The phrase "Silk Roads" is believed to have been coined in the 19th century by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer. In a decade-long series of wars that culminated in 119 BCE, the Chinese acquired control of the Gansu corridor. This gave birth to the Silk Roads. Silk (bolts of raw silk) was used to pay troops during the Han Dynasty, as not all of China was fully monetised then. Silk was also used in the form of a fine for monks who broke monastery’s rules. Even as trade was a vital component of the ancient Silk Roads that linked various continents, the cultural exchanges between different civilisations was far more important.
The Silk Roads are a vital component of world history because the routes became the planet's most famous cultural artery. One of its capillaries, the Southwest Silk Road, also known as the Sikkim Silk Route, connected China's Yunnan province, Tibet, and Northeast India.
The Sikkim Silk Route is the "least studied overland route" and one of the oldest and most difficult routes connecting India's eastern region to southern China. This was a lesser-known ancient trail which was a part of the greater web of the Silk Roads and had existed prior to the advent of the Central Asian Silk Route. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty desired a road across Yunnan from Chang' An, his capital, to Northeast India and Tibet. The result was more than just commercial channels, as they were also conduits for ideas, innovations, inventions, discoveries, myths, beliefs, and religion. This route was approximately 2000 kms and connected Eastern and Northeastern India to Yunnan Province in China via Myanmar. It arose in the 3rd century BCE and gained such wide popularity that by the 7th century CE it had given rise to many nodes.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE) had extensively documented the Southern Silk Route’s cross-cultural exchanges. Modern scholars believe that the Tai Khampti community originally came from Yunnan Province and migrated to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in the 13th century CE via the ancient Silk Route.
One section of the route began in Lhasa and travelled through Chumbi Valley, Nathu La pass, Kalimpong, Tamralipti port, and advanced through maritime trade routes to reach Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Another section crossed Myanmar and entered India via Kamrup (modern-day Assam) before progressing northwards to Tibet and southwards to the ports of Bengal.
The distance between Lhasa and Tamralipti (Tamluk) was approximately 900 kms, which could also traverse through the Hengduan Mountain in Yunnan, China, and other parts of Northeast India. Mule caravans transported goods such as sugar, fur, salt, copper, cotton, wool, and yak tails. Only high-value goods were typically transported over long distances, and chief among them were silk, tea and horses. Silk, a fabric desired for its lightness and texture, was also a symbol of status and power because much like today, the wealthy liked to differentiate themselves from the commoners.
China's demand for horses was almost insatiable. The monarchs needed horses to commandeer large armies that were needed to keep the feudal lords in check. Tribal chieftains and local merchants, such as the Yuezhi nomadic tribes, sold the horse for nearly ten times its original cost. Because horses and tea were as popular as silk, the Chinese named this route as the "Dianzang Chama Guddo" or "The Ancient Road of Tea and Horses.” Such was the significance imparted to these animals that another route along the larger Silk Roads had a myth that the Bactrian Camel could even predict sandstorms.
Offshoots from Lhasa and Lanzhou traversed the Eastern Himalayas, reaching high altitude passes in Sikkim. An alternate path via Jelep La emerged, as unlike Nathu La, Jelep La was an all-season pass. All these branches converged in East Sikkim District before proceeding to ports in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Broadly, these can be categorised under two routes that meandered through Northeast India:
1. Lhasa-Nathu La/ Jelep La-Kalimpong-Tamluk-Southeast Asia
2. Yunnan-Myanmar-Kamrup-Eastern Coasts of Indian Subcontinent-Southeast Asia
Because of the mountainous terrain and the fact that most mountain passes remained frozen from November to April, the first route was not as popular. Over time, this route gradually lost significance due to safety concerns and its seasonal accessibility. Even today, the Sikkimese people follow the tradition of placing prayer flags along these passes to ensure safe travel.
As with all kinds of trade, it was the middlemen who reaped the most profit. Trade between Lhasa and Kalimpong was never restricted to just one ethnic group, as even before the celebrated western cartographers, Asian travellers, politicians, traders, and religious figures recorded detailed descriptions of traded goods and all its implications.
From Tibetan aristocrats, Lamas, Sikkimese Kazis, Ladakhi caravaners to Marwari merchants, everyone partook and was influenced by this economic and cross-cultural exchange. Tibetan muleteers were a common sight in the bazaars of Kalimpong and Gangtok, as the Lhasa trade with the Sikkimese people thrived until the 1950s. One reason this route was so popular was because Indians sought to introduce goods into the larger markets of China through Tibet.
These routes were mostly operated by the Lhasa Newars for about 400 years, before the route was closed in 1962 during the Indo-China War and was only reopened in 2005. This community of trader merchants were originally from the Kathmandu Valley and operated between Tibet-Nepal-Gangetic plains of the Silk Road negotiating over spatial barriers. They rode their caravans through the Nathu La and Jelep La passes, and moved onwards to Kalimpong, Gangtok and other parts of West Bengal.
Tibet was known for musk, furs, wool, borax, and gold. Chinese goods like Silk, Sichuan or Shu embroidered cloth, brocade, bamboo walking sticks, ironware, handicrafts, horses, tea, brick tea were also extremely popular. Among these, wool from Tibet and Silk from Sichuan were considered prized goods. Wool was so common that the route came to be known as the ‘Wool Road.’
Caravans made the month-long journey in stages. Wool was brought to Lhasa by nomads or intermediaries from Ngari or Changthang in Tibet. Here it was baled for transport and loaded on mules, which would stop in Gyantse, Phari, and Yatung before crossing Jelep La and arriving in Kalimpong, where it was weighed, sorted, and stored in storage facilities for transport to Kolkata. Indian goods like local grains, spices, salt, and cotton were exported to Lhasa, turning Kalimpong into a major trading post.
The economic connections between Kalimpong (via Sikkim) and Tibet were so important to the local geographical imagination that, during the mid-20th century, many Tibetans would use the word “Kalimpong” to refer to India as a whole. These difficult roads mandated the need for halting stations. Rhenock, a small town in East Sikkim, grew to become the first rest stop. For this purpose, a Dak Bungalow was also built in Rhenock to provide respite to travellers on their Lhasa-Kalimpong journey. The modern-day Haat Bazaar can also be traced back to the silk route when traders would set up camp there. Many other small businesses sprang up along the route, and with it came economic and demographic growth that in turn fuelled the reach of trading towns.
As the local communities became more mercantile, their societies became more cosmopolitan. Sikkim’s culture, religion, clothing and food habits reflects the history it shares with its neighbours.
Undoubtedly, the biggest influence of the silk route was its impact on the religion of the region. Buddhism travelled and thrived through these roads. Patronising rulers made endowments to monasteries and performance of Monastic dances became extremely popular, all as a result of this confluence of culture. Barkhor or Barkuo in Lhasa became the main marketplace as the city of Lhasa itself became a central pilgrimage. Here, shops could sell lapis from Afghanistan and raisin from Khotan (present day Xinjiang). Mutual growth fuelled towns like Gangtok and Kalimpong, which reaped generous benefits as Lhasa became a centre of trade and knowledge dissemination. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced in Sikkim in the 7th Century, and it gained powerful patrons like the Namgyal Chogyals under whom the Kingdom of Sikkim became a Buddhist monarchy. Today, Buddhism is the second largest religion of the state, with the largest being Hinduism.
Because of the widespread commerce between Sikkim and Tibet, better and cheaper woollen, silk and cotton fabric became available. Textiles were primarily brought into Kalimpong (in West Bengal), a major trading hub between India, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and China, by the Marwaris who dominated this Trans-Himalayan trade. Following China's invasion of Tibet in 1959, an increasing group of Tibetans sought refuge in Sikkim. Among them were the Ulah, a group of highly skilled tailors, both men and women, from various areas of Tibet.
Denjongpa or the Bhutias who came from Tibet and settled in 13th century, wear the Kho accompanied by a jaja or a waistcoat made from Chinese brocade, decorated with dragon design, tankas, khorlos (wheel of dharma or dharma chakra in Tibetan) or other Buddhist motifs. Their mo kho, a sleeveless garment tied at the waist, could be made from any material available but the affluent favoured Chinese brocade.
The Kingdom of Bhutan invaded the Tibetan kingdom in the 17th century and occupied much of what is now Sikkim and parts of West Bengal. Many Lepchas were appointed as local leaders and given authority and rank in the administration of Kalimpong. But Bhutan ceded Kalimpong and its neighbouring territories to the British in 1865. The Sino-British Convention of 1893 saw the reopening of major commerce through the Jelep La and Nathu La passes. Kalimpong was at the end of the Southern Silk Route, so there was always a cultural mix, but migration extensively increased the number of Tibetan settlers. The Tibet Mirror (estb. 1925), the first Tibetan newspaper was first published in Kalimpong, and regularly carried the rates of various goods as it was read widely along the trade route to Tibet.
Many attempts were made by the colonisers to reinstate the ancient route. The route re-emerged as a tactical link in 1885, when the British tried to manipulate it to assert control over the Northeast region, which was a crucial buffer zone to monitor Chinese incursion. During Francis Younghusband's expedition to Tibet in 1904, he was able to enter Tibet by following the trails of this ancient route, which now runs through North and East Sikkim. The British troops set out from Siliguri, moved up to Rangpo, Nathang, and crossed the Jelep La Pass into Tibet's Chumbi Valley before arriving in Lhasa. A prominent member of this expedition was Sir John Claude White, the first Political Officer to Sikkim. He was also an amateur photographer and took some of the earliest known photographs of the Forbidden City, Lhasa.
During World War II, the route's strategic potential grew dramatically as it served as the allied forces’ primary supply route to China via Northeast India and upper Myanmar. This potential was articulated and transformed into the Ledo-Stilwell Road. This road, which ran from Ledo in Assam, parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland to Kunming in Yunnan, was used to supply aid in the fight against the Imperial Japanese Army. It was also the shortest land route connecting Northeast India and Southwest China. And so, the ancient and newer routes merged to create a deep web, that together created an international cultural and political phenomenon.
We tend to think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon, but it was a reality two thousand years ago as well. Today, the silken roads of Sikkim have become a top tourist destination. It has also given rise to what modern scholars call Geotourism. It is a new form of tourism, aiming to assess, endorse and expose a region’s geological and geomorphological heritage.
There are many trek and tour packages that take you on the trails of this ancient route, passing through Zuluk, Lachen, Lachung, Pedong, Kalimpong and Nathu La. Local vendors and business owners also capitalise on the Silk Route imagery by labelling their shops with names such as “Hotel Silk Route,” or “Silk Route Trading Company.” Because commodities are frequently associated with their place of origin, naming a specific product becomes yet another marker of its history. The Silk Roads served as a bridge to improve mutual interaction between civilizations and they are resurfacing, though some may argue that they never truly fell out of use.