Himalayan Traders Manange

Features Issue 67 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

When Swiss geologist, Toni Hagen was permitted by the Nepal government to survey the whole of the country, he took the opportunity to trek 14,000 km through the length and breadth of the little kingdom. Reaching remote parts of Nepal never visited before by foreigners, the Swiss traveler was quite used to meeting backward villagers who would marvel at his camera and other equipment. This was in the 1950s and much of Nepal was uncharted territory. When he reached Manang, he was in for a mild shock. All along his travels, he had been taking photos of village people, but here to his surprise, he found the roles reversed. A Manangé pulled out a camera and started taking his pictures instead. To his dismay, the man living in this remote village in Manang was wearing a Swiss gold watch. Upon enquiry, Toni discovered that the man was a trader and had been as far as Malaysia and to other distant places to sell jewelry. It soon became apparent that the Manangé people had been traveling extensively throughout South-East Asia.

Although officially known as Manangba, ask one of them and the answer is invariably, “We are Manangé.” And that is what everybody calls them. Their precise ancestry is yet to be traced but their stories tell of people arriving from Tibet and other regions during different periods of time. Although they resemble Tibetans, their language has closer ties with the Gurung and Tamang languages than Tibetan. Why most Manangés write Gurung as a surname has also not been convincingly explained. One study states that like Tibetans, these people only had one name. But when the time came to acquire official papers, the need for a surname arose, and it is said that they then took up the second name of their nearest neighbors, the Gurungs. Or perhaps they became Gurung when some Gurungs of Shillong became their surrogate fathers, enabling them to obtain Indian passports. The Manangé people had been going to South-East Asia en masse.

Thokel Gurung
Thokel Gurung first went on a trading trip at the age of 25, but others went at a younger age. The journey took them through Besisahar (Starting point of many treks) down to Bandipur. “From there we went to Dev Ghat and on to the Indian border. We had to walk all the way to the border from where we caught a train to Asansol. In Shillong, we acquired passports with the help of Gurkha soldiers. Our next stop on this long journey was Calcutta from where we caught a plane to Burma and went on to Bangkok in Thailand,” reminisces Thokel. In the early days, they traded in herbs from Calcutta, but gradually diversified over the years. Thokel wound up in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where he went about selling his goods to Indian laborers (mostly Tamils) who worked in the rubber plantations. They went on to sell semi-precious stones, statues, beads, rings, necklaces, etc. They also sold on the streets and were clever enough to bring different goods each year. They began by selling glass jewelry, but as they became more adept at the trade, they switched to gemstones like moonstones and sapphires.

“Nepal did not issue passports in those early days, which is why we made Indian passports before flying to Bangkok. From there we took a train to Malaysia. We also went to Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei. My grandfather went to Indonesia by ship,” informs Thokel.  “We used to stay for a year or two each time we went to Malaysia. But none of us wanted to stay behind, except for Karto who hails from Pisang village. He’s the only Manangé in all

these years, who decided to marry a Muslim girl and settle down in Kuala Lumpur. He has his own shop and has married off his daughter from his first marriage to a Manangé from Nepal.” Many  have however, settled down in Thailand and Hong Kong.

“Since we couldn’t afford to stay in hotels, we slept in a gurdwara (a Sikh temple) in Kuala Lumpur, which took in travelers like us irrespective of caste, creed or beliefs. For a week, they even gave us free meals. We used to sell gemstones along the alleys and of course, sometimes the cops came and arrested a few of us. But like everywhere else, we paid them to get back on the streets,” says Thokel Gurung. These enthusiastic traders would visit the Indian laborers’ camps and sell door to door. The laborers were brought by the British to work the rubber plantations. He also recalls a war going on in Malaysia at the time, as the British were busy fighting communist guerillas with the help of Gurkha soldiers.

Contrary to popular belief that the Manangé people enjoyed special privileges since the time of King Mahendra (Shah), they were actually given special status by King Rana Bahadur Shah in the 18th century. They were allowed to travel freely throughout the country and were exempted from paying custom duties on trade goods. What the other subsequent rulers of Nepal did was to recognize their special status and give continuity to their privileges. In the 1960s, King Mahendra made passports available to these traders as they had been using Indian passports. People living in the high Himalayas turned to trade as the soil yielded little in the name of crops. But the region where the Manangé lived had no direct access to Tibet, which traded salt and wool for rice and other lowland produce. Manang being at a disadvantage because of its location, these courageous mountain dwellers turned south for trade. They stood on the streets of these extremely hot cities in South-East Asia, hundreds of miles away from home, to earn what they could before heading back to remote Manang.

Gofli Gurung

“If you really want to talk about Manangé people and their trade, you will need to spend a lot of time with me,” says Gofli Gurung. Indeed, when he delves into his past, he has endless stories to tell, which could perhaps fill a book. Born in Ngawal village of Manang in 1943, he spent his childhood there, herding cattle and doing other household chores. “I have never been to school since there were no schools in Manang,” he remarks. At the age of 18, he finally ventured out with his father to go to India, walking along the banks of the river Marsyangdi. Their merchandize at the time consisted of herbs. They reached Tinsukhia and Dibruga, and spent three months in Assam. “On the journey back we would bring along clothes, utensils, puja items and metal for making plows and axes. We carried the heavy load all the way to Manang. We would then spend five or six months at home and head down to India again in the winter,” Gurung reminisces.

In 1963, at the age of 20, Gofli made his first trip to Kathmandu, walking twelve days through Lamjung, Gorkha, Trishuli and finally through tiny roads that led into the city center. Spending two nights sleeping in a pati (resting place) near Swoyambhu, they moved on to Boudha, where they collected herbs to take to India. After reaching Calcutta, they took a train to Dimapur and went on to Manipur and Nagaland and walked another  week to reach the Burmese border. Gofli relates an interesting story: “In Burma, we boarded a large boat on a big river, but met with disaster. Along the way, the boat developed a leak and most of the people who were aware of what was going on, abandoned the vessel. The boat began to tilt and sink slowly. We Manangés were among the last to leave because we were not regular travelers. We were then looked after by the nearby villagers, who kept us warm by lighting a fire and also fed us for about three days.” They finally took a train to Mandalay, where they sold off the necklaces and gemstones they had bought in Calcutta. Their next venture was to send one Manangé to fetch rubies, blue sapphires, and other stones, which Burma is famous for. Instead of the  four of them traveling together, one person was nominated to represent the rest and they pooled in their resources, so that the person could go to Muguk (Thai-Burmese border), buy the gems and sell them on the streets of Bangkok. They later shared the profits. Good sense and mutual trust has been crucial in the success of Manangés as entrepreneurs.

Life was full of interesting incidents for the Manangé traders as Gofli recalls, “One day in Rangoon, we went to the cinema and saw a film, then headed for the bazaar. At around midnight, there was a coup and the military took over. We were caught right in the middle with army everywhere. The new rulers declared all the higher denominations worthless and suddenly the rich and poor were all equal. No matter how much money you had, the bank would give back only 500/- to each person. Although I had a Burmese ID, we had to leave. So, in June, we sneaked out and walked through the jungles. It took us twenty-one days to reach India but at the border, the Indian policemen took all our belongings and put us in jail in Manipur for three days. When we were finally let out, we headed for Dimapur and then Guwahati where we slept in a local Nepali’s restaurant. There we had to sell the watches and rings we were wearing as we were broke.” Just when things were getting better, they were arrested for the second time. This time, they were mistaken for Chinese citizens. “The Indo-China War was in full swing and a huge crowd had gathered to stone us to death,” recalls Gurung. “The mob intended to kill us, but the cops intervened just in time and locked us up. We were imprisoned for two months, until we could prove that we were Nepali citizens. We had no papers. After that, we headed home via Calcutta and flew back to Kathmandu from Patna, paying the fare of IC Rs. 45/-.”

For two years, Gofli did the Assam business, staying in Manang during the summer and heading out to India in the winter. He went to Shillong to make an Indian passport with the help of a Gurung man who was an Indian citizen. The man declared him a son and Gofli was given a passport. He then went to Penang in Malaysia via Calcutta and Bangkok. “The entire trip from Calcutta with a one-night stay in a five star hotel cost me IC Rs. 680/-. At the airport I was given a one month visa which I later extended to seven months. I went on to Kuala Lumpur and remained in Malaysia for seven months. Then I was off to Singapore with a three-month visa. At that time I was dealing in stones and necklaces. I then took a bus to Sarawak and traveled to Kuching, Johare Bahru, Labuan, Sibu and finally reached Brunei.” Here he discovered that their visa rules were quite peculiar. A two-day visa was given each time he entered, which meant he had to cross the border every time he needed a new visa. He did this continuously and stayed for a total of 30 days.

Gofli’s next stop was Singapore, and after spending seventeen months away from home, he finally headed back to Manang. After a six-month break, he was off again— this time with a Nepali passport. “For ten years, only the Manangé community was eligible to make passports,” recalls Gofli. The trip took him to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. He finally wound up in Manila in the Philippines. But disaster struck; he was caught in the airport for illegally importing goods. A six month long court case ensued. He sold jewelry to raise money in order to fight the case and requested help from an Indian Social Service organization. It was his good fortune that the Indian Embassy extended help and he was finally freed. But all his goods were confiscated. When he arrived back in Bangkok, he received the sad news that his father had passed away . So, he then caught a flight to Kathmandu, and walked back to Manang. Eventually, Gofli quit selling on the sidewalks and turned instead to bringing cosmetics, ready-made clothes, Japanese cameras, films, calculators and the like  from Hong Kong to sell in Nepal. “We were the first people to bring in such foreign merchandise to Nepal,” he claims. He then moved to Kathmandu and went every week to Hong Kong and Singapore. “In Hong Kong, I stayed at the International Guest House in Chungking. I had a dream that I would one day build a similar guesthouse in Nepal, so my children (he has seven daughters and a son) would not have to do what I did to make a living. I wanted to give employment to fellow Nepalis and pay tax to the government.” He realized his dream twenty-six years ago and aptly named the hotel, International Guest House. Starting with 17 rooms on a plot of 1 ropani, today his property in Kaldhara has 44 rooms on 3 ropanis, and has made him a wealthy man.

Gofli Gurung has had a colorful life. While in Manang, at the age of 28, he was appointed a judge (Kheba in Nyishangte) in 1971. He was following in his father’s footsteps. When he met the Dalai Lama in 1973, His Holiness gave him a talisman, which he says, “Women must not touch, or it will lose its power to protect.” The Dalai Lama also gave him a silver medallion for his good work in Manang. During the Khampa crisis, he played a crucial role in mediating between the government officials and the Khampas in order to disarm them. The weapons were kept in his house until the police came and took them away. He has done much social service in his ward, added a storey at the Siddhi Ganesh school and has helped many others, besides donating to gompas, chaityas and mandirs. He took it upon himself to raise money while also donating to make manis (prayer wheels) at Swoyambhu.  His reputation was such that he won the tender to collect tax (chungikar) at the Dhulikhel and Banepa checkpoints during 1987 and 1988 respectively.

Gofli Gurung has received many letters of appreciation and commendations including one from the Ministry of Education for his contribution to education and sports, in 2002. With his perseverance and good sense, he has been a successful businessman, running a reputable hotel. And to think that this man has never been to school- he should be proud. But his proudest moment was perhaps, when he received the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu for his outstanding social service and other contributions that have benefited the country.

Tshering Lopsang Ghale
One of the corporate hangouts in Thamel is a Chinese restaurant run by a Manangé named Tshering Lopsang Ghale. Da Hua Chinese Restaurant & Bar was opened by Ghale and a Chinese woman, who later pulled out of the deal.

Born in Braga, one of the several villages in Manang District,  Tshering Lopsang Ghale has been running Da Hua for the last 24 years. Talking about his village, he says, “Most of the villagers were Ghales in Braga and we didn’t marry among ourselves, because we were all related.” When he came down to Kathamandu, he married a Newar woman and has two sons. Tshering Lopsang remembers an incident when he was fifteen, “The government sent some teachers to our village. Since there had never been a school there, we were suspicious of these people who were not Manangés. We didn’t understand what they had come for, and we chased them away. It was much later that we realized why they had come. So, we never got any education in our time.”

He would spend four months working the fields besides fetching and cutting firewood in Manang. The rest of the time, they were away to trade in far off countries in South-East Asia. At the age of thirteen, he first went to Calcutta. He then went to Shillong and got himself a passport. “Coke was 10 paise in India and so was a plate of puri,” he recalls. He even went to Burma, which he remembers had very good rice and that too in abundance. Ghale was one of the Manangés who went to Vietnam and carried on their business even when bombs were raining down during the war in the 1960s. He remembers, “There were a lot of bombs being dropped that day, and we were still selling our goods. I was to the left and Kancha was on the lane going right. He got hit by shrapnel and was taken to a hospital where they took the piece of metal out. The Vietnamese used to buy the cheap jewelry we sold on the streets and market place. They couldn’t afford the good stuff.” Ghale went to Vietnam seven times as a trader and eventually settled down in Kathmandu.

Originally, the people of Manang village along with their neighbors were called Nyishangte (also Nyishangde) and the valley where they lived in was known as

Nyishang. According to Manangés, Nyishang is a Tibetan word that means ‘People of Shang’, Shang being a place in Tibet. Manang was the largest village in the region and when the Nepal government gave the entire political district the name Manang, outsiders referred to all the inhabitants of the region as Manangé (also written Manangi). Eventually, even these people started calling themselves Manangé. Hence it is difficult to ascertain who is a Manangé and who is not. Generally, the people of Nar and Phu are considered outsiders, while the rest are divided as people of Upper Manang and Lower Manang.

The valley floor in Manang district is an average of 3,400m in elevation and is surrounded by mountains over 6,000m in height. It lies in the rain shadow of the Annapurnas (Annapurna I is 8,091m), hence the climate is dry and the winters are harsh. People pass through Manang while doing the very popular Around Annapurna Trek. But, there is still no proper road to Manang and people either walk or fly into Humde airport.

Manangé society is one of the most well organized communities among the ethnic groups of Nepal. Strict rules and regulations formulated centuries ago have enabled them to live in harmony and to resolve communal problems. In the villages, the scarce water resource is distributed equally among the villagers, which means taking turns to use the water for irrigation. For every cultural event, all are expected to contribute according to their means. Miserliness is frowned upon and those who show generosity command respect and enjoy a higher status in the community. Although many Manangé families moved to Kathmandu, the rules apply nevertheless. Talking from personal experience, I have known Manangé people who paid fines of Rs. 500/- a day per person for failing to attend a picnic or an archery festival. Many of these events are celebrated by people of different villages (of Manang) on separate days. For example, when we visited the Manang Gompa in Swoyambhu, the people of Ngawal village were celebrating for a week, after which people of another village took their place. Within their community, Manangés also have a system of helping the less fortunate. There have been incidents where money was raised to fly a sick person to a hospital in Pokhara. Lending money within the community is common practice and can be either with interest or interest-free. Dhukuti which in Nyishangte is known as dhu kor has been practiced successfully in Manang. Dhukuti is a rotating credit association, which incidentally failed in Kathmandu among the other ethnic groups.

The Manangés are also one of the most practical people and adapt to the changing times and surroundings. As related by Gofli Gurung, a group of four would pool in their cash and send one person to do business at the Thai-Burmese border while the rest went about their business in Bangkok. This person would handle the group’s business of buying and selling gems (buying at the border and selling on the streets of Thailand) and eventually split the profits with the others. By this means, they saved money on transport and food, which the other three would have incurred. But the transaction was based on trust and this system can only work among trustworthy people. It has also become common practice for some Manangés to give their children Hindu names. This clearly shows their ability to accept and adapt. The older generation commonly has names like Palsang, Nima and Norwandi, etc.

When Manang was opened to tourism in the late 1970s, the local people were quick to open hotels and join the hospitality industry (at the same time, they lost their special customs tax exemption). New hotels, restaurants and even bakeries came up rapidly. But the flow of tourists was low. Hence to avoid the inevitable price war, an association of hotel owners was formed and a set of rules and regulations were compiled. The Manang village government has been collecting tax from the tourism sector, which they then give out as loans or pay for religious rites performed on behalf of the community. In the conservation sector, forest patrols were formed to curb illegal activities like trapping of musk deer. Those caught in the act were fined heavily. (Facts on Manang: source, “Secrets of Manang” Clint Rogers).

The old Himalayan traders have become senior citizens of Nepal’s business community, and young Manangés no longer have to struggle to make a living.