Sunday, March 4, 2012
Tibet's lost history
My review of Tibet: a History appeared in The Pioneer today.
Tibet: A History
Author : Sam van Schaik
Like the storytellers of ancient Tibet, Sam van Schaik gives us glimpses of the ‘Greater History’, concentrating only on the glorious period of the Tibetan empire, writes Claude Arpi
Looking at the cover of Sam van Schaik’s book, one immediately thinks: “Oh, a history of Tibet again!” During the last decade, in any decent bookshop, one finds several shelves filled with works on Tibet, whether it is focused on religion, politics or history. Some may say that it is because of the Dalai Lama’s popularity, while others may think it is due to the Shangri La myth. It remains a fact that the Land of Snows, its spirituality, its mystics and magicians, and its history occupy a special place in the people’s consciousness.
If today the Tibetan political landscape is well-known, it has not always been the case. Several years ago, I did a research on the French-speaking press of 1950. Most of the articles, written a few weeks after the People’s Liberation Army invaded the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, were an eye-opener. In the mid-20th century, very few people had the true knowledge of what was actually happening to Tibet, let aside its history. Some articles vividly portrayed the lives of monks spending their time dealing with ‘demons’: “The days are spent reciting countless litanies accompanied by the sound of the sacred drum, turning the prayer wheels and invoking the demons which are called to bother the irreligious farmers who are guilty of paying an insufficient amount in tax to the monasteries.” Others believed: “The Tibetan lamas less than a year ago were living in the lethargic atmosphere of a monastic life without worries and troubles. Today, they are burying their treasures in the crevices of innumerable rocks.” More correctly, they saw a Tibet, living outside a world which had “become the battlefield of a modern ideology which is attempting to change overnight what seemed timeless”.
Some were more prophetic: “The regime of the ‘lamaist’ aristocracy will perhaps have a successor which will only be a foreign organisation imposed by the invader. But it will not be so easy to destroy a spiritual power which has survived for centuries in its castle of eternal Himalayan snow.”
Sixty years later, the Chinese are still discovering this basic truth.
Most reporters failed to see the historic and strategic importance of the Tibetan plateau: “But what benefit would the invader gain from the conquest of 700,000 sq km of rocks, sands, and Tibetan glaciers? There is no resource for modern industries.” Unfortunately for the Tibetans, Mao and his ‘Liberation’ Army could see its significance.
Van Schaik is intelligent enough to call his book “A History”, and not “The History”. The author, working at the British Library in London, looks at different aspects of the past that are not often covered by other writers. His knowledge of ancient Tibetan history is apparent in his writing. The early chapters are devoted on the “Three Religious Kings” who ruled Tibet (and parts of Asia) during the 7th-9th century and their encounters not only with China’s Tang dynasty, but also India.
A conflict between India and Tibet during the reign of King Songtsen Gompo makes a fascinating read. In 648, when an embassy from the Chinese emperor arrived in India to meet King Harshavardhana, the envoys found him dead. The new king attacked the Chinese envoys, killing all of them except two who managed to reach Tibet and report the incident to King Gompo. The latter immediately dispatched an army of Tibetan and Nepali soldiers who thrashed the Indian king and sent him to China as a prisoner of war. This episode shows the power of the Tibetan kings at that time.
The author explains his personal motivations: “This history, this book, is a narrative, and any narrative is limited to the point of view of particular people and events. It is necessarily partial and incomplete. Yet, the plot-driven framework of narrative may not be the worst way to approach Tibet... The Tibetans have their own marvellous tradition of historical writing, and the corpus of modern scholarship on Tibet grows everyday. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to grasp the whole; but we can choose a path.”
Like the storytellers of ancient Tibet, Van Schaik gives us glimpses of the ‘Greater History’. In Van Schaik's words, his history “follows those individuals who have been most influential in the making of Tibet, or have at least made the biggest impact on Tibet’s own historians and storytellers”. One can, however, regret that his narrative only starts during the seventh century. The present Dalai Lama once told this reviewer that Tibet’s should begin by citing the latest archeological discoveries.
Though archeological study of the Tibetan plateau is a relatively new discipline, explorers such as Tucci, Hedin, Richardson or Roerich did the first archeological surveys in the early 20th century; their studies remained superficial.
The scenario has changed during the past two-three decades with more scientific studies being conducted by Tibetan, Western and Chinese archeologists. Their research dwells not only upon western Tibet, rich in ‘pre-Buddhist’ vestiges, but also on other parts of the plateau like Amdo and Kham. The latest archeological discoveries open new perspectives on the history of the plateau, particularly regarding the Zhangzhung kingdom. Some archeologists believed that a climate change altered the balance of power a few millennia ago. Due to drought and the subsequent increased salinity in the areas around the large lakes of northern Tibet, the political centre may have progressively shifted to warmer and moister regions like Yarlung.
Van Schaik, however, prefers to concentrate on the glorious period of the Tibetan empire: “In that time Tibet had become a participant in the currents of world culture, with its capital Lhasa developing into an unlikely cosmopolitan centre.”
In the ‘Preface’, the author articulates his query: Where is Tibet? A geographical definition is difficult; a political one has changed over the centuries; many myths have surrounded Tibet, saying it was always non-violent, weak and even isolated. In these circumstances, the problem is obvious: “How can one write a history of Tibet when we can hardly say where ‘Tibet’ begins or ends, when it exists in so many places at once?” remarks Van Schaik. For him, those who undertake to write a history of Tibet “can only hope to capture something of this diverse, ever-changing realm and the complex people who have inhabited it”.
This is what he has done in style. Though Van Schaik writes “There is more to Tibet’s history than its relationship with China”, the fact remains that Tibet is today a colonised nation and its sons and daughters have to immolate themselves to be heard outside the People’s Republic of China. This is a historical fact.
The reviewer, an India-based French journalist, is a Tibet expert