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).

Defining Mahāyoga


Some years ago I was chatting to someone at a conference about the work I had been doing on Mahāyoga texts in the Dunhuang collections. “But what,” he asked, “is Mahāyoga anyway?” Though the later Nyingma tradition has perfectly good answers to this question, I couldn’t give him a satisfactory answer about what it meant in early (pre-11th century) Tibet. It would be good to know, because references to Mahāyoga often crop up in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Moreover, if the Testament of Ba is to be believed, when the Tibetan emperor Tri Song Detsen set up a massive Buddhist translation project in Tibet in the 9th century, he specifically banned Mahāyoga texts from being translated.

In fact it turns out that the Tibetans, during their first exposure to tantric Buddhism, had also asked themselves what Mahāyoga stands for. I found the answer in a tatty manuscript containing a text called A Summary of the View of Mahāyoga According to Scripture. So I translated that text and wrote an article all about Mahāyoga in early Tibet, which was published in 2008. I’ve finally scanned the article, and it’s now on the Author page of this site, or you can just click here.

New Publication: Old Tibetan Texts in the Stein Collection Or.8210


Just out — a new catalogue of 88 Tibetan manuscripts from the Dunhuang cave, held here at the British Library but previously neglected because they were catalogued in the sequence dedicated to Chinese Dunhuang manuscripts (Or.8210). This catalogue was begun by Tsuguhito Takeuchi of Kobe University, who passed it on to Kazushi Iwao, who worked with me directly on the manuscripts at the British Library. The catalogue includes some manuscripts that I have previously written about here, such as this divination text, this text on bon-po funeral rituals, and this fragment of the Testament of Ba. The catalogue is the first in a new series published by the Toyo Bunko: Studies in Old Tibetan Texts from Central Asia. You can download PDF files of the whole book at the Toyo Bunko’s website, here.

André Alexander, 1965-2012


I am very sad indeed to hear of the sudden and unexpected death of André Alexander. I had only recently finished working with him on an article based on one of his many conservation projects. Working with André was interesting, educational, and a lot of fun. Like many, many others, I will miss him. If you don’t know his work, please go on to read about his Tibet Heritage Fund here, and have a look at the introduction to his Temples of Lhasa here. Below I reproduce some words by Per Sørensen on André’s many achievements.

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Dr Andre Alexander

17 January 1965 – 21 January 2012

It is with profound regret and in deepest sorrow that we announce the death of Dr Andre Alexander at the age of 47.

Andre had just turned 47 this very week, and was full of enthusiasm and commitment. Over 10 years ago, he co-founded the successful, widely acclaimed and much respected Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) committed to the preservation and documentation of the unique Tibetan architectural monuments and heritage. The organization has launched a large number of rehabilitation projects throughout Central Asia intended to benefit and assist the local residents.

His organization has been involved in assisting local communities in the wake of natural disasters, earthquakes (Yushu) and flashfloods (Ladakh and Sikkim), and initiated countless conservation and restoration projects of sanctuaries and monasteries in India, Tibet, China and Mongolia.

His enthusiasm ensured that the THF won a steadily larger number of supporters who all shared Andre’s quest and vision of preserving the wonderful Tibetan architectural heritage.

A number of still unpublished books now await publication. A large study on vernacular housing and architecture in Lhasa (originally submitted as doctoral thesis in Berlin), the second volume of the Tibet Heritage Fund’s conservation inventory is due to appear in 2012 with Serindia Publications and another large study on Tibetan imperial architecture was under way.  We hope that this work too will soon be completed.

Andre was a passionate and colourful person, totally committed to his vision of documenting and preserving, against all odds, the unique Tibetan architecture.

He and his most dedicated friends at THF received numerous awards for their commitment: they twice received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards and the Global Vision Award for a number of their cultural heritage projects, and they were featured on BBC’s series on Heritage Heroes 2011.

Andre – You will be sorely missed. RIP.

Per Sørensen 

New Publication: Manuscripts and Travellers


Another brief note to say that my new book, Manuscripts and Travellers, co-authored with Imre Galambos (who also writes the Shahon blog) has just been published. Since it retails at just shy of 100 Euros, I don’t expect you to rush out and buy it, but I hope it will come to a library near you soon. The book is about on a manuscript which was carried by a Chinese monk through the Tibetan monasteries just east of Lake Kokonor, as part of his pilgrimage to India. The manuscript includes a series of Tibetan letters of introduction addressed to the heads of monasteries along the route. It dates to the late 960s, coinciding with the large pilgrimage movement during the reign of Emperor Taizu of the Northern Song, and is a unique contemporary testimony of this movement. The letters to and from high-ranking Tibetan monks show the vibrancy of the Tibetan monasteries in Amdo during this period, towards the end of Tibet’s ‘era of fragmentation’.

In 2010 Imre and I travelled to China to follow the pilgrim’s route through Amdo, which I wrote about in Amdo Notes IAmdo Notes II and Amdo Notes III.

From the Taklamakan, with Love

Most of the archeological discoveries from Central Asia now in British museums and libraries were brought here by the explorer Marc Aurel Stein in the early 20th century. But not all of them. Others made their way through the hands of collectors like the George Macartney, the British consul stationed in Kashgar during the same period. Some manuscripts were sent to scholars like Rudolf Hoernle (who was based in Calcutta) in the hopes that they might be able to decipher the strange scripts found therein.

Multiple provenance of this sort — found in large manuscript collections all over the world — can be a headache for those who look after these collections, but it can also provide some nice surprises, when one comes across “new” manuscripts that have been in the collection a long time without finding their proper place. Here’s an example that I encountered recently: a bundle of manuscripts with this note attached to them:

On the headed notepaper of the School of Oriental Studies (the ancestor of the current School of Oriental and African Studies) an early to mid 20th century scrawl says “Brought to Sir George Macartney – by natives in Kashgar. Tibetan inventories.” So we’d expect these finds to date from the time when Macartney was stationed in Kashgar, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Macartney was caught up in, and to some extent stoking, the fire of the “manuscript fever” that swept the world at this time, with  explorers from the USA, Europe, Russia and Japan all descending upon the Taklamakan desert.

This manuscript fever had a competitive edge, and Macartney was attempting to outdo his Russian counterpart who was buying up manuscripts from local treasure seekers. So, this particular bundle seems to date back to that time. And the manuscripts? What you see at the top of this post is an envelope of very fragmentary manuscripts written in Central Asian Brahmi. They could be Sanskrit, or perhaps Khotanese, but I’ll leave that aside for now. We also have two wooden documents, written in Tibetan, which looked like this when they were taken out of the bundle:

And on the other side:

So, we now have another person in the story; but who was this R. Corder? By 1967 George Macartney was long gone. Had Corder bought these Tibetan slips from Macartney a long time ago before passing them on to the School of Oriental Studies? I have no idea, but perhaps this is related to the most puzzling thing in the bundle, a couple of photos from a 1960s photobooth:

Is this old fellow, his clothes already old-fashioned in the 1960s, the mysterious R. Corder? Why else would these photographs be in the manuscript bundle? He certainly seems amused by the whole business. Now that we’ve come all the way to a 1960s photobooth, let’s go back to the Tibetan empire and these wooden documents. Such documents (which we often call “woodslips”) were the way the Tibetan military machine communicated across its desert forts and watchtowers. Cheap to produce, and good from quick messages, the woodslip was the telegraph (or reaching for a more contemporary analogy, the SMS) of its day.

Like the telegraph (and SMS) this medium encouraged its users to write in short pithy sentences, leaving out anything that could be easily dispensed with. This fact, along with the military jargon and the foreign words that the soldiers often used, makes the woodslips quite difficult to read. If you know the woodslips that were dug out of the desert by Aurel Stein, this one at least is unusually complete and clearly written. (You can see the others by searching for the prefix “IOL Tib N” on the IDP database.) Judging by the writing style and content, I’m fairly certain it’s genuine.

I can’t claim to have deciphered it though, and I’d love to hear some suggestions. It looks like a message (‘drul) asking for a decision (tag chod) about “provisions for the Tibetans (bod) and provisions for the Khotanese (li).” This makes sense, as the Tibetan army units stationed around Khotan included Khotanese attendants. In fact, each unit stationed in a fort would comprise two or three Tibetan soldiers and one or two Khotanese attendants (see Takeuchi’s article below).

The message seems to be addressed to a place called An tse, which was somewhere in Khotan. That works, for if this woodslip was found in the Khotan region by a treasure seeker, it would not have been far to travel to Kashgar, where Macartney bought it. On the other side of the slip, I see the words “butter” and “wood”, giving us an idea of what the writer of this woodslip was asking for.

The message seems to be incomplete, so it may have continued on another slip; that hole that you can see on the right could be used to string several slips together (in fact it is thought that the earliest Tibetan imperial records may all have come in this form, before they switched to paper — see Uebach’s paper below). On the other hand, it might be incomplete because it was never finished, and never sent to its destination. That would account for its unusually good condition: woodslips were often scraped and reused, or just snapped in two after they had been read (in the watchtowers, some were turned into makeshift knives, spoons and other implements).

If the message itself is mundane, I find the clear and fresh quality of the object itself quite engaging. It makes you realize that this really is something that was written when Tibet was an imperial power in Central Asia, by a soldier who probably had no idea that this power would crumble within a few decades. And because of the circuitous route that the object took to get to the British Library, this is the first time it this message has been read since that era. The bundling of the woodslips with official notes from another time and place (“Finsbury Circus, E.C.2”) also highlights this contrast. With such disjunctions of time and place, even reading requests for butter and wood can be quite exciting, don’t you think?

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Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 2004. “The Tibetan Military System and its Activities from Khotan to Lop Nor.” In The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, edited by Susan Whitfield. Chicago: Serindia. 50-56. (Note that the whole thing can be read on Google Books.)

Helga Uebach. 2008. “From Red Tally to Yellow Paper — The official introduction of paper in Tibetan administration in 744/745.” Revue d’Etudes tibétaines 14: 57-70. (Here’s the link to download the PDF)

* All photographs by Rachel Roberts.

The Golden Turtle: A Sino-Tibetan divination manuscript


Astrology was, and surely still is, an important part of life in Tibet. As in most other Asian countries, astrology played the vital role of deciding whether to carry out an important activity – a journey, a marriage, a funeral, a battle – and which days were best for embarking on such activities. Tibetan astrology is often said to be a combination of Chinese and Indian astrologies. According to one history, it was the tsenpo Tridé Tsugtsen who introduced Chinese astrology to Tibet in the 8th century. The influence of Indian astrology comes mainly through the Kālacakra tantra I believe, from the 11th century onwards.

There is an old saying, going back to the time of the Tibetan empire, that characterises Tibet’s neighbours according to their special talents (at least in Tibetan eyes):

  • To the south is India, the land of religion
  • To the north is Turkestan, the land of horses, weapons and war
  • To the west is Persia, the land of wealth, jewels and trade
  • To the east is China, the land of divination and astrology

Tibet already had a divination method that had little to do with Chinese astrology, in which dice were used to consult oracle deities – the ancestor of the mo divination still practised today. But the study of the stars and their portents was something the Tibetans encountered, and apparently were impressed with, in their early contact with China.

Now I wouldn’t be venturing into an area of which I know so very little, were it not for an amazing and totally unexplored manuscript from the Dunhuang cave that looks like the earliest Tibetan text on Chinese-style astrology – Or.8210/S.6878. It’s been written on the back of a Chinese sutra, and since it was filed along with the Chinese scrolls, the Tibetan side was ignored. How, I don’t know. It’s full of diagrams and ends with the rather strange tortoise that graces the top of this post. So I will say a little about this manuscript, and hope to learn something from anyone who knows more about the subject and is kind enough to comment.

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s6878_diagram1The first diagram comes under the heading “divining the good and bad dates for beginning a journey.” The first result is this:

When the day falls in the “gate of the sky”, if you go on a long journey, it will be good and auspicious.

If you look in the diagram, the “gate of the sky” (gnam gyi sgo) is one of the eight divisions of the diagram, under which is written “the 1st day, the 9th day, the 10th day, the 17th day and the 25th day.” So the sky is divided into eight parts.

I guess it’s not so difficult to do this astrology after all – just check the day of the month against the diagram, and read the result. There are bad days too:

When the day falls in the “junction of the sky”, wherever you go a great loss will occur – very bad.

The word I translated as “loss” is god ka, which usually means a financial deficit, so I have the feeling that the main purpose for making this astrological calculation is to check on the possible success of a journey for the purpose of trade. That is, travelling merchants (not scarce on the Silk Route) would ask an astrologer (probably a Buddhist monk) to check the best days for embarking on a journey. I say “probably a Buddhist monk” because these astrological diagrams have been written on the back of a Chinese Perfection of Wisdom sutra.

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s6878_diagram2Other diagrams on the scroll contain the twelve animals of the Chinese and Tibetan zodiacs, and underneath is the phrase “If the male and female are joined in this way…” The animal years in the Tibetan calendar always come in male or female form (usually the even-numbered years are the male ones, and the odd-numbered years the female). Note that in the diagram here the animals are divided into pairs. This could be a combination of the animal of the current year with the animal of the day, or of one’s birth year, but I haven’t been able to work this one out yet.

And what of the star animal of this manuscripts – the golden turtle? Well, in early China (I mean the Han dynasty if not earlier) the main methods for divination were to use bones, yarrow sticks and turtle shells. It was the ability of the turtle to live to a great old age that attracted people to it. Turtles from the Yangtse River were thought to have divine powers, and those over a foot long were believed to be a thousand years old. In their age they represented wisdom and – unfortunately for the turtles – longevity, with the inevitable result that they were eaten as a remedy for the problems of old age. Pictured below is the Chinese Pond Turtle, also known as the Golden Turtle.

chinesepondturtleTurtles – which have the lovely name rubel (rus sbal) in Tibetan – also had a cultural significance in Tibet. Have a look at the metaphors and riddles of Padampa Sangyé attached to the redoubtable Tibeto-Logic site here. One asks “who drew the design on the turtle’s back; who was the artist?” Which brings us to the fact that the turtle depicted here appears to be without its shell. In fact it looks suspiciously like the artist had never seen a real turtle.

So, how to do the turtle divination? The instructions are quite straightforward, although you need to know what a lunar day is. You need to count the number of lunar days since the day you lost the thing, going around the points of the turtle, and then take the result from where you end up on the turtle’s body. If you lost the thing within thirty days, start at the head and go round clockwise. If it’s over thirty days, start at the bottom and go round anticlockwise. And if you don’t read Tibetan, here’s a translation of the body parts

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The divination practice (mo) of the golden turtle: for finding things that have escaped or been mislaid.

Whichever lunar day it happens to be, calculate from the first day it was lost to the current lunar day, and the result is found in connection with where this falls on the body part of the turtle. If it was lost within the last thirty days, then count to the right from the head. If it is not within thirty days, then count going round to the left from the tail. Write the good or bad result at the turtle’s tail.

  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the head, it will be found if you look in the vicinity of a laundry washer.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the ears, then even if you come across it on the road while searching for it, it will not be beneficial to get your hands on it.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the arms, you will find it if you look for it on a high mountain, in a ravine, or in the middle of a graveyard.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the armpits, you will find it if you look for it at the goldsmiths, at the watermill, or in the town centre.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the feet, you will find it if you look at the the royal gates, the minister’s place, or the conference site.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the tail, you will find it if you look in the direction of your girlfriend.

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Tibetan text
@//gser gyI ru bal mo ste//bros pa dang/rlag btsal pa’/zla ba gang la bab kyang rung ste//tshes zhag gcig nas bgrangs la stor pa’I/nyi ma ru sbal kyi tshigs gar bab pa dang/sbyar te gdab bo/zla ba sum/cu thub na nI/mgo nas g.yas logsu bgrang/zla ba sum cu myi thub na ni/mjug bas g.yon logsu bskor te bgrango//bzang ngan gyi tsigs ni/ru sbal kyi mjug du bris so//
@//mgo ‘i nyi ma la/stor na btso blag mkhan gyI/ ‘khor du btsal na rnyed//rna ba’I nyi ma la stor na/btsal te lam du phrad kyang /bdag gI lag tu thob la myI phan no//lag pa’I pa’I nyi ma la stor na/rI mthon po dang/grog mo dang/mchad khrod du/btsan (=btsal) na rnyed//mchan khung gI nyi ma la stor na/gser mgar dang/rang tag (=’thag) dang/grong ‘khor du btsal na rnyed//rkang pa’I nyi ma la stor na/rdze (=rje?) sgo dang/zhang lon dang/ tshong dus su btsal na rnyed//mjug ma’I nyi ma la stor na/grog (=grogs?) mo pyogsu btsal na rnyed//

Translator’s notes

  • Two words I am uncertain about here are grong ‘khor, which I have tentatively translated as “town centre”, and rdze sgo, which I have even more tentatively translated as “royal gates” (assuming rdze = rje).
  • The word tshong dus, which I’ve translated as “conference site” is found in the Dunhuang manuscripts referring to several places where royal/governmental conferences were held during the Tibetan empire. Later, it usually means a marketplace.
  • I’ve chosen to read grog mo in the final sentence to grogs mo, changing a ravine to a girlfriend. Since we already had a ravine in an earlier result, it seems redundant here. I like this reading, but it might not be right.

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1.Baumann, Brian. 2008. Buddhist Mathematics According to the Anonymous Manual of Mongolian Astrology and Divination. Leiden: Brill.
2. Cornu, Phillipe. 2002. Tibetan Astrology. Boston: Shambhala.
3. Loewe, Michael. 1994. Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. Ho Peng Yoke. 2003. Chinese Mathematical Astrology. London: Routledge Curzon.