The Postal Rates of Tibet, 1912-1956

by Wolfgang C. Hellrigl

The recent article on Tibetan postal rates by Geoffrey Flack (1) has brought to light some new and important information. Since I have been working on the problem of Tibetan rates for some years. I should also like to publish my findings, in the hope that other collectors might be able to fill in some pieces of this puzzle.

There are three fundamental reasons for the difficulties in reconstructing the system of the postal rates applied by the Tibetan Post Office, during the period of independence, 1912-1956. The first reason is the lack of official records, which makes us dependent on covers and on contemporary scraps of information. Secondly, only a very small percentage of Tibetan covers is actually datable, which means that the rest cannot be used to prove or disprove a given rate. Thirdly, Tibetan postal rates had a tendency to change rather frequently, thus complicating matters even more.

To overcome these difficulties, I recorded as many dated commercial covers as possible, from various collections, articles and auction catalogues. With very rare exceptions, the only Tibet covers that can be dated are combination covers bearing postal markings of other countries, notably India and Nepal. Obviously, philatelic covers have to be ignored, since they do not always represent a correct rate, overfrankings being a normal practice.

The first oddity I noticed when trying to come up with useful rate charts, was that the rates for unregistered and registered letters did not necessarily change at the same time. The-authors of earlier articles on postal rates had assumed that, as anyone would normally expect, such changes had taken place simultaneously. By separating these two categories, 1 was able to straighten out more than one problem area.

Unregistered Letters:





1/6 tangka

Jun. 1916 - Jan. 1930

1912 - 1930

1/2 tangka

Aug. 1930 - Aug. 1935

1930 - 1935

1 tangka

Jun. 1936 - Jun. 1944

1935 - 1945

2 tangka

Dec. 1952 - Jan. 1955

1945 - 1956

The above chart of the basic rates for unregistered letters shows the dates I have been able to record. By narrowing down the gaps between the individual periods, we could come closer to pinpointing the exact dates of the various rate increases. The largest gap lies between June, 1944 and December, 1952, a period where only few covers were sent unregistered. W. Salmen (2) dates the existence of 2-tangka rates at „presumably May, 1945," but 1 have not been able to verify this early date. Unfortunately, unregistered 2-tangka letters are hardly ever dated.

The weight of a standard letter was 1 tola (11.7 grams). According to F. Ludlow (3), the rate for every additional tola was 1/6 tangka. Ludlow's brief article was published in 1928, so 1 have no doubt that this rate applied until the rate increase of 1930. In any event, Tibetan postal clerks must have been very lenient, for double-rates for extra weight were hardly ever charged. In fact, commercial letters franked with single 1/3 tangkas are extremely rare. We can only 1 assume that, with the introduction of the basic 1/2 tangka rate, the rate for every additional tola Would have alto been increased to 1/2 tangka.

Perhaps I should briefly comment on the mysterious 3-tangka rate, which Radgowski, Ricketts and Singer (4) - later followed by Salmen - believed to have been at first a "forwarding rate" and then an ordinary rate on unregistered mail. These authors placed the 3 tangka rate after the 1-tangka and before the 2-tangka rate. While a rate decrease is not an impossible event, I still find it highly unlikely that things could have gone this way. It would seem much more logical - and the dates I have recorded would confirm this to transfer the 3-tangka rate to the registered section, although the covers that I have seen do not bear registration markings.

Registered Letters:





2/3 tangka

Jun. 1924 - Feb. 1934

1912 - 1934

2 tangka

Feb. 1934 - Apr. 1940

1934 - 1940

3 tangka

Dec. 1940 - Mar. 1948

1940 - 1948

4 tangka

Oct. 1948 - Mar. 1955

1948 - 1955

5 tangka

May 1955

1955 - 1956

In the case of registered letters, the gaps between recorded rate increases are much less pronounced. However, there remains the problem that the 3-tangka letters that I have seen do not bear any registration markings, hence we are not absolutely certain that they were, in fact, registered. However, most of my 3-tangka covers were sent from Nepal and forwarded from Phari, where manuscript registration markings were generally omitted.

The only reference to heavier registered letters comes from Geoffrey Flack whose important discovery reveals that, in the early 1930s, 213 tangka actually applied to registered letters weighing up to 5 tolas while the 1-tangka rate applied to registered letters weighing more than 5 and up to 10 tolas. We can only assume that the basic 5-tola weight limit was maintained throughout the following rate changes, but there are absolutely no indications of how the 10-tola rates might have developed from 1934 onwards.

Incidentally, the different weight treatment for registered and unregistered letters is most interesting and highly unusual. Taking a critical look at the pre-1930 rate structure, we cannot but notice an inexplicable inconsistency: an unregistered 5-tola letter cost 5 times the basic rate of 1/6 tangka, i.e., 5/6 tangka, while the rate for a registered letter of the same weight was only 4/6 tangka! If we take the 10-tola rates, the incongruity is even greater: an unregistered letter would cost 1 2/3 tangka, while a registered letter cost only 1 tangka! Surely then, there should have been no need for unregistered letters above a weight of 3 tolas, because, starting from 4 tolas, it would have been more convenient to register letters than to send then unregistered


This is always a difficult category, for it is almost impossible to verify both the postage and the weight. Hence we must rely on earlier records. Ludlow mentions that (in 1928) parcels up to 20 tolas were charged

1 Shokang (2/3 tangka) and 1 Shokang for every additional 20 tolas. In my opinion, the information supplied in Geoffrey Flack's article could possibly suggest that, in the early 1930s, this rate had risen to 1 tangka.

I am convinced that the 4 and 8-tangka stamps of Tibet's second issue were exclusively intended for use on parcels.

Finally, Ludlow reassures us that "insurance of parcels, as might be expected, is not understood in Tibet.

In concluding these notes, I must admit that the picture of the Tibetan postal rates is, by no means, complete. We are probably seeing things a little clearer now than we did some years ago and I hope to have contributed towards this aim. What we would require is that collectors take a close look at their dated commercial Tibet covers and let us know if they find anything which could close, or reduce the gaps between the various rate periods. Any dated covers that are in contrast with the above rate charts are, of course, equally important, as they could provide valuable clues for amendments and corrections.

  1. Flack. "New Information on Tibetan Postal Rates." Postal Himal, No. 77 (1994), pp. 15-17.
  2. Salmen. "Die Portosätze der tibetischen Post. Der Sammler Dienst, No . 25 (1973), pp. 1807-1808.
  3. Ludlow. „Tibetan Postage Stamps." Philatelic Journal of India, Vol. 32 (1928), pp.21-22.
  4. Radgowski, H.L. Ricketts and A.E. Singer. "Postal Rates in Tibet, 1903-1960". Weekly Philatelic Gossip, Vol. 66 (1961), pp.232-235; and The Great Wall, Vol. 4-5 (1961), pp. 71-73, 112.

First published in Postal Himal No. 80, 4th. Quarter/1994

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Last update on 30.09.10