Spiti Valley | History and Repercussions

When one thinks about the colonial history of India, the discourse one recalls is centered around areas that were intellectually and socially privileged. Little does one know about the rural communities on the margins of this polity that still endure the consequences of colonial rule not only in terms of cultural hegemony but also in the reconstruction of an identity adhering to a particular nation- state. Little does one know about the cultural displacement of the people of Spiti Valley as a result of colonization. This makes me question the incomplete way in which history is constructed and the many suppressed voices it leaves behind in the process of narration. In this paper, I bring to surface the historical narrative about Spiti Valley, a remote region in Himachal Pradesh, that was geographically as well as culturally displaced and subsequently alienated during the British Raj in India. By recovering the past of this subaltern area, I’ll also communicate the challenges of belonging and identity that the cultural displacement of this area poses to its residents.

Spiti Valley is a rural and dry mountain region located in the Indian Himalayas in the district of Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. The valley shares a sensitive geopolitical border with the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region in The People’s Republic of China. Due to its existence on the margins of the two nations, Tibet and India, the etymology of the name ‘Spiti’ has often been taken as the ‘middle’ land. However this meaning does not reflect itself in the language of Spiti and its Tibetan roots. British scholar, Henry Lee Shuttleworth has made valuable contributions for the subaltern voices and the etymology of the word ‘Spiti’ when he was the Assistant Commissioner in Spiti valley in 1917. The earliest direct reference to the word Spiti appears in the Tibetan literature as Spyi-ti. Henry Lee Shuttleworth recorded the most common spellings found in Tibetan sources and concluded that ‘spyi’ means common or main and ‘ti’ means water. If one wants to settle the meaning and the etymology of the word Spiti, there is a reason to believe that the nomenclature might have taken root from the main water resource of the valley, Spiti river itself. Since ancient civilization always takes root near a waterbody for agricultural subsistence, the above-mentioned meaning of the word Spiti seems credible.

The known history of Spiti begins at a time when the region played an active role in the Tibetan Renaissance or the dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet which occured in the late 10th and 11th centuries. While this part of Spiti’s history is much known and celebrated, the history of the region is undocumented at several other crucial points such as the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war or the Sino-Sikh war also known as Dogra-Tibetan war. The history and the root of Spiti is further complicated by the fact that it has been under the rule of many different political regimes (Guge, Ladakh, Tibet, Dogra, Bushahr, British India, India) over the last millennium. As the voices of the people under these regimes are undocumented, it becomes hard to conclude about the ideological impositions that the minority might have faced at the face of such powerful regimes.

However, if I employ the cultural lens to trace the roots of Spiti, I can say that the people of Spiti enjoy an ancient culture and language closely related to those of Western Tibetans. Little recorded history about Spiti says that Spiti was a part of the western Tibet under the Guge-Purang Kingdom which was divided into three parts by its founder, Nyima Gon among his three sons. The Chronicle of Ladakh says that Spiti and Zanskar came to be ruled under Detsuk Gon for much of the period from the late 10th century to 1630 CE. As Spiti was far behind in financial or political privileges, it ‘bowed to hegemony of Ladakh’ and at times also ‘succumbed to cis-Himalayan powers such as Bashahr and Kullu’ from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century. During the strong rule of Ladakh, Spiti became an integral part of Ladakh being ruled by hereditary governors known as nonos who were considered equivalent to landowners. However, in the 1830s and 1840s, Sino-Sikh war broke out in which the Sikh Empire after General Zorawar Singh attacked Western Tibet and Spiti was attacked by the Dogras and Sikhs who set the ancient religious places of the region on fire. With the Treaty of Amritsar, Lahaul and Spiti came under British jurisdiction in 1846, and British officials were appointed to exercise control over these new Western Himalayan districts.

The political history of Spiti raises several questions about identity, culture and civilization. The historical trajectory of Spiti under different regimes and even countries might have severely influenced the construction and reconstruction of identity of this minority. Identities help us make sense of who we are and where we belong. They can be the result of an individual process of self-reflection or an expression of beliefs and values of a particular group. However, often identities are determined by wider social, political or economic contexts. They may be imposed upon certain groups or individuals because of a sense of superiority of one group over the other. This issue of subjugation and hegemonization then leads individuals to develop either repressive identities or even rebellious and subversive identities. One is then left to ponder what effect these different administrative units have had on the identity of the Spitian people. However, as there is no documentation on these subjects, it is hard to make credible conclusions. Taking into account the little recorded history of the region and the current experiences of the people, I’ll analyze the sense of identity and belonging in the Spitian people through these questions. What effect does the cultural displacement during the colonization have on the civilization of Spiti Valley? How do they reconstruct their identity with a new nation-state? Or are they ever able to? Do they continue to have adherence to two nation-state identities that their geographical location and their culture compels them to have? Do the people of Spiti identify themselves as Indians or as outsiders whose roots are back in Tibet? Does the problem to assimilate the Indian identity fully, emerge from the ‘othering’ that it experiences from the majority cultures of India?

To understand the complexity of identity formation, I questioned some of the Spiti people about their views on their sense of belonging. My sister articulated her thoughts in these words, “Having been culturally displaced from western Tibet, our culture and language has undergone changes and is therefore not identical to the Tibetan culture. Although I do identify more with Tibetan than Indians but I can still not assimilate any of the identities fully. I face difficulty in adhering to the national identity fully and I think it is because of the dominant perception about how Indians should look. Whenever I have to introduce myself to any Indian, the first thing most people do is assume my identity as being Tibetan, Nepali or Bhutanese.”

Spiti has experienced alienation in a geographical as well as cultural sense from the mainstream India and has been neglected with little efforts made by the state authorities to improve the roads, education and medical facilities prevalent here. This negligence and alienation has affected the way Spiti people see themselves in relation to India and its national identity. However, one should not forget that the concept of nation-state and a national identity is a product of colonialism and modernism and aims to unite a country on the basis of a harmony between a shared cultural heritage and a sovereign government. The concept of nation state becomes problematic in a polity that is linguistically, culturally and religiously very diverse. It tends to marginalise the groups that are underrepresented or not represented in the political sphere of the sovereign seat. The ‘othering’ leads to a very interesting formation of identity. Furthermore, the hegemonization of Indian culture through political ideologies such as Hindutva leaves not only Spitian people but also other minority groups with a conflicting state identity. I myself, being a Spitian have never been able to assimilate the Indian identity fully probably because of zero representation in politics and negligence on the state’s part to improve the education and economy of Spiti valley.

The problem of assimilation of the national identity and the partial sense of belonging is therefore a result of essentialization of Indians and their culture. It might also be because of the awareness of the history that we share with other nations and its culture (Tibet). However, the annexation of Spiti into the Indian polity during the colonization has significantly affected the culture and subsequently the way Spitians perceive themselves in relation to India and Tibet. Spiti is also a prime example of how cultural displacement, geographical alienation, negligence can impact not only the civilization of the people in concern but also how they perceive themselves in relation to other civilizations (India and Tibet).

Works cited:

Yannick Laurent, “Henry Lee Shuttleworh (1882–1960) and the History of Spiti”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 41, September 2017, pp. 1–55.




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