Tibet: A History, Sam Van Schaik, Amaryllis, Pp 411,Rs 695.00
THIS book begins with the first appearance of Tibet on the world stage in the 7th century and ends with the exploration of what it means to be Tibetan in the 21st century. It follows those individuals who have been most influential in the making of Tibet or have left a significant impact on Tibet’s own historians and storytellers.
In 763, an army of Tibetans rode through the streets of the imperial capital Chang’an in China and these were the people of whom barely a century earlier, most Chinese hadn’t ever heard of. The Tibetans dethroned the emperor and placed a puppet emperor on the throne. They left the city as they had no ambition to set up a Tibetan government, but set their border only a few hundred miles to the west of the capital and forced the Chinese emperor into a series of peace treaties that cut China off from the West.
Prince Songtsen was born to a king who was a tsenpo, the embodiment of the divine in this world. He ruled over several clan leaders who were nomads migrated from the Central Asian plains to settle in Tibet’s southern valleys. They built tall castles on rocky slopes above the green fields to resist the nomadic conquerors. Prince Songtsen’s father adversary was Drigum, a troublemaker who built his kingdom around Rasa, meaning the ‘Walled City’, which was part-town and part-fortress. The Tibetans had begun to create their own empire and Lhasa became an unlikely cosmopolitan centre with Tibetans crossing and re-crossing the ancient Silk Route which became famous for trading in silk, jade, spices and slaves between East and West. Now the scales started tippling towards the Buddhist religion and “the Buddhist holy land of India, as the defining influences on Tibetan culture,” says the author.
The author is not able to say how was the religious life of the Tibetans before Buddhism arrived, except that they always lived “in a world swarming with spirits, demons and minorities.” As such religion “was mostly about day-to-day life.” It was Trisong Detsen who established Buddhism in Tibet. Then came a tantric called Padmasambhava from India and he expounded on tantric rituals of mahayoga, anyoga and atiyoga much to Tibetan noblemen’s anger. He however, succeeded in helping to build the tsenpo’s new temples called samye.
The author then talks of the birth of an unusual child in 958 in a non-Buddhist family and who began to write Sanskrit syllables in the dirt. At 13, he took Buddhist vows and was given the religious name Rinchen Zangpo. He travelled far and wide and reached Kashmir and became a disciple of a Brahmin, called Shraddhakaravarman to learn tantric Buddhism in the original Sanskrit. He went to east India before returning to Tibet after 13 years. He met King Yeshe O of western Tibet, who wanted to build temples. Rinchen Zangpo brought over 30 artisans from India and they produced Buddhist masterpieces. Rinchen translated old Buddhist texts. At Vikramshila, there was a great teacher called Atisha who was brought to Tibet and he began teaching Buddhism but died there without returning to India.
From here the author traces the history of the rise in power of small kingdoms and Lamas. He talks especially of the rise and fall of the Dalai Lamas from 1543-1757. In 1757, contact was established by the Lamas with the British East Indian Company in Calcutta where Warrant Hastings got enamoured of Tibetan gold and silk and trade was started between the British and the Tibetans.
The author then talks of the arrival on the scene of Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama and how the differences arose between the two with Panchen Lama wanting to establish independent relations with Britain and China. The Dalai Lama wanted an independent Tibet but meanwhile Panchen Lama flew into the arms of China. The Chinese Army ran over Tibet and the Dalai Lama was forced to seek help from Nehru for asylum. He escaped into India in 1959.
The author talks of India’s generosity towards the Tibetan refugees which “was staggering. Vast amount of government money was spent on refugee camps, food rations and medical aid.” In 1960, Nehru gave McLeod Ganj, an old British hill station to the Tibetan to settle down. As a result, relations between Indian and China reached breaking point over the border between Tibet and India, that is the McMohan Line as agreed at the Simla Convention.
There have been minor uprisings in Tibet on and off against he Chinese but to no avail. Today some Tibetans do not consider separation from China as a viable or a particularly desirable option, according to the author. “Others fear that, without independence, Tibet will simply disappear. So what is Tibet? Only the Tibetans can find the answer,” concludes the author.
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