Pemako - The Pemakö Region

The Pemakö Region

The spatial extent of the Pemakö region can only be approximately determined. It stretches down from the mountain range of Gyala Pelri and Namche Bawar in the north, on either side of the south and south-west flowing Tsangpo River2 until the McMahon Line as defined on British, Tibetan and Indian maps after 1914. The western boundary seems to follow the mountain range with the Tamnyen La, Deyang La, Pepung La, and Doshung La connecting Pemakö and Kongpo. The eastern boundary approximates to the southwards flowing Tsangpo, the Shumo Chu, the Kangri Karpo pass down to Tashigong in the Yang Sang Valley area that is bounded by the right bank of the Yang Sang River between Tashigong until Jido. 3 This area forms the southern part of Pemakö and, with three of its five major pilgrimage sites, constitutes the main pilgrimage area of Pemakö as a holy place. 4 Although Pemakö is often imagined and presented as an isolated region, accounts by British explorers and officers of the Indian administration show that it was rather a dynamic hub for peoples both from the Tibetan plateau and the lower hill regions to the south. They came there in search of new places to settle, or on pilgrimage, or traversed the region on trade and tax collecting missions. The imagined isolation of Pemakö might have emerged from the scarcity and nature of material from the past, which mainly focus upon religious aspects of its exploration and opening as a hidden land. The Tibetan Buddhist concept of hidden lands in itself already conveys the idea of isolation and inaccessibility.

Observations at Phe in 1924 by the British naturalist Frank Kingdon Ward reveal a lively movement of people through Pemakö: "The Mönbas were now crossing the Doshong La in hundreds, a few Kampas, Pobas, and Kongpobas with them; we also saw three Lopas - presumably the people we call Abors - who had come 25 marches. They had all come to get salt, bringing rice, curry, vegetable dyes, canes, maize, tobacco, and a few manufactured articles such as coloured bamboo baskets, garters, and so forth. By the end of October traffic ceased, but at this time not a day passed without fifty or a hundred people coming over – men, women, and children – and Pe, with its camps, and supplies, and people coming and going, presented a lively scene. Between one and two thousand must have crossed the Doshong La in October, which made Pemako appear quite thickly populated. But it is not. The area of Pemako cannot be less than 20,000 square miles, and probably a third of the population come to Pe for salt each year. Most of the remainder go to Showa".

Measured against Kingdon Ward’s estimation of Pemakö’s spatial dimension, the region might have been sparsely populated but, as he notes himself, the number of people coming to Phe only comprised a third of the population. The rugged mountain area of Pemakö allows little space for settlements and farmland. In relation to these stretches of inhabitable land, the population density was higher only along certain river valleys. Up to the end of the 1950s, these valleys functioned as the major transport arteries between the Tibetan plateau and the lower hill regions. Apart from these main routes, the region is criss-crossed by trails connecting the various villages within the Pemakö region. Due to the increasing number of migrants flowing into Pemakö since the beginning of the 20th century, the native inhabitants of the region were, by degrees, displaced from their settlement areas, which often resulted in armed conflicts. The spatial extent of settlement areas was closely connected with expansion of the Tibetan state’s territorial control in Pemakö. By acting as the agents of the Tibetan administration, the Buddhist population of Pemakö established itself as a powerful community, one collecting taxes from other non-Buddhist groups beyond the border (McMahon Line) agreed upon by British-India and Tibet, and controlling exchange and interaction between the Tibetan plateau and the lower hill regions to the south. This situation alerted the British authorities. In the context of the advance of Chinese troops towards Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century, they feared loss of the region as a convenient buffer zone between their Himalayan hill territory and the Tibetan plateau. In order to exercise better control over their virtually unadministered territory, the British administration conducted several expeditions to Pemakö with the aim of building friendly relations between the administration and the population, as well as stabilising relations among the different tribal groups. In addition to gathering much geographical and natural history data, British explorers recorded whatever facts they were able to obtain about the local populations. The integration of the wide range of local peoples under British-Indian administration lead to pragmatically simplified classifications using exonyms at the time; previous attempts to base such classifications upon local autonyms elsewhere in British Himalayan territories had resulted in thousands of identities being generated. British classifications of Pemakö peoples were created according to the larger regions where migrants were thought to have originated from and the languages spoken in these regions. The establishment of the category ‘Tshangla-speaking Memba’ and ‘Tibetan-speaking Tibetans’ forms the basis for the contemporary classification of Upper Siang’s Buddhist population. The long-term result has been that, up to the present day, a variety of Pemakö groups are subsumed under these ST categories with an ascribed name that in many cases have no corrolation with their autonyms nor their own sense of origins and history.

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