A Gosain is generally described as a Hindu trading pilgrim. The term Gosain was applied loosely to Shivaite devotees, some of whom were priests, others wandering mendicants, others served as mercenaries in the army of princes and chiefs in the eighteenth century, still others lived in maths (“monasteries”) in principal cities and combined religious and commercial activities, still others were settled in rural areas where they had extensive land holdings to support their math. (Cohn 175) The word represents the Indian vernacular modification of the earlier Sanskrit term ‘Goswamin,’ the literal meaning of which is “master of cows” or “one who controls his passions.”(Clarke 52)Gosains played a role of trading precious and semi-precious stones from India to Tibet. Their religious activities in Tibet fit in with the general pattern of Hindu pilgrimage. (Clarke 53, 66)
Gosains in Tibet
Among Gosains’ various functions, their economic and diplomatic roles are noteworthy in Tibet in the eighteenth century.
George Bogle, who had been appointed to head the first diplomatic mission to Tibet in 1774, found Gosains at Tashi Lhunpo, noting that they traded ‘in articles of small bulk and great value.’ He noted that ‘though clad in the garb of poverty there are many possessed of considerable wealth.’ In a report of 1779 he also said that small quantities of European goods imported by trading pilgrims were highly valued in Tibet, while in 1783, Captain Turner commented that the Tibetan trade was in the hands of a few rich Gosains. (Clarke 54) They suffered a severe eclipse in Tibet at the end of the eighteenth century, the Chinese authorities becoming suspicious of their political activities, probably in the wake of the Nepalese (Gurkha) incursion 1792. (Clarke 67)
The Gosain Purangir acted as an attendants and diplomats on behalf of Tibet and the British. Purangir was both a private secretary to the third Panchen Lama and his diplomatic agent, visiting Bengal on his behalf on several occasions. He also was chosen by the Panchen Lama to be the head of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery established by him on the banks of the Ganges. In 1779, Purangir traveled with the Panchen Lama to Beijing to visit the Qianlong Emperor and, according to Punrangir’s account, he was presented to the Emperor in order to directly answer his questions on Warren Hastings. He acted as an interpreter and guide for Turner in 1783 on the recognition of the new incarnation and two years later independently led a mission again to Tashi Lhunpo. There are several instances of his serving both Panchen Lama and the British without compromising his own position. In 1788, he went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. (Clarke 65-66)]
This Gosein was named Prânpooree (c. 40 years old in 1788) had pledged to stay on his feet for 12 years, which he spent traveling to different countries: from India to Guzerat, Surat to Bussora, and on to Constantinople; from Turkey to Ispahan, where he lived among Persians long enough to speak their language; then to Russia, among Cossacks on the edge of the Caspian Sea, and on to Moscow; then along Russian Empire’s northern boundary through Siberia to arrive in Peking, and from there to Tibet and the court of the Panchen Lama where he was in 1788 (where Turner met him first) and later on to Nepal, Bengal. (Turner, 270-271)
Bernard S. Cohn, ‘The Role of the Gosains in the Economy of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Upper India,’ The Indian Economic and Social History Review, I, no. 4 (I964). pp. 175-82.
John Clarke, ‘Hindu Trading Pilgrimas,’ Pilgrimage in Tibet. Alex Mckay, ed. London:Curzon Press, 1998. pp. 52-70.
Samuel Turner. An account of an embassy to the court of the Teshoo lama, in Tibet; containing a narrative of a journey through Bootan, and part of Tibet, London: Bulmer. 1800.
See also: Purungir [Poorungheer] Gosain. “Narrative of the Particulars of the Journey of Teshoo Lama, and his Suite, from Tibet to China.” (oral report). In Samuel Turner. An account of an embassy to the court of the Teshoo lama, in Tibet; containing a narrative of a journey through Bootan, and part of Tibet, London, Printed by W. Bulmer; Sold by G. & W. Nicol, 1800. p. 457-473.