The story of how Bhutan received its subsidy in 1909 from the British
“Soon after our arrival in Buxa, I received a letter from the Political Officer in Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan informing that he proposed to visit our little station and hold a Durbar there in order to pay over a representative of the Bhutanese Government the annual subsidy of fifty thousand rupees.” Major James Henry Gordon Casserly (1869-1947) received this letter from Sir Charles Bell (1870-1945). Stationed in Gangtok in Sikkim, the British Political Officer was making arrangement to pay the subsidy.
At the time, Major Casserly was stationed in the Buxa Duar. Better known in Bhutan as Pasakha not far from the present Phuentsholing, it was one of the 18 Duars or “gate” between the Indian plains and the mountains that Bhutan had to cede to the British in 1865. In return, Bhutan received an annual subsidy of fifty thousand rupees.
The Major published Bell’s letter in his book, “Life in an Indian Outpost.” Published in 1914, the book is based on the Major’s experiences in the little station at the gateway of Bhutan. The Major vividly describes his encounters and observations of political and social life in the remote outpost.
Back in the days, a Durbar was a reception held by an Indian prince or a British governor for the public. The Major said that while neither the Durbar nor the Envoy were significant in themselves, nonetheless he felt that with them, they were about to make history.
In his book, Major Casserly wrote that Buxa was to rise to the dignity of a Durbar of its own. He said that the idea of the reception being honoured with the presence of the Envoy of a friendly state, was positively exciting. For the reception, Bell wanted the Major to provide a Guard of Honour with 100 men.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Major Casseley served in the Indian Army. He graduated from the Trinity College in 1889. He joined the British Army where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of the 4th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Shortly after, he travelled to India with the unit. In 1893 he was transferred to the Indian Army as a Lieutenant.
After six years of service, on 10 October 1909 he was promoted to the rank of Major while Commandant of the Buxa outpost. He served as the keeper of the gate for 18 months from 1908 to 1910. He had 200 men under his command.
The Major had a camera and made good use of it. He generously includes some of his photos in his book. Amongst these, there is a formal group photo of the Buxa Durbar.
In 1909, the last payment of the annual subsidy was made in Buxa. From the book, we learn about the details of the transaction. The book talks about the Bhutan Agents. Stationed in Chunnabatti on the Buxa hill, the British government employed two natives of Darjeeling and tasked to help in transacting diplomatic affairs with Bhutan.
According to the book, these two British subjects were officially styled as the Bhutan Agents. During the diplomatic transactions, they doubled up as interpreters.
The Major said that he met the two Agents and found that their knowledge of English and Hindi was not extensive. It was clear that the pair learnt the languages in a school in Darjeeling.
The Major described the dress of the two Agents as a Tibetan type of garment. He noticed that unlike the other Bhutia from the neighboring hills stations, these two men wore a headgear which he described as being like a football cap. He noticed the gaily striped and undoubted football stockings that they wore.
The Buxa Durbar
Major Casserly gives a detailed account of the Durbar and the events leading up to and following it. He wrote that shortly after the receipt of Bell’s letter, one afternoon, one of the Bhutan Agents came to his bungalow informing about the arrival of the Bhutan government’s representative in Buxa.
The Agent reported that the Bhutanese delegation was lodged in the Circuit House. The representative of the Bhutanese Government was the Deb Zimpon.
The Major learnt that the leader was a member of the Supreme Council of Punakha. He was also the chamberlain of the Deb Raja. By then Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned as the first king of Bhutan.
No Bhutanese records have documented any details of the Deb Zimpon. While the author is silent about the name of the Deb Zimpon, from other records we know he was called Kunzang Tshering.
Typical of a British Officer, the Major kept a record of all the details. We first learn that the Deb Zimpon was officially sent into the British territory annually to receive the subsidy and then hand it over to the King of Bhutan for disbursement.
The Major described the Deb Zimpon as an old gentleman who grinned feebly. Because he spoke only his native language, he relied on his interpreter for communication. The Deb Zimpon wore a cap and took it off politely when sat down.
It seems that, like many of the privileged men of the time, the Deb Zimpon too carried a betel nut box. The Major described it as a metal box which he saw being removed from the breast pocket of the Deb Zimpon’s robe. He describes how his esteemed guest took the betel nut out of it and began to chew it. What came as a further shock was when an attendant appeared holding a spittoon and immediately took up his position beside the Deb Zimpon.
The book is one of the few records to describe how the annual subsidy was handed over to Bhutan. The Major writes that one day after the luncheon party he hosted for the Deb Zimpon a detachment of native police came from Alipur Duar escorting a train of coolies carrying a wooden box which contained the 50,000 rupees of the subsidy. Once it reached Buxa, the Major received the box and kept it in his guard-room under a special sentry.
In addition to the house that the British Indian government provided for the Bhutanese envoy, the Deb Zimpon was given a sum of two thousand rupees (about 133 Pounds) for his expenses while he remained in India.
The Major suspects that the Deb Zimpon saved most of the money. This is because he found that the Deb Zimpon lived chiefly on the contributions, voluntary or otherwise, provided by the local inhabitant residing in British territory.
In his book, the Major described the dress of the both the Political Officer and the Deb Zimpon. Highlighting the differences, he said that while Bell wore a trim uniform, his officers wore scarlet tunics but both were outshone by the gaudier garbs of the “Asiatic”.
According to the book, the Deb Zimpon wore flowing robes. The head clerk wore flowered black silk Chinese garb. The Sikkimese soldiers wore bright garments. Major said that the Bhutanese in their kimonos made a blaze of varied hues.
Along one side of the ground was the scarlet and blue line of the Guard of Honour, the yellow and gold puggris (turbans) of the native officers and the gold-threaded cummerbunds (waist sashes) of the sepoys shining in the brilliant sun. The Major photographed the men in their formal dress, including pictures in his book.
The Major’s record of the Buxa Durbar is probably the only record of its kind. Major Casserly describes that after all were seated, the Deb Zimpon produced a document accrediting him as the duly appointed envoy and representative of the Bhutan government to receive the subsidy.
This document having been perused by the Political Officer and his head clerk and the official seals inspected, the boxes of money were formally handed over.
The Major said that the usual procedure was to have one of these boxes opened and the contents counted, but the Deb Zimpon made an exception by accepting them as correct.
The Deb Zimpon then ordered his escort to take charge of the boxes. They were then hoisted on the backs of porters who took them off to Chunabatti.
In return, the Deb Zimpon distributed gifts to all the people at the Durbar. The Major said that they received basket of oranges and a package containing cheap native blankets worth a couple of shillings each.
The Government of India had a rule that no civil or military officer in its service is to accept a present from natives. So, Bell’s clerks took the blankets. Afterwards they were sold and the proceeds credited to the Government. However, the Major was allowed to keep the oranges. The Durbar ended after the gifts were received.
The day after the Durbar, Bell left for Sikkim. The Deb Zimpon was expected to follow suit but he lingered on for a few days. This made Major wonder as the purpose of his visit was completed.
As the Deb Zimpon Kunzang Tshering lingered on, Major James Henry Gordon Casserly met him often. They had meals together, played archery and threw quoits, an ancient European game.
The 1909 Buxa Durbar was the last public reception held in the frontier town. The following year, the Treaty of Punakha was signed. The subsidy was increased from Rs. 50,000 to 100,000. It was paid to Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck at the Council in Punakha.
Thereafter, the Kalimpong Sub-Treasury Officer paid the subsidy to Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, at Kalimpong in India. The new arrangement saved the British state exchequer the cost of construction and upkeep of a house at Buxa for the Bhutan Envoy who came annually to receive the subsidy.