Saturday, June 03, 2017

Travelers to Tibet

The Great Himalayan Range has always been a formidable barrier that limited India's interaction with Tibet and China.

Unlike the North West frontier, it has not been a thoroughfare for invading armies. Instead, it has always been the doughty traders, monks and herdsmen who connected the tribes living in the Tibetan plateau to those on the vast, fertile plains of India. The rivers that cut through the plains have always always been important for us, but did we really care where exactly they originated from?

Among the 20 longest rivers in the world, five flow though in Asia. Three of these have unique names: Yang Tse (no.3, 6300km), Huang He (Yellow River, no. 6, 6464km), Mekong (no.12, 4350km). The remaining two are hyphenated because they by one name in one country, and another name as it flows into a distinctly different region - the Brahmaputra–Tsangpo (no.12, 3848km), and Indus–SĂȘnggĂȘ Zangbo (no. 19, 3610km).

Charles Allen's book, "A Mountain in Tibet" tells the fascinating story of how these hyphenations came to be. It is about a few officers and agents of the British East India Company who are obsessed by shikaar (hunting), the desire to escape boring desk-jobs, and by the lure of the Great Unknowns. These young men (most, less than 27) venture into the mountains, hoping to accurately map new places, and opening new trade routes into Asia.

People and places come alive in Allen's narratives. It starts from the earliest expeditions by Moorcroft and Hearsey, the Schlagintweits, and then, to the undercover, spying expeditions undertaken by the Bhotia pundits from Milam village in the Kumaon mountains - Nain Singh Rawat, and his clansmen. It takes you through remote mountain villages and passes (Mana, Niti, Dakeo), across the the sacred lakes of Rakas Tal and Mansarovar, to Mt. Kailas and beyond.

One common thread that runs through Allen's narratives is that if it were not for the European - mainly British -  adventurers, armed with sextants, compasses- and musical snuff-boxes -  the world would not have known anything about the Tibet, or about the real origins of the great rivers that sustain life in South Asia.

Is this really true?

Some of the oldest surviving Sanskrit texts from India are being discovered in ancient Tibetan monastries. "Mulamadhyamakakarika", a 2nd century founding texts of Mahayana Buddhism, was found in Drepung Monastry. The Lankavatara Sutra was found in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Bhadrakalpika Sutra, dating back to the 4th century was found in Xinjiang. An Indian monk, Bodhidharma (5-6 century CE), is recorded as being one who popularized Buddhism in China, and then on, to Japan.

Obviously, a lot of people have been going to and fro, long before the first Europeans set foot on the Himalayas. And yet, Allen would like us to believe that until his heroes stepped in, Tibet was 'unknown to the world'.

Today, in the age of Google Earth and satellite pictures, this is common knowledge that can be verified by anybody sitting in front of a laptop screen. Yet, it is intriguing to know that despite a history spanning at least 4000 years, the origin of these rivers was not common knowledge.  People living in the Indus or Bramhapurta valley may not have known that their river originated in the barren Tibetan plateau, thousands of kilometers away. Then again, in the vast web of Himalayan rivulets and streams that feed a river, is it a significant discovery to claim a single-point source?

"A Mountain in Tibet" is a really interesting book. It is also another reminder that we continue to look at ourselves through the purple blinkers worn by the Europeans, and that this will continue until we start producing great non-fiction writers who tell our side of the story.


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