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Smitten by Tibet

August 11, 2008

Hema Vijay gives us a glimpse into the less explored side of Tibet.
Deccan Herald (India)
August 9, 2008

Did you know that Tibet was originally a fierce, warrior clan
country? And that Buddhism, which now seems synonymous with Tibetian
culture was an import from India, thanks to the influx of Buddhists
who fled India and sought refuge in 'the roof of the world' following
imperial invasions from the Muslim rulers?

Well, this mystic landmass (and its exiled people) is a
still-bleeding wound on mother earth, but its charm is such that it
inspires not just Tibetians but people across the globe to clamour
for its return to independence. At a time like this, it is quite
interesting to learn about the discovery of this ancient land; of the
first people from the known world who set foot here and discovered
this magical and snowy piece of land and the mystic culture of its
people. Claude Arpi, French-born author and journalist who lives in
Auroville, was in Chennai, promoting his latest book 'Tibet: The Lost
Frontier'. Arpi shed light on various scarcely-known, fascinating
aspects of Tibet at the University of Madras, where the event was
hosted. It was an occasion graced by young Tibetian students splashed
with 'Free Tibet' badges, and Indians who have a soft corner for this
snowy, magical land.

Author of The Fate of Tibet and several articles on Tibet, China,
India and Indo-French relations, Arpi is obviously at home with the
subject of Tibet. Ever since he made a journey to the Himalayas in
1972, Arpi became besotted with Tibet.  Arpi had actually obtained a
degree in Dental Surgery from Bordeaux University in 1974, but he
nevertheless decided to return to India. In December 1974, he joined
Pondicherry's Auroville, the International community founded by the
Mother, Sri Aurobindo's spiritual collaborator. Now at 58, Arpi
continues to live there with his Indian wife and a young daughter.

Now, unwind back to the 19th century. Remember, it was a time when
the English, the French and other empires were vying among themselves
to capture the world. "The period between the mid-19th and the
mid-20th century witnessed one of the greatest thrillers in the
history of Asia — the Great Game," Arpi says. The British, the
Russian and the Chinese empires fought fiercely in Central Asia and
Tibet to grab new lands. "The game was simple, you send some
adventurers or small armies in these remote regions, you annex them
through treaties and later you assure the natives of your protection
while trading local goods against 'modern' commodities. It was the
way the East India Company functioned in India; a well-oiled system,"
Arpi adds.

The conquerors took along cartographers and missionaries to
'enlighten' these 'uncivilised' regions. These explorers were an
assorted bunch of people. The people who ventured to Tibet included
professional soldiers, diplomats, mountaineers, and sometimes men and
women who simply thirsted for adventure. They also brought back maps
and information on these uncharted places. While the best known of
among them were Sir Francis Younghusband and Col. Nicolas
Prejevaskly, there were others who were even more enigmatic, like
Alexandra David Neel, the first Western woman to set foot in Tibet.
She reached Lhasa in 1924.

"But unlike other explorers of her time, she was only interested in
Tibet for Tibet and its people. She was truly in love with the
mystifying land and the philosophy of its Mystic and Magicians," Arpi
says. You get an idea of the charm of Tibet from one of Neel's
letters to her family back home. She wrote, "Truthfully, I am
'homesick' for a land that is not mine. I am haunted by the Steppes,
the solitude, the everlasting snow and the great blue sky 'up there'.
The difficult hours, the hunger, the cold, the wind slashing my face,
leaving me with enormous, bloody, swollen lips. The camp sites in the
snow, sleeping in the frozen mud, none of that counted, those
miseries were soon gone and we remained perpetually submerged in a
silence, with only the song of the wind in the solitude, almost bare
even of plant life, the fabulous chaos of rock, vertiginous peaks and
horizons of blinding light. A land that seems to belong to another
world, a land of Titans or gods? I remained under its spell." In
fact, it is largely due to Alexandra David Neel's numerous writings
which have been translated in several languages that the world came
to know Tibet.

Well, even before China invaded Tibet in 1950 and Tibet bled, André
Guibaut, who had visited Tibet in 1941 had written, "The Tibetans do
not realise that these pegs are warning signs that a very ancient
civilisation, now condemned, is about to disappear. Will that which
is to come be an improvement? The time is obviously near when it will
be possible to penetrate into Tibet by car or plan. Then Lama
civilisation will dissolve into tourism."

In 'Tibet: The Lost Frontier', Arpi also packs in an in-depth account
of Indo-China relations, exclusively obtained from the Indian
government's archives, besides several anecdotes on how exactly the
Chinese took over Tibet, and where India lost the unique link and
impetus it had with Tibet. Arpi also writes on the Indo-China border issue.

Today, the debacle of Tibet is complete and Tibetians live in exile
from their homeland. While we fret over Tibet, we might also pull up
our guard. Arpi's tales on Tibet, and his latest book 'Tibet: the
Lost Frontier' makes for some very interesting reading. Alongside,
the book also provokes worry on Chinese designs on Arunachal Pradesh.
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