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Must read: Seven Years In Tibet
Bhupesh Bhandari |
August 23, 2005
Till the Chinese got full control of Tibet and drove out the Dalai Lama from his Potala palace in 1959, reaching Lhasa was the ultimate challenge for any adventurer.
Most European explorers of the 19th century failed miserably in the effort. If they survived the inhospitable climate and the marauding Khampas, the monks of Lhasa ensured all visitors were turned away before they reached anywhere close to the forbidden city.
In contrast, several Indian explorers, unknown and unsung, managed to break through the iron wall. The British, fearing a Russian takeover of Tibet, had trained several Indians to gather intelligence on Tibet: Pundits Nain Singh and Kishan Singh, the lion-hearted Kintup, Sharat Chandra Das (who made a reappearance as Hurree Babu along with Kintup in Jamyang Norbu's The Mandala Of Sherlock Holmes) all trekked up to Lhasa and brought back a wealth of information on the country.
Then Francis Younghusband led an expedition to Tibet in 1903. His contingent of Indian sepoys conquered Gyantse and Shigatse before marching into Lhasa.
For most people, there was no adventure left after trekking to Tibet. Till Heinrich Harrer and his partner, Peter Aufschnaiter, marched right across Tibet to reach Lhasa in 1946. Clearly, Harrer and not Younghusband was the last great adventurer.
To date, Seven Years In Tibet remains the most extraordinary tale ever told of physical endurance and the will to succeed. It ranks with Peter Mathiessen's The Snow Leopard amongst the best travelogues on the great Himalayas and the plateau beyond.
Harrer's story is well known (his accounts were first published in 1952). An Austrian by birth, Harrer had earned a reputation early in life as a skilled mountaineer and Olympic skiing champion.
In April 1939, he landed in India to take part in an expedition to Nanga Parbat. By then, the Second World War had broken out and Harrer was interned in a prisoner of war camp at Dehradun.
Five years later, he escaped from the camp along with Aufschnaiter, crossed the Himalayas and entered Tibet. Regularly dodging suspicious officials on their way and some very close encounters with the dreaded Khampas (inhabitants of Kham, these nomads had earned a reputation as fearsome as that of the Thugs in the 18th century), the two trudged over 1,000 miles to reach Lhasa in 1946.
Here, Harrer and Aufshnaiter made themselves invaluable to the local authorities with their engineering and gardening skills. Soon, they became part of Lhasa's social elite. Eventually, Harrer became a tutor to the young Dalai Lama.
What followed was a very charming relationship: the monk-ruler was eager to learn more and more about the West, while Harrer tried to understand what made the young ruler the object of the whole country's worship.
In 1951, the Chinese invaded Lhasa and Harrer left Tibet along with the Dalai Lama.
You have to read the book for Harrer's dogged determination to carry on, in spite of the odds loaded against him. An avid reader of Tibetan affairs may, however, find very little new information in the book on the land and the people inhabiting it.
Travelogues by Sven Hedin and Alexandria David-Neel, and the diaries of Pundit Nain Singh and Das had unravelled all Tibetan mysteries by the time Harrer came out with his book.
There is another question that bothers the reader right through the narrative: has Harrer given an objective account of the Tibetan way of life, warts and all? It is well known that Harrer is one of the closest friends of the Dalai Lama and also a goodwill ambassador for him. He has talked about the Tibetan cause regularly in the last several decades.
In some way, it seems to have rubbed off on his narrative. Tibetans are God-fearing and simple people all right, but at the time of Harrer's journey they were a closed society and there was no space for any scientific temperament. The state oracle had the final say on important policy measures!
Also, for some strange reason, Harrer has never added pictures he had taken during his years in Tibet in the book, though his subsequent book Return To Tibet does have an interesting collection. Still, Harrer's remains an unrivalled effort.
PS: The film Seven Years In Tibet (Brad Pitt played Harrer) was shot not in Tibet but in South America.
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