Khache Origins


When Kashmiris serving in the Ladakh desert were called Khachul or Khache, they were taking it as a slang. Historian David G Atwill in his scholarly Islamic Shangri La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960 has traced the origins of the word to Tibet where Kahsmiri traders got this name after they settled in Lhasa early fifteenth century. Revelations include how the survivors of the ill-fated Zorawar Singh campaign in Tibet also settled in the region and were also known as Singpa Khache

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In July 2012, when the Dalai Lama visited Srinagar, Kashmiri Tibetan Muslim women were there to welcome him

By the fifteenth century, the Kashmiri were the first long-term Muslim residents in central Tibet. The Nepalese chronicle Vamshavalis notes that the first Kashmiri settlers in the Kathmandu valley were Muslim Kashmiris traveling between Kashmir and Lhasa. They were known as Khache, a term soon adopted by Tibetans to refer to any Tibetanized Muslim who resided within Tibet. Over time, this term widened even further semantically to include other Muslims who traced their origins to China and Central Asia.

The confusion over the Khache typically falls into two categories. First, outsiders tended to adopt external, non-native terminologies that treated the Khache as foreign. Matters were further confused when foreign observers used such terms more or less interchangeably, sometimes calling the entire community “Ladakhi,” at other times “Kashmiri,” and, in Chinese, glossing any Muslim in Tibet as “Hui”—a blunder that few Tibetans would make. Representative of just such a proclivity, the Indian government in 1959 in negotiating with the People’s Republic of China could not even settle on a single term for the Khache, sometimes referring to “Ladakhi and Kashmiri Moslems,” then just simply “Kashmiri Moslems,” and later “Kajis.” The Chinese for their part tended to simply call them Hui, a highly ambiguous term that, depending on the context, could mean Chinese Muslim, any Muslim, or members of the state-defined nationality (Ch. minzu).

Second, attempting to gloss the Khache unequivocally as Tibetan Muslim is hindered by the fact that there exists no single Tibetan word in the premodern era that is equivalent to the modern word böpa (Tib. bod pa) used in Tibetan to refer to “Tibetan.” To confuse the picture even further, in Tibetan a considerable amount of slippage existed between the religious and ethnic registers. In this way, in Tibetan, Khache could, and sometimes did, simply mean someone who practiced Islam. In other contexts, Khache acquired a more ethnic (or ethnoreligious) connotation, referring to those Muslims who had lived in central Tibet for generations, were native speakers of Tibetan, and, in many cases, had intermarried with local Tibetans. Finally, there remained a presumption among many non-Tibetans that, even in the mid-twentieth century, the Khache were some sort of perpetual non-native.

To Be Tibetan Muslim

It is often assumed that to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist and, axiomatically, that to be Muslim precludes one from being Tibetan. Yet from a Tibetan perspective, particularly in central Tibet, a Tibetan Muslim’s non-Buddhist religious beliefs did not preclude him from being considered active and full participants in local Tibetan society. Nor were Tibetan Muslims a small or insignificant part of that society. By 1950, about 10 per cent of Lhasa’s roughly 30,000 lay inhabitants were Muslim. Lhasa alone had four mosques and two Muslim cemeteries, and by the early twentieth century, mosques were present in every large central Tibetan city, including Shigatse, Gyantse, and Tsetang. During the Great Prayer Festival (smon lam) held at the start of the lunar new year, Khache were exempted from the strict rules governing the eating of meat imposed by the Buddhist monks who ruled Lhasa during the holiday. Similarly, Tibetan residents were tolerant of the early morning calls to prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Book Cover

Despite the characterization of the Khache as perpetual non-natives in many foreign accounts of Lhasa, Tibetan Muslims lived as Tibetans among Tibetans by the early seventeenth century. Most historical records point to the earliest permanent Khache community as being established no later than the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), when Tibet emerged as a major political force in Asia. The noted Tibet scholar José Cabezón suggests a strong linkage between the appearance of this Muslim community and the Fifth Dalai Lama’s “invitation of the [non-Tibetan] peoples” as “part of a larger policy of encouraging ethnic, cultural and economic diversity in Tibet.” Given the Fifth Dalai Lama’s leading role in establishing the Ganden Podrang, the political administration of central Tibet, and his interest in attracting a diverse array of artistic, intellectual, and religious influences to Tibet, it is not surprising that his rise to power marks the first period in which we see sustained evidence of a permanent Khache community. The vibrancy and political stability of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign enabled the Khache to habituate themselves to Tibet and its culture in ways that transformed them from a simple immigrant community to one deeply integrated in Tibetan society.

Khache can be found in almost every segment of Tibetan life. They were acknowledged as among the most literate and multilingual lay segment of the society. Tibetans, including the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, often praise the Khache for their linguistic abilities, particularly their mastering of the elaborate Lhasa dialect (Tib. zhe sa). They were also renowned for their multilingualism, with many Tibetan Muslims speaking Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic, fostered by their prominent role in Tibet’s trade with their Himalayan neighbors. What many regard as the most important secular Tibetan literary work ever written, the Khache Phalu’s Advice on the Art of Living (Tib. Kha che pha lu’i ‘jig rten las ‘bras rtsis lugs kyi bslab bya), was penned by a Tibetan Muslim. As a result of these skills, Khache served as advisers to a succession of Dalai Lamas and operated as key brokers promoting Tibet’s inter-Asian ties.

Kashmiri Indian

The meaning and power of such historical events are enhanced when seen through the eyes of individuals who lived them. With the Dalai Lama’s flight to India and the subsequent 1959 March Uprising against Chinese control, the entire Tibetan Muslim community’s status was irrevocably altered. Fearful of retribution, several Tibetan Muslim leaders, including one named Habibullah Naik, demanded that by virtue of their historical ties to Kashmir they be treated as foreign residents (like the Nepalese, Bhutanese, and other foreign residents of Lhasa who were also scrambling to be allowed to migrate back to their home countries in the wake of the 1959 March Uprising). The local Chinese authorities, deeply unnerved by any signs of dissent, arrested over a dozen Tibetan Muslim leaders, including Habibullah Naik, charging them with inciting the Khache to “claim a foreign nationality.”

The Khache’s claims were not unusual for the period. Similar to many diasporic communities across Asia in the post-colonial period, the Khache asserted that their Kashmiri ancestry gave them the right to classify themselves as Indian citizens. They rallied as a community and began to assiduously avoid any actions that would identify them as Chinese. The difficulty arose in the very basic contradiction that most Khache had up until that point adamantly asserted themselves to be Tibetan. The Chinese state, playing its own game of self-deception, namely, that Tibet had always remained Chinese, saw the Khache’s declaration of being Tibetan as tantamount to declaring oneself a citizen of the People’s Republicof China.

Outside of Tibet, the Khache’s situation was poorly understood. The New York Times in 1960 ran an article chronicling their plight with the headline “India’s Traders held by Chinese.” In the retaliatory Cold War logic of the period, many assumed the Khache were Indian nationals simply caught out by the abruptly shifting political winds. As the article was quick to point out, however, the “Indian traders” were not unequivocally Indian citizens. Described by the Indian government as “Kashmiri Muslims,” the group arrested by the Chinese was part of a community that had resided in Tibet for generations and by their own admission had “never carried [Indian] travel documents and identification certificates,” yet now “wanted to register themselves as Indian nationals.”

Prof David G Atwill

The New York Times’ terminological ambiguity is unsurprising. By virtually every measure, Habibullah Naik was Tibetan. Born in Lhasa at the turn of the twentieth century, he grew up living above his store in central Lhasa where his family had resided for generations. He spoke the pure Lhasa dialect of Tibetan, dressed in Tibetan clothing, and revered the Dalai Lama as the leader of Tibet. He and the other Khache, prior to 1950, had long been considered Tibetan subjects by the Tibetan government. Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims circumambulating the sacred inner pilgrimage circuit streamed past the front gates of the mosque where he prayed daily. His relatives had, over the generations, intermarried with Tibetans, blurring any lingering divisions—physical, ancestral, or imagined—between his Buddhist and Muslim neighbors. Until the Dalai Lama’s decision to flee to India in 1959, Habibullah Naik was undeniably Tibetan and was treated as such by the Tibetan government and his Tibetan neighbors. In order to verify their Kashmiri ancestry, the Tibetan Muslim leaders were informed by the Chinese authorities that all claims of foreign citizenship would require “fresh documentary proof.” When the Chinese government’s stern cautions went unheeded, they deemed Naik and other Khaches’ efforts to declare themselves foreign as seditious activities and imprisoned them. The Tibetan Muslim community as a whole faced daily harassment, middle-of-the-night interrogations, and starvation-level rations.

As Naik and his fellow Khaches had discovered, the ability of Himalayan states like Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim to defy the hardening boundaries of post-liberation and postcolonial Asia was quickly coming to an end. Under both international pressure from India and domestic pressure to resolve the diplomatic crisis, the Chinese government abruptly acquiesced. All Tibetan Muslims who “voluntarily stat[ed] that they wanted to change their nationality from Chinese to Indian” would be allowed to resettle in India. By late 1960, nearly one thousand Khache demonstrated adequate proof of their Kashmiri, and thus “Indian,” ancestry and were issued exit permits.

The Chinese did not extend this amnesty to individuals, like Naik, who had committed offenses against the state. However, on March 29, 1961, with no explanation, the Chinese made a single exception and released Naik. Alone of those arrested, he was escorted by Chinese officials from his Lhasa prison cell to a truck waiting outside the prison and transported to the southern Tibetan border town of Dromo (Ch. Yadong). There he joined one of the last convoys of Nepalese, Khaches, and other Tibetans, who by virtue of their foreign ancestry were issued Chinese exit visas and allowed to leave Tibet after the violent crackdown on 1959 March Uprising. Habibullah Naik would never again step foot in Tibet. He and the other Khaches crossed into India, acquired Indian citizenship, and began their new lives.

The emigration of Habibullah Naik and several thousand other Khaches offers a little-known coda to the history of the Khache in central Tibet. On the surface, the Khaches’ return to India and Kashmir is founded on the false premise that the Khache had retained their distinct and separate Kashmiri identity across several centuries and thus returning to their country of origin. But under closer examination, the 1960 Khache incident is only the most recent example of the Khache challenging the ostensibly hard boundaries of imperial / national identity and subjecthood / citizenship. A history of the Khache experience in central Tibet underscores how the ethnic, religious, and political categories of modern Asian nationhood conceal significant dimensions of Asia’s past and the significant relationships between numerous Himalayan states and Tibet up to the present.

Habibullah Naik’s assertion that he should be allowed to declare himself a citizen of India emerged out of a much larger constellation of events, modalities, and peoples than just the proximate issues surrounding the 1959 March Uprising in Lhasa. The Khaches’ demands for Indian citizenship strike at the heart of how postcolonial regimes erected new boundaries of national citizenship at variance with those inherited from the earlier, imperial regimes. Numerous diasporic communities were confronted with a choice between allegiance to their ancestral home or citizenship in a newly formed nation-state that had emerged out of the former colonial state where their families had lived for generations…

Pandit Nehru meeting a delegation of the just repatriated Khache group.

To appreciate the complexities of the Khache past we need, on the one hand, to pay attention to the processes that reterritorialized, relabeled, and renationalized the Khache as “Kashmiri Muslims.” On the other hand, we must examine the manner by which the Khache had, in time, space, and memory, become incontrovertibly Tibetan. The history and memory of the Khaches’ past have interacted in unusual ways with mainstream Tibetan and Asian historiography, making it a particularly elusive narrative to reconstruct.


Barkor and Wapaling Khache

Within Lhasa, the Khache community was divided into two main communities along linguistic and cultural lines, those of South Asian heritage and those of Chinese heritage. This terminology eventually achieved even finer delineation within Lhasa and allowed for considerable specificity, referring to the neighbourhoods in which they settled and built their mosques: the Barkor or the Wapaling. By adding these modifiers the two communities were immediately distinguished from the other Khaches (or Kashmiri). The Barkor (South Asian) Khache, predominantly involved in commerce, clustered around the central Barkor market area near the Jokhang Temple. The Wapaling (Chinese) Khache lived along Lhasa’s Wapaling neighborhood in the southeastern corner of Lhasa, near the Lhasa River and closer to their fields and the areas in which they were allowed to butcher animals…

Ladakhi Khache

Of all the Tibetan Muslim communities, the Ladakhi Khache tended to be the most frequently conflated with the local Tibetan Muslims. Although the Ladakhi certainly were prominent traders and had strong ties with the central Tibetan government, by the 1920s it appears that aside from the subsidized triennial Lapchak (Tib. lo phyag) relatively little trade traveled directly between Lhasa and Ladakh…

The Ladakhi did retain an official representative in Lhasa, referred to as a consul in many Anglophone sources. In the eyes of the Tibetan government, those who retained their Ladakhi status were not considered Tibetan and were exempt from some taxes and obligations. Twentieth-century sources suggest that the community was dwindling in size and influence from several dozen households in the early twentieth century to only a fraction of that by the early 1950s.

Singpa Khache

The Singpa Khache (Tib. sing pa; Ch. senba) have long existed as an identifiable subgroup of the Barkor Khache, but their name has caused considerable confusion in English, Chinese, and Tibetan. Often misidentified as “Sikh,” the Singpa Khache trace their origins to Muslim soldiers led by Zorawar Singh, who fought for the upstart Dogra state in the Kashmiri-Ladakhi-Jammu region. Having conquered Ladakh, the Dogra ruler in 1841 dispatched Singh to gain control over the trans-Himalayan region by invading Nepal through western Tibet. In an audacious assault, Zorawar Singh led his forces across western Tibet, running up a string of victories and controlling a broad swath of territory from Kashmir up to the Nepalese border near Mount Kailash. But with his supply lines stretched and his campaign being overtaken by winter storms, Zorawar Singh suddenly found himself on the defensive. In a stunning reversal of fortune, Tibetan forces attacked Zorawar Singh’s much larger force in early December 1841, routed the Dogra army, killed the legendary general, and captured nearly a thousand soldiers in the process (all without the support or even tacit approval of Chinese forces).

A July 2012 photograph showing Dalai Lama with a group of Kashmir origin Tibetan Muslim women in Srinagar who left Tibet for ever in 1959, along with him when China occupied the territory.

Unsure at first of what to do with such a large number of prisoners, the decision was made by the Tibetan authorities that since “it was not convenient to execute [the captured soldiers], it would be better to show mercy . . . and disperse them to various towns across Tibet.” Their continued presence is confirmed some years later, in the 1856 Nepal Tibet Treaty, where the Nepalese demanded that “the Tibetans are also to give back . . . [t]he [Singpa] prisoners of war who had been captured in 1841 in the war between Bhot [Tibet] and the Dogra ruler.” Exactly how many prisoners returned (or were returned) is unclear, though the Singpa Khache remained a prominent presence within the Khache community, by one estimate making up as much as 20 percent of the nearly two hundred Barkor Khache families living in Lhasa in the early 1950s.

Siling Khache

While the Barkor Khache likely settled in Lhasa prior to the arrival of their Wapaling counterparts, the Wapaling Khache grew demographically to be roughly as numerous as the Barkor Khache and served as key intermediaries for the Chinese officials serving in Lhasa. As the Qing brought Tibet increasingly into the Qing sphere of influence, Han and Hui Chinese, often first serving as soldiers or civil officials, settled in Lhasa, with the Hui typically marrying Wapaling Khache or Tibetan Buddhist women who converted. The primary exceptions to this were the Siling Khache, who were Tibetanized Hui from Qinghai, tracing their origins to the Amdo city of Siling (Tib. zi ling; Ch. Xining) in Qinghai province. ..

Gharib Khache

In addition to the above divisions, largely associated with a group’s origin, a third group called “ghārib” (paupers) appears to have existed only in Lhasa. The nineteenth-century account of Khwajah Gulam Muhammad describes a Muslim pauper’s guild, composed exclusively of Khache, that paralleled (or perhaps was a subset) of the Ragyapa (Tib. rags rgyab pa). The Ragyapa are a Tibetan hereditary class who carried out acts considered unclean or undesirable by Tibetans, such as disposing of corpses and animal remains, and they also served other functions like the guarding and execution of prisoners. Given the difficulty most non-Tibetans had differentiating between Khache and Kashmiri, it is not surprising that few non-Tibetan sources suggest the presence of the Khache Ragyapa. For this reason Khwajah Gulam Muhammad’s description from the late nineteenth century is invaluable, as it details a highly organized association having its own leaders and police. It is significant that he suggests they were recognized by the Tibetan government and even received a monthly stipend.

The fifteenth of each month, a group of twelve to twenty or twenty-five gharīb present themselves at the Potala Palace, and with all their force howl and shout, and then receive each month eighteen tanka, that is to say the equivalent of twenty mohors [gold coins]. This is a stipend that they have received since ancient times.

(Islamic Shangri La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960 was published by the University of California Press in 2018. The author is currently a Professor of History at Penn State University where he teaches a broad range of courses on China, Tibet and a popular introduction to World History to 1500. The references in the select passages have been omitted for space constraints.)


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