Sunday, March 22, 2009

George Bogle in Tibet, November 1774

This morning I read Edward Wong's article in the New York Times (The Heights Traveled to Subdue Tibet) and immediately thought of a book I stumbled across a couple of years ago. Wong's take is that the Chinese block Westerners' entry into the land of the lamas no more than the Lamas themselves used to do. He says "China’s lockdown this month is only the latest episode in a long history of both Tibetans and Chinese trying to keep the mountain kingdom closed to the outside world." He quotes Orville Schell and Peter Hopkirk, authors of books on draw of the countries isolation and consequent mystique and on local rulers' resistance to foreign influence. You'd think that a Tibetan xenophobia has always made foreigners unwelcome and yet there are a number of contrary instances.

My favorite are the journals, dispatches, and letters of George Bogle, a young Scotsman who traveled north from British India to visit the Lamas in 1774. Wong, Schell, and Hopkrik all ignore these fascinating documents which Clements Markham collected into a book, Narratives of the mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and of the journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa (London: Trübner and Co., Ludgate Hill, 1876).

You can find this book in libraries or online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

You can read about Bogle and his quest in wikipedia and in an academic paper and a book by Kate Teltscher.

Markham gives his reason for compiling the work and "It has long been known that the first British mission to Tibet was sent by Warren Hastings in 1774 under Mr. George Bogle, B.C.S., that a great friendship was formed between Mr. Bogle and the Teshu Lama, and that intercourse was then established between the Governments of British India and Tibet. But up to the present time no full account of this important mission has been given to the world." Teltscher's publisher adds a bit of background: "In 1774 the head of the East India Company in Bengal, Warren Hastings, ... entrusted the young Scotsman George Bogle to be the first British envoy to Tibet. ... But what began as an unprecedented diplomatic mission soon acquired a different character. Bogle became smitten by what he saw, and in particular by the person of the Panchen Lama himself, with whom he struck up a remarkable friendship, fuelled by a reciprocal desire for understanding."

Here are some extracts from Bogle's writings as compiled by Markham.
1. In Bhutan on approach to Tibet:

As none of the Company's servants, and I might almost say no European, had ever visited the country which I was about to enter, I was equally in the dark as to the road, the climate, or the people; and the imperfect account of some religious mendicants, who had travelled through it, however unsatisfactory, was the only information I could collect. We passed the forts of Bowani-ganj, and Chichakotta, lately destroyed, and arrived at some new houses, in one of which we were accommodated. The house was thatched, the floor of lath of bamboo, and raised four feet from the ground; the walls of reeds, tied together with slips of bamboo; and the stair a stump of a tree, with notches cut in it. It had much the look of a birdcage, and the space below being turned into a hogstye contributed little to its pleasantness. There was not a bit of iron or rope about it. The houses for the three next stages were in the same style. The head man of the village and some of the neighbours got tipsy with a bottle of rum. A female pedlar sojourned with him; good features and shape, fine teeth, and Rubens' wife's eyes; whole dress one blanket wrapped round her, and fastened over the shoulders with a silver skewer. She drank rum too. Men, women, and children sleep higgledy- piggledy together.

The only way of transporting goods in this hilly country is by coolies. The roads are too narrow, steep, and rugged for any other conveyance, and the rivers too stony and rapid for boats. There is no particular class of people who follow this profession. The carriers are pressed from among the inhabitants, receive an allowance for victuals at the pleasure of the person on whose service they are employed, and are relieved by others procured in the same manner at the next village by order of the head man, without which not a coolie is to be had. This is a service so well established that the people submit to it without murmuring. Neither sex, nor youth, nor age exempt them from it. The burden is fastened under the arms upon their backs, with a short stick to support it while they rest themselves. Naturally strong, and accustomed to this kind of labour, it is astonishing what loads they will carry. A girl of eighteen travelled one day 15 or 18 miles, with a burden of 70 or 75 pounds weight. We could hardly do it without any weight at all.

We were provided with two tangun ponies of a mean appearance, and were prejudiced against them unjustly. On better acquaintance they turned out patient, sure-footed, and could climb the monument. Many a time afterwards, when, on the edge of a precipice, I was mounted on a skittish young horse, with a man holding him by the head and another steering him by the tail, have I thought of them. We had to cross the mountain Picha- konum,2 which hangs over Buxa-Duar; the way a narrow path, extremely steep, which went winding round the side of it.

The road led almost to the top of the mountain, and before we crossed it I turned to take another look at Bengal. It is impossible to conceive any change of country more abrupt, or any contrast more striking. To the southward the atmosphere was clear. The eye stretched over a vast tract of land, and the view was bounded only by the circular horizon.

The Bhutanese, of a constitution more robust and hardy, inhabit a country where strength is required. They have everything to transport on their backs; they are obliged to make terraces, and conduct little streams of water into them, in order to cover their rice fields, and to build houses with thick stone walls, to secure themselves from the cold.

2. On entering into the mountain kingdom:

We should have had excellent sport, but for my friend Paima's scruples. He strongly opposed our shooting, insisting that it was a great crime, would give much scandal to the inhabitants, and was particularly unlawful within the liberties of Ghumalhari. We had many long debates upon the subject, which were supported on his side by plain common-sense reasons drawn from his religion and customs; on mine, by those fine-spun European arguments, which serve rather to perplex than convince. I gained nothing by them, and at length we compromised the matter. I engaged not to shoot till we were fairly out of sight of the holy mountain, and Paima agreed to suspend the authority of the game laws, in solitary and sequestered places.

As there is little wood in the country, they cannot afford to burn their dead; but they take an equally effectual way of destroying them. The body is carried to a neighbouring mountain, and being cut and beat in pieces, is left to be devoured by the wild beasts. I went to visit one of these sepulchral mounts, and expected to find it like a charnel-house. Eagles, ravens, and hawks hovered over us; but not a vestige of mortality could I see. At length I was shown the spot where the body is laid, and could observe some fresh splinters. On the top of this gloomy hill, an aged virgin had fixed her solitary abode. I wanted much to see the inside of it. At last, after much rhetoric, I got her to open the only window of her hovel, and show her wrinkled face and dismal habitation. Having given us a kind of liquor made of wheat to drink, and muttered over many prayers for our safety, we took our leave. This female hermit subsists entirely on alms, and is held in general veneration throughout the country.

I am at a loss for a name to another custom, unless I call it polyandry. In most Eastern countries polygamy is allowed. The advocates for it compare mankind to the deer; its enemies liken them to turtle-doves. Montesquieu and other political writers insist that it is destructive of population; and the women cry out that it is unjust and unreasonable that so many of their sex should be subjected to the pleasure of one man. But in this country they have their revenge. The elder brother marries a woman, and she becomes the wife of the whole family. They club together in matrimony as merchants do in trade. Nor is this joint concern often productive of jealousy among the partners. They are little addicted to jealousy. Disputes, indeed, sometimes arise about the children of the marriage; but they are settled either by a comparison of the features of the child with those of its several fathers, or left to the determination of the mother.

The religion of the Lamas is somehow connected with that of the Hindus. The humane maxims of the Hindu faith are taught in Tibet. To deprive any living creature of life is regarded as a crime, and one of the vows taken by the clergy is to that effect. But mankind in every part of the world too easily accommodate their consciences to their passions, and the Tibetans find no difficulty in yielding obedience to this doctrine. They employ a low and wicked class of people to kill their cattle, and thus evade the commandment.

The general principle by which they determine the degree of culpability in depriving an animal of life is very ingenious. According to the doctrine of transmigration, there is a perpetual fluctuation of life among the different animals of this world, and the spirit which now animates a man may pass after his death into a fly or an elephant. They reckon, therefore, the life of every creature upon an equal footing, and to take it away is considered as a greater or smaller crime, in proportion to the benefit which thereby accrues to mankind. But I am following out disquisitions foreign from my journey.

The women are treated with greater attention [here than in the south]. In the Deb Rajah's country, whatever a countryman saves from his labour is laid out in adorning his sword with silver filigree work, or buying a square box which contains a little gilt image, and is buckled to his back. Here it is bestowed on purchasing coral and amber beads, to adorn the head of his wife. The headdress of the women is extremely neat and becoming. But the dirtiness of their hands and faces (many of which deserve a better fate) is a point which, as I cannot attempt to excuse, my partiality to the Tibetans will not allow me to enlarge upon.

Towards evening we arrived at our quarters, about three miles short of Giansn. They belong to the priest who paid us a visit on the road. The house is surrounded with willows and other trees. It has a number of small windows, and the roof is adorned with little ensigns and written banners. We were lodged in the temple, which was full of painted chests, matchlocks, bows, cushions, and other lumber. One corner was hung with mythological paintings, and below a parcel of little gilt cross-legged images, with a lamp burning before them, from which, as all the family are gone to bed, I have taken the liberty to steal some oil in order to finish this account, hoping that it will not be imputed to me as a sacrilege.

3. After becoming the guest of the Panchen Lama:

Being the first European they had ever seen, I had crowds of Tibetans coming to look at me, as people go to look at the lions in the Tower. My room was always full of them from morning till night. The Lama, afraid that I might be incommoded, sent me word, if I chose, not to admit them; but when I could gratify the curiosity of others at so easy a rate, why should I have refused it ? I always received them, sometimes exchanging a pinch of snuff, at others picking up a word or two of the language.

The Lama used to send a priest to me early every morning with some bread and tea, or some boiled rice and chopped mutton; of which last, as I always like to do at Rome as they do at Rome, I used to eat very heartily. This practice was continued till my departure for Bengal.

After two or three visits, the Lama used (except on holidays) to receive me without any ceremony, his bead uncovered, dressed only in the large red petticoat which is worn by all the gylongs, red Bulgar hide boots, a yellow cloth vest, with his arms bare, and a piece of coarse yellow cloth thrown across his shoulders. He sat sometimes in a chair, sometimes on a bench covered with tiger skins, and nobody but the Sopon Chumbo present. Sometimes he would walk with me about the room, explain to me the pictures, make remarks upon the colour of my eyes, &c. For, although venerated as God's viceregent through all the eastern countries of Asia, endowed with a portion of omniscience, and with many other divine attributes, he throws aside, in conversation, all the awful part of his character, accommodates himself to the weakness of mortals, endeavours to make himself loved rather than feared, and behaves with the greatest affability to everybody, particularly to strangers.

The weather was very cold; the water in my room used to freeze even in the day time; and I seldom stirred out of the house, where nothing was to be seen but bare hills, a few leafless trees, and a bleak and comfortless country. Some days after my arrival the Lama had given me a Tibetan dress, consisting of a purple satin tunic, lined with Siberian fox skins; a yellow satin cap, faced round with sable and crowned with a red silk tassel, and a pair of red silk Bulgar hide boots. In this I equipped myself, glad to abandon my European habit, which was both uncomfortable and exposed me to abundance of that troublesome curiosity which the Tibetans possess in a degree inferior to no other people.

I must confess the pleasantest hours I spent, before the arrival of the Pyn Cushos, were either in my audiences with the Jjama, or in playing at chess. The arrival of a large party of Kalmuks furnished me with enough of combatants. Their method of playing differs from ours, in the privilege of moving two steps being confined to the first pawn played by each party; in castling and stalemate being unknown; and in the game being reckoned equal when the king is left solus without a piece or a pawn on the board. It is a generous principle. In my first trials of skill with the Tatars, I used often to come off loser. For when a Siberian sits down to chess, he gets two or three of his countrymen to assist him; they lay all their great bare heads together canvassing and consulting about every move. At length I found out the way of managing them, and encountered them with their own weapons. If I could not get a Siberian to enter the lists with me in single combat, I engaged an equal number of Tatars on my side, and we used to beat them hollow.

I waited upon the ladies. The Chum Cusho is a cheerful widow of about five-and-forty, with a ruddy complexion, and the remains of having once been handsome. In her younger days she was a nun, and her husband, the Lama's brother, a gylong; but they happened somehow to form such a connection together as put ail end to their state of celibacy. The Lama was much displeased with his brother, and would not admit him into his presence for many years. After his death, Chum Cusho, being passed the heyday of life, resumed her religious character; and having taken up her vows of chastity, laid aside all her ornaments, dressed herself in a homely garb, and set out on pilgrimages to visit the temples in Nepal, Palpa, &C.i The Lama has since behaved to her and her children with much kindness. Her sons, the Pyn Cushos, and her daughters, the anms, were present. We had plenty of tea, mutton, broth, fruits, &c., and the old woman was as merry as a cricket.

Part of an excellent colored foldout map in Markham's book showing the route taken by Bogle; click to view full size.

Part of an excellent colored foldout map in Markham's book showing South Asia by Bogle; click to view full size.

Cover of Telscher's book.

Part of a painting showing George Bogle in Tibetan dress; from Telscher's book.

One of the Hindu trading monks who assisted Bogle; from Telscher's book.

Part of a painting showing the Panchen Lama; from Telscher's book.


Telscher includes this anecdote about which Bogle wrote but which Markham omits. In it Markham tells how he explained the practice to an incredulous lama:
There is a custom which although I am ashamed to mention I must not conceal. It is called duelling. The idea of There is no Reproach to an Englishman so great as to say you lye. If a Man is detected in a Lye no body will keep Company with him, everybody shuns him as an infected Person. If any Man says to another you Lye, he challenges him to fight him in single Combat. They settle the Time and Place where they are to meet, each Man goes with a Sword, attended with one friend to look on and see that every thing is fair, the two Persons fight untill one of them is disarmed is wounded or is killed.

1 comment:

Stephen marsh said...

You may be interested to see a genuine picture of George bogle painted before he left for India at