Tag Archives: Tibet

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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World’s largest hydropower project planned for Tibetan Plateau

In an interesting article on ChinaDialogue, Yang Yong outlines concerns about proposals to build a cascade of dams along Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo river and its tributaries. The largest of theses dams would be almost three times the size of the Three Gorges Dam!

His article is part of a special series of articles produced by thethirdpole.net on the future of the Yarlung Tsangpo river – one of the world’s great transboundary rivers – which starts on the Tibetan Plateau before passing through India and Bangladesh.

Eleven hydropower stations are planned on the river, however the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge is a young and still active geological formation, and any interference could have disastrous knock-on environmental effects. You can read the full article here.


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Not Really Guess Who Friday

This week various things have been making me think about my times in India. As I am sure I have told you all, in about 1998 I taught English in a Tibetan monastery in McLeod Ganj in Himachal Padesh. The monastery is called Dip Tse Chock Ling, and I still have many wonderful friends and memories in the place… its what I think about when times are tough, or if I want clear thinking and exploring space. In short, it makes me happy; both as a space, idea, and record of all the good times I had there. So I thought I would share a couple of photos of my time there… I hope you like them!

Tim and Translators

This one was taken in Ladakh in about 2000 when I was working on development issues in the Zangskar valley. The chap on the left is our translator, Dorje Gyalpo, and Ash Spearing sits behind me on the Chorten.

Tim and Drip Tse Chock Ling MonasteryThis was about 1998, with the monks of Dip Tse Chock Ling.


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Royal Asiatic Society. Lecture. 18 January. London.

I doubt many of you will be at a loose end in London tomorrow evening, but if by chance your date has stood you up, or your heating has packed up, you might find warmth and distraction at the Royal Asiatic Society. I will be offering hot air on the subject of looting in Tibet. RAS Student Lecture Weds 18th January.
The next student series event at the RAS will take place next Wednesday evening 18th January and we have a very interesting double bill of lectures lined up. You can read all about it on their blog here.
Timothy Myatt will speak on ‘Trinkets and Treasures: Looting during the British Mission to Tibet of 1904’. Tim’s interest in Tibetan history and culture was stirred after spending eight months teaching in the Tibetan Monastery of Dip-Tse-Chok-Ling in Dharamsala, India, close to the Tibetan Government in Exile. He is now a doctoral student of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford and the General Secretary of the Internal Seminar of Young Tibetologists and has edited and published numerous books and papers on Tibetan culture, history and Anglo-Tibetan relations.
Apparently I have given the following comment:

I will present new research examining looting during the 1904 Younghusband Mission to Tibet. I will outline the social and cultural milieu that prevailed at the time and note the role models for, and influences on, those who took part in the mission. I will outline the position of L. Austine Waddell, the ‘archeologist’ to the Mission, and the controversial methods he used to acquire both personal and official collections. The aftermath of the Mission will be studied, focusing on contemporary newspaper reports from London and Delhi concerning the looting. I will then show how selected items looted from Tibet are now presented in British museums and collections, before studying the mentality behind the collectors and their desire to construct archives of achievement and ‘Temples of Empire’ that rationalize a perspective of ‘the other’ and thereby, themselves.

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A Terrifying Trend: Self-immolations in Tibet

Finally the US has found some voice of protest concerning the current, horrifying, trend of self-immolations in Tibet over recent weeks. For more news on one such recent protest follow this link, and sadly there have been many such instances in the last few months.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the occasion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to address the issue saying that the US was, “alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest… We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”

“We have consistently and directly raised with the Chinese government our concerns about Tibetan self-immolations, and we have repeatedly urged the Chinese government to address its counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions and that threaten the unique religious, cultural, linguistic identity of the Tibetan people. We’ve also repeatedly urged the Chinese government to allow access to all Tibetan areas of China for journalists, diplomats, and other observers so that we can get accurate information and so that you can get accurate information.

“And let me take this opportunity to again call on the Government of China to respect the rights of all of its citizens who peacefully express their desire for internationally recognized freedoms, and particularly the rights of Tibetans to resolve their underlying grievances with the Government of China.” These quotes come from the International Campaign for Tibet, and more can be found here.

I should declare my interest in this sorry situation; While I was an English teacher in the small monastery of Dip Tse Chok Ling in Dharamsala I lived in the former cell of Thupten Ngodup (pictured), the former cook and cow herder of the monastery.

It was in 1998 in Delhi that the Tibetan Youth Congress organised a ‘Hunger Strike unto Death’ to pressure the United Nations to implement the International Commission of Jurist recommendation of 1997 report on Tibet. The first batch of hunger strikers consisted of six members of TYC, but the demonstration was disrupted and broken up by the Indian police on their forty-ninth day of fasting. Thupten was part of the second batch of hunger strikers, and set himself alight on 29th April, 1998. Accounts of his death vary, but one, harrowing one, is based on filmed evidence, and can be found here (warning, its not comfortable reading):

“A video shot by Choyang Tharchin of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) shows Thupten making his way to the public toilet. He opened a plastic container of gasoline, which he must have hidden there earlier, and dowsed himself thoroughly. Then he struck a match or flicked a lighter. .. When he came out he was, quite literally, an inferno. The DIIR video makes that horrifyingly clear. We see him charging out to the area before the hunger-strikers tent, causing chaos in the ranks of the police as well as the Tibetans there. A very English female voice — off camera — screams’ “Oh my God” Oh My God” again and again. With that and other screams and shouts, it is impossible to hear what the burning man is saying. According to someone there he shouted “Bod Gyal lo” or “Victory to Tibet”. Others heard him crying “Bod Rangzen”, or “Independence for Tibet.” He also shouted “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. How on earth he managed to shout anything, much less run about as he did is a mystery to me. Every breath he took must have caused live flames to rush into his lungs and sear the air sacs and lining.

The burning man then appears to pause and hold up both hands together in the position of prayer. At this point the fire seems terribly intense and the cameraman later remarked that he could distinctly hear popping sounds as bits of flesh burst from Thupten Ngodup’s body. The cameraman was so shaken he found it difficult to hold his camera steady. Then policemen and Tibetans beat at the flames with rugs and sacks, and finally pushing Thupten Ngodup to the ground, stifled the blaze.” 

I moved into his small cell only a few months later in late 1998. People often ask me why I ended up studying Tibet; why something quite, so, well, pointless? I guess living in such a monastery and community had a profound effect on me, and planted a small seed that really has only begun to germinate. More important, and sad, is that the situation that lead Thupten to set himself alight is still prevailing.

While the international finger pointing goes on, with the Chinese news agencies bitterly criticising the Dalai Lama for not condemning the protests, and the Tibetan Government in Exile urging restraint and dialogue, one thing is for sure, I fear that this distressing and despairing trend will sadly continue.

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The devil is in the detail…

So, if you ever needed reminding why Tibetology, and the detailed analysis of Anglo-Tibetan relations, is important and relevant, here it is: The world’s two largest nations, accounting for about 1/3 of the global population, both armed to the high teeth with nuclear weapons and global ambitions, having an undignified and unfortunate scrap about Tibetan border areas, and the much disputed McMahon Line.

As the article points out, “China, India’s largest trading partner, claims sovereignty over parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and calls it southern Tibet. It refuses to recognize the “imperialist” 1913 Shimla Convention under which Tibet ceded Tawang to India and regards its border with India – the McMahon line – as disputed.”

The McMahon Line is a line agreed to by Great Britain and Tibet as part of Shimla Accord, a treaty signed in 1914. Although its legal status is disputed by China, it is the effective boundary between China and India. The line is named after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India and the chief negotiator of the convention. It extends for 550 miles from Bhutan in the west to 160 miles east of the great bend of the Brahmaputra River in the east, largely along the crest of the Himalayas. The Shimla Convention was a disputed treaty concerning the status of Tibet negotiated by representatives of China, Tibet and Britain in 1914. The Simla Accord provided that “Outer Tibet” would “remain in the hands of the Tibetan Government at Lhasa.” This region, approximately the same as today’s Tibet Autonomous Region, would be under Chinese suzerainty, but China would not interfere in its administration. Not that it really matters, the Chinese delegation walked away, and never recognised or ratified the treaty. 

This spat is important as, while the article is written from an Indian perspective, national pride and tender toes are still evident in the region following a series of disastrous wars in the 1960’s between India and China over the border regions. I do like the reporting that the Chinese ambassador told the journalist to “Shut up!” … however I doubt those were his exact words!


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China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

This is a really good article in the New York Review of Books on the recent ‘celebration’ of the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China.

Its written by Robbie Barnett, a friend of mine who is a lecturer in Tibetan from the States.

His political stance is well know, but few will not be shocked by what he recalls from the same ceremony in 2005: “what had not been visible on the television screen: hundreds of armed troops followed by armored personnel carriers, riot control vehicles, water-cannon trucks, barbed-wire laying machines, vehicles with gun turrets and other forms of military hardware.”

The footage of the ceremony is also well worth watching, but probably not the full 149 minutes of it! He draws attention to the selective nature of the ‘crowds’ of Tibetans that were there to take part in the event; broadcast live on Chinese TV.


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