How the Nepal-China border was finalisedThe story of how Nepali bureaucrat Daman Raj Tuladhar demarcated the far-western border with China.
In 1950, Gabriel Garcia Marquez documented a bizarre tale from Cali, Colombia. A man, suffering from what must have been the mother of all hangovers, found a fish flying into his room window on the third floor. Thoroughly disturbed, he jumped out the window too.
The next day, in the hospital suffering from broken bones, he read a news item about himself: ‘The decision [to jump] seemed to have been due to the nervous excitement produced by alcohol.’ Turning the page, he came upon another news item: ‘Inhabitants of [Cali] had an extraordinary surprise today, as they observed in a downtown city street the presence of hundreds of small silvery fish, approximately two inches long, that appeared strewn all over the place.’
Gabo’s tale illustrates the often-puzzling coincidences that occur in life, and thankfully without any tragic conclusions. While I was writing my book on Nepal’s history with China, I wanted to include stories that went beyond the usual humdrum of such books of history—for example, BP Koirala’s thoughts about seeing a luxurious bathtub in Mao Zedong’s train; or the story of how one of the last Newar traders in Lhasa returned home; or when Pushpa Kamal Dahal had a moment upon seeing Mao’s embalmed body. But there was one story I couldn’t include, for the simple reason that I came upon it a few days after the book went to press. It was the story of Daman Raj Tuladhar, a bureaucrat who served the government in a variety of roles, and his experiences while demarcating the Humla border with China in 1961. So I recall it here because it’s a tale that is too good to let go of.
In July 1962, Daman Raj Tuladhar set off for Rasuwagadhi with a retinue of two armed guards, 30 jawans from the Devidutta Gan, one overseer named Gangaram Shrestha, six surveyors, 20 other employees of the survey department, and 106 porters. The team reached Rasuwagadhi after a walk of five or six days, and as Tuladhar writes, the Chinese official from Kerung immediately came to the border bridge to welcome him when he heard of the arrival. A reception had been organised by the Chinese for him that night in Kerung town, and the entire team went over.
The next day, he bid farewell to the soldiers and the porters, and hired 120 porters from Tibet. The Chinese provided the team 60 soldiers as security detail and eight horses. A motorable road began from a town called Jonga. The Chinese soldiers shot a feral foal, and asked Tuladhar if he wanted to try horse meat. ‘Kina Nakhanu! Why not!’ Tuladhar replied. ‘I had some chasers to go with my alcohol,’ as he writes.
On the 13th day, the team reached Mansarovar, where Tuladhar immediately took off his clothes and readied himself for a dip. A Chinese officer stopped him. ‘Khampa, Khampa,’ he said, but Tuladhar did not understand the rest, and got angry. That evening, he complained to the chief administrator at the welcome dinner, where the latter told him Tibetan guerrillas had an encampment nearby. ‘Once we are rid of such bad elements, you can take a dip. And we will shoot ducks all day long.’ But Tuladhar wasn’t satisfied.
Nonetheless, on the 16th day, the team arrived at Khojarnath, where the survey was to begin. ‘It was my responsibility to set up border pillars number 1 to 18,’ Tuladhar writes, on the agreed basis of watershed principle and other natural boundaries. Then one day, Chinese troops brought in six Khampas to Tuladhar’s tent. The troops explained they were the Khampas because of whom Tuladhar couldn’t take a dip in Mansarovar, but now he could do so whenever he desired.
Tuladhar received a message from Kathmandu asking him to also sign the necessary documents pertaining to fuel collection by border inhabitants, and trans-boundary pastoralism and trade. But the documents hadn’t reached him by the time the Chinese asked to sit down for discussions. So he delayed the meeting for three weeks, but when the documents still hadn’t arrived, Tuladhar prepared points on the basis of existing trans-boundary practices. After several days of negotiations, both sides agreed to halt such practices after five years, and signed three addendums towards this.
Tuladhar writes the Chinese had accorded him the respect due to a friendly neighbour’s representative, and that the Chinese had impressed him by saying Nepal wasn’t a small country at all. The Chinese also put up a dance performance for the Nepalis. By the end of August, their work was complete. But the vehicles that were to take the Nepalis back to Rasuwa hadn’t arrived even as Dashain neared. Tuladhar began to fret. He told the Chinese he’d return to Kathmandu via India. Although the Chinese told him to wait for a few days as a storm was approaching, Tuladhar couldn’t. His team—one constable, one overseer, another bureaucrat, a porter who carried the cash box, and ten porters—was seen off at the base of Yari, across from Taklakot, by the Chinese.
From hereon, Tuladhar’s tale turns into one straight out of a ‘Drama in Real Life’ story from a Reader’s Digest issue. As soon as they began climbing, it began to snow. They were to climb down to Tinkar village, but the snow didn’t let down. ‘We couldn’t see the trail now.’ There was no sight of any settlement even by 8 pm, so they decided to take shelter under a cliff face. The ten porters were far behind. They had no water, and the stream had frozen, so they began to chew on snow. Tuladhar began to weep thinking he would die that night.
The Chinese had given them two bottles of brandy and a tin of biscuits, which they shared. It stopped snowing at 10 pm. As soon as light broke, they rushed out, frozen to their bones. At around noon that day, they arrived at the first village. But the ten porters hadn’t reached. So Tuladhar got the village chief to organize a rescue party. Finally, the ten porters straggled into the village in the evening, blinded by the snow. Tuladhar paid them Rs300 each, and ordered for a feast to celebrate their survival.
From hereon, Tuladhar travelled back to Kathmandu via Tinkar and crossed over into Kumaon. At Chhangru, Tuladhar was forced to climb up to the village after a group of kids first shouted, ‘Nepal bata aaune saheb jindabad!’, and then, ‘Hamra gaun napase murdabad!’ (‘Welcome to the officer from Nepal, but not if he doesn’t enter our village!’) At Garbyang, a village in Almora, he learnt the war between India and China had broken out. Tuladhar finally reached Kathmandu via Lucknow, just in time for Dashain. He took a month-long break, a deserved one.
As a writer who dwells on history every now and then, I wish I had found this account sooner. But I suppose that is also half the fun of reading history: you continue to discover new stories the more you dig.