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Crossing the Roof of the World: People and Geopolitics in Trans-Himalayan Trade

Crossing the Roof of the World: People and Geopolitics in Trans-Himalayan Trade

A Report on Program on Central Asia Conference held February 19, 2010 at UCLA

    The Himalayas provide what appears to be a formidable barrier between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.  But the historical and archaeological records show that when one focuses instead on the passes and valleys of the world’s tallest mountains, the Himalayas become a network of economic opportunities that link cultural regions.  This international conference, sponsored by UCLA’s Central Asia Initiative and organized by UCLA’s Prof. Nancy Levine (Anthropology), examined the regional traditions of trade that have linked the people of the Indian subcontinent with China, Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.  A diverse array of speakers from the U.S. and Europe emphasized the role of individuals and cultural groups in both the eastern and the western portions of the Himalayas, providing valuable insights about the nature of trade and its geopolitical implications starting in the medieval era.

Several of the papers identified historically-known agents of trade, focusing on the “people” portion of the conference title.  Yudru Tsomu (Lawrence University) discussed the role of Tibetan innkeepers—mostly women—in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands.  These innkeepers played a number of roles in the trading communities, including language translations, matching customers with merchants, and storing goods.  Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (James Madison University) discussed the climate of trade during the expansion of the British East India Company just before the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839.  In this period of early contact, local entrepreneurs such as Sarwar Khan Lohani enhanced their status as tribal chieftains by imposing taxes and controlling the merchants who engaged in long-distance trade to the east.

Papers on the geography of the region focused on both regional patterns of trade and the specific points at which traders and consumers met.  Arash Khazeni (Claremont McKenna College) presented the environmental history of the 19th-century Afghan city of Balkh, a thriving metropolis of horse trade at the junction of the “steppe and the sown.”  Despite the prosperity that came with trade and agriculture, Balkh eventually fell into decline and its irrigation canals were transformed through neglect into swampy lands infamous for cholera epidemics.  The relationship between people, environment, and geopolitics in this region of the world carried a modern-day resonance that was interwoven into the subsequent discussion of the Afghan presentations.

Nancy Levine’s own paper focused on the eastern portion of Central Asia, where harsh terrain is still today criss-crossed by a challenging network of footbridges and narrow paths negotiated by packtrains of sheep and goats.  Trade links from Tibet to India via Nepal are manifested in different social adaptations: some groups are fully mobile, some groups move between fixed seasonal settlements, and some groups reside permanently along trade routes.  Levine also focused on the types of goods that were moved: not merely the exotica that we often associate with long-distance trade, but basic subsistence items such as salt from Tibet, wood from Nepal, and grain from the lowlands of the northern subcontinent.  A philosophical turn was subsequently offered by Wim van Spengen (University of Amsterdam), whose paper critiqued the tendency to view Himalayan trade success as merely the result of environmental circumstances.  Emphasizing the cultural self-determination of the individual and group, he noted the way that individuals work within overlapping state jurisdictions and cited the example of traders in recent historical times who simultaneously carried identity papers from India, Nepal, and Burma.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s closing address identified four areas of scholarship woven together by the collected papers: circulation (of both people and goods), mediation (through arbitration of disputes and multilingualism), vertical geography (the relationship between the highlands and the lowlands as both a metaphor and as a source of desired goods), and movement (with a reminder that pilgrimage, as well as trade, was a powerful motive for displacement).  Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam were consistent components of the cultural life of trade and traders in this region, providing a compelling accompaniment of economic activity that might fruitfully be examined in a subsequent venue.

Summary by Monica Smith, Anthropology, UCLA

February 23, 2010