On India's Frontier or, Nepal: The Gurkhas' Mysterious Land


Dr. Bipin Adhikari

Source: New Spotlight Newsmagazine
Vol 07, No 16, February 14, 2014 (Falgun 2, 2070)

Henry Ballantine,On India's Frontier or, Nepal: The Gurkhas' Mysterious Land [New York: J. Selwin Tait and Sons, 1895]

The book On India's Frontier or, Nepal: The Gurkhas' Mysterious Land (New York: J. Selwin Tait and Sons, 1895) is yet another earlier piece of work on Nepal providing exciting details to the foreigners about this forbidden territory.

Written by Henry Ballantine, who served in Bombay as a foreign consul from 1891-1896, the book captures many important facts and prejudices about Nepal. What is so distinct about this book is that the foreign consul is not a British, but an American. The approach certainly leaves its mark on the book.

The book of Henry Ballantine does not have a table of contents as such. It starts straight with an introduction to the book, which then gives way for the chapterization. The author introduces Nepal as a mostly unknown ‘buffer’ territory where different tribes who are more or less hostile to each other live. According to him, the people in this zealously and jealously maintained Himalayan belt are furnished with arms and ammunition, often by the British Indian government. They are allowed to maintain their independence, continue to practice deeds of darkness, misrule and cherish any internecine course of action they like. They are “left to act as they please, so long as they do not meddle with British territory [on the southern side].”

The author highlights this strange situation further when he says that the land is used “as a breakwater against the ever-threatening flood of Russian invasion from the far north.” These tribes are encouraged within their borders by bribery or self interest to maintain the land intact. “Any apparent encroachment upon this boundary is tantamount to a casus belli.” This way the British guarded their Indian colony from any possible Russian aggression from the north. The author does not give the slightest hint that China is in any way a threat which can cross over Nepal to fight out the British in India. However, the fear of Russian aggression has been emphasized more than once.

In the same vein, the forbidden neutral land of Nepal was not allowed to be violated from the British Indian side. "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further" may be said to be the dictum of the British Foreign office, written and expressed all along the northern boundary of India's frontier, and further emphasized by the phrase "he may run that readeth it." The traveler must abide by this ruling, especially if he was a 'Feringhi', or white man, anywhere within the borders of British India, whether he be English, American, German, French, or of any other foreign extraction, contemplating the passage of this boundary with a motive ever so peaceful, friendly, or disinterested. "He who would overstep this political demarcation from any point on the Hindustan side, is at once seized, brought back into India, and ordered to return whence he came.”

Ballantine describes Nepal as “nominally subservient to China” as it used to pay its tribute to China - the Celestial Empire, quintennially. He also quickly adds that this country virtually recognizes the direct supremacy of Great Britain. In his understanding, application must be made to the British authorities “for any permission to enter this country's borders, declaring in detail the plan and object of the applicant's projected trip, with all particulars concerning himself, and, even then, his request is likely to be denied.”

As a stranger, the author describes almost everything notable that he happened to see or observe. Various races of Nepal’s inhabitants are discussed in the book. Parbatiya and Newari languages have been noted among the Nepali languages. Ballantine talks about distinct dresses of the Nepalese people in the streets. He takes note of the Hindoos (Gurkhas, Magars and Gurungs), the Bhuddists (the Newars, Bhuteas, Limbus, Keratis, and Lepchas), and the Mahomedans, composed of CashmeriKabuli and Irani (Persian) traders, hardly numbering a thousand. He describes the Newars as “a mild, industrious, good-natured people, the owners of the soil, before the Gurkhas invaded their rights and dispossessed them, a full century ago.” There are references about Nepalese women who he finds enjoying more freedom than their northern India sisters. These women are allowed “to go in public without being closely veiled, though many wind a white sheet around them outside of their clothing, reaching from head to foot.”   

The author explains the existence of slavery in this country. Even though he accepts that the rich and powerful people have slaves in their house, he does not believe that their numbers are as high as 30,000. While some slaves are such by descent, their forefathers having been so for generations, there are others “who are brought into servitude as a punishment for misdeeds and political crimes.” These slaves are not imported from any other country. “Their ranks are augmented at times by fresh additions from free families.”

The author talks about filthy streets and rich architecture of Kathmandu valley. He is loud and clear when he writes: “The carvings of Khatmandu are certainly the most elaborate and profuse of any to be found in the world. Not only are the temples and palaces covered with carvings, but even private dwellings, including often the doorways of the meanest hovels are loaded with a degree of ornamentation that is simply overwhelming.” He expresses surprise on the obscene representation or gross exhibitions of indecency in some of these carvings. “The reason assigned for such gross exhibitions of indecency being some occult charm, or some mysterious, magical influence they have for warding off evil.”

The book mentions about exhaustive methods of agriculture in Nepal and its rudimentary cultivation system. Cattle destroyed by wild beasts also find their place in the book. The author talks about a disagreeable encounter with a Himalayan bear. He mentions of an incident with a Havildar on his way to Kathmandu, who stopped him and asked him to return home. “The Gurkha, unlike his brother of Indians plains - the mild, timid, rice-nurtured Hindoo - fights to the death against all odds, and deservedly scorns the appellation of coward.” In this case, however, the author was able to threat the Havildar finally, and get his way to Khatmandu.     

Ballantine talks in the book about people of Nepal who take tea brought from China via Thibet. It is being imported in pressed bricks, brought all the way by caravans. He writes about the lower classes drinking Rakshi, a liquor which they distill from rice. “The upper classes are forbidden this indulgence, on pain of losing caste. Notwithstanding all injunctions to the contrary, the traffic in imported spirits - English brandy, French wines and the like - pays well, showing that somebody takes kindly to intoxicating beverages, caste or no caste. It seems a thousand pities that the influence of the white man tends to increase the drinking habits of all natives with whom he comes in contact.”

Ballantine compares a family Brahmin priest with a private chaplain back home and the Raj Guru as the archbishop. He talks about thousands of this priestly profession “idling about the city attached to this or that deity, fed at the expense of the state and given free quarters.” In addition to the bona fide priests of different types, a number of others who have come from outside world as Bhikshus, etc., but they may be the people fleeing from impending justice.

Henry Ballantine also has some comments on the justice system of Nepal in this book. He believes that justice is fairly administered in Nepal. The system of severe forms of punishment has been abolished. The prime minister is virtually the Chief Justice and the head of the Nepal Court. The silver lining that Ballantine finds here is that “there is no undue waste of time over technicalities, no exasperating formalities, no expensive fees, no disagreeing juries, and no devouring lawyers. The case is stated, the decision given, the decree executed.” Crimes of murder, rebellion, treason and the like deserve capital punishment. Women and Brahmins escape this punishment because of religious taboos. They are degraded and imprisoned for life, “these being the extreme penalties of the law for them.”

The author is stunned by the stillness and beauty of the Himalayas that he observed while trading in Kathmandu. He is indeed overwhelmed. He mentions of Gosain ThanYassa,Matsiputra and Diwalgiri that he identified. “What wonder that the Hindoo associates with each one of these tremendous peaks the abode of some of his deities, and thus has formed, clustered about him, a grander pantheon than the Greeks ever conceived of ! The Himalayas (or the "abode of snow "as the name signifies) might more fittingly be termed the "Abode of the Infinite."

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