Friday Morning Session

Chair: Fernanda Pirie


Peter Schwieger: The Tax System in Central and Far East Tibet during the Time of the dGa’ ldan pho brang: An Outline of its Structure and Terminology

Like every government, the dGa’ ldan pho brang Government had to meet regular financial obligations. Among these, contrary to what one would expect, paying salaries to its officials was not a force to be reckoned with. The greatest portion of the tax income was spent on religious institutions and related purposes. The Tibetan government had levied various taxes at the central as well as at the district level. Tibetan agriculture was the base for the Tibetan tax income; commerce played only a minor role.

In the present paper I intend to present an overview of the essential features of the Tibetan system of taxation and its specific terminology. For comparison I will not only give an outline of the taxation practised within the realm directly controlled by the dGa’ ldan pho brang, but will also reflect on the system that was in use in the kingdom of Derge.



Charles Ramble and Pema Pengyu: A Century of the Great Government Tax of Nepal in a Himalayan Village, from its Origins to its Afterlife

Belonging to a community in Mustang (Nepal) entails obligations in terms of cash, kind, labour and other forms of service. These dues may be confined to one’s immediate community or else they may be destined – usually via structures within that community – to more distant entities, such as the local ruler or religious institutions, or the central government itself. Excursions outside one’s own community would often involve the payment of other dues, such as trade and transit fees for anyone passing through the kingdom of Lo, or state revenues for anyone venturing south. Documents from the region refer to a wide range of such payments, several of which remain unidentified. The kinds of taxes or other dues for which people were eligible depended to a certain extent on their status. Thus from the point of view of community land taxes (sa ‘gro), the households of Aristocrats (dPon po/ Sras po) were in the same tax bracket as Artisans (’Gar ba/ sMad rigs). Both were classified as “hearths” (me khral, the equivalent to the Central Tibetan dud chung, rather than grong pa, estates – corresponding to CT khral pa), since neither paid sa ’gro: the latter because they had no land, and the former because they were tax exempt. Documents suggest that members of priestly rank (Bla mchod) were also exempt from certain kinds of duty, including corvée and certain material payments. However, the householders of the priestly community of Lubrak had – and continue to have – substantial local commitments in the form of subsidies for the performance of their calendrical rituals. These payments represent the annual interest on investments by patrons made more than a century ago, and the priests are oath-bound to keep them up. By contrast, Lubrak’s taxes to the local ruler were originally nominal – a purely symbolic payment of certain forest products to legitimise their occupation of a part of the ruler’s territory. Although the centre of regional power appears to have shifted at different periods, this symbolic payment remained constant. This state of affairs came to a dramatic end in 1886, nine years after the introduction of the contract (ijara) revenue system under the Rana government. From this point onward, Lubrak became liable for contribution to Mustang’s quota of the annual national revenue, locally known as the Great Government Tax (gzhung khral chen mo). Lubrak’s initial refusal led to violent reprisals, and the community eventually had no choice but to acquiesce. But the story of the Great Government Tax did not stop there. Lubrak’s archives show that, in the twentieth century, the responsibility for paying the tax was assumed by three wealthy householders, who made an investment in the community fund that ensured an annual interest exactly equal to the tax liability; and when this tax was eventually rescinded at the end of the Rana era, Lubrak – ironically – preserved it as an internal mechanism for generating revenue for the community.


John Bray: Taxes, Obligations and Diplomacy in Ladakh’s Relationship with Tibet etween the 17th and 20th Centuries

Historically, most taxes in Ladakh were paid in kind and in the form of a wide range of labour obligations. This paper begins with a review of the way the system worked in the independent kingdom of Ladakh until 1842. Among other points, it notes the role of the king (rgyal po) as the “the chief trader in his own dominions” (Cunningham 1856). The paper then examines Ladakh’s relationship with Tibet as defined by the 1684 Treaty of Temisgang (gTing mo sgang). The treaty gave the king’s court traders (mkhar tshong pa) a monopoly over the shawl wool trade between western Tibet and Ladakh, and it seems they also benefited from other privileges including the right to transport labour in Tibet. Similarly, the triennial lo phyag mission from Leh to Lhasa benefited from obligatory transport labour on the entire route, as did the Tibetan government’s reciprocal gzhung tshong mission, which traded in tea.

The paper highlights the extent to which the reciprocal political and religious relationship between Ladakh and Tibet was reinforced by the economic interests of the elites on both sides. These elites in turn benefited from obligatory labour – which was regarded as a form of taxation – as well as the right to buy and sell key trade goods (notably shawl wool and tea) at non-market prices. Without these benefits, the trade in both shawl wool and tea would have been much less profitable. In the case of tea, it might not have been commercially viable at all.



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Friday Afternoon Session

Chair: Peter Schwieger


Kalsang Norbu Gurung: The Ganden Phodrang’s Administration of Taxation in       Central Tibet

Through a number of publications, we know certain issues on Tibetan taxation. These include, for instance, the types of tax like rkang gro and lag don, types of taxpayer, and administration of taxation by the Dga’ ldan pho brang government or the other estates. However, there is very little published information about important issues such as levels of taxation or the way in which tax obligations were calculated. Without understanding tax rates, it is difficult to estimate the actual financial situation of the government, estates as well as their mi ser. The tax system in Tibet was very complex, inconsistent and sometimes unsystematically structured, because the taxation in Tibet then was very much influenced by the power of estate holders and sometimes corrupt officials.

In this paper, I will discuss the tax rate for a taxpayer family calculated on the basis of the land that a family owned. In addition, I shall also discuss what types of tax they were obliged to pay in kind or how they were converted into cash. Since I have not found any official tax rates issued by the government, this discussion of the subject will be carried out using scattered information in the primary sources such as the draft of the Ten-Point Edict of 1795, the Iron-Tiger land settlement of 1830, the chapter on taxation in Bod ljongs spyi bshad (published by Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang in 1991) and some secondary publications.


Alice Travers:When You Count, Everything’s there, and when Everything’s there, there’s nothing left”. A Criticism of Tax Collecting in Ngam ring rdzong, Central Tibet, during the First Half of the 20th Century

This paper is based primarily on an account written by a former las drung (a secretary-cum-intendant in a district or rdzong) named Phran rtsa rTa mgrin rgyal po and entitled: “A brief description of the history of Ngam ring rdzong, the way several administrators of the rdzong acted during the period when I myself was a las drung in this rdzong”, published in the 17th volume of the Bod kyi rig gnas lo rgyus dpyad gzhi’i rgyu cha bdams bsgrigs (lit. “Selection of source material for the study of Tibetan history and culture”) in 1994―as well as on additional sources such as other Tibetan biographies and British archives. While leveling stereotypical criticisms of the “old society” and the way in which mi ser were exploited by rdzong administrators at different levels in the specific area of Ngam ring, Central Tibet, during the 1920s and 1930s, this particular account is of great interest for the historian, inasmuch as it describes in abundant detail the whole system of taxation in a rdzong, the different actors involved, and the way in which the district administration could profit from the process of tax collecting.




Jeannine Bischoff: Bits and Pieces of Social History as provided by Manorial Records

Manorial records are more or less lists of people. Lists are lacking contextualised information, giving only keywords at the most. So, how can these lists help by gathering information about social relations, social groups and the history of gone by living conditions? Why have they been compiled in the first place and which insights do they give us into the daily routine of ‘accounting’ mi ser? What, after all, is the value of manorial records as a source for social history?

I will argue that this daily ‘accounting’ can help us to narrate the history of mi ser on a broader level. By using the variety of manorial records of the estates of Kun bde gling monastery as examples I will show that they can not only reveal information for historic demography, but also for taxation, structural patterns of society and mobility.

Thus, manorial records have to be understood as sources that have directly derived from actually occurring phenomena, which can provide us with bits and pieces of living conditions based on normative concepts (e.g. dependency, taxation etc.) and the supposed requirement of administering dependent peasants and cattle breeders ‘belonging’ to one estate.


Liu Yuxuan: Tax Reduction as Seen from the Announcement Issued in the 60th Year of the Qianlong Reign

The Amban system, implemented during the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), was one of the symbols of full control over Tibet after the various military campaigns against the Oirats. The Ambans represented the Empire’s policy on Tibet. One way to show the emperor’s concerns and control was to relieve the tax burden on the people and to give them all the assistance they needed.

In this paper, the Announcement that was issued in the 60th year of the Qianlong reign will be discussed with respect to what and how the Ambans did during their tenure, focusing on the alleviation of the burden on the Tibetan people. The antecedents and consequences of the Announcement show what the Ambans did and wanted to achieve in order to reduce corvée and improve the living conditions of the Tibetan people. The paper will also examine how the Ambans put these recommendations into practice and how they supervised their implementation.





 Guided Visit to Château de Fontainebleau

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Afternoon Session

Chair: John Bray


Astrid Hovden: Still Paying Bod khral and Mon khral: Taxes and Community Obligations in a Himalayan Village

Based on a study of local tax registers and ethnographic fieldwork the proposed paper will explore changes and continuities in the taxation system of Limi, a frontier community in the upper Humla district of Nepal. The paper will cover the period from the end of the nineteenth century till present, with a main focus on the last five decades which are more thoroughly documented in the registers. Throughout history, many tax collectors, both religious and secular, have found their way to Limi. People in the community have been regarded as Tibetan and have had to pay taxes, locally referred to as bod khral, to Purang Dzong as well as to three monasteries in Ngari. At the same time, since Limi is located on Nepali territory, the villagers have had to pay mon khral, consisting of various land taxes, to Nepal. Still today, the people in Limi pay some of the former bod khral and mon khral, but the taxes are kept by the local village assembly and have been redefined for local purposes. In addition, the local village assembly and monastery levy a number of internal taxes. These local taxes consist of various types of revenue on property, corvée, and ritual sponsorship. Some of the ritual sponsorship started as voluntary donations, but became gradually more permanent until they found their way into the local tax register. By tracing the development of some of the taxes currently collected by the local village assembly, the paper will discuss how the tax system in Limi has been adapted and negotiated by the tax payers.


Berthe Jansen: Monk-tax? Three Different Meanings of Grwa khral

At first glance the concept of monk-tax (grwa khral /btsun khral/ban khral) appears to be well understood among scholars of Tibet. Mainly thanks to Melvyn Goldstein we understand this to mean the tax levied on families with three or more sons, who were then made to send their second-oldest boy to the monastery (bu gsum bar pa’i grwa khral). This tax is often cited either as a prime example of the far-reaching influence of institutionalized monasticism, or as an illustration of ‘the despotic power exercised by the old theocratic regime’ in Tibet. It is important to understand that this monk-tax was not always levied, nor was it levied throughout Tibet. In this paper, I discuss the concept, the history, and the occurrences of monk-tax in the wider Tibetan regions before the 1950s. Aside from hypothesizing that this tax is an important indicator of the state of a particular monastery and its networks at a certain point in time, I also treat the occurrence of two other meanings of the word grwa khral/ btsun khral. These glosses are (so far) not attested by any dictionary and have come my attention in the course of my research on the monastic organization in traditional Tibet.


Maria Turek: Notes on the Economic System in the Historical Kingdom of Nang chen

The Eastern Tibetan kingdom of Nang chen (Nang chen rgyal khab), autonomous during several periods of its history and central to the development of the Khams pa religious culture and identity, paradoxically counts among those historical Tibetan polities that have received the least scholarly attention so far. The purpose of this paper is to attempt a rough assessment of the on-the-ground situation in the kingdom, with a special focus on the economic dependencies arising from the indigenous political structure – as much as the available sources allow for it.

To my current knowledge, no Tibetan-language archives, which contain material on Nang chen, are accessible today. In absence of historical records or original documents, a plethora of new accounts of the local religious tradition has surfaced in the recent years. Since Nang chen was often ruled by monastics, the material also contains information on the political history and economic structures in the kingdom. The compositions were published both in the People‘s Republic of China and in exile from 1960 onwards. The texts, which will serve as primary sources informing this contribution, were authored mostly by local historians related to powerful clans like the Tre bo, ‘Brong pa and Tshangs gsar, and include genres such as lo rgyus, chos byung, gser phreng, rnam thar and rgyal rab of the local monastic rulers, as well as gnas yig. ! As the authors themselves claim, no precise records of taxation, corvée or transport fees obligatory in premodern Nang chen are available today. Still, drawing on earlier material and on oral history, the local tradition has preserved a crude sketch of fiscal relations within the realm. Accepting the sources mentioned above to be the only accessible guidelines to the inner workings of this little studied kingdom, the present paper shall provide a rough glimpse into its taxation system in the period between the 17th-20th centuries, substantiated mostly by examples of larger monastic estates in their double role as land owners and tributaries of the Nang chen king. This way, this paper is hoped to open the field of study on this historically important Khams pa polity.




Saul Mullard: Another Man’s Burden: Strategies for Avoiding Tax and Other Obligations in Nineteenth-Century Sikkim

 The nineteenth century is an interesting period in Sikkimese history, where substantial social change emerged out of two competing but inter-related developments. Increased attempts at political centralisation by the state, particularly with regard to the administration of taxation, were met by various strategies for evading the full burden of tax and other obligations. Relations in Sikkimese society were, in this period, effectively characterised by both centripetal and centrifugal forces. This paper explores how different strata in Sikkim avoided tax and obligations and examines some of the consequences these strategies had on social change in Sikkim.