Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 07

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In 1902 Sikhim was aroused from its quiet sleepy existence by an intimation from Government that His Excellency the Viceroy would send an invitation to the Maharaja to be present at the Imperial Durbar to be held at Delhi on January 1, 1903, to celebrate the accession of His Majesty the King-Emperor.

The Maharaja accepted the invitation, but at the last moment deputed his son and heir, Sidkyong Tulku, the Maharaj-Kumar, to be his representative. I never quite understood his reasons, but I think he was afraid of venturing so far from his own country, and though he has since quite grown out of it, he was at that time still conscious of and very sensitive about his hare-lip, which is a great disfigurement. His lamas also, whom he consults on every important subject, gave it as their opinion that he would probably fall ill and at any rate the result was he declined to go.

For many months we were busily engaged in preparations for the function. Ruling chiefs were allotted camping grounds, but that was all, and only in the case of minor personages was anything more done. Most native States, of course possess carriages and horses, elephants, furniture, tents and camp equipage of every kind, and it was merely a case of having these things transported to Delhi. But in addition to being so far away, Sikhim possessed none of them, consequently they all had to be procured, and at the same time, with the small yearly revenue, it was necessary to exercise the greatest care to keep the expenditure down to the lowest possible sum.

Our reception tents were delightfully picturesque and unusual, made after Tibetan fashion with an elaborate design in applique cloth of many colours on the roofs, while the sides were decorated with the eight lucky signs: The Wheel of Life; the Conch Shell, or Trumpet of Victory; the Umbrella; the Victorious Banner; the Golden Fish; the Lucky Diagram; the Lotus; and the Vase: so constantly reproduced in Buddhist ornamentation.

The Kumar took this entirely into his own hands, drew out the designs, selected the colouring, and superintended the whole of the details of the manufacture with the best possible results.

The drawing-room was hung with old Chinese and Tibetan embroideries and vestments, including several very fine specimens of Rugen or bone aprons, and filled with a unique collection of quaint altar vessels and specimens of silver gilt, silver, copper, and brass work, sent by H.H. the Maharaja.

The tents were arranged in a semicircle on the edge of a wide drive sweeping from the entrance gates round a grass plot, and the whole of the approach was lined with high poles bearing prayer-flags of different colours printed with the Buddhist mystic formula: “Om Mani padmi hun.” We were lucky also in having a background of pretty green trees growing on the banks of the canal instead of a sweep of dusty plain. The camp attracted many visitors, amongst others Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.

In the absence of the Maharaja, the Maharaj-Kumar was allowed to represent his father and was accorded his salute of fifteen guns, Cavalry escort, and military guard on the camp. He also took his place in all the great State functions, riding an extremely fine elephant lent for the occasion by the Betiah Raj, in the Chiefs’ Procession, beside the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, and presenting his address to the King-Emperor through the Viceroy at the great Durbar. The speech was very characteristic and may interest my readers: “May His Majesty King Edward VII., from the time of occupation of this Golden Throne, exercise power over all these worlds; may he live for thousands of cycles and ever sustain all living creatures in joy and happiness.”

It was the Kumar’s first attempt at playing host to a number of European guests, and he did it very nicely with Mrs. White’s help, looking carefully after the comfort of the eight or ten guests staying in the camp and always delighted to welcome people to lunch or dinner. He was most appreciative of any assistance we could give him, and constantly said he would have been quite unable to carry out any of his arrangements alone.

We spent most afternoons on the polo ground, where the polo was magnificent and where all the Delhi world congregated, but so much has already been written about the great Durbar, I only mention it as an episode connected with Sikhim which cannot be passed over in silence.

To me, personally, the most striking features of the Durbar were, not the great State functions, magnificent though they were, but the wonderful kaleidoscopic pictures that presented themselves at every turn. Huge modern camps springing up in a night on the empty plain, fitted with every European luxury, mixed up with gorgeously caparisoned elephants, strings of transport camels, smart carriages, retainers in chain armour carrying antiquated weapons, performing horses, transport carts, ekkas, soldiers, brilliant uniforms native and European, camel carriages, elephant carriages, wild escorts belonging to native princes on prancing horses with drums and fifes, dwarfs, giants, alternating with impressive State functions and military displays all intermingled inextricably, made one think one had been transported back to the days of the Arabian Nights. The whole Durbar was a long succession of wonderful sights resplendent in their vivid colouring, redolent of the East, well worth seeing and which, in all probability, will never again be brought together, even in India: a most splendid pageant, but whether it achieved its purpose only time can show.

It was the first occasion on which a ruler of Sikhim had been present at a State function. The late Maharaja received an invitation to the first Durbar, held by Lord Lytton in January 1877, but he did not accept it. It was much to be regretted that His Highness the present Maharaja did not attend on this occasion, but to the Kumar and the Kazis and headmen in his suite it was a revelation of the extent of British supremacy, and the assemblage of so many chiefs and Rajas from north, south, east, and west come together to pay homage to the King-Emperor, was an object-lesson, brought immediately home to them of the greatness of our Indian Empire.

A couple of years later, in 1904, when Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales were about to visit India, and preparations were being made for the assembly of chiefs at various points to pay homage to the heir to the throne, it seemed to me both desirable and expedient to include the chiefs from these hill borders amongst those assembling in Calcutta, I accordingly approached the Government of India on the subject of issuing invitations to the Maharaja and Maharani of Sikhim and Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk, the Tongsa Penlop of Bhutan, and at the same time raised the question of inviting the Tashi Lama of Tibet from Shigatsi also to be present. Although in no way directly connected with the British Government, it seemed, for many reasons, particularly expedient that if possible he should be induced to pay a visit to India at this particular juncture. There were many reasons to make such a departure desirable and in addition he, a high dignitary of the Buddhist Church and considered by a certain faction in Tibet the superior even of the Delai Lama, would have an opportunity at the same time of visiting the Buddhist shrines in India which must necessarily be of great interest to him.

Government adopted my views and eventually issued the necessary invitations, which were accepted.

It was quite a new departure, as none of the chiefs on this frontier had ever before left their mountain homes, nor had they, with the exception of one short visit of the Maharaja of Sikhim to Darjeeling, been guests of the Indian Government, neither had any high Tibetan lama before visited India.

The arrangements for their entertainment were somewhat complicated by the fact that as Buddhists and without caste prejudices as to food, everything had to be provided for them, and although an attempt was made to limit the number of followers in their various suites, the total retinue of the three chiefs mounted up to an astounding figure. They were an extraordinary collection of wild, only partly civilised creatures, especially those from Tibet, and most picturesque. The Government Official Guest House, Hastings House, Alipur, was placed at their disposal, as well as a second house in the grounds, and in addition separate camps were pitched in the compound. Water, both for drinking and washing purposes, was laid on to each camp and the tents and grounds were lighted by electricity, lamps were quite out of the question as the camp would certainly have been burnt down had they been used; police arrangements were very necessary, and carriages and means of transport had to be provided for the use of the chiefs and their following. The arrangement of all the details meant a great deal of work and correspondence, and a visit in advance to Calcutta to discuss matters with the Foreign Office, but eventually everything was satisfactorily carried out.

The Tibetan party were placed in charge of my assistant, Captain O’Connor, the trade agent at Gyantsi, and before arriving in Calcutta they made an extensive tour through Upper India, accompanied by the Rajkumar of Sikhim, visiting Buddhist shrines of importance and interest and ending with Buddh Gaya, the most holy of all Buddhist shrines. Unfortunately Buddh Gaya, with all its memories and associations of the great Buddha, is now in the hands of the Hindus, and I am sorry to say, the Tashi Lama while there, owing to want of sound advice, made some grave mistakes and succeeded in alienating the sympathy of the Mohunt and the Hindus, the last thing to be desired, as the Buddhists are very anxious to have the shrine again in their own hands. Of course, allowances have to be made for a man looked upon as sacred in his own country, where his lightest wish is law, and who, in consequence of universal veneration and belief in his own infallibility, has had very little understanding of, or consideration for, any form of religion but his own. However, notwithstanding this, I think the Tashi Lama’s visit was productive of good, and he returned with some small idea of the extent and power of our Indian Empire, and, had not the policy of Government, by its subsequent action in Tibet, frustrated these good impressions, I think they might have had memorable results.

The Maharaja and Maharani of Sikhim were in charge of Captain Hyslop, 93rd Highlanders, and thoroughly enjoyed their visit. It opened their minds and did them an immense amount of good, and they much appreciated the honour paid them by the Prince and Princess. His Royal Highness exchanged visits with the Maharaja, as well as with the Tashi Lama and the Tongsa Penlop, while the Princess received the Maharani at Government House. As can well be imagined, this first visit to a city was full of interest and surprise to them, and during the time they were in Calcutta they saw many things they had hitherto had no conception of. At the conclusion of their visit, they made a pilgrimage to Buddh Gaya and then returned to Sikhim much more contented with their lot than they had formerly been.

But on the whole I think the Tongsa Penlop, Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk, took the most intelligent interest in what he saw and had no hesitation in openly expressing his pleasure in what he liked. He was particularly interested in the various industries, the cotton and paper mills, the iron works, and mint, and the warships were a revelation to him. Major F. W. Rennick, of the Intelligence Branch, was in special charge of him. As a good Buddhist he also visited Buddh Gaya and plainly expressed his opinion that, although no one would be more glad than himself were the shrine restored to the Buddhist community, it was folly to quarrel with the Hindus, who for so many years had cared for and tended it, and that, owing to their own long neglect, the Buddhists had only themselves to thank that it was no longer in their possession and really should be very grateful to the Hindus for their care.

This visit cemented, if that were needed, his friendship towards, and admiration for, the British Government, and instilled more deeply his determination to effect the reforms he had long had at heart in his own country. He was much impressed with his reception by His Royal Highness, and very grateful for all that was done for him during his visit.

It was rather an undertaking to bring this party of unsophisticated chiefs and their wild following to Calcutta, but with the help and co-operation of the three officers deputed as my assistants, Major Rennick, Captain O'Connor and Captain Hyslop, we were able to bring the visit to a conclusion with only one or two unfortunate little incidents. The visit was certainly a success and formed a departure which I hope Government will follow up, of keeping up more friendly and direct relations with their neighbours on this hitherto little-known frontier.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Group at Hastings House, Calcutta, 1906.jpg