Report on 'Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasa', a book reading and discussion held on 30 August 2017.
The discussion was chaired by Amb (Retd) Salman Haidar, Patron, IPCS, and former Foreign Secretary of India.
Talking about the new translation of Abdul Wahid Radhu's Tibetan Caravans: Journeys from Leh to Lhasa, the chair described the book as a remarkable memoir that “runs directly into modern times.” Considering how the few existing "governing ideals" have diverted attention from the realities of the lives of the Himalayan people, this book makes it possible to explore different fields of study that have not yet been pursued academically. The importance of such accounts is echoed in the possibility of similar indispensable oral narratives and anecdotes slowly becoming extinct. Therefore, it is hoped that the book leads to furthering scholarly interest in the region and its peoples.
Dr Siddiq Wahid (historian, and founder and former vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Kashmir) read excerpts from his father Abdul Wahid Radhu's book, followed by a discussion on the book's relevance to the study of the Himalayas. According to the speaker, the most prominent chronicle in the book reflects the author's intellectual perspective. It describes the author's affinity for “unpartitioned” wisdom and a collective consciousness undivided by artificially imposed borders - a sense acquired through Radhu's extensive cross-border travel. The Islamic values of inclusivity and homogeneity, too, cultivated in the author a culturally integrated identity. His intellectual engagement with his surroundings remains the most essential aspect of the memoir. What chronologically follows are accounts of the Radhu's days in Tibet and the corresponding cosmology.
As described in the book, organic relations between the Islamic and Buddhist communities was once Tibet's most admirable trait. Bearing witness to these values of inclusivity and secularism were the Lopchak caravans, among other instances of symbolic uniformity. These realisations translated into the sacred sentiments and fondness the author attached to Tibet.
Dr Wahid also discussed the author’s political obstacles owing to his complex relationship with the government of India. Even after migrating to Kashmir post China’s breach of Tibetan territory in 1950-51, the author constantly stayed in touch with the Dalai Lama. As a result, the Indian administration remained suspicious of the author and attributed 'inadmissible aims' to his interactions with the Dalai Lama’s brother, who was charged with alleged arms smuggling.
People-centric discourses should be emphasised alongside the existing state-centric framework to keep alive or revive border identities that have been become largely politicised.
The Himalayan borderlands and notions of identity are considered subversive, and in their more tangible forms, vulnerable to being interpreted as a threat by the state. It is important for the state to “allow people to be who they are” in order to preserve the distinctiveness of Himalayan identities. This will help the local inhabitants to positively channel and uphold their borderland identity. However, there appears to be a lack of consciousness among the people of their rich Himalayan cultural heritage. Additionally, the widening outreach of the state and the expanding scope of social media and other virtual networks are contributing to the dilution of these identities.
The book is one of the very few chronicles of a lost era when Ladakh, Tibet and Kashmir shared multi-layered connections; and their respective borders were porous enough for people and material goods to move in an unrestricted manner. Trade relations helped establish social connections, and the synergy between Islam and Buddhism flourished.
The inevitable forces of modernisation and economic integration tend to consume individualistic identity discourses. There is therefore a need to re-explore what importance the existence of a "virtual cornucopia of a myriad of cultures, languages and civilisation," which are at the risk of perishing, hold for contemporary study. Borderland peoples have a reserve of information, knowledge and memories that must be extracted and preserved.
Rapporteured by Nopur Singh, Research Intern, IPCS