The Lopchak caravan bore witness to these excellent relations. Directed by a Muslim, it was carrying the official homage to the Dalai Lama from the Ladakhi Buddhists who recognized him as their supreme spiritual authority.'
Tibetan Caravans, his memoir, is an unparalleled narrative about trans-Himalayan trade-the riches, the politics and protocol, the challenging yet magnificent natural landscape, altitude sickness, snow storms, bandits and raiders, monks and soldiers. The book also contains rare and fascinating details about the close connections between Ladakh, Tibet and Kashmir, the centuries-old interplay between Buddhism and Islam in the region, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and life in Lhasa before and after its takeover by China.
In this rich and insightful memoir, Abdul Wahid Radhu reminisces about a bygone era when borders were fluid, and mutual respect formed the basis for trade relations across cultures and people. As his son, Siddiq Wahid, says in his introduction, Tibetan Caravans is a testimony to the organic relationships between 'societies who have learned how to hear each other out, argue, even do battle and yet remain hospitable to each other.'
n the natural course of things, the older generation gives way I to the younger generation. And yet the spirit of the one is passed on to the other. The younger generation in Tibet is just as determined to maintain their identity and to struggle for justice and freedom in their own land as those who remember life before the Chinese occupation. Similarly, our Muslim brothers and sisters retain the spirit of their forefathers in being proud to assert their identity as Tibetans, specifically as Tibetan Muslims. Their solidarity is a precious source of encouragement for us all.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting a group of Tibetan Muslims in Dharamsala who had attended the First Conference of Tibetan Muslims. Like a dream, meeting them reminded me of the days of my youth in Lhasa. When we think back on those times, an image of our Kashmiri merchants peacefully conducting their business and engaging in animated conversation in the market often comes to mind. They were an established part of Tibetan life. Similarly, our Muslim brothers and sisters from Ladakh, while observing their own religion, seemed in every other respect to be folloaung the Tibetan way of life. This is why I have often noted that alinough Tibetan culture has been strongly influenced by Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture are two different things.
This book, Tibetan Caravans, gives a vivid account of life in the Land of Snow from the perspective of a Tibetan Muslim. As this story shows, when we were free, we all lived together like members of the same family. We worked together, underwent hardship together and ate and drank together. Many of us, too, have since experienced the ups and downs of life as refugees together. What we all look forward to as Tibetans, whatever our religion is living together once more in friendship and harmony in a peaceful, free Tibet.
One incidental result of my visit to Ladakh was to introduce me, side by side with Buddhism, to another very different tradition, that of Islam, in the person of Abdul Wahid's maternal grandfather Haji Muhammad Siddiq, the same who figures so prominently in the early part of his grandson's story; his title of Tlaji' refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca he had accomplished. Visits to his home afforded an insight into what life lived according to the Islamic pattern might imply in terms of dignity and generosity-coupled with a spontaneous piety coloring everything a man might think, feel or do. All this was exemplified in the character of this grand old patriarch, a fact to which his grandson pays repeated tribute in the course of his narrative.
Moreover, it was while staying at Leh, capital of the ancient kingdom of Ladakh, that I first heard the sounds of the Islamic call to prayer. I still can recall the emotion I experienced when walking past the old town mosque as the magical accents of the muezzin's call suddenly struck my ears. Every Muslim man or woman is expected to obey this call five times a day throughout life, thereby imparting a rhythm to earthly existence through its constantly repeated allusion to the one thing needful; but as any sensitive soul who has listened to 'the call' can see for himself, its providential message need not stop short at the Islamic tradition alone. Logically, it concerns all men as such, regardless of the particular form of their religious affiliations. To heed it is to be kept facing in the right direction and whoever does so might fairly claim the quality of a Muslim by analogy or for that matter of a Buddhist in the sense of one who is seeking Enlightenment while profiting from whatever means his own existential situation has brought within reach. This is the message of the call to prayer, for those who have ears to hear.
If the present book offers itself primarily as an account of one man's experiences during a time of unprecedented changes, it also affords a vivid impression of the community of Muslim traders to which that man belonged by race, whose caravans kept plying their way to and fro across the broad tableland of Central Asia until the Communists closed the ancient routes. The high respect these traders' business acumen and integrity earned them in all the far-flung regions they linked together as middlemen is proved, among other things, by the fact that they were entrusted with the special task of transporting the periodic gifts which the Ladakh Buddhists were wont to send to the Dalai Lama. The first part of the present story describes the lengthy trek from Leh to Lhasa in fascinating detail and, in so doing, offers us a vivid picture of what life was like in a caravan on the move and of the human problems this could give rise to from day to day.
To hark back a little to the author's early years before he was ready to take the road in company with his elders, one is allowed to gain an insight into a question that was troubling many young people of his generation, namely, whether or not to seek the advantages, real or supposed, of a Western-style education or else to continue in the traditional ways their fathers had followed hitherto. For a Muslim at that time and place, this meant a choice between a local school where teaching was given in Urdu with a strong Islamic flavor running through the tuition offered there and one of the various educational establishments run by Christian missions where English was the official language and where a schooling along modern lines could be had at relatively small cost, leading eventually, so it was hoped, to some post or other in government service under the colonial regimen then in force. Once the wish to follow the latter road had gained a hold, both with parents and their children, it counted for little in their calculations that the missionaries themselves evinced no love, nor even an elementary respect for the religions professed by their prospective pupils and indeed, had founded these schools for the express purpose of converting them eventually to another faith. Such has been the common experience in all parts of the East in recent times.
What the author tells us is sufficient to illustrate the nature of the problem his own family had to face when making their decision concerning his future schooling. One cannot say they took the plunge without considerable hesitation because, unlike so many others similarly placed, they were people who valued their tradition and certainly did not wish to undermine it in the case of their own son. As the book shows us, the two views at issue became respectively personified in the young man's grandfather and his great-uncle Abdullah Shah, and if the latter's advice seemed to prevail at the outset, this was not the end of the story as far as the author himself was concerned. As he tells us later on, he eventually came to the conclusion that after all, it was his grandfather who had been right in principle; but at the same time he gives us to understand how irresistible the lure of a partial modernization had seemed when first encountered. It would be both unrealistic and unfair to underrate the pressures felt in all similar cases, whatever may be the direction in which one's ultimate sympathies happen to lie.
However, as things proved, love for the ancestral tradition was too firmly rooted in Abdul Wahid's soul to succumb, as so often happens, to those profane teachings which what passes for an adequate education in the West invariably comprises, whether covered by a thin veneer of Christian ideas or otherwise. There is no doubt that veneration for his grandfather acted, for him, as a psychic lifeline in gratitude for which he gave his eldest son the name of Muhammad Siddiq as an ideal to live up to of which any man might be proud.
As one threads one's way further through the pages of this thought-provoking book, it becomes increasingly plain that another salutary influence came in later on to supplement for the author, the noble example of his grandfather. This was the
Book's Contents and Sample Pages
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