Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 346-347
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Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh
Trans-Himalayan Caravans: Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh. By Janet Rizvi (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2000) 359pp. $39.95
Rizvi's latest book provides a comprehensive ethnohistorical account of Ladakh's economic and social life from the vantage point of the region's history and trading relations with its neighboring communities. Drawing largely from oral history sources and a careful analysis of historical documents, [End Page 346] Rizvi's study focuses on the extraordinarily intricate patterns of trade in Ladakh, emphasizing the human dimension and showing how trade influenced the social life of Ladakhis--the people of Ladakh. In sharp contrast to the image of Ladakh as a remote and exotic location with challenging peaks and tracks for mountain climbers and travelers, Rizvi describes it as an ethnically diverse region with complex historical patterns of settlement, trading, and politics. She points out that, for most of its history, Ladakh has been one of the focal points of commercial activity along the trade routes between the Punjab and Chinese central Asia. Ladakh's strategic location and the relatively settled nature of its people made this region an important trading center in Asia.
The first four chapters of the book provide a comprehensive historical account of the trading routes and relations between Ladakhis and their neighboring communities. These relations were primarily forged and maintained for expensive and high-profile luxury items such as pashm (the raw unprocessed wool), as well as for such commodities of everyday use as salt and barley. Next comes an ethnohistoric description of interrelations between Ladakh's commercial activity, especially those related to silk trade and Kashmir's shawl industry, and the region's economy and social life. Rizvi argues that the survival of old trading patterns and relations well into the twentieth century suggests that these trading patterns were central not only to Ladakh's economy but also to its social and cultural life.
Part of the book's analysis is based on eight individual accounts collected between 1983 and 1994, which still reflect the memory of the trades that have not yet faded. Rizvi's informants were men who were directly connected with one or other of the trading activities. The book presents an informative analysis of these recollections in the context of the historical documentary sources on the commerce of the whole region, providing a rich description of economic activities and their impact on social life in Ladakh. The most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of contemporary social and cultural life, politics, and the impact of economic change in Ladakh. Rizvi draws on considerable published information, and her own experiences living in Ladakh, to construct an informed critique of the recent unprecedented development and social change in Ladakh. Her analysis clearly points out ways in which these changes have affected social life in the region and its traditional trade and social connections.
The construction of the book is convoluted. Relatively little information is provided about the main thesis of the book, and the precise research methodology remains unclear, leading to some unavoidable confusion. Nevertheless, Rizvi's book makes a unique contribution to Ladakh's history and fills both the ethnographical and historical gaps in contemporary scholarship of Ladakh.
Sunil K. Khanna
Oregon State University