Category Archives: Tibetology

The saints of the English church of eccentricity

“Anthropologists have been very lucky in their public image. Sociologists, it is well known, are humourless, left-wing purveyors of nonsense or truisms. But anthropologists have sat at the feet of Hindu saints, they have viewed strange gods and filthy rites, they have boldly gone where no man has gone before. The reek of sanctity and divine irrelevance hangs about them. They are saints of the English church of eccentricity for its own sake.”

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Traffic Jams on Everest

This is an excellent article on some of the dangers associated with climbing the word’s highest mountain.

Mid May usually marks the start of the climbing window for Everest, and this year the government of Nepal has issued climbing permits to 373 climbers, the most since 1953 in a single season.

I especially like the government’s suggestions to solve some of the traffic issues on the mountain (yes, even on Everest there are traffic jams!), save lives, and boost the mountaineering industry of the country as a whole by weeding out inexperienced climbers. The suggestion to make it mandatory for climbers to ascend either two 6,000 meter summits or one 7,000 meter summit in Nepal before initiating an Everest climb seems entirely sensible to me.

Find the full article here, and best of luck to all 800 climbers, including Sherpas, who  are currently siting at BC waiting for the window to climb Everest.

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Facing the Mountain

If you have a spare 20 minutes, perhaps in a lunch break, or waiting for the train, I can not more highly recommend Ross Harrison’s new film Facing the Mountain.

It is now available for free viewing on

Set in the sacred valley of Kedarnath in India’s lofty Garhwal Himalayas, Facing the Mountain explores what it means to live through disaster in a rapidly changing natural and social environment. The idea for the film was developed as part of his research into disaster risk and community resilience in changing high-mountain environments, which is supported by the University of Sheffield and the Dudley Stamp Memorial Award (administered by the Royal Geographical Society with IBG). More information can be found here.



Inline images 1

Read an article by Ross Harrison, the director of the film:



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Sacred Spaces: Imperial Archives & Temples of Empire

I am not really one to blow my own trumpet, but it is sometimes helpful to let people know I play. (Note how there is no similar turn of phrase for the ukulele… more’s the pity).

Anyhow, this weekend I am speaking at a conference on “Sacred Spaces” in London; it follows on from my lecture at the British Museum a couple of months ago and will expand on some of the subjects I touched on there.

According to the blurb: This conference will bring together some of the foremost active researchers on Tibetan religion, geography, art and culture to discuss the notions of what makes places and objects sacred. Practical demonstrations of yogic exercises and meditational dance under the guidance of leading practitioners will take place on the second day.

The talks and ensuing discussions will focus on a variety of topics; how a place may be intrinsically sacred through its geomantic or geographical attributes and how sacredness may also be created or embraced by consecration and propitiatory rites. Sacred landscapes and mandala art will also be examined in depth.

I will again be looking at looting and at how the British officers and men of the 1904 Mission to Tibet were attempting to construct scared spaces back at home through their collections. I call these Imperial Archives or Temples of Empire, filled with classically Orientalist bits and bobs. In terms of this ‘Oriental Other,’ Edward Said has noted that, “from the end of the eighteenth century there emerged a complex Orient suitable for study for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe.”

I think that by collecting objects from Tibet the Edwardian officers and men consciously and subconsciously sought to emphasize the differences between both their own, and the state they represented’s, ordered, civilized, rational self, and Tibet’s backward, religious, oppressed and flawed, ‘Other.’ This could be achieved best by collecting and presenting items to museums that stereotypically encompassed Tibet; items made from human bones, monastic paraphernalia, medieval military equipment, and ‘primitive’ possessions.

The British officers and collectors likewise assured their place in our common historical conscience; collections seek to anchor us in space and time. Crane explains, “being collected means being valued and remembered institutionally; being displayed means being incorporated into the extra-institutional memory of the museum visitors.”

Find more details of tickets and the whole programme at:




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Tibet, Assam, Textiles, and the British Museum

Ian writes a very fine blog. He mainly writes about events and attractions in London; interlacing history, architecture, exhibitions, and snippets of trivia into the online equivalent of an emporium of wonders. You can read more of his work here.

One of this recent posts caught my eye… not only did it combine Indian textiles, but also the British Museum, but amazingly, the Younghusband Mission to Tibet of 1904.

(Both) avid readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of all things Asiatic, and my doctoral thesis looked especially at the looting that occurred at the time of the Mission, and what has become of the items carried across the Himalaya, and thence to the ‘drawing-rooms of Empire.

Anyhow, Ian has noticed how a vast  Vrindavani Vastra (literally ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’) has gone on display in the British Museum, filling an entire wall of the gallery. This Vrindavani Vastra is 9-metre long and made of woven silk and figured with scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan.The Krishna scenes on the textile are from the 10th-century text the Bhagavata Purana, and are elaborated in the dramas of Shankaradeva. A verse from one of these is also woven into the textile, using immensely sophisticated weaving technology, now extinct in India. It is the longest example of its type, and was woven in Assam between 1567 and 1569. Think tea. Ian explains how it was first taken to Bhutan and then later to Tibet.

It was ‘found’ in Gobshi, a small town on the route between Gyantse and the Karo La, by Perceval Landon. Landon, a friend of Rudyard Kipling, was the correspondent from The Times on the expedition. He gave the textile, along with a vast array of Tibetan items, to the British Museum in 1905. The thesis has all the details if you can get to the fifth chapter.


Over the years there have been futile efforts by the Indian Government to bring back the silk drape back to India. In 2013 the Assam government requested the British Museum to exhibit the Vrindavani Vastra so that “art lovers, researchers, and local people with Assamese heritage could admire it”. Accordingly, it is now on display until August 2016 in the exhibition ‘Krishna in the garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile‘ in Room 91 of the British Museum. Entry is free.

PS, Landon’s account of the Mission is a great read: Lhasa: An Account of the Country and People of Central Tibet and of the Progress of the Mission sent there by the English Government in 1903–1904. Published 1905.

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On Mallory’s Watch: Frozen in time

You have probably guessed by now that I am a bit of a Mallory nut.

Mallory needs no introduction, but yesterday I found a spectacularly detailed article about his Borgel wristwatch… whatever makes you tick I guess.

The watch was found on Mallory’s body when it was discovered in 1999. It was missing its crystal and hands, and was found in a pocket of Mallory’s clothing. There has been speculation that the watch lost its crystal and stopped during a climbing manoeuvre, an arm jamb in a rock fissure while ascending the second step, and that the position of the hands could indicate the time at which the arm jamb took place. However the author of the article argues convincingly that there were “no signs that the watch has even been scratched lightly against a rock, let alone crushed against or between rocks during a hand jam. When the watch was examined it was found that the balance staff pivots are unbroken and the movement is in good working order. Watches of this age do not have shock protection for the balance staff pivots, which are very delicate and can be easily broken if the watch is knocked sharply against a hard object. The fact that the balance staff pivots are not broken shows that the watch did not sustain any such damage. It was reported that when the rusted stumps of the hands were removed the movement started ticking.” I love the idea that the time between Mallory and the modern age had literally been frozen! The watch is now in the keeping of the Royal Geographical Society in London. You can read much more about David’s thoughts and professional comments on the watch here, and also see his designs for vintage watch straps here.  (He also holds the copyright to the photo below).

Mallory movement sm

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Because it’s there…

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”


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The Maharaja and the Monarch

A good friend of mine, San Cowan, has just published a brilliant article about a visit to the UK by The Nepalese Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana in 1908. His research is first rate, and the article describes how the Maharaja forged close ties in the UK, especially the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Curzon was Chancellor of Oxford at the time of the meeting, and The Bodleian was recipient of a substantial number of texts thanks to the intervention of the Maharaja. These are used to this day.


A full copy of Sam’s article can be found here.

SS Chandra Group

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Formula 1 and Tibetan Buddhism

While there has been a lot of chatter about Nico Rosberg edging Lewis Hamilton out of last weekend’s F1 Belgian Grand Prix, few eagle eyes will have noticed a small design on his race helmet. As the German driver clambered out of his car to face the podium, his team, and his critics, I noticed a small Tibetan Buddhist emblem on the front grille of his Mercedes-AMG Petronas helmet.

Nico Rosberg

Rosberg designed the helmet together with his girlfriend. He calls it his “Full Attack” design, and it is mainly comprised of black and turquoise, a colour strongly associated with Tibetan Buddhism. He describes the Tibetan motif as “something personal” but does not elaborate further. You can watch his full explanation here. It’s about as emotional as he gets!

The design is an endless knot (dpal be’u for all you closet Tibetologists out there) which is a closed, graphic ornament composed of right-angled, intertwined lines. It overlaps without a beginning, or an end, symbolising the Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion. It indicates continuity as the underlying reality of existence.

The intertwining of lines represents how all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together as a closed cycle of cause and effect. Thus the whole composition is a pattern that is closed on in itself with no gaps, leading to a representational form of great simplicity and fully balanced harmony. See here for a full explanation.

Tibetans and Buddhists often copy the design on a gift or greeting card as this is understood to establish an auspicious connection between the giver and the recipient. At the same time, the recipient is goaded to righteous karma, and reminded that future positive effects have their roots in the causes of the present. This interconnectivity, and the social dues that go with it, were first properly analysed and commented on by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss in his 1925 essay Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques (An essay on the gift: the form and reason of exchange in archaic societies) and expanded upon in his seminal anthropological treatise ‘The Gift.’ It is a great, and short, introduction to the fascinating field of Anthropology.

One can only hope that Hamilton too has done his homework, and acknowledges that the knot represents a connection, a link between their fates and karmic destiny, but does not ‘connect’ with it further. I can assure him that the symbol will be the same when viewed in a rear view mirror.

endless knot

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Lying about the lion

This little gem has made the inside pages around the word this week as a Chinese zoo’s supposed “African lion” was exposed as a fraud. The dog that the zoo had used as a substitute started barking… raising eyebrows and suspicions that it might not actually be a lion.

The zoo in the People’s Park of Luohe, in the central province of Henan, replaced exotic exhibits with common species, according to the state-run Beijing Youth Daily.

It quoted a customer named Liu who wanted to show her son the different sounds animals made – but he pointed out that the animal in the cage labelled “African lion” was barking.

The beast was in fact a Tibetan mastiff – a large and long-haired breed of dog. lion dog

In a rad faced interview the the chief of the park’s animal department, Liu Suya, told the paper that while it does have a lion, it had been taken to a breeding facility and the dog — which belonged to an employee — had been temporarily housed in the zoo over safety concerns.

I think he might be lying, especially as the zoo was also found to have two coypu rodents in a snake’s cage, a white fox in a leopard’s den, and another dog in a wolf pen. Barking mad if you ask me.


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