An Indian business community had thrived in Xinjiang before the Communists took over in China
On November 22, 1953, a tiny Reuters dispatch from Leh appeared in The New York Times with the headline “Indians get out of Red Sinkiang”. “After a journey of 500 miles through the western Himalayas, nineteen Indians have arrived here from southern Sinkiang in Communist China,” the wire service reported. These were believed to be the last Indians who left the western Chinese province (now spelt in English as Xinjiang), ending a presence that is believed to have lasted at least several hundred years. The group was led by a vice counsel in Kashgar, who looked after Indian interests for three years after the Indian consulate in the fabled city was closed.
The exodus of Indians fearing Communist rule in Xinjiang, which took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, closed a long chapter of history where people, goods, ideas, religion and culture moved in both directions across the Himalayas.
Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang, who visited India on a pilgrimage in the 7th century CE, travelled through the Khyber Pass and Hindu Kush to Kashgar and Khotan before heading back to eastern China, carrying with him sacred manuscripts. Indian Buddhist culture once thrived in the Khotan Oasis and spread from there all the way to the eastern coast of China.
Like Xuanzang, a community of traders from different parts of the Indian subcontinent travelled to Xinjiang either via Badakshan, Afghanistan, or Kashmir and Gilgit or the onerous and treacherous path from Ladakh through the Karakoram Pass, Karakoram Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert.
“The one from Ladakh, which was much frequented by the traders, was a gruelling test of endurance and determination, with at least four mountain passes averaging heights of over 17,600 feet having to be crossed,” Madhavi Thampi, who taught Chinese history at Delhi University for 35 years, wrote in her book Indians in China, 1800-1949. “The journey to Yarkand in Xinjiang took on an average 38 days.”
Indian traders are not known to have documented the rigours of the journey, but in 1925, Russian artist, writer and philosopher Nicholas Roerich wrote about his trip from Kashmir and Ladakh across the Karakoram Pass in great detail: “It is impossible to describe the beauty of this multi-day snow kingdom. Such diversity, such expressiveness of outlines, such fantastic cities, such multi-coloured streams and streams and such memorable purple and moonlit rocks…At the same time, the striking sonorous silence of the desert. And people stop quarrelling with each other, and all differences are erased, and everyone, without exception, absorbs the beauty of the mountain desolation.”
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