(Note: See also Islam in Tibet [videorecording : the ornaments of Lhasa. produced by Gray Henry, Louisville, Ky.: Fons Vitae, c1997. Ladakhi Muslim merchant).
- Translation of the French, first published twice in Paris by Fayard in 1981 and again in 1991 by Peuples du Monde.
Entry by Elizabeth Reynolds, March 2014
Abdul Wahid Radhu’s biographical work, Tibetan Caravans, illustrates the author’s cross cultural identity, the opposing pulls of tradition and modernity, and his experience in a rapidly changing world. Radhu’s biography provides readers with an unparalleled narrative of 20th century trans-Himalayan trade. Apart from his valuable description of economic interactions in a relatively undocumented geographical arena, Radhu’s travels a present a unique vantage point to the tumultuous years surrounding the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Abdul Wahid Radhu (c.1918- 2011) was born into a prominent Muslim merchant family in Ladakh, but Radhu’s story follows a diverse geographic trajectory at both physical and mental levels.
Early Life and Inner Struggles
“In Leh, the Radhu’s held an eminent and envied position. They were wealthy, possessed beautiful property and large amounts of merchandise passed through their warehouses” (69), they had relations with the Dalai Lama’s family, the court of the Maharaja as well as with various British officials. Radhu’s family business had the honor of leading the Lopchak caravan; a biannual caravan between Ladakh and Tibet to pay homage to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government. For Radhu, this caravan symbolized both the connection between the two countries as well as the good relations between Buddhists and Muslims. Radhu’s grandfather, Hadji Muhammad Siddiq, ran the two century old family business from Tibet to India and was a strong patriarch of the Radhu household. Very much a family enterprise, Radhu’s father ran the trans-Himalayan trade until his untimely death near Mt. Kailash. Radhu’s uncle, Abdul Aziz, then ran the Lopchak caravan, and took young Radhu along and trained him to one day take over the business. At least this was his grandfather’s dying wish. Geopolitics and family feuds would inevitably hamper and split the family business. Radhu would work in trade for most of his life, but not in the way that his grandfather imagined.
Situated between Tibetan and Indian political and cultural spheres, the Ladakh of Radhu’s narrative is of a uniquely Buddhist and Islamic cross-cultural expression. Radhu describes his grandfather as a typical Ladakhi synthesis of Islamic and Tibetan culture in “his clothing, his manners, [and] such as the way he had furnished and decorated his home…where he always appeared in garments quite similar to Tibetan dress but wearing a white turban” (67). Radhu’s early life and choices in education also reveal the cross cultural elements of Ladakh and create the foundation for his internal conflicts. He started his education locally in a traditional Qur’anic maktab at the mosque while his secondary school was taught by Hindu Brahmans. He learned Ladakhi, Urdu, Persian and later English from resident Christians. Drawn early on to “new” Western ideas, Radhu pursued a modern education in Srinigar (and later in Aligarh, India) much to his grandfather’s dismay. Radhu reflects on this time saying, “I had become in a way one of those many orientals who with a Western education, were caught between two cultures and had lost the homogeneity of their personality” (86).
Through Radhu’s narrative the readers gain access to his “inner journey” in which he struggles with the dichotomies of his time. Tradition versus modernity, East versus the West, and Islam versus Buddhism. Radhu’s grandfather, the most formative influence in Radhu’s life, was a very pious man and bestowed Radhu with a deep sense of the Islamic duality of zahir (outer) and batin (inner) with a particular appreciation for the batin (123). Radhu describes Islamic movements of the 20th century saying that many prescribe to the more aggressive expression of zahir. For this reason Radhu is cautious of the more radical Islamic trends and finds himself leaning towards an appreciation for batin aspects of Buddhist thought.
The most important of these dichotomies in the narrative is Radhu’s relationship with Tibet. Here he grapples with his Ladakhi Muslim roots, his western style education, and his increasing attachment to Tibet. “I was more and more pulled between two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand the seduction of the modern culture whose doors Aligarh had opened for me, and on the other, the irresistible attraction of Tibet” (139). Furthermore, for Radhu Lhasa and Tibet were at once home and the exotic. From tantric sculptures to happening upon a group of teenagers all completely undressed and stretched out on the bank sunbathing (148) and Radhu quickly fell in love with Lhasa.
In school Radhu was introduced to the works of Rousseau and Marx. Rousseau’s novel Emile, a treatise on education, had a significant impact on Radhu’s thinking while Marx was too opposed to religion for Radhu’s tastes (125). The major western force to have influence on Radhu’s thinking however was Rene Guenon’s A General Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrine. Radhu explains that the book helped him integrate into the East and into his own tradition, “It appeared to me then that… the unfaithful disbeliever, was not…the Hindu or Buddhist. He was rather the secularized Westerner… who, under the pretext of his supposed progress, had come to upset the values and traditional order of the East” (190). Therefore, it was within a cross cultural engagement that Radhu finally came to terms with both his spiritual journey and his internal struggle between the East and West.
After Radhu’s grandfather died the family was torn apart by arguments over inheritance and after much deliberation, they decided to move the family business to Lhasa where other members of the extended family resided. By the 1930s Ladakh was showing signs of decline and many members of the family believed that business would be easier and more lucrative from Kalimpong and Lhasa (117).
Life as a Businessman in the Himalayas
Within the first five chapters Radhu seamlessly weaves in the stories of his first Lopchak expedition drawing from extensive diaries he kept during the journey. Among these stories he recounts the trials of the trans-Himalayan trade. The sheer geographical challenges from altitude sickness to extreme weather, difficulties with transport and commodity coordination, and fear of raiders (76). The travels however did have their allure. Radhu tells of the warm receptions they received at some of the resting points and remarks on the “magnificent natural landscape” of Tibet (85).
The Lopchak caravan was full of tributes and gifts on behalf of the Ladakhi Buddhists and according to traditional custom, “was made up of a small quantity of gold, saffron, shawls from Kashmir, various textiles from Sinkiang, as well as… dried apricots” (150). According to protocol, by delivering the Lopchak the Radhus were given the rights of the fourth rank (151) but the only benefits Radhu remembers were that they could stay in a particularly nice lodging and that they could attend certain ceremonies.
While his early life was dominated by school and the Lopchak caravan, Radhu spent the next part of his life doing business and moving between Lhasa, Ladakh, and Kalimpong.
In 1944 he moved to Kalimpong where he became a member of the Association of Indo-Tibetan Merchants which was presided over by the eldest brother of famous Khampa merchant family, the Pangdatshang (182). In Kalimpong Radhu’s business flourished, shipping various products from musk, cotton, brocades, and other luxury items, and in Kalimpong he met figures such as Phunstog Wangyal, Gendun Chomphel, and Prince Peter of Greece (184-186).
Radhu’s life took a detour in 1947 when he followed a bad business deal into China and was detained at the Nationalist’s Nanjing Department for Mongol and Tibetan Affairs for two years. Upon his return Radhu realized that other family members were angling to push him out of the business and deprive him of his grandfather’s inheritance. They did eventually succeed in pushing him out but Radhu’s business contacts, old and new, allowed him to open a new wool and pashmina business through Ladakh and Pakistan.
This business took Rahdu back to Lhasa for most of the 1950s where he had a firsthand view of the Communist occupation of Tibet. The most interesting of these observations includes the business side of the occupation. The Communist soldiers scrupulously paid merchants for what they bought and Radhu’s family members’ businesses all prospered: “Exchanges between Tibet and India developed as never before. Merchandise such as textiles, food products, and notably vegetable oils, construction material, watches, medicine, surgical and scientific instruments abounded south of the Himalayas… Business was so good in fact that a branch of a Calcutta bank was opened in Lhasa to facilitate transactions. Radhu’s relatives “congratulated themselves because their business had never been so lively and they pursued fruitful transactions with the Chinese. One of them brought in two lakhs (200,000 rupees), a considerable sum for the Tibetan market” (248-249). Interestingly, Radhu’s uncles were the owners of the first cinema in Tibet and when the Communists arrived they gave the uncles a license permitting them to run the theatre (as opposed to taking over the theatre as the uncles assumed) as long as they did not show movies that were contrary to “progressive” ideas (247-248). These are uncommon observations of the 1950s Lhasa, but telling of a complicated atmosphere.
During his time in Lhasa, Radhu developed close personal ties to its people and came to think of Lhasa as a second home. He spends much of the last three chapters of his book explaining the political events of the Lhasa elite and their background; apparently being a merchant in Lhasa and spending time in the markets was the best way to catch up on all the elite and local gossip (163-164). With this tap on the plus of information Radhu became increasingly more uncomfortable with the Chinese occupation and left Lhasa before the tumult of 1959.
Radhu’s narrative concludes with a description of his work with Tibetan refugees in the 1960s and his sadness over the loss of Tibet as he knew it.
Radhu, Abdul Wahid. Islam in Tibet: [and] Tibetan caravans. Translated by Jane Casewit; ed. by Gray Henry. 1997.