Littell's Living Age/Volume 137/Issue 1775/Tibet

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For works with similar titles, see Tibet.

From The Spectator.


If we may credit the vague rumors which have lately floated through the Himalayan passes, the person into whom the spirit of the late Dalai Lama had passed has been discovered, as usual, in a little child. The Dalai Lama, the pope of Buddhism, the worldly representative of the never-dying spirit of Tsong Khapa, has once more appeared among the people, who for some two years have been eagerly expecting him. During many months, a council of the lamas has been assembled at Lhasa, engaged in the solemn quest for the person into whom the Holy Spirit had entered, and their secret conclave has at last resulted in the unanimous selection of the new Dalai. Long and anxious must have been the consideration of the claims of each candidate, and bitter will be the disappointment in many a household when the unsuccessful claimant is restored to his parents. No European writer has yet raised the sacred veil which shrouds that mysterious selection, nor have even Chinese writers revealed its accompanying ceremonial. That the former is conducted with all due solemnity may be accepted as the fact, and that the latter is as gorgeous and imposing as Tibetan resources will admit, is not more doubtful. Of the nature of the ceremony something may be judged from the description of the minor proclamation of the Teshu Lama, which is to be found in Captain Turner’s work, "Embassy to the Court of the Teshu Lama," published in 1800. The influence of the chief priest-ruler of Tibet extends wherever the doctrines of Buddha obtain. It is scarcely less potent in Pekin than it is in Lhasa itself, and it is one of the most visible tokens of religious animation in the Chinese empire. The Dalai Lama is the pope of some four hundred, million people. At any time, a description of the state of this ruler—a state which is also connected in many ways with historical associations of great importance both to India and China—could scarcely fail to be interesting; but, as our readers will doubtless remember, a clause in our last treaty with the Chinese attaches a significance to the subject at the present time which it has not enjoyed since the days of Warren Hastings. This is, therefore, a doubly opportune moment, when a new ruler has been chosen, and when our own relations towards the State have undergone some modification, for the consideration of the past history of Tibet itself.

The remote history of Tibet, like that of all the countries bordering upon China, is intertwined so closely with that of the dominant power, that it is not easy, with the meagre authorities at our service, to separate them from each other. Nor would it be of much use to attempt to unravel the idle, although extremely poetical, legends that cluster round "Bod" land, in the years previous to the appearance of the great priest and reformer, Tsong Khapa. The Tibetan Luther was born in or about the year 1417, at Sining, and his parents, who were poor people, were only too glad when he displayed at an early age a preference for a religious career. There is another legend of his origin, which attributes it to a supernatural occurrence, and which asserts that his mother, who had long been barren, had conceived him by falling on a stone tablet on which were graven characters in honor of Sakya Muni. The foundation for this version may very possibly have been that he had been educated in the great monastery dedicated to Sakya Muni. Here he grew up in the very midst of the corruption and vice which were eating into the existence of the whole fabric of lamaism; but instead of becoming vitiated by his surroundings, his strong moral convictions enabled him to triumph over all the temptations of worldly pleasure and of secular power. Up to his age, the scarlet robe had been the peculiar dress of all lamas, but so thorough was Tsong Khapa's resolve to effect a complete reform, that he discarded as a pollution the sacred color. To demonstrate beyond all cavil the radical measures which he intended, he adopted a yellow costume. Then ensued the bitter contest that always has attended rivalry amongst priestly disputants, but at last the controversy between Reds and Yellows was closed by the triumph of the latter, and the gradual reformation of the former. The Red faction is still, or was in the days of the Abbé Huc, existent in Tibet, but the descendants of Tsong Khapa and his disciples are supreme. The reforms introduced by Tsong Khapa gave increased vitality not only to the Buddhist religion, but also to the priestly order of Tibet; and when he died, in 1478, he left Tibet in a state of general prosperity and of tranquillity both within and without. On his death-bed he summoned his two principal disciples, Lo-lum Ghiamdzo and Kojuni Machortse, to him, and told them that they were to carry on the good work which he had commenced. The former became the first Dalai Lama, the latter the first Teshu or Panshen Lama; and from that time to the present the spirits of those two personages have be en never-dying on earth, and except the brief intervals required for the discovery of the person into whom the spirit had passed, those offices have never been vacant. Although the presence of the Chinese in the country, as more or less de facto rulers, since the time of the first Mantchoo emperor, Chuntche, has effaced the secular power of the lamas to a great extent, the Dalai has always been more concerned in the public administration than the Teshu. The latter, who resides at the lamasery of Teshu Lumbo, near the town of Shigatze, on the Sanpu, is the great theological authority in Tibet, and is styled the "Gem of Learning;" whereas, the: former's designation is "the Gem of Majesty." But since the days when Chinese armies had to be summoned in to defend Lhasa from marauding Ghoorkas, the independence of the Dalai and his subordinates has grown more and more doubtful, until at last their authority has become almost "the shadow of a name." But while their worldly power has been waning before the encroachments of the Ambans, their influence and reputation, both among Tibetans and the Chinese people, have been as steadily increasing, until the Tibetan lamas are now almost as potent as they were in the ancient days of the Mongols, when Kublai Khan entreated their aid for the construction of an alphabet for his ignorant people. There are many who assert that there is a religious, as well as a national, revival going on amongst the Chinese, and in the former of these movements the most active agent would undoubtedly be the religious fervor which is to be found among the lamas of Tibet.

The relations between ourselves and the Tibetans have been very slight; in fact, since the days of Warren Hastings there have been none at all. In 1772, that governor-general sent an envoy — Mr. George Bogle — to the Teshu Lama, and his mission gave rise to some very instructive interchanges of opinion, for an account of which we are indebted to Mr. Clements Markham; but the result of this diplomatic action was very transitory. Captain Turner, Warren Hastings's second ambassador, despatched a few years later on, for the purpose of complimenting a new Teshu on his accession to the dignity, was not more successful; and then for many years official business was transacted by our Tibetan agent, the widely travelled Purungir Gosain. In 1792 there occurred that war between Nepaul and China which resulted in the ignominious defeat of the former, and which the intercession of Lord Cornwallis alone prevented from closing with the sack of Khatmandoo, but which is chiefly of importance to us as marking the turning-point in our intercourse with Tibet. Up to this, our diplomatic overtures had not indeed been crowned by any very brilliant success, but they had not been complete failures. The passes through the Himalaya were at all events open, if any one cared to make use of them; and so long as the fair at Rangpur was maintained, so long did Tibetan goods find their way into Bengal, and our Indian fabrics into Tibet. But the Chinese government and generals resented our intervention in favor of the Ghoorkas, who, in the eyes both of Tibetans and Chinese, were merely a set of troublesome marauders; and after the year 1792, the Chinese, in consequence of Lord Cornwallis's well-intentioned mediation, closed the passes of the Himalaya, erected blockhouses at their northern entrances, and put a stop to all intercourse whatsoever. Since that time, more than eighty years ago, only one Englishman has succeeded in breaking through that unyielding barrier, and it must be long before the same astonishing energy and rare acquaintance with Chinese manners will be united again in the same person as they were in Thomas Manning. That gentleman, in the disguise of a Chinaman, did in the year 1811 penetrate from Bhutan into Tibet, and his triumph was rendered more perfect by a residence of many months in its capital. Whatever information we possess we owe to these three gentlemen, and to the French missionaries Huc and Gabet, who went to Lhasa from China in 1845. Since their time, we have indeed learnt much from the explorations of the pundit Nain Sing, but our historical knowledge has not kept pace with our geographical. The tidings that another child exercises the power of Dalai Lama will serve to remind us that whenever we seek to enforce our treaty rights, it will be solely with the Chinese Ambans that we shall have to deal. The same difficulties will have to be encountered and to be overcome as those which beset a visit to any other unknown and secluded province of the Chinese empire. Whatever virtues the Tibetans themselves possess—and if all is true that we are told of them, they possess more than a fair share of them—it is not they who will decide how our ambassador shall be received, but the Chinese governors, who will act in accordance with the instructions remitted from Pekin. From one aspect, seeing that it is the Chinese themselves who have conceded the point, this should argue favorably for the result of an English mission to Tibet; but from another, seeing that the Chinese, and not the Tibetans, have at all times been hostile to intercourse of any kind with ourselves in India, the prospect is scarcely so pleasing. In the mean while, the intrepid Russian traveller, Prjevalsky, nothing daunted by illness or by the obstacles placed in his path by the Chinese, is slowly wending his way along the outskirts of the great Desert of Gobi towards the country of the lamas. In the search for geographical information he is emulating the achievements of his most distinguished predecessors, and should he be successful in this case, which, to say the least, is extremely doubtful, he will most probably, now that so many more entrancing questions are agitating the bosoms of the Indian Council, have the double satisfaction of having been the first representative of his country to visit Lhasa, and of having anticipated the English embassy, which Sir Thomas Wade foreshadowed in his treaty of Chefoo.