A Note on Ancient Trade Routes in Kulu

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Excerpts from the book Kulu and Lahoul (1914) by Charles Granville Bruce.


Geography makes history all the world over, and nowhere is this more palpably true than in the Himalayas. Kulu history is based on evidences which are meagre, and, more especially in the case of the so-called chronicle of the old rajas of Kullu, often unreliable. But from the legends of an untutored mountain race and the ineradicable record inscribed on the face of the slowly decaying ranges, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct something of a picture of what life was like before the advent of the British.

Lahuli traders with their bales of wool at Patseo(?), Lahul early 20th century.

The position of the valley, it has always seemed to me, is peculiar. Here is no backwater like the neighbouring state of Chamba, in which the ancient Rajput line has been sheltered and able to maintain an unbroken rule from a period preceding the dawn of civilization in Europe. Kulu and Lahul lie full in a channel, through which have ebbed and flowed for ages the tides of racial and religious antagonisms. The people acknowledged many masters—Aryan and Mongolian; but thru it all Indian markets have always demanded salt and wool and borax—to say nothing of the more precious merchandise of Central Asia—and while armies marched and fought, the hungry Tibetans would still risk much to get the wheat of the plains and the incomparable barley of Lahul. The trade therefore went on. It was quite by chance that I discovered the ancient trade route.

One must remember that the Beas was nowhere bridged, and nearly everywhere an impassable torrent; that there were no mule roads, so that all trade must be packed on sheep; that every height was crowned with a garrison of marauders; that the Kulu farmer then, as now, regarded travelling sheep as ‘fair game’; that there was a customs barrier for the Rohtang Pass below Rahla at the canon still known as the ‘customs house,’ where, no doubt, a foreigner’s life was made a burden to him, and that there would be endless bickering and bargaining at every halt before a caravan of laden sheep could get any grazing. All this is plain to anyone who can imagine the Kulu people set free from the restraint which the British Raj imposes.

So the trade avoided the Hamta Pass, and the Rahtang, and the comparatively broad paths which led to destruction in the valley. Arrived at the summit of the Baralacha Pass, the Tibetans turned sharp to the left and followed down the left bank of the Chandra River.

Here was pasturage and to spare of the finest fattening grass in the world wherever they chose to halt. There were no torrents which were not easily fordable in the morning, and there was little fear of molestation in an uninhabited and, to the Indian mind, most undesirable region.

Wool merchants at Kyelang, ca. 1900.

Past the beautiful Chandra Lake the trade sheep marched and grazed the plain near ‘split rock,’ still known as the Plain of the Kanauris. There the middle-men from Kanaur in Bashahr, and perhaps from Kothi Kanaur, at the head of the Parvattiya Glen, met them.

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The big fifty-pound packs of salt and other merchandise were unpacked. The big Tibetan sheep were shorn. For a week the trading went on, and finally the little Bashahr sheep moved off, laden, but not so heavily as the Tibetan ‘biangis,’ or trade sheep, while the latter returned with new packs to Rudok and Leh.

But the Kanauris had no thought of moving through Kulu. They went up the valley which is now blocked by the Shigri Glacier, across the head of the Parvattiya Valley, along the old mountain sheep-track, which is still known though seldom used, always through uninhabited safety, to the Sutlej Valley at Rampur.

There they met, and, let us hope, were a match for the wily trader of the plains.

On the Hindustan-Tibet road near Simla, ca. 1879 (Bourne & Shepherd).

In 1836, tradition says, the Shigri glacier bursting some obstruction on the hill top overwhelmed the Chandra valley, dammed the Chandra River till it rose within measurable distance of the Kunzum Pass into Spiti, and finally destroyed the old trade route. The Spiti people had pickets out at the summit of the pass to warn them in case the river headed up high enough to flood the pass and flow down to Losar. There are however some landmarks on the old road, which I suspect was abandoned much more gradually than tradition states.

The Kanauris, who speak a Tibeto-Burmese language closely allied to those of Lahul and Malana, have left their name on the “Kanauris’ Plain” near the modern camping ground of Phuti Runi and the whole of the upper Parbati valley is known to this day as Kothi Kanaur, while its inhabitants, though they have forgotten their language and are rapidly becoming assimilated to the Kullu people, are still regarded as foreigners and often show markedly Mongolian features. Probably they are the descendants of Kanauris who gave up trade for farming generations before the road was abandoned. But they still know the road from Pulga to Rampur.


The book is available for free on the Internet; anyone interested in a paperback or Kindle book can find here & here.

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