The Nyishangba traders of ManangTheir remarkable adventurism adds an important chapter to Nepal’s history of trade.
Although the Himalayan region has been imagined as being contained by its harsh geography, such a view couldn’t be further from the truth. The many cultures who lived in the Himalaya often engaged in longitudinal trade, giving birth to dynamic trade routes that ebbed and flowed with the seasons. And as with most trade, traders often found themselves in the most unique of places. We know that Lhasa Newars traded as far as Leh in Ladakh, an incredible story that demands to be documented in greater detail, and that Kashmiri Muslims first settled in Nepal Valley during the 15th century.
The history of trade in many ways is a history of the world itself. From Roman ships sailing down to the South Indian port of Muziris in search of pearls and spices, to the Dutch East India Company that provided a template for European imperialism in Asia, trade has built and destroyed civilisations and states.
One such extraordinary community network of traders was the Nyishangba of Manang, perhaps the most intrepid among all Nepali trading communities. As the story goes, when English mountaineer Bill Tillman (in some accounts, it is Swiss geographer Toni Hagen) was touring Nepal in the 1950s—a time when Nepal was just said to have "opened up" to the world—and arrived in Manang, he met with a shock. A local pulled out a camera and began to click his pictures while wearing a Swiss watch! Tillman had met a Nyishangba trader who had travelled as far as Southeast Asia.
Long distance trade
Dutch geographer Wim Van Spengen, who conducted extensive fieldwork among the Nyishangbas in the 1980s, wrote in his seminal Tibetan Borderworlds: A Geohistorical Analysis of Trade and Traders that the first royal order granting trade privileges to the Nyishangbas was said to be awarded in 1784 CE, when Bahadur Shah was regent to minor-king Rana Bahadur Shah. By 1915, a Nyishangba trader had travelled as far as Rawalpindi and Lahore via Jammu to sell herbs and musk. The construction of railways in British India was a catalyst for long distance trade by the Nyishangbas. Here, one has to recall that Newar traders too shifted their bases to Kalimpong after the opening up of the Nathu La route by the British and the Indian railway network made it easier to source goods from Calcutta, thus leading to the decline of Kathmandu as an entrepot for trans-Himalayan trade.
For the Nyishangbas, too, Calcutta emerged as a new centre post 1920s, which thereafter opened up new avenues for long distance trade. A map showing the places visited by Nyishangba traders between 1930-50 marks cities as far as Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Mandalay and the ruby-rich fields of Mogok in Myanmar, and almost all of northeast India. Assam was where "the youngster could prove himself as a successful trader", and where "more experienced traders could withdraw temporarily" to recover from losses or to escape political upheavals. But the real money was beyond. "Assam was the safety-valve for the unlucky and the incapable, the real fortunes being made beyond the Indian border after 1930."
One notable feature of the Nyishangbas was their trade in gems and jewellery from Southeast Asia from the 1930s onwards. Traders either took the ferry from Calcutta—at the cost of Rs15—or crossed overland from Nagaland and Manipur. As a trader told Spengen, he travelled to Imphal in Manipur with a few friends in 1932, and made their way to the town of Homalin on the Burmese side, and eventually to Monywa, "where the members parted temporarily, in order to sell their mixed stock of herbs, daily goods and rings separately". The trader then moved to Myinmu and Sagain in Mandalay, where a Nepali community already existed, and discovered Mogok as the "cheapest source for the best stones".
With the Second World War and Japan’s invasion of Burma, all such trade came to a halt, and the Nyishangbas withdrew to northeast India. The end of the war then provided new opportunities for the Nyishangbas to expand further into Southeast Asia, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand emerging as new centres. Traders used Indian passports in the absence of Nepali documentation, often obtained by dubious means, since those who acquired one could travel across frontiers easily and were regarded as possessing "greatly privileged status". Even as late as 1970, Nyishangba traders were to be found in Penang, Malaysia.
In the 1960s, the expansion of Nepali state authority provided a sort of "breaking point" for Nyishangba traders. As Spengen records, king Mahendra, during his 1964 visit to Pokhara, exempted the traders from paying any customs duties on goods imported by them. The first Nepali passports were given to Nyishangba traders in 1962, and this allowed a new generation of traders to expand their bases by building upon new policy measures such as the Foreign Exchange Entitlement Scheme, or the Bonus Voucher Scheme under which "foreign exchange earnings could be reclaimed by the exporter for importing goods of his own choice". The Nyishangbas also took advantage of the Gift Parcel Scheme introduced in March 1966, under which no duties were charged for parcels sent by air or post under the value of Rs1,000. "The post-1970 years confirmed the position of the Nyishangba as an international trading community." This was also when India was deep into protectionist measures, while Nepal had emerged as a hub for cheap foreign goods.
By the end of the decade, however, Nyishangba privileges were curtailed after the community became entrenched in the trade in luxury goods and began to invite criticism, with the Bonus Voucher Scheme itself disbanded in 1978. However, by virtue of their extensive networks and capital, the Nyishangbas continued to play an important role in international trade, although newer players had already begun to emerge.
The story of the Nyishangba traders is barely recalled today, but their remarkable adventurism adds an important chapter to Nepal’s history of trade. Such risk-taking was unusual even for the times, and their success in long distance trade is unique among all Himalayan trading communities. Their story—and of other traders—corrects the normative view that Nepal was a closed-off society in the past. A more correct assertion would be that its rulers were inward-looking, while its people were not.