A tribute to Motilal Lakhotia, the man who took cars to Tibet on mules, yaks
If Baker's Cafe existed in the 1950s at Gangtok's MG Marg, you would find a Studebaker parked right outside. A young suited man in a red tie and spotless white shirt would be sharing with you stories of having exported Norton Bikes to Tibet, all the way from Great Britain. You may have met Motilal Lakhotia, the man who traded with Tibet, with People's Republic of China and lived to celebrate Christmas amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
He breathed his last on Boxing Day, 2020, at the age of 95. And with Lakhotia went a legend who revolutionized the Old Silk Route trade with Tibet through Sikkim. Among the few who can claim that they collectively started MG Marg, 'Motila' as he was called by the Tibetans, was a magician who could dismantle and then reassemble Ambassador cars, Jeeps and Fiats carried on mules and yaks to the Forbidden Kingdom before roads even existed.
These were the times when reaching Calcutta from Gangtok was a milestone. Trade was a distant cousin who never visited beyond the groceries and meat, and shipment was nothing that River Teesta had ever heard of. Yet, there were those who came from far west, Churu, Chubkiya in Rajasthan around 1910s. Motilal, born in Gangtok in 1925, couldn't earn the privilege of seeing his father Gopalchand Lakhotia as an old man. At 11, he gave up schooling from 'High Secondary', started selling milk along with his mother Mohra Devi, from their cowshed in MG Marg.
Later, he grew the shop as the conventional Ration Shop, in his father's name. He, along with his younger sibling Hari Kishan, would walk down to Singtam from Gangtok, every Friday, a haat Day, to collect supplies from rural parts of Sikkim. In 5 years, he grew his business, reaching Siliguri to Calcutta for supplies. He learned the assembly, but trade in Sikkim and with Tibet still needed him to learn the language. Having grown up at the hub of the Old Silk Route, Motilal was quick to pick up the languages like Nepali, Tibetan and even Mandarin, later in life.
One such evening, a Khampa Tibetan man, walked close to his shop looking for a corner to urinate. He was nabbed by a police officer as it was considered public nuisance. Motilal and his brother Hariya walked up to the police station, and paid the penalty to aid the man. A conversation led to a trade for cycles, but they were not available in Gangtok. So, Motilal promised the man he would deliver the cycles along with other ordered items to his village in Kham, Tibet. He visited Calcutta to fetch cycles, mounting them on mules across the Sikkim-Kalimpong hills, he reached Jelepla to cross over to Tibet for his first such order.
Soon, the trade grew and by now had the attention of Chogyal Tashi Namgyal (King of the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim). He became a licensed trader with Tibet with shops at Singtam and Penlong. He then started doing trade from Nathula, closer to Gangtok, instead of Jelepla. Cycles grew to bikes, and once the Red Army initiated Operation Sudstadt upon the Roof of the World, bikes grew to be cars. But cars, before roads even existed? How would mules and yaks carry cars? A major concern.
When the Chogyal himself placed an order for a Studebaker first and then an Aston Martin, the worry was short-lived. The solution was 'Gangtok Autoworks' on rent at Tenzing and Tenzing Garage, a landmark location in Gangtok that housed his first few car shipments. It later grew to be Universal Auto Traders, which still exists opposite Hotel Hungry Jack as Bajaj Showroom.
Yet, ferrying the cars before roads even existed was a daunting task. But, Motilal had a solution. Along with his workers, Lakhotia would dismantle the vehicle, tear it apart and cut it in half right from the chasis. The same dismantled parts would then be carried on mules and yaks to cross the Sikkim-Tibet border to reach Yatung in South Tibet.
Upon reaching Yatung, he had a workshop where the cars would be assembled back and the same would be delivered to the Tibetans initially and later to the Chinese Army as well. This went on for many years, earning Lakhotia the distinction in his trade. Alas, the political atmosphere changed after the 1962 War. Motila would often mention to his grandchildren that he had a home in Yatung, an account in the People's Bank of China, and a workshop that was abandoned.
His forte came to a screeching halt and Motilal had to find other ways to make his fortune. He was offered the privilege to work in Hong Kong after the war, but he opted not to. In Yatung, he had also introduced the concept of a moving theatre, wherein he would show famous Bollywood movies of the time to the Tibetans and his workers. He brought the concept to Sikkim by constructing Sikkim's first privately owned movie theatre, the Denzong Cinema Hall. The same was inaugurated by the then Chogyal and it was registered as Company number 1 in the then newly-framed Sikkim Companies Act of 1961. He developed a knack for the entertainment business before the term was even coined. He started operating another Cinema Hall, the Star Cinema Hall, with a Royal partner at what was then known as Naya Bazaar (New Market now) in MG Marg. Denzong Cinema Hall still exists, but Star Cinema Hall shut down and now the building is being dismantled to make room for a mall.
So, when Bollywood Superstar Dev Anand came to Sikkim for filming of 'Jewel Thief' in 1967, they opted to shoot the famous song 'Hoton mein aisi baat' at the Denzong Cinema Hall. Dev Anand, the superstar, is seen wearing a bakhu in the movie, which was lent to him by Motilal Lakhotia, who would often tell his grandchildren how 'Dev Anand never returned my bakhu'.
A few years down the road, Sikkim was ravaged by flash floods upon Rivers Teesta and Rangeet in 1968. Knowing that Motilal was among the few with the capital to aid the monarchy, the Chogyal urged him and a few others to help reconstruct Sikkim's roads and highways. They not only delivered, but even constructed roads connecting Sikkim with Lava and Kalimpong, earning him the distinction as one of the first contractors in the country.
As the 1970s dawned upon Sikkim, the political turbulence also attracted some of the high profile guests from across the world. The Chogyal, seeing the success of the cinema hall, told Motilal to construct a star-rated hotel in Sikkim before the 1970s. But before the Chogyal's dream was realized, democracy paved a new path in Sikkim.
Keeping his promise to the Chogyal and also upon request by Kazi Lendup Dorjee, the first Chief Minister of Sikkim, Hotel Tashi Delek was started in 1977, which at that time was the first star-rated hotel in the entire eastern Himalayan region, seeing guests like former Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar Singh, with whom he developed a close friendship till the former PMs last breath.
Tashi Delek was where his hospitality was at his best. Motilal and Hari Kishan had grown as flamboyant young men who spoke different languages and partied hard with the guests from across the world.
But with growing times and the fall of the monarchy, Motilal was lost as just another trader in Gangtok, as there were plenty in Sikkim by then. For a brisk moment in time, he even led the Sikkim Mining Company in search of Dolomite. Later, he was also made the first president of Sikkim Chamber of Commerce.
Sikkim was now a state of India, and MG Marg the hub centre of all trade. Motilal Lakhotia, the old classic gentleman who began as a milkman, was the owner of a star-studded hotel at the heart of Gangtok, among many other businesses.
He let the business grow under his sons, who struck a deal with Bajaj scooters along with other businesses.
Even then, Motilal would often be seen driving his Studebaker along the roads of Gangtok or taking it to Calcutta for business deals. Much later, when MG Marg grew as car free zone, Motilal would walk across MG Marg, meet every shopkeeper and reminisce about the times and struggles of trade.
In 2006, when the trade route opened once again between India and now China from Nathula, Lakhotia led the first batch of traders to Tibet. He lived a long and happy life; it was a fulfilling life that saw generations of Sikkimese people prosper.
(The story would have not been possible without inputs from the Lakhotia family and editor Pema Wanghcuk from Summit Times)