At 2,200 metres above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, in a small museum overlooked by snow-capped peaks, the essence of a community’s metamorphosis is locked behind glass displays.
Objects preserve snatches of past generations of the Bhutia community: pieces of clothing, jewellery, household items, faded photos, and maps, curling at the edges.
Once the guardians of the Indo-Tibet trade route, the Bhutia used to be one of the more prosperous high-altitude communities of Kumaon, the eastern region of what is now the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which adjoins Nepal.
Over the past 60 years, their way of life has changed dramatically. Trade routes closed after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and in search of livelihood opportunities, Uttarakhand’s Bhutia community relocated from the Johar Valley in the high mountains to the towns of the Himalayan foothills.
Today, rather than trade and commerce, they make a living from livestock, agriculture and handicrafts.
Who are the Bhutia?
The word “Bhutia” refers to a group of people who migrated south from Tibet around the 9th century Common Era, settling in the mountain ranges along the Indo-Tibet border. Many have retained aspects of Tibetan culture while adopting elements of Hindu culture. Today, it is estimated there are more than a million Bhutia, about 200,000 of whom are in…