Kashmir’s Yarkand Links


With Yarkand Sarai, one of the trading landmarks in Srinagar, in the focus of recent government intervention, Kashmir’s Silk Route memories have revived. Scholar Dr Abdul Hamid Sheikh details the systems and practices of the people who linked Kashmir with sprawling Central Asian cultures through trade, a process that came to a grinding halt with the division of India in 1947

Yarkandi Sarai, Safa Kadal, Srinagar

Kashmir maintained commercial and cultural relations with South and Central Asia through these (Ladakh) links since ancient times and served as a trading entrepot that connected multiple geographic areas. The substantial trans-surface connections with the Central Asian and Chinese world sequentially boosted her trade volume despite occasional periods of discomfort and decline.

However, data about Kashmir and Central Asia trade volume is available from 1907-08 whence the quantum of imports from Central Asia was estimated at 1891 mounds (equal to 37 kg) of goods worth the value of Rs 18071 for the whole valley. The Samvat years between 1970 and 1977 were worthwhile for India-Central Asia trade as the volume of trade increased from Rs 58,00,400 to Rs 93,05,931 (Trade Report of Jammu and Kashmir State, Samvat year 1992-95 (1935-38).

However, the said trade registered a rapid decline from Samvat 1978, reached to Rs 12,92,388 in Samvat 1994-95, due to the transition in Russia in the aftermath of the Second World War. Thereafter, the said trade picked up again as a result of marked economic progress in Soviet Russia. In sequence, Russian industrial products flooded Indian markets though subsequently, bilateral trade volume declined (Trade Report 1989-90) due to political disturbance in Chinese Turkestan (Trade Report, 1992-95), one of the trade corridors to Soviet Russia. However, such a fall was more visible in Indian exports rather than imports from Central Asia for the simple reason that Indian products failed to compete with the Russian goods in Central Asia. It was also because of India’s continued dependence on the supplies of charas and felts from Central Asia. (Trade Report 1989-90)

Claude Rupert Trench Wilmot clicked this legendry Yarkandi trader in Ladakh in 1931

Vibrant Spots

In the trading networks of Central Asia, the ‘most vibrant of the trading stations’ were towns between inhabited and uninhabited sections of routes, where traders rest and refuel before continuing onward, or the ‘first sizeable settlement reached by caravans’ after inhospitable terrain, such locations included the towns of Yarkand, Khotan, Kashgar, Gilgit, Leh and Srinagar.

The important trading items imported into and exported from Kashmir were shawl-wool, charas (drug), silver, felts, tea, Russian leather, velvets, coarse silk, gold, turquoises, Khotanis carpets, coral, musk, tobacco, raisins and other dry fruits, ponies and salt, imported into Kashmir, while, the exports from Kashmir comprised cotton, chintze, silk, shawls, brocades, opium, heron-plumes, turmeric and other Indian species (Cunningham, A; Ladakh, Physical, Statistical and Historical, p 291). The caravans (moving traders) carried with them a curious assortment of salt brick, tea, silver goods, exquisite silks and embroideries of the great beauty of colour and design, printed Russian cotton, curious barbaric jewellery and polished pebble work from Turkestan and Ladakh (Doughty, M; Afoot through the Kashmir valleys; p 85).  Eight hundred horse-loads, each load weighing 28 trak, of shawl-wool were brought to Kashmir annually, from Rooduk (Ladakh) and Chayeenthan (residence of head Lama in Lhasa).

The ruler of Kashmir was careful not to make any hostile demonstration against Tibet, for fear of the loss of revenue he would suffer from any disturbance of the trade in shawl-wool, cause the stoppage of the manufacture of shawls and deprive Valley of the yearly revenue of ten lakhs of rupees that it derives from this source. The famous Tibet-baqals, Kashmiri Pashm merchants, exchanged their raw wool for manufactured Kashmiri shawls and sold them advantageously in various markets of Central Asia, China and Europe.

Charas (derived from hemp), again a chief article of import from Central Asia (Report on the administration of the Jammu and Kashmir State for the Samvat year 1969 (1913-14); p 52), was estimated at 500 small maunds (7240 Kgs) worth Rs 24,000 annually (Cunningham, A; p 244). It was mostly imported from Yarkand by Hindu merchants of Hoshiarpur. It remained a staple trade article, although the hemp plant was endemic all over the Indian Himalayas including Kashmir. However, the imports from Yarkand were preferred as a drug (Rizvi, BR; The Balti A Scheduled Tribe of Jammu and Kashmir; p 189- 90). In 1983 (1925) 21 maunds and 15 seers of Yarkandi charas were purchased from Central Asian traders at the Safa Kadal Sarai Srinagar for Rs 2,396,73 (The administrative report of the Customs and Excise Department Jammu and Kashmir Government for the Samvat year 1983 (1926-27), p 32).

The Mughal Intervention

In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor lent military aid to Ladakh in a war with the Tibetan empire and consequently signed the Treaty of Timisgong in 1684, conceded to Kashmiri traders the right to free access to the Chang-tang region of Ladakh for the trade of wool and pashmina (Rizvi, p 53-55, 70).

It was during the period of Ranbir Singh that the British first stationed an officer in Leh town. The initial posting was in response to trade concerns, which of course played an important political role. For the development of trade, an officer at Leh was instructed to see that no duties were levied in excess of those fixed in tariff, to inquire into the nature and extent of the trade between India and Central Asia, and to suggest measures for developing this trade (Henderson, G and Hume, AO; Lahore to Yarkend: Incidents of the Route and Natural History of the Countries Traversed by the Expedition of 1870 Under TD Forsyth; p 5). The British officer was a trade official and a political agent to ensure that the Maharaja did not have full control over the trade with Central Asia. The Treaty High Road, was kept under the executive administration of a British Joint Commissioner, whose permission was to be obtained in order to travel on it (Nazaroff, PS; Moved on from Kashgar to Kashmir. p 257), was the most popular route.

The Traders

Trade and commerce on various links was conducted on a large scale by a heterogeneous community of merchants from different regions and ethnic backgrounds, the Russians, British, Indian, Chinese (Manchus, Khitai, Tunganis, Badakshanis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Kanjuts, Baltis, Khokhandis, Bukharans, Kazakhs, Mongols, Armenians, Iranians, Shirvanis, Tartars, Hindus and Central Asian Jews (of whom there was a large colony in Kokand) (Cambridge history of China. Vol X p 83).

Nazaroff reports about the ethnic composition of traders at Ladakh, “here you may meet Tibetans from Lhasa, which is three months journey from here, Kashmiri often dressed in a most picturesque and dandified fashion, Hindus from Peshawar, stalwart mountaineers from Baltistan, whose grey costume blends so closely with the rocks that when they were resting by the roadside, tired of the heavy load, they can hardly be distinguished from the ground, clumsy Kashgar sorts with their long halats, and others (Nazaroff, p 78).” Besides, there were the Yarkandis, Argons, Hindus from Kullu and Hoshiarpur.

The natives of Yarkand, Turkestan, and Iskardo, as well as those of the country itself, all in their peculiar and distinctive costumes, were in bazaars daily (Murray Aynsley, JC; Hindostan, Kashmir, and Ladakh; p 97). The Kashmiri traders had their diaspora in Yarkand, Kashghar,

Khotan and Lhasa. Cunningham writes in 1856, “Moorcroft was informed that the population of Yarkand was between fifty and sixty thousand, a number which would require about 10,000 houses,… of these I was told that 500 houses belonged to Kashmiris alone…” He adds, “There are some hybrids (Arguns) between the Kashmiris and the native races found in Kashghar, Yarkand, Aksa and Khotan (Cunningham; 291).”

The merchant community that conducted trade between India and Central Asia across Kashmir was broadly fragmented into two groups, the ‘Andijanese’ (residents of a city in Ferghana valley) or ‘Kashmiris’. The Andijanese were those who traded at Kashgar, which in the first quarter of the 19th century, was a bigger city than Bukhara, and the Kashmiris were those who traded at Yarkand (Cambridge history of China. Vol X p 83). The Andijanese also operated at Kokand, Tashkent and Bukhara though their role was considerably smaller at Tibet, Ladakh, Baltistan, Afghanistan and the Pamir countries where Badakshanis, Afghans, Baltis, Tibetans and Hindus, if not Jews or Russian Tartars, were certainly predominant (Cambridge history of China. Vol X p 83). The Kokandis, Bukharans, Badakshanis and Kashmiris had trade cooperation with the Begs (local chiefs) in Atishahr region.

Since Kashmir bordered closely with Central Asia, its capital city, Srinagar, was the hub of trading activity for the Turkish, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Balti, Indian and Kashmiri merchants. These traders had rest houses as well as religious Shrines in Kashmir. The Immigrant British, Kokandi, Russian and the Chinese merchants operated from Kashgar (Bellew, HW Kashmir and Kashghar: A Narrative of the Journey of the embassy to Kashghar in 1873-74; p 386-87), the Afghans operated from Yarkand, Kashmiris and Chitralis also from Yarkand and Hindustanis from Khotan, did so either independently or through a partnership with a group of merchants (Taylor, B; Travels in Cashmere, Little Tibet and Central Asia (1876-81); p 216-217).

Yarkand Mission, 1873. – View in Bazar, Leh

Kashmiri Merchants

The community of Kashmiri merchants, described as a far-flung trading race, comparable to European Jews or Armenians, whose agents were found all over South and Central Asia, brought pashm (raw wool) to Srinagar, though a few Chinese and Tibetan traders termed Bakals were also involved in the said trade. They disposed of the pashm (raw wool) to the pashm farosh (wool retailer) of Kashmir Valley (Rizvi, J; Trans-Himalayan Caravans; p 57-58).

The ruling class, to a certain extent, had a share in the trade structure. The governor of Khotan traded in saffron, Kiryana, Kemkhabb and white silk (File no 332, 1866-67, Jammu Archives). The State government revised its taxation policy from time to time, in order to boost the trade from Kashmir, as a considerable income was generated from customs and octroi levied on the import-export trade, collected from the custom post of Zojila pass, and Ganderbal. It (Ganderbal) was an important station for the collection of duties levied on merchandise imported from, or exported to, Tibet and Yarkand. The duty on each shawl was three rupees but on shawl-wool, four rupees per trak was charged.

The state offered protection and encouraged local traders to go for export trade, and provided them tax exemption on exports. In 1891-92, the Kashmir Darbar provided incentives to the Kaliwal Indus valley men for trade between Kashmir and Punjab. In 1885, Maharaja Ranbir Singh (1829-1885 AD) of Kashmir, through a parwana (farman) exempted the traders from payment of octroi duties in Gilgit, though the unscrupulous officials unlawfully realized the same and forced the traders to sell their goods at lower prices than fixed by the Dogras. The merchants were evenly charged Rs 1.8.0 on each load of Indian or Kashmir merchandise at Gilgit. This was besides Rs 1.8.0 and Rs 1.0.0 charged per-load of exports in Yasin, Chitral, Hunza and Nagar respectively (Kemon, Captain RL;  Assistant to the Resident for Leh, Ladakh to Resident in Kashmir; No 509, November 8, 1899; GOI, FGN, Front-A, February 1900; No’s 17-18 (ASP. 286).

For the first time after its construction early twentieth century, the Yarkand Sarai may see the evacuation of inmates as the historic building requires repairs. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The State patronage was visible in the construction of countless rest houses or sarais in the far off and nearby villages, towns and cities for the comfort and stay of general and caravan traders. The sarais are characterized as an inn-cum-warehouse, with rooms on the upper storey for the accommodation of the merchants and storerooms in the ground floor besides pasturage for the horses (Rizvi J; p 227-29). The sarais had also a vast courtyard for loading and unloading merchandise. Besides having sufficient space for a large number of beasts of burden, they were quartered by mosques and wells as deep as 100 feet (Taylor B, p 189). Food was kept in excess to withstand urgency and for the convenience of the Central Asian traders, the Kashmir government built two sarais (Kak Sarai and Yarkand Sarai) in Srinagar.

Besides sarais, there were also dak bungalows, a rest house of primitive construction, but nonetheless of welcome shelter. On special occasions, an abundant supply of all sorts of provisions were provided (Bellew, HW; p 40). EF Knight believes that dak bungalow was a hobby of the Dogra Maharaja, Pratab Singh (Knight, EF; Where the Three Empires Meet; p 11). A book was provided at each rest-house, in which all persons were requested to enter their names, date of arrival and departure, and the fee paid by them in accordance with the rule. If any cause of complaint arises, it was referred to the State Engineer, Jammu and Kashmir State (Collett, J; A Guide for Visitors to Kashmir; p 204-05).

Special Status

Dr Abdul Hamid Sheikh (Historian)

Kashmir enjoyed a special status in the Indian subcontinent as it offered direct land access of India to Turkestan, Yarkand, Khotan, and facilitated the free movement of diverse goods, merchants, explorers, spies and soldiers across different routes crisscrossing Kashmir. However, the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, the emergence of India and Pakistan on its debris, and the sequential wars between them in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s on Jammu and Kashmir led to the emergence of artificial borders and obviously the closure of traditional trans-Ladakh and trans-Gilgit land routes.

With that, the process of free trade and traffic across hitherto ‘Greater Kashmir’ or Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) froze. Importantly, families and communities of the common ethnohistorical lot fragmented with no intimate connection in between due to the Line of Control (LoC) and the rigid stand of the two nations on Jammu and Kashmir.

(Author, an Assistant Professor has a doctorate in History. He has numerous papers in national and international publications.)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here