Travelogues from colonial and pre-colonial times inevitably have great value as source material for historians. Unfortunately, very few such publications exist on Tibet. The first mention of the ‘forbidden country’ in the annals of politics and diplomacy outside of Asia can be found early on: in the travel diaries of Megasthenes, a Greek geographer, diplomat and traveller who visited India and other neighbouring areas in 290 BC. But the next study of the high plateau came some 2200 years later, when the British, driven by colonial ambition, undertook to explore Tibet.
During the late 1860s, the colonial authorities commissioned a team of Indians to explore the often treacherous terrain of Tibet, an expedition that resulted in rare documentation on the region’s statecraft and ethnography. Part of the group was Sarat Chandra Das, who in 1879 penned the first detailed travel records on the area in his Narrative of a Journey to Tashi-Lhunpo, followed by Narrative of a Journey to Lhasa in 1881-82. These two were published in 1885 and 1902, respectively, and comprised the first modern source material to trace the politico-ethnographic history of Tibet. In 1901, the Royal Geographical Society of India published the two travelogues together under a single title, Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet.
My Himalayan Journeys, a selected compilation from these two travelogues, is timely in view of the renewed global interest in the question of Tibetan sovereignty, both in theory and practice. Even a less immediately interested reader, however, will be amazed by the brave struggle of the ‘pundit’, as Das was called, in his quest for knowledge. Given the energy that pours off the page on a re-reading, it is a pity that Das’s work has been discredited by some historians due to the belief that he was in Tibet on a British espionage mission. Such subjective evaluation of the rare content in his travel notes has inhibited academic inquiry.
In truth, Das’s contribution to the study of Tibet is unquestionable. The mere fact that he brought back with him several hundred volumes of manuscripts and block prints from the great libraries in Tibet (many of them in Sanskrit, texts that had remained untraceable for centuries) must win him praise. Then again, with the Colonial Education Department archives themselves describing Das’s assignment as “almost exclusively employed on political duties in the direction of Tibet”, his enduring reputation as a spy is understandable.
That was perhaps unavoidable in 19th-century Bengal, though, when nationalist ideas were yet to gain momentum. With the Indian National Congress itself born only in 1885, Das may well have been forced to accept certain conditions before he was allowed to be part of the expedition. Alternately, one can say that the explorer may have functioned in the grey zone between scholarship and espionage, at a time when it was impossible to distinguish between the two. Either way, the emphasis on the ‘exotica’ of espionage has put Das’s scholarly contributions in the shadow for too long.
Whatever his reasons for travelling to Tibet, with the resurgence of interest (academic and otherwise) in the region today, this new version of Das’s travel diaries will prove crucial to any study of the plateau. It is clear that Das’s work is no match in erudition to the 18th-century works of the widely travelled Indian scholar-monk Rahul Sankrityayan, such as Pathavali (Readings) and Tibbat Mein Buddh Dharm (Buddhism in Tibet). Yet the physical and strategic adversities that Das faced were much more than those endured by Sankrityayan. Even otherwise, Das’s acumen in conducting archival research is reflected in his writing, a fact that comes across even more strongly if this work is read with his other books, such as the first comprehensive Tibetan-English dictionary, which he compiled.
Born into a Hindu family in Alampur, now in Chittagong in Bangladesh, Das was a student of the Presidency College in Calcutta, and was appointed headmaster of the Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling in 1874 by Lieutenant-Governor George Campbell. Das’s interest in Tibetan language began during this time, largely due to his association with the Tibetan teacher Ugyen Gyatsho, a Tibetan lama from a respected Sikkimi-Tibetan lineage that had founded the famous Tashilunpo Monastery, near Shigatse, some 12 generations earlier. Das’s lifelong dream of journeying to Tibet was made possible by Ugyen Gyatsho, who had been deputed by the authorities of the Pemionchi Monastery in Yangang, Sikkim, to bring them the Tengyur, a collection of Tibetan commentaries on Buddhist teachings scattered across Tibet and Sikkim. Using his connections with Tibetan officials, he managed an invitation for Das, who nonetheless still had to travel disguised as a lama.
Unbelievable as it may seem to modern-day adventurers, the two set out from Darjeeling on 17 June 1879 with only minimal equipment: a guide, two coolies, a pocket sextant, a prismatic compass, two hypsometers, a thermometer, a field glass and 150 rupees, the latter albeit not a sum to be scoffed at in those days. Sections of the travelogue describing the journey through the menacingly hostile eastern Himalaya are most compelling. For instance, one night the entire group sleeps in a four-foot rock crevice at the 18,000 feet high Jorhu-og, also known as Chathang-la or Jon Sangla, the last pass before entering Tibetan territory. The next day, they trek through “heaps of snow piled in a conical form”, with snow-capped ranges on both the sides. After traversing three miles, Das writes, “I fell down exhausted. The difficulty of breathing produced by the extreme tenuity of the air, increased by the exertion of the lungs in an uphill journey at a height of over 19,000 feet, together with the glare of the snow, which terribly tired my eyes in spite of protection afforded by my green spectacles.”
On the way, the small team visits Tong-Shing-phug, the site of the killing of 3000 inhabitants of the Kang-pa-chan Valley, in the mountains of Shar Khambu in what is today northeastern Nepal. During his visit to the area in 1881, Das was able to record this story for the first time. The Valley was once occupied by the ethnic Magar (the same as are found in Nepal today), whose king used to extort the original dwellers, the Kang-pa-chan. Resentment brewed, and he was killed when some Kang-pa-chan and power-hungry Magar deputies collaborated. Subsequently, the Magar queen decided to take revenge, and planned a grand funeral near what was known as the Rapachan forest, at a mid-point between two large Kang-pa-chan villages, Gyunnsar and Yarsa. Thousands of Kang-pa-chan were invited to the feast, where they were served poisoned wine. Only a small number survived, but they were able to report the matter to the royal Tibetan authorities, who sent an army to invade the Valley and knock off the Magar queen’s regime. The queen, refusing to surrender, shut herself in a castle and fought a three-month battle, only to eventually die in the fighting. All the Magar were thereafter flushed out of not only the Kang-pa-chan but also the nearby Tambur Valley. It was due to Das’s success in uncovering this intriguing tale that historiographers were later able to piece together the story of the Magar.
For the potential politics involved in this work, My Himalayan Journeys does not take a side on the matter of the Tibet-China relationship. (It is rumoured that the acceptance of a PhD thesis by an India scholar, suggesting that Das believed Tibet to be a sovereign state, has been inordinately delayed by Communist Party of Indian [Marxist]-dominated academics.) What is undeniable, however, is that Das’s records do question Beijing’s current claim that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China.
His reputation as a spy notwithstanding, the colonial authorities eventually double-crossed Das, halting his monthly pension. Das retired in 1904 at which point he was promised a pension of 250 rupees, a sum that exceeded the pay-scale of, for instance, a district-inspector of schools. But the government backed out of this agreement, paying significantly less than what had been promised. The reasons for this decision are not publicly known, though there was a concerted attempt to suppress his records. Das fought a tortuous legal battle to regain his pension, which he won in 1908, and remained engaged in studying Tibet till his death in 1917. His clear contribution to Tibet scholarship needs to be noted, and My Himalayan Journeys will hopefully result in the proper evaluation of this: Das was first and foremost an explorer and scholar, and one who has contributed significantly to the world’s understanding of Tibet.