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Chinese goods a rage at exotic Indian Himalayan fair

SHIMLA, India - Indian industry might be jittery about cheap Chinese-made goods flooding local markets, but in the northern tourist state of Himachal Pradesh Chinese tea, herbs and crockery are the main draws at an annual rural trade fair.

Every year in November, the sleepy hamlet of Rampur Bushahr on the banks of the river Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh's scenic Kinnaur district, 140 kilometeres (87 miles) from the provincial capital Shimla, gears up to host the centuries-old Lavi Fair.

The fair draws vendors and buyers from all over the state who come for wool, dry fruits, home spun, blankets and shawls.

But over the past five years, Chinese handcrafted jewellery, herbs and tea have also begun to make an appearance at the fair.

"What makes this fair unique is that it has an old world charm," said Yogender Makhaik, one of the organisers of the four-day trade fair which gets under way on November 11.

"As always, there is wool in plenty, but it is the Chinese goods that are drawing the crowds now. Not the cheap electronic and plastic goods that have flooded world markets but the lesser known Chinese artefacts."

Arvind Shukla, a Himachal Pradesh state government official associated with the fair, said Chinese products made their way into Rampur primarily through "Tibetan refugees in India and tribal Kinnauri folk."

The Tibetans and Kinnauri tribals make their way across the border through high-altitude Himalayan passes, which were reopened by the Indian government in the mid-nineties.

The passes had remained closed in the decades after India and China fought a bitter border conflict in 1962.

"As the Chinese do not come to the Indian side, it is the Tibetan refugees and local Kinnauri tribals who trek across the Shipki-la pass and often even enter China to procure the goods, which are in great demand at the fair," Shukla told AFP.

"Chinese artefacts, such as jewellery, crockery, handicrafts, tea, herbs, heavy woollens and even 'bushy Yak tails' are expected to be displayed on the Tibetan and Kinnauri stalls," this year, he said.

"Unofficially, the fair began last week and trading will continue a week after it officially ends on November 14, until the stalls of the traders are empty," Shukla said.

Local lore has it that the fair started during the reign of a local king, Kehar Singh, who ruled Rampur Bushahr in the 17th century.

Singh went on a pilgrimage to the holy Mansarovar lake in Tibet, where he met some Tibetan officials and signed a treaty enabling merchants from both sides to trade without paying taxes.

Business soon soared and a fair was organised at Rampur Bushahr to enable trade to prosper further, which is thought to have drawn merchants from China, Tibet and Central Asia.

Besides Chinese products, a variety of other goods are also sold at the Lavi Fair -- from tweeds, blankets and the prized Pashmina shawls, to dry fruit, spices and livestock such as sheep, goats and Tibetan horses.

Organisers say total sales run into several millions of rupees.

During the day, there is brisk trading and at night huge bonfires are lit, around which there is singing, dancing and merrymaking until well past midnight.

* * * * *

Published on 11/22/02

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