Equipped with hidden compasses, hundred-bead rosaries (to discreetly measure distances), and an excellent knowledge of Buddhism and the local language, Das set out into the harsh early winter of 1881, through the snow-filled passes of Sikkim and Nepal on his second foray into Tibet.
Though an agent of its enemy, Das fell in love with the land of his mission. He stayed at the Tashilhunpo monastery for five months transcribing ancient Buddhist texts, studying the language and teaching English to the Panchen Lama. In his diary, he noted the various customs of dress, cuisine, architecture and the local politics throughout his journey. He also wrote about ordinary village life as he saw it-the extortion of the common people by the Chinese, and the ravages of smallpox in places with little or no medical help.
When he finally reached Lhasa, he was struck by the grandeur of the city's ancient shrines and the monasteries dotting its mountains. He even managed an audience with the thirteenth Dalai Lama, then an eight-year-old boy with 'rosy cheeks'.
Journey to Lhasa is an account of a treacherous yet illuminating adventure, which paints an intimate portrait of a people and a place that today exist only in memory.
But Sarat Chandra Das was more than a spy. Trained as an engineer, he went to Tibet in the late nineteenth century on a secret mission, became a well-known Buddhist scholar on his return, and even wrote a thousand-page dictionary of the Tibetan language. He also became a Rai Bahadur, a Companion of the Indian Empire, won a medal from the Royal Geographic Society and was supposedly the model for a character in a Rudyard Kipling novel.
Born in 1849 in a middle-class Bengali family in the Chittagong district of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, Sarat Chandra Das studied civil engineering in Calcutta's Presidency College. A sharp and diligent student, he soon attracted the attention of his sahib teachers and, even before he had obtained the degree, was appointed the headmaster of Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling. It was 1874. The school had been newly set up to teach the rudiments of English and science, particularly the skills of cartographic survey, to boys in the hills. Darjeeling, too, was a new hill station surrounded by verdant mountains and the majestic Kanchenjunga towering in the sky. Coming from the flat Gangetic plains, young Sarat Chandra was captivated by such beauty. He explored the hills around town and made a trip to the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim. But his destiny lay elsewhere, across snow-covered ranges to the north, in the mysterious land on the roof of the world. After he had read a book of travel into Tibet by two Englishmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century (the book was lent to him by the deputy commissioner of Darjeeling) Sarat Chandra felt 'a burning desire for visiting Tibet and for exploring its unknown tracts'. That is what he writes in his brief autobiographical sketch.
However, there was the larger picture. Across Tibet lay the two mighty empires of Russia and China, and the British were uneasy about their imperialist designs, particularly that of Russia. A thorough knowledge of this buffer kingdom-mostly unknown and ten times the size of England-was imperative for them to come to grips with the geopolitical reality of the subcontinent. But Tibet had always been wary of outsiders, except the Chinese, and the forbidding mountains and hostile tribes inhabiting its frontiers had kept it virtually cut off from the rest of the world. This had also deepened its mysterious charm. Since the early nineteenth century, the presence of foreign powers like Russia and Britain in Asia had prompted Tibet to tightly shut its doors to outsiders. It was almost impossible for Indians from the plains, let alone white-ski of snow. But trade had been goil high mountain routes sinc Tibetans and the hill tribe people who had access to a tradition that had contain The British began to e. Tibet disguised as Buddle missions. These spies we called Great Game played chessboard of central Asia, the hill people. They were and specially made unstrung baggage to hoodwink the theodolites in secret champ on walking staffs, paper and prayer wheels, and rosaries sacred hundred and eight, count of their paces and ma Some of these. Pundits had a few had perished or been Rawat, had even won a gol Society for exemplary work But these men lacked the kind of in-depth Knowles and culture, that the Brit after. As an English-educate engineering, Sarat Chandra `burning desire' for Tibet w top bureaucracy; it was ne first. But setting up a board and installing a young Bent now Bangladesh, Sarat in Calcutta's Presidency t, he soon attracted the n before he had obtained aster of Bhutia Boarding e school had been newly and science, particularly rest in the hills. Darjeeling, >y verdant mountains and the sky. Coming from the lira was captivated by such earn and made a trip to the his destiny lay elsewhere, h, in the mysterious land read a book of travel into math and early nineteenth e deputy commissioner of if desire for visiting Tibet That is what he writes in are. Across Tibet lay the in, and the British were, articularly that of Russia. ; doom-mostly unknown s imperative for them to 'icy of the subcontinent. biers, except the Chinese, tile tribes inhabiting its m the rest of the world. charm. Since the early powers like Russia to tightly shut its dots for Indians from the plains, let alone white-skinned Westerners, to enter this kingdom of snow.
But trade had been going on between India and Tibet along the high mountain routes since ancient times. It was monopolized by Tibetans and the hill tribes of the border region. The only other people who had access to these routes were the Buddhist monks, a tradition that had continued for centuries.
The British began to exploit this chink. They sent spies into Tibet disguised as Buddhist monks in secret and dangerous missions. These spies were called Pundits. Pawns in the so-called Great Game played by Russia and Britain on the high chessboard of central Asia, these men were drafted from among the hill people. They were given a basic training in land survey and specially made instruments that they could conceal in their baggage to hoodwink the border guards. With sextants and theodolites in secret chambers of their boxes, compasses fitted on walking staffs, paper and hypsometers tucked in hollowed-out prayer wheels, and rosaries with one hundred beads instead of the sacred hundred and eight, they measured distances by keeping count of their paces and mapped swathes of the Tibetan territory. Some of these Pundits had shown remarkable acumen and grit, a few had perished or been killed, and one of them, Nain Singh Rawat, had even won a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society for exemplary work.
But these men lacked the formal education required to gather the kind of in-depth knowledge of the land, particularly its people and culture that the British government in India hungered after. As an English-educated young man with a training in civil engineering, Sarat Chandra Das was cut out for the job. And his `burning desire' for Tibet was matched by an eager nod from the top bureaucracy; it was never known which of these occurred first. But setting up a boarding school for hill boys in Darjeeling and installing a young Bengali engineer as its headmaster, must
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend