“The wildest dreams of Kew,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in one celebrated verse, “are the facts of Katmandu.” But how could he have known? Certainly, Kipling never made it up to Nepal. He spent most of his time hobnobbing with the imperial sahebs and memsahebs in Calcutta, Lahore and Shimla. Like many before him and countless after him, Kipling was fantasizing. Remote and unseen, the Valley had to be a dreamlike and utopian wilderness even though for Kathmandu’s own citizens, daily life in Asan market might have been as mundane as a stroll down London’s Picadilly Circus or the Mall in Shimla was for an Englishman.
Since long before Kipling, those across the seven seas have derived pleasure from the perception of a romantic East. These mountains and valleys of the Himalayan region have provided mythological relief, and served as a gigantic psychological sponge to soak up global angst. The Himalaya carries the burden of Western fantasy by merely “being there,” standing tall, while a large section of humanity looks up at it with soft-focus, rose-tinted lenses and sees — Shangri-La? Where the view is limit-less, where rosy-cheeked children smile beautifully, grandmothers all live to 100, and reincarnation lets you come back for a second and more tries.
‘The idea of a mysterious kingdom hidden behind distant snow mountains has an intrinsic appeal,” according to Edwin Bembaum, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal who has written a celebrated book about the Tibetans’ mythical kingdom of “Shambhala.”
The seeds of the latter-day glorification of the Himalaya were not sown in the West but much closer to home — in the Indo-Gangetic heartland of the Sub-Continent. Since pre-Vedic times, the mountains have been a subject of veneration, and the Hindu scriptures themselves mythologized with abandon. Meru, mythical mountain, stood erect at the center of the universe — in the Himalaya.
Long before travel brochures started touting the “Roof of the World,” the Rig Veda inyoked rivers, clouds, dawn and the sun — and reserved its greatest paens for the Himalaya. Myths, legends, cults and rituals came to be associated with the Himalaya, where Shiva, embodiment of love, hatred, fear and mysticism, probably made his home. More recently, the puranic literature assigned Himalayan tirthasthals for pilgrims and conferred on the hills and valleys of Uttarakhand in Garhwal a status superior to all the other sacred places of the Sub-Continent. Taking Himalayan veneration to new heights, the Skanda Purana went as far as to state that “he who merely thinks of Himachal is greater than who performs all worship in Kasi; and all things that die in Himachal, and all beings that in dying think of the snows are freed from sin…” (emphasis added)
The Indo-Gangetic plainsmen of prehistory were not the only ones to sing to the glory of the mountains. The ancient Chinese believed that their immortals went to live forever on a jade mountain to their west. And within the Himalaya itself, the pre-Buddhist Bon believed in “0lmolungring,” an invisible kingdom in the north-west surrounded by snow mountains. Writes Bembaum in The Way to Shambhala, “While many Westerners have regarded Tibet as the mysterious hidden sanctuary, Tibetans themselves have looked elsewhere for such a place — their sacred texts point to Shambhala.”
In Shambhala, which Tibetans believe lies north towards Turkestan, a line of enlightened kings are said to guard the most secret teachings of. Tibetan Buddhism — the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time). In this Shambhalan utopia, writes Bembaum, ‘The inhabitants of the kingdom live in peace and harmony, free from sickness and hunger. Their crops never fail, and their food is wholesome and nourishing. They all have a healthy appearance, with beautiful features, and wear turbans and graceful robes of white cloth. They speak the sacred language Sanskrit. Each one has great wealth in the form of gold and jewels but never uses it. The laws of Shambhala are fair and gentle: physical punishment, whether by beating or imprisonment, does not exist.”
THE HIMALAYAN MARKERS
The Western image of Tibet as the ultimate mystical sanctuary gathered momentum with the Theosophists. The Theosophical Society was an occultist movement founded in the mid-1800s by a Russian, Helena P. Blavatsky, who claimed to be receiving secret telepathic teachings from spiritual masters “behind” the Himalaya.
While earlier Himalayan glorification like that of the Theosophists might have been limited to the mystically minded and the pilgrim, and then to the adventurer or the administrator of the Raj, today, the revellers are the mountaineer, the development consultant, the aid official, the diplomat, members of the Westernized local high society, the political scientist, the social scientist, the tourist and the journalist — including one who wrote from Ladakh in the Los Angeles Times that “the word ‘awesome’ should possibly be limited to the Himalayas, a place that truly does it justice.”
Today’s Himalayan romanticism includes not only the religious motifs carried over from the past, but additional “markers”, both religious and secular, that conjure up exciting images and settings. A partial and random list of current subjects of Himalayan fascination, both old and new, mystic and otherwise, would include: tantric Buddhism, Bon, the Pota la, Lhasa, Mustang, Dolpo, Hunza, Manali, the “Gurkha”, the Sherpa, the Kham-pa, Ladakh, Lumbini, Mount Everest, Mount Everest Base Camp, Kailas, Ama Dablam, Machhapuchare, the lakes Manasarovar, Dal, Rara and Phoksumdo, the yeti (yet unseen), the prayer wheel, the mani wall, Tengpochc, Rongbuk, Sekhar Dzong, Tongsa Dzong, honey hunters, the Karakoram Highway, the Kumari, the third eye, the Jewel in the Lotus, Swayambhu, temple erotica, Nyatapola and Machendranath.
MANTLE OF SHANGRI-LA
Being endowed with many of these Himalayan markers, Nepal represented the Himalaya to
the world from the 1950s through the 1970s.With the well-reported coronation of His Late Majesty King Mahendra, it rose suddenly to Shangri La status: other supporting events were the Gorkhali soldiers emerging from their feats in World War II; the “discovery” of Nepal as birthplace of the Sakyamuni; the enticements of unconquered eight-thousand meter summits and the charm of the Sherpas on the way up; the come-hither charms of Kathmandu Valley; the influx of Tibetan refugees; and the output of story-tellers such as the film-maker Lowell Thomas and writers Han Suyin (The Mountain is Young) and Dom Moracs (Gone Away).
For a western world coming out of the ravages of a world war, Nepal filled the yearning for that semi-mythical country where everything was different, yet “just right.” In this difference was a kind of fairy tale perfection. Tibet and Bhutan were still firmly locked from the inside, and India required the inner-line permit for even its own citizens to go anywhere near sensitive northern border areas. In Nepal an element of psychedelic romance was provided by the unrestricted availability of hashish and marijuana. Adding to Nepal’s sheer exoticism, apparently, was its charm as an open, as-yet-uncommercialized society where xenophobia was distinctly lacking.
“Nepal had everything a tourist might want of a destination,” says Bill Fisher, a professor of anthropology who studied the Thakalis of Central Nepal and presently co-edits the prestigious journal Himalayan Research Bulletin in New York. “You tended to see Nepal in contradistinction to the places you had been to. It was a place to relax, to loosen up. In the 1970s, when you went trekking, the villagers welcomed you with open arms; there was no set fee for dinner. No one treated you with obvious resentment, and there was an absence of strict orthodoxy.”
Continues Fisher, “Calling it Shangri-La would be an exaggeration, but definitely there were charms to Nepal not easily found elsewhere.” But why Nepal? Why, in the 1970s, did the adjacent plains hold less charm for the westerner? Fisher says that because of some of the literature of the Raj, the Western audience had come to think of the plains in negative stereotypes — “the caste system, thuggie, Kali, suttee, sacrifice, whereas the culture of the hills seemed to be beyond these markers of the plains. Jn particular, Tibetan Buddhism of the hills seemed attractive for its perceived mixture of benevolence and mysticism.”
By the 1980s, while the package tours came in ever-increasing numbers, Nepal’s balloon was losing its rarified air. The sale of cannabis had been illegalized under U.S. pressure, large parts of the country had been “tasted” by seekers of novelty, and it was time for the mantle of Shangri-La to pass on.
Bhutan was waiting in the wings, cautiously opening up to the development agencies and to the tourist. In 1990, Druk Yul, the “dragon kingdom” finds itself essentially where Nepal was in the mid-1960s in terms of exposure to outside influence. With controlled access and rigid itineraries, Thimphu’s planners have thus fax managed to maintain Bhutan’s “exclusive” character. The impecunious need not apply for a visa.
As a Scandinavian development expert reported effusively, Bhutan is “the forgotten land of happiness where time stands still,” which had provided material for “exotic myths…of happiness, supernatural beings, and spiritual strength. Myths that tickle our fantasy as the Bhutanese chilli pepper our tongue.” Linking the idea of Shangri-La to the development process, he continued, “serious works on development normally do not deal with such myths, but classify them (as) romantic stories… It is, however, our impression that the myths about Bhutan have a background of reality, and that discussion of Bhutan’s social development cannot be separated from the cultural dimension.”
TIBET, MYSTIC MECCA
When all is said and done, Nepal and Bhutan are but “Shangri-Las by default.” The first and foremost claimant has always been Tibet. The country’s inaccessibility, its unique form of Buddhism, its monasteries and reincarnate rinpoches, and its wide open landscapes and cloudscapes, all combined to make Tibet the mystic mecca of other-worldliness. “People have for centuries thought of Tibet as a land mysterious and remote, as a wilderness, perpetually covered with ice and snow, or else as a kind of a fairyland — a latter day Eden…There have been countless descriptions of Tibet, some genuine, some purely imaginary,” says Ngapo Ngawang Jigmie, a Tibetan scholar, in the foreword of a Chinese-sanctioned book entitled, Tibet (1981, McGraw-Hill).
Early in the century, a European scholar described Tibet as “the country of the unknown, the fantastic, and the impossible… In that country, plants, animals and human beings seem to divert to their own purposes the best established laws of physics, chemistry, physiology and even plain common sense…Men compelled to abandon cherished ideals incompatible with their stem, prosaic surroundings, are eager to transplant them to a more favourable fairyland. As a last resource, they build a garden in the heaven and super-terrestrial paradises to shelter their daydreams, but how much more readily will they seize upon the opportunity of lodging them in an earthly country. Tibet offers that opportunity.”
The French mystic and traveller, Alexandra David-Neel, perhaps set the tone for the rest of the century in a 1929 book which described Tibetan mystics who had the ability to live naked in zero temperature; who talked to each other over vast distances by telepathy; who could float in air and walk on water; who created animate objects by thinking them into existence; and who performed a secret ceremony that caused corpses to move. The outside world was only too eager to believe these visions.
In the end, Tibet and other Shangri-Las great and small have served as symbols for people in distant lands to find solace or escape from the cares of a modern world, or to express a need to believe because of a deep sense of their own loss. “Why is it that the fate of Tibet has found such a deep echo in the world?” asked German-born Lama Anagarika Govinda in his book The Way of the White Cloud, first published in 1966 (1988, Shambhala Publications). The lama answered his own question: “There can only be one answer: Tibet has become the symbol of all that present-day humanity is longing for, either because it has been lost or not yet been realized, or because it is in danger of disappearing from human sight.”