Knowledge Production on Tibet in Mid-nineteenth Century
In the beginning of the twenty-first century we are used to taking pictures of everything and to request information from the Internet round the clock. Most of us grew up with a clear vision of the earth’s physical geography. There exist not many ‘hidden places’ any longer; we are able to fly around the world and cover long distances within hours. In this context it can sometimes be difficult to imagine that in mid-nineteenth century a ship’s passage between Europe and British India took several weeks, that information about specific topics—if at all—was mainly available in the form of the written word, and that there have been places and areas we got no information about. Before the invention of photography, visual accounts had to be drawn by hand, travel accounts had to be written by hand, and paper has been a valuable product. The respective writer or draftsman had to select the information he wanted to record carefully. The first age of discovery has been marked by the extensive exploration of the coast. The second age expended the exploration of coasts to the South Seas, but also involved the intensive exploration of the interior of the respective continents, such as the Antarctica. The aim was to fill the ‘blank spaces’ on the maps. The amount of knowledge gathered and collected in this period—between 1750 and 1850—was staggering, especially the knowledge collected by Europeans about the flora, fauna, geography, and history of other parts of the word (Burke 2012,12-13). It was the period in which Alexander von Humboldt conducted his expedition to South America and Charles Darwin travelled around the world— expeditions that represented the basis for the development of their fundamental new theories on nature. It was the period in which the Rosetta Stone—the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs—was found.
As Peter Burke stated, ‘much information comes in fragments, and part of the process of the production of knowledge consists in fitting those fragments together as if in a jigsaw puzzle’ (Burke 2012, 58). This is also true for the knowledge about Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau remained one of the last ‘blank spaces’ on the maps of areas beyond European control. Little was known about the area. Because of Tibet’s strategic location in Central Asia as a scene of the Great Game between the British and Russian empires, and increasing economic interests and mercantile investments, Europeans edged closer to Tibet during the nineteenth century. The seeking and acquisition of systematic knowledge of Tibetan landscapes and societies became an important goal for both empires. Although the British were experienced in surveying mountainous regions, entering Tibet was no easy undertaking for them, mainly because Tibet was difficult for Europeans to reach until the early twentieth century. Not only were the Chinese present in the area, but the Tibetans themselves—suspicious of Europeans—persistently defended their borders. Hence British knowledge of Tibet was not always the result of direct observation of nature and society, but often depended on indigenous people. The Wise Collection was made in the late 1850s—at a time when the mapping of British India was largely complete, but before Indian pundits,5 the ‘spies’ of the British Empire, first mapped Tibet. It was Thomas George Montgomerie (1830-1878), British surveyor and participant in the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, who developed in 1862 the idea of training ‘natives of Hindostan’ as ‘trans-Himalayan explorers’ to make route surveys in Central Asia. The plan was to train Indians to determine heights, observe latitude, and measure distances. Approval was given in 1863, after which a small number of pundits were sent to carry out a secret exploration of Tibet—as travellers in disguise (Waller 2004, 26-29). After being drilled in the use of sextant, compass, and other Western surveying instruments and techniques, the pundits were ready for their mission—human travellers became ‘instruments’ for the British (Raj 2007, 199). The pundits did not produce maps; rather they made accurate route surveys. In addition, they acquired information about the people of the area, their customs, economy, military resources, and other aspects of life. Based on this information, the British wrote reports and made astonishingly accurate maps of the area. The real explorers were kept anonymous in the first reports; they were simply called ‘the pundit’. The survey conducted by Nain Singh in 1865-1866 covered almost the same route as that shown on the maps in the Wise Collection. This is also true for the routes that were surveyed in 1868 by Kalian Singh and in 1879 by Sarat Chandra Das and Ugyen Gyatso. The pundits were sent by Montgomerie to ‘trace
A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 47 the great road that traverses the country from west to east, from the commercial city of Gartok to Lhasa’.6 The British regarded this route as the ‘main artery of Tibet ensuring the flow of most of the country’s trade and civil-military communications’. This route follows the Yarlung Tsangpo, the river that flows north of, and parallel to, the Himalayas. At that time neither the source nor the outlet of this river was known (Raj 2007, 192-193).
Encounters in the Western Himalayas: Major Hay and the Tibetan Lama
The travelling lama who produced the Wise Collection maps started his journey in Lhasa and travelled along the ‘great road’ and along the Yarlung Tsangpo westwards and continued further to the Western Himalayan borderlands where he met Major William Edmund Hay. Most Europeans tried to get access to information about Tibet and to the area itself from the Tibetan bordering areas, such as the Western Himalayas. William Edmund Hay was stationed in exactly that region. Like most of the British who went to British India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hay received basic training in surveying. He successfully used this knowledge for an exploration of the Spiti Valley in 1849 (Hay 1850). But even before this, Hay had undertaken expeditions to the Tibetan borderlands. His base in Shimla and later in Kullu was a good starting point for such trips.7 Kullu was one of the transit points on the journey from Shimla northward—it formed a gateway to the north on the way to Lahaul, Spiti, Zangskar, and Ladakh. Compared to Central Tibet, the areas of Zangskar and Ladakh, as well as parts of Western Tibet, were not the empty spaces of the imperial map of the British Empire at that time. Thanks to explorers like Alexander Cunningham and Henry Strachey, these areas were comparatively well known to the British, even though they did not officially belong to British India (Cunningham 1854; Strachey 1854). Hay was definitely aware of the on-going exploration of the Himalayas. The Wise Collection maps focus on regions beyond the borders of British India, areas that had not been surveyed by the British government. In contrast to the pundits, the lama who made the maps was not trained in surveying and he was not commissioned to explore a specific geographical region. He was commissioned to ‘draw and describe’ Tibet. And in further contrast to the pundits, he drew his maps himself. It was Hay who made most of the explanatory notes, writing them on the drawings themselves and on separate sheets of papers. The lama, again in contrast to the pundits, added only Tibetan captions but no explanatory texts. We do not know the circumstances under which the two men met in 1857, but Hay took the opportunity to engage the lama, who had just come from Lhasa, to draw a map of the ‘main artery of Tibet’. Like many other mapmakers and painters, the lama has remained anonymous.
We know that he was a Tibetan lama from Central Tibet. The extent of the Wise Collection—the large number of maps and drawings and the breadth of detail—means that he had in-depth local knowledge about many of the places he depicted, in particular Lhasa and Central Tibet. A close look at the maps of U in Central Tibet and a comparison with the maps of Tsang and Western Tibet show two obvious things: the maps of U were drawn in a much larger scale and they show more details; and they are the only ones labelled with Tibetan captions. As one travels westwards from Lhasa on the maps, the scale decreases and the maps show less information. Most of the accompanying drawings refer to places in Central Tibet. Only the Lhasa map is provided with extensive numbering. Furthermore, five accompanying drawings refer to places shown on the Lhasa map depicting these sites in great detail, including detailed English explanatory notes. The lama clearly knew Lhasa well. We do not know which language Hay and the Tibetan lama used when talking to each other. There is no indication that Hay knew Tibetan. Also, it cannot be said for sure with which languages the Tibetan lama was familiar. It is likely, therefore, that a local translator helped create the explanatory notes. It cannot be said with certainty that the lama was trained as a painter, but he was clearly experienced in drawing. Furthermore, he was familiar with indigenous Tibetan cartography and visual representation of different elements of Tibetan environment and society and was guided by their specific characteristics. The role of visual representation in Tibetan society was significant, particularly in religious and medical contexts. The walls in Tibetan monasteries are fully covered with illustrations from the Buddhist pantheon—wrathful and peaceful deities, different kinds of hell, etc. These wall paintings were made by professional draftsmen, but also by lamas. According to the art historian Brid Arthur, a curious artistic genre began to appear in Tibet in the eighteenth century, the so-called ‘monument painting’. These were paintings that featured not abstract and formalized Buddhist concepts, but the actual, ‘real-world’ buildings and sites that are the sacred centres of Tibetan Buddhism (Arthur 2016, 49). The style of representation in the Wise Collection of places like the Potala Palace in Lhasa shows that the lama was familiar with the monument painting style; his own drawing style was obviously influenced by such paintings. Visual representations also play an important role in Tibetan medicine. Medical knowledge was not only represented in texts but also in numerous illustrations. There exist numerous scroll paintings (thangka) showing medical treatments, medicinal plants, detailed descriptions of the human body, and embryonic development. Tibetan lamas were familiar with the content and style of these illustrations—the same is true of the lama who produced the Wise Collection. The style of the accompanying drawings shows numerous similarities to illustrations on medical thangkas, such as plants, animals, and people.8
The lama came to Kullu in the Western Himalayas in 1857 and decided not to continue his journey after hearing of the Indian Mutiny. This shows that he planned to continue travelling without the intention of staying in the area. It seems that his stay in Kullu was actually a matter of historical accident. He was not commissioned by Major Hay to gather information on Tibet before he started his westward journey from Lhasa; rather he seems to have been asked to ‘draw and describe’ Tibet from memory after interrupting his journey in the Western Himalayas. As an educated lama, he was trained to memorize texts and, as testified by the Wise Collection drawings, he was gifted with an uncommon visual memory. What can be said about the lama’s intention to produce the maps and drawings for Major Hay? In the mid- nineteenth century, the provision of information on Tibet to foreigners without official permission was a dangerous undertaking and not done by locals without good reason.
For instance, Lama Sengchen, who taught pundit Sarat Chandra Das during his stay in Tibet, was condemned to execution by drowning in Lhasa in 1887 after it was determined that Das was a spy who had explored Tibet in disguise by order of the British government.9 Probably the lama was paid by Hay for producing the drawings and for providing information. There are indications that the lama produced drawings for other Europeans, namely for the Moravian missionaries in Lahaul. As Assistant Commissioner of Kullu, Hay was also responsible for Lahaul and thus the station there in Keylong of the Moravian missionaries, with whom Hay had close contacts. Heinrich August Jaschke (1817-1883) arrived and led the station from 1857 (Bray 2005, 249). Hay is mentioned in several diary entries,10 and he corresponded with Jaschke after he returned to England. The Moravian missionaries worked closely with Tibetan lamas from different areas of Tibet, initially to study the Tibetan language. It is likely that the Moravian missionaries engaged the same lama as Hay for various tasks. The archive of the Moravian missionaries in Herrnhut, Germany, holds a set of drawings that were commissioned by Jaschke and show illustrations of torture in Tibet.11 These illustrations, commissioned in connection with the translation of the Bible, indicate that the missionaries sought an appropriate translation for the crucifixion of Jesus. The style of the drawings and the Tibetan handwriting correspond with those in the Wise Collection and thus were obviously made by the same hand. So far, I have not been able to find any statement by Hay referring to the lama; in his explanatory notes accompanying the drawings, Hay refers to the draughtsman only as ‘my Lama’. The Tibetan word ‘lama’ can be translated as guru, master, spiritual preceptor, mentor, higher one, upper one, or priest. ‘Lama’ is also often translated as ‘monk’, indicating a well-educated monk. The extent of the Wise Collection—its large number of images that address religious topics, and the breadth of detail—means that the lama had in-depth knowledge of religious life in
Tibet. Furthermore, there is a detailed illustration of the Chinese Temple in Lhasa, showing high officials of the Tibetan government kneeling and prostrating in front of statues of Chinese gods. I wonder how many Tibetans were allowed to or had the chance to witness such a ceremony, because most people did not have access to this kind of information. It represented insider knowledge of a small group involved in administrative and governmental matters. I assume, therefore, that the lama must have been in contact with such circles or even been a part of them. We do not know why the lama travelled from Lhasa to the Western Himalayas; perhaps he was on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages to the Western Himalayas have been very popular during this period. Places like Rewalsar in today’s Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh was a popular pilgrimage site.12 The place is located just 100 km southwest of Kullu, thus it is not unlikely that the lama was on the way to this place when he heard about the Indian Mutiny and decided not to proceed. We know nothing about the lama’s life after Hay left India. We do not know if he returned to Lhasa, stayed in the Western Himalayas, or continued the journey to his initial destination.
The Perception of the Wise Collection in Mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain
We do not know if Montgomerie was aware of the set of detailed maps showing the ‘great road’ between Lhasa and Gartok made by a Tibetan ‘insider’ before the pundits even started their exploration tours. In drawing the maps, the Tibetan lama produced a visual account of his travel route. The scale used in the maps is not uniform, nor is their orientation. Some are oriented to the south, some to the north, and still others to the east. Buildings on the maps usually face the viewer, ignoring the actual geographic location. Instead of showing the whole building, only significant architectural characteristics are highlighted. As a result, many people who look at the maps comment that they are ‘wrong’, especially concerning their geographical and architectural accuracy. The historian Timothy Brook stated about his research on the Selden map of China
to read a historical map means having to learn its codes—and ignore some of our own (. . .). The worst thing we can do is to condescend. To a greater or lesser degree, maps are always adequate to what they were meant to do. A cartographer draws something in a particular way because that is what he intends. (. . .) If a historical map looks “wrong” to us, it is simply because we haven’t figured out its code.
(Brook 2015, 155)
Figuring out the code of the maps has been the most fascinating and serious challenge of my research on the Wise Collection. While they might
A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 51 not always seem accurate from a Western scientific point of view, they can give much information about their maker. Shrunk to the dimension of the maps and ignoring scale and cardinal orientation, one could virtually walk through the landscape along the travel route shown on the maps. As the most important points of orientation are depicted, these maps would pass a practical test. The mapmaker travelled along this route, familiarizing himself with topographical and infrastructural characteristics, such as mountains, rivers, lakes, flora, settlements, bridges, and mountain passes, which in turn he depicted on the maps. Each map and drawing in the Wise Collection consists of numerous, small detailed illustrations such as mountains, rivers, bridges, animals, buildings, trees, and people. Each of those detailed illustrations contains even more minute details. For example, monastic buildings are often shown with specific characteristics such as different kinds of roof constructions, flag poles, or entrance doors. In a similar way, illustrations of people often show not just specific clothes, like hats, shoes, and outer garments, but also ornaments and jewellery. In his foreword to Space and Place: Mapmaking East and West, Cordell Yee states about Chinese maps:
How different are the Chinese maps, which are like pictures, bird’s-eye-view landscapes, depicting a different, generally non-mathematical and sensuously immediate set of interests! In these maps we see not abstract places but concrete places.
This is also true about the largest panoramic map of mid-nineteenth-century Tibet produced by the Tibetan lama that represents the heart of the Wise Collection. The collection formed what was the most comprehensive European collection of knowledge on Tibet of its time. The collection travelled from the Western Himalayas and ended up in England—among people who viewed it very differently from the lama who created it.
Hay retired as Assistant Commissioner of Kullu in 1858. Shortly after his return to England he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in November 1859 after he was introduced to the society’s president,13 Sir Roderick Murchison, and hailed as ‘a man who could increase our knowledge of that country [Tibet] more extensively than anybody else’.14 It is clear that Hay was regarded as an expert on Tibet. I very much assume that Hay introduced his collection of maps to the Society. We still do not know why the Wise Collection maps ended up in the British Library rather than the Royal Geographical Society’s map collection. We also do not know what Hay did with the collection during the 1860s. Surprisingly—according to the current state of research—he did not publish anything about the material, nor did he give a public talk. We do not know if he intended to publish anything about the material, but in the early 1870s he seems to have made extracts of the material accessible to scholars like Charles Horne whose paper ‘On the Methods of Disposing the Dead at Llassa, Thibet, etc.’ was based on two drawings that obviously originate from the same collection. I very much assume that Horne got the drawings directly from Hay since he refers to Hay in this and in other publications. We do not know the circumstances in which William Edmund Hay and Charles Horne met. Like Hay, he spent many years in the Western Himalayas. In 1848 he became Assistant to Magistrate and Collector of Saharanpur in north-western India and in 1849 he was appointed as Junior Assistant to Commissioner of Kumoan where he stayed until 1853.15 Hay and Horne travelled extensively in the same region in the same period. It is likely that both met in the Western Himalayas before they met again in England after their return from India. Like Hay, Horne was later elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.16 Charles Horne died unexpectedly after a few days of illness in 1872,17 and his paper was not published until 1873. It is not clear what happened to the original drawings, but it seems they were never returned to the collection or to Hay. We do not know the circumstances in which Thomas Alexander Wise acquired the maps and drawings that were later catalogued as ‘Wise Albums’ and became known as the ‘Wise Collection’ in the British Library. In his will Hay mentioned only two collections of shells and coins, so he must already have disposed of the maps and drawings made by the Tibetan lama. Most likely he sold them to Wise.18
When Hay returned to Europe in 1858, the so-called ‘Oriental Studies’ were a well-established academic discipline in most European countries, especially those with imperial interests in the respective regions. There existed a basic level of understanding of the geography and history of many regions. Nevertheless, knowledge of the areas least accessible to Western travellers—like Tibet—remained limited. A serious establishment of Tibetology or Tibetan Studies as an academic discipline only happened years later in early twentieth century. Peter Burke stated in the introduction of A Social History of Knowledge: ‘Today we are living, according to some sociologists at least, in a “knowledge society”, dominated by professional experts and their scientific methods’ (Burke 2000, 1). Over the years Tibetology developed to a discipline with many facets and opened itself towards other disciplines such as history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, material culture studies, and art history. There are many experts in the respective fields of research. From our today’s point of view—being able to benefit from the comprehensive existing knowledge on Tibet and all the references on specific topics—it is easier to understand the maps and drawings that the lama produced for Hay than it was for Hay himself. From our today’s point of view—being able to benefit from geographical knowledge in the age of Google Earth—it is easy to recognize that specific waterways or mountain range run parallel to each other. The lama who made the maps in the Wise Collection did not have access to this information. But that does not mean that his representation of Tibet
A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 53 and the Himalayas is less ‘accurate’; he produced the largest panoramic map of Tibet of its time, based on the knowledge available at that time and based on his personal life experience. This is also true for Hay who compiled the captions on the maps and drawings and the explanatory notes to the best of his knowledge. He conducted what we would call nowadays ‘fundamental research’ and in this context he belongs to the pioneers of Tibetan Studies. William Edmund Hay—the man who was responsible for the creation of the maps and drawings that became the Wise Collection—was primarily an army officer, but one whose curious mind was, from a young age, always open to all aspects of the natural world and human artistic and scientific endeavours. When Hay met the lama, and realized his knowledge and skills, he may have had the idea of providing the maps to the British government, but it is unlikely that this was the main reason. That would have been his own curiosity and his desire to know more about a part of the world that he had not been able to explore himself.