Captain Bower’s adventurous journey

Detail from the cover of Hamilton Bower’s Diary of a Journey Across Tibet

I first heard of Captain Hamilton Bower as the man who made the first major manuscript find in the Central Asian deserts: the “Bower Manuscript” which sparked off the whole international scramble for archaeological treasures by Britain, France, Russia and others. At the time that he obtained this manuscript, in 1889, Bower had been sent on the trail of an Afghan who had murdered a Scottish explorer. A couple of years later, in 1891, Bower was sent on another mission, this time to Tibet as a spy. In disguise, with another British officer and an Indian “pundit”, Bower crossed into Western Tibet and proceeded towards Lhasa. But before he reached the city he was discovered by Tibetan officials, who flatly denied permission to enter Lhasa. In the end, he had to continue eastwards, crossing into Kham and leaving Tibet via Tachienlu.

Bower published the diaries of his travels in a book, Diary of a Journey Across Tibet, which was quite popular at the time. He also wrote a report entitled Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs, which was not published. This ten-page pamphlet was intended for the eyes of the Director of Military Intelligence, and was highly confidential. The note from British Intelligence at Shimla mentions that an account of “Captain Bower’s adventurous journey” is publicly available, but “the present pamphlet contains his remarks on the government, commerce, etc, of Tibet and China, which it is politically undesirable to publish and it is therefore issued confidentially.”

Reading the pamphlet, it’s easy to see why it was keep secret. Bower makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is concerned mainly with the prospects of British trade with Tibet (mainly the tea trade) and the means of opening up this trade via a military expedition. This was very much in line with the agenda of the British government in India was thinking, which was aggressively pushed forward by Lord Curzon once he took up the position of Viceroy. The invasion of Tibetan under Younghusband happened just over ten years after the publication of Bower’s report.

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Below are some extracts from the report, and under these, a link to a PDF of the whole thing.

On the premature deaths of the Dalai Lamas
Unfortunately Talai Lamas, who are supposed to come of age at eighteen, almost invariably die before attaining their majority. Since the beginning of the present century, all of them, disgusted with the sins of the world, have retired to the mansion of joy before the time came for taking over the seals of office. I am afraid that a post-mortem would demonstrate that the retirement, though undoubtedly owing to the sins of the world, was not entirely voluntary. The prevalence of poisoning in Tibet, a fact of which there is no doubt whatever, added to the abnormally high rate of mortality obtaining amongst them, is pretty conclusive evidence against the Gyalpos (literally “kings”) or regents with whom the power remains.

On China’s lack of influence in Tibet
The position of the Amban at Lhassa I take to be exactly the same as that of his fellow-countryman in Chiamdo; treated outwardly with much respect, before strangers at least, the bearing of the Tibetan authorities towards him is almost servile, but in reality he has no power whatever and lives in continual dread of the powerful priesthood. Even in Chinese Tibet, a country in no way to be confused with Independent Tibet, the Chinese power is merely nominal. In Lithang, for instance, the mandarin was quite pathetic in his complaints of his position: how he had no power whatever and dare not do anything for fear of the monks, how they were a turbulent lot, and a deal more to that effect.

Prospects for a British invasion
Looking at Tibet from a military point of view, we may say that it is quite feasible to coerce the Lhassa Government either from the south or west as with the exception of the passes the general elevation is not very great… As a general rule, it may be said that they can all be crossed at any time from midsummer to Christmas. The south and south-west also being populated, supplies sufficient for a very small force could be procured in the country, and a very small force is all that would be required to coerce the Lhassa Government.

The quality of Tibetan tea
From Lhassa to Ta Chen Lu the string of animals carrying brick tea to meet this enormous demand is continuous. These bricks are made of what appears to be the prunings of neglected bushes of extreme age. I used to think that some of the tea imported into Chinese Turkistan was the worst in the world, but since visiting Tibet I have changed my opinion.

Opening Tibet to trade
But tea is the article on which we must primarily pin our faith as a means of opening Tibet to commerce. The trade in other articles imported from China is simply an adjunct to the great tea trade; as soon as that is diverted to Darjeeling the other will assuredly follow. Unfortunately great opposition would be brought to bear from the Chinese, who, I believe, would almost as soon give up all their shadowy claim to Tibet as their monopoly of the supply of tea…

British relations with China
A general wish to keep on good terms with China in the hopes that she may be of possible use as an ally at some future date has largely influenced our dealings with her of late years; nothing could be more misplaced than the nervous consideration for China’s feelings that has guided our policy.

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Bower’s report was not taken very seriously back in England. Peter Hopkirk, who consulted a copy of the report in the archives of the Foreign Office, writes:

That the Foreign Office liked neither the hawkish tone of Bower’s report not its message is apparent from two footnotes neatly inscribed on the letter accompanying it. One dismisses his views on the Chinese in Tibet as ‘somewhat crude’. The other, in red ink, observes that he appeared to be ‘a sort of damn them all’ man.

You can probably judge for yourself from the extracts above, but these comments seem pretty fair to me. They also reflect the general gap between the attitudes of the British in India and at home; when Curzon did push through the invasion of Tibet in 1903 it was in the face of strong opposition from the British government.

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Click here for a PDF scan of Bower’s “Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs”

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Bower, H. 1893. “Some Notes on Tibetan Affairs”. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.

Bower, H. 1894. Diary of a Journey Across Tibet. London: Rivington, Percival and Co.

See also Peter Hopkirk’s Tresspassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa (Oxford University Press, 1982) for a discussion of Bower’s journey and this report (pp.83-91).

The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

The vast amount of biographical and autobiographical literature produced in Tibet over the centuries is an interesting phenomenon. For a culture so pervaded by the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, there is an awful lot of writing about the lives of individuals. And, interestingly, this is something that was not done to the same extent in India, the primary source of Tibetan Buddhism. Biographical writing in Tibet began in earnest after the ‘later diffusion’ of Buddhism from the eleventh century onwards, in new lineages like the Kadam and Kagyu. So we don’t have much in the Dunhuang collections that could be called ‘religious biography’, but what we do have is intriguing, and I’d like to point out two manuscripts which might help us understand the origins of Tibetan Buddhist biographical writing.

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The first manuscript, Pelliot tibétain 996, was one of the first Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang to be published in a full edition and translation, done by Marcelle Lalou in 1936. It is an account of a lineage of Chan teachers, giving very brief accounts of their lives and deaths. In the case of the monk Namkhai Nyingpo, most of the ‘life-story’ is about the auspicious events surrounding his death:

When the teacher Namkai Nyingpo donated a statue to the incarnation at Triga Shingyon, light emanated from it. Later, when he was living in the retreat centre of Yamyog, there were miraculous signs including the passing over of a five-coloured cloud. One day, when he was practising the dharma path, and had just completed his vow to abide in the good qualities of recitation (he was 71, and it was the 29th day of the spring of the year of the dog, and he was at the Zhongpong hermitage), he sat cross-legged and unmoving, and passed away, without any change in his complexion. That night, in the middle of the sky between the mountain range of Zhongpong, which extends below the retreat centre, and  Mount Srinpo, two great streams of light emerged and lit up the whole of the realm, before disappearing into the west.

The text goes on to tell of the homages that were paid to Namkhai Nyingpo by other Chan masters, and the feast offering that was held in his honour, which was also accompanied by miraculous lights. One of the striking things about this passage (and the others like it in the same text) is that it seems to prefigure the ‘rainbow body’ phenomena said to accompany the death of Dzogchen masters (this has been pointed out by Matthew Kapstein in “The Divine Presence of Light”). But that is to look ahead by several centuries. Closer to the time and place of this manuscript, there is a parallel in a Chinese manuscript on cloud divination, which has this passage:

Whenever a five-colour vapour is seen above someone’s house and it remains there steadily during the last days of the month, the first day of the following one […] morning, and if [the vapour above] the house has mostly greenish-blue, this is the vapour of a dead body; if mostly red, it is the vapour of gold and jade; if mostly yellow, this house will go through extensive renovation works; if mostly white, this land has copper and iron; if mostly black, this house will serve as the abode of the divine spirit (shen).

This is from Imre Galambos’s translation of Or.8210/S.3326 (to see the complete text click here). I’m sure Sinologists will be able to come up with many other examples of cloud and light imagery. As for the light disappearing towards the west, this looks like an allusion to Sukhāvati, the western pure land of the buddha Amitabha. In any case, it’s clear that the life (or death) stories in Pelliot tibétain 996 are ‘biographical’ and thus some of the earliest examples of Tibetan religious biography. Though a truly international lineage (with a Central Asian, two Chinese and two Tibetan monks), the lineage, and many of the motifs in it, are Chinese.

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So what of the other biography? Unlike Pelliot tibétain 996, which was published some seven decades ago, Pelliot tibétain 149 was completely unstudied when I selected it for a reading class at SOAS. Intrigued by this brief text (just a single, closely written folio), I worked on it some more with Lewis Doney, who had taken the class, and we published an article about it in 2009 (click here for the PDF of that article). The manuscript is a brief introduction to the hugely popular prayer known as (in one of the shorter forms of the name) the Bhadracaryā-praṇidhāna. It begins with the story of Sudana, the hero of the Gaṇḍhavyūha sutra, going in search of the prayer, and eventually receiving it from Samantabhadra himself.

Next the action shifts to Tibet, where the Tibetan translation of the prayer becomes the daily practice of the abbot of Samye, Ba Palyang. The abbot has a dream, which he can’t explain, of thousands of people gathered in seven golden courtyards. He goes to ask the emperor, Tri Song Detsen, who goes to ask the Indian scholar known as Khenpo Bodhisattva (AKA Śāntarakṣita), who interprets the dream to mean that the abbot should recite the prayer continuously for three days and three nights.

This task proves too much for the abbot, who goes to the emperor and explains that due to his physical frailties, he has not been able to do as he was told. So, he asks for leave to go to somewhere more conducive, the mountain retreat of Chimpu. The emperor not only agrees, but gallantly escorts the abbot for the first day’s riding out of Lhasa. Before they part, the emperor and the abbot each place a hand on the other’s heart and recite the prayer together.

As he approaches Chimpu, the abbot is met by two strangers, who tell him that they have seen strange omens, including rainbows appearing in the sky, and a voice telling them to go and meet Ba Palyang. When the abbot tells them of his own dream, they agree that they should all travel together. As they travel they recite the prayer together. When they reach the part about perceiving the buddha Amitabha and going to the land of Sukhāvati, they ascend into the sky, cast away their bodies, and arrive in the pure land itself.

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So, we can see that this second biographical fragment is somewhat different from the first. It is not a description of a lineage per se, but rather a narrative framework for a sacred text, one that links the Tibetan text to the Indian original through parallel stories (the spiritual searches of Sudana and Ba Palyang) rather than through a person-to-person lineage. And yet there are many of the features that we associate with religious biography, including personal spiritual development in reliance on scriptural transmission, a certain degree of personal fallibility, which is overcome, and an auspicious end to the life-story (even if in this case that end comes unexpectedly swiftly).

But it’s interesting, as well, that these two precursors of the Tibetan biographical tradition, apparently coming from quite different contexts, have so much in common: both lives are told in terms of dreams and/or visions, and end with the apotheosis of the subject in the pure land of Amitabha. We can probably agree that the aim of the authors of both works was to generate faith and awe — but in what? Surely not simply in the individual figures of Ba Palyang and Namkai Nyingpo.

In our first example, the life-story is told in the context of a Buddhist lineage, and in the second, in the context of a Buddhist text and its recitation. In the uncertain period after the fall of the Tibetan empire, these two things, lineages and the texts/practices they transmitted, were the tenuous means by which the Buddha’s teachings would survive or fall in Tibet. I know one can’t draw wide-ranging conclusions from such a small pool of evidence, but I am tempted to say that what we are seeing is a the appearance of religious biographical writing at a pressure point in history, when the Buddhist institutions introduced by the Tibetan emperors were crumbling, and nothing had yet emerged to take their place.

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Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Matthew Kapstein (ed.), The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Marcelle Lalou. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du dhyāna chinois.”  Journale Asiatique (1939): 505–523.

Sam van Schaik and Lewis Doney.  The Prayer, the Priest and the Tsenpo: An Early Buddhist Narrative from Dunhuang.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30.1–2 (2007): 175–217.

* There is an online PDF of Helmut Eimer’s “The Development of the Biographical Traditional Concerning Atiśa here.

Tibetan Text

Pelliot tibetain 996, 2v, l.2: mkhan po nam ka’i snyIng pos/ khri ga shIng yong gi sprul pa la/ mchod pa bgyis pa las/ sku gzugs las ‘od byung ngo/ slar yam yog gi dben sar bzhud pa’i tshe/ mtshon sna lnga’i sprin gyis bskyal ba las stsogs pa’i ya mtshan byung ngo/ tshe gcig tu chos lam sgom zhing/ dbyangs pa’i yon tan la gnas pa’i yi dam mthar phyin nas/ lo bdun cu rtsa gcig ste/ khyi’i lo’i dphyid slar ba tshes nyi shu dgu la/ zhong pong gi dgon sar skyil mo grung ma g.yos/ mdangs ma gyur par dus las ‘das so/ de’i nub mo nam gi gung la/ dben sa’i lta ‘og gi zhong pong gi ri rgyud nas/ sring po ri’i bar gi nam ka la ‘od chen po gnyis rgyud chags su byung bas yul phyogs [3r] gsal bar gyur te/ nub phyogs su ‘das par gyur te/


Before anyone else points it out, I should say that in talking about ‘religious biography’ here I have ignored the rich biographical narratives in the Old Tibetan Chronicle and other early Tibetan sources that are not explicitly Buddhist. There are also other Buddhist texts that might be arguable biographical, like IOL Tib J 370, which I wrote about on this site a while ago.

Rama in early Tibet

The British Library exhibition on the Rāmāyaṇa has reminded me of one of the most surprising finds from the Dunhuang library cave: a group of manuscripts telling this classic Indian story in Tibetan. Most people know something of story of the Rāmāyaṇa, which tells of how King Rāma’s wife Sītā was abducted by the demon Ravāṇa and rescued with the help of the monkey king Hanumān and his army. The first Rāmāyaṇa is attributed to the poet-sage Vālmīki and is thought to date back to the middle of the first millenium BC. Since then, many other versions of the story have appeared in India and beyond, most recently in that hugely popular television series of the 1980s. Rāma was accepted into the Buddhist world as well, in a jātaka story which tells of Rāma’s banishment from the kingdom by his father.

Anyway, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa is found in several manuscripts from Dunhuang, which suggests that it enjoyed some popularity this area, far from India but connected to it by the trading routes we call the Silk Road. This version is a retelling of the Indian tale, though it differs in several ways from the Indian versions. It is a condensed retelling of the original story in which many episodes are drastically shortened, making it short enough, perhaps, for a travelling storyteller to relate at one sitting.

Although it is a shortened version, some parts of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa are not found in any of the Indian versions (at least as far as I know). An slightly odd addition to the original is the theme of letter-writing. For example, when Hanumān travels to find Sītā, he takes a love letter written by Rāma, and Sītā sends back a love letter in reply. In another episode, Rāma chides Hanumān for forgetting to correspond regularly. A crestfallen Hanumān apologizes: “I should have continually enquired by letter after your health.”

Now, I am not sure that letter-writing was a feature of ancient or medieval Indian culture (perhaps someone more knowledgeable will contest or confirm this). On the other hand, polite enquiries about the health of the addressee are indeed common among the Tibetan letters found at Dunhuang. High ranking Tibetans sent letters back and forth, sometimes containing no more than polite enquiries after the health of the recipient. This social practice explains why Hanumān committed a faux pas when he neglected to send a continual steam of letters to Rāma.

So, if it’s not Indian, where does this version of the Rāmāyaṇa story come from? Some have suggested Khotan, a great little Silk Road kingdom. It’s true that there are a couple of Khotanese manuscripts containing fragments of the stary of Rāma. However, while this Khotanese Rāmāyaṇa contains some of the same elements as the Tibetan story, it also differs from the Tibetan in many ways. There is no letter-writing in the Khotanese version, and the whole story is given a Buddhist moral at the end. The narrative of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa, on the other hand, shows no interest in Buddhism at all.

In fact, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa seems generally less moralistic than the classic version, in which Rāma and Sītā are ultimately estranged due to Rāma’s suspicion of Sītā’s infidelity. The Tibetan version has a happy ending, in which Rāma’s apology is accepted by Sītā: “They were happier than before. King Rāma, Queen Sītā, husband and wife and the sons together with a large retinue lived happily in the palace Old Earth.” In the end, one can’t help feeling that the reason for the popularity of this version of the Rāmāyaṇa was simply that it’s a great story.

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The manuscripts of the Rāmāyaṇa are: IOL Tib J 737.1 (A), IOL Tib J 737.2 (B & C), IOL Tib J 737.3 (D), Pelliot tibétain 981 (E), Pelliot tibétain 983 (F). In de Jong’s works, these manuscripts are referred to only by the letters A to F, which I have given in brackets after the shelfmarks.

1. Bailey, H.W. 1940. ‘Rāma’, (I) BSOAS 10.2 (1940): 365–376; (II) BSOAS 10.3: 559–598.
2. de Jong, J.W. 1971. ‘Un fragment de l’histoire de Rāma en tibétain’ in Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient.
3. de Jong, J.W. 1977. The Tun-huang Manuscripts of the Tibetan Ramayana Story’, Indo-Iranian Journal 19.
4. Kapstein, Matthew. 2003. ‘The Indian Literary Identity in Tibet’, in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5. Thomas, F.W. 1929. ‘A Rāmāyaṇa Story in Tibetan from Chinese Turkestan’ in Indian Studies in Honor of Charles Rockwell Lanman: 193–212. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

1. British Library manuscript Add. MS 15296(1), from the Rāmāyaṇa exhibition at the British Library. See this site for images of the manuscript.
2. The manuscript IOL Tib J 737.2, containing part of one version of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa.

Teachers, Students, and Notes

Manuscripts are interesting things. Well, I think so, and over the last year one of the main purposes of this website has been to make this point. Printed books can be objects of beauty, but more often they are just the means by which we get the text itself. And we know that a printed book is one of several hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand almost identical copies. Every manuscript, by contrast, is unique. A manuscript can contain anything from hastily scribbled notes to a fine copy of a revered scriptural text. Every manuscript is different from every other, differing in the circumstances of its creation and in the idiosyncrasies of its creator.

Although each of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts is unique, we can put them in some sort of order, arranging them so that at one end of the scale we have the thousands of carefully copied and corrected sūtras which were the products of organized scriptoria working during the Tibetan imperial period. Here variations are at a minimum and have been eradicated as much as possible in the editorial process…

In the middle of the scale are the manuscripts that have been copied carefully, but outside of the scriptorium and usually without revisions. Most of these would have been for personal use, and contain texts like short treatises, prayers and rituals. Handwritings are individual and sometimes quite stylish….

At the other end of the scale there are  manuscripts that are much more scruffy. The individual letters are poorly formed, as if by children, and the spelling varies quite noticeably more than in most of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts….

The initial temptation is to leave this last type of manuscript well alone, and spend one’s time with more beautiful specimens. However, forced to confront them in my cataloguing work, I had to think about why these people wrote Tibetan so very badly. One possibility is that these weren’t Tibetans, that they had only just learned Tibetan in order to be able to write and understand Tibetan Buddhist prayers and practices.

Another possibility – one that doesn’t exclude the first – is that these manuscripts came out of teaching situations. Most of us will be familiar with taking down notes from some kind of lecture or talk, and with the fact that some people are better note-takers than others. A student might be particulary quick with a pen, and copy nearly every word, or only manage only the most general sort of summary. Taking notes is still important in a variety of teaching situations, including Buddhist ones. But it was even more important before the widespread use of printing made textbooks available. In a manuscript culture, the only textbooks students would own were the ones they wrote themselves.

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Dunhuang, the source of our manuscripts, was in its heyday one of the great centres of Buddhist practice, art, scholarship and translation. Situated on the edges of the Chinese and Tibetan cultural spheres, and at the eastern end of the Silk Route, it received a huge cultural input. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, Dunhuang was home to Buddhist communities of Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Turkic monks.  There was also a steady flow of eminent teachers passing through Dunhuang. Chinese Buddhists would stay awhile as they began their pilgrimages to India, and Indians and Tibetans would stop off on their way into China.

For example, in the Stein collection we have a kind of passport (IOL Tib J 754) for a Chinese monk who was on a pilgrimage to visit Nālandā in India. The manuscript contains a series of letters of introduction written in Tibetan, apparently in the tenth century. The Chinese monk passed through the Tibetan areas southeast of Dunhuang before arriving there.  We also have a long scroll (Pelliot tibétain 849) that ends with an account of the journey from India to China – via Tibet – of an Indian teacher called Devaputra. The scroll also contains some written notes perhaps taken by a Tibetan student of this Devaputra.

Another fascinating manuscript is a phrasebook with a series of bilingual conversations in Khotanese and Sanskrit (Pelliot 5386). Among these conversations are some that speak of pilgrims coming from Khotan and India to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī in China.  Another conversation mentions the arrival of a travelling Tibetan teacher. Most interestingly, one of the phrasebook’s dialogues contains a series of questions that goes something like this:

Student: “What kind of books do you have?”

Teacher: “Sūtra, Abhidharma, Vinaya, Vajrayāna. Which would you like?”

Student: “I’d like Vajrayāna. Please teach it!”

This little dialogue, as well as others from the phrasebook, give us a sense of a place where Buddhist texts and teachings are frequently passed back and forth. The scruffier Dunhuang manuscripts mentioned above might just be some of the notes of the students who received these teachings.

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1. Burnett, Charles. 1998. “Give him the White Cow: Notes and Note-Taking in the Universities in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” History of Universities 14: 1-30.
2. Sam van Schaik. 2007. “Oral Teachings and Written Texts: Transmission and Transformation in Dunhuang” in Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein & Brandon Dotson. Leiden: EJ Brill. 183–208.