Captain Bower’s adventurous journey

Bower_AcrossTibetCover_detail

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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Bower_cover_detail

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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References

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

Aside

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.

André Alexander, 1965-2012

Aside

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 

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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References

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.