they lacked the considerable capital and the wed of personal contacts required. Newars in Tibet did cohere as a group, creating guthis to celebrate their own festivals and organized themselves in dealing with Tibetan officials....


Trans-regional Networks and local History


The logic of the trans-Himalayan Buddhist trade network affected the evolution of both Nepalese and Tibetan civilization Newars for at least 1000 yeast were highly-sought artisans across Tibet and in more recent times lamas were called to Kathmandu to supervise major renovations of the Swayamnbhu and Buaddha stupas. This trade/art connection represents an ancient trans-regional patter: a recent study of Chinese and Kushan merchants had demonstrated that the spread of Buddhist tradition itself motivated frontier trade. The material culture of Buddhist decoration and devotion--silks, gems, metalwork amulets--itself became a commodity, as monks and merchants crossed the lands synergistically while cultivating respectively, converts and new markets. The alliances and wealth generated affected the entire network region.


In many domains, Newar Lhasa traders have had a strong  effect on their own core tradition. Once lamas with whom they were acquainted arrived in the Kathmandu Valley, the traders made donation to maintain them, sponsored rituals, and built monasteries to insure their local institutional presence. But the tie with Tibet was more important than merely transplanting lamas and highland monasteries: the often great mercantile profits returned to contributed to Kathmandu's economy. primarily  through  religious patronage. We know that in this century Lhasa traders restored and made additions to all major indigenous Buddhist shrines throughout Kathmandu city: the directional Buddhas at Svayambhu , si Gha: Vihara, the Bijesvari complex, Jana Bhaha, and the Annapurna temple in Asan, In addition, they sponsored the majority of extraordinary patronage events to the Newar sangha in this century. Thus, we cannot fully understand Buddhist history in the Himalayan region or in the Kathmandu Valley without taking into account the trans-regional relationships that diaspora Newar ;merchants sustained across the Indo-Tibetan Himalayan frontier.


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