Follow us:
  • 31 Mar, 2023
  • Admin

Book Excerpt: Tibet exerted a huge religious and cultural influence on the Himalayan regions


This excerpt (Pages: 27-30) from Nirupama Rao’s The Fractured Himalaya: India China Tibet 1949-1962has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Note: This excerpt is without the original footnotes. The footnotes to this text can be found in the book.

The Chinese troops entered Tibet through four routes situated in provinces adjacent to Tibet— through Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Xinjiang. Prior to 1950, Tibet had an eventful individual history, notwithstanding the Chinese claim of possession and (tenuous) historical domination of the area. In a conversation with this author in 2014, the Dalai Lama spoke of a period from the seventh to ninth centuries when Tibetan people settled across vast areas from Ngari in western Tibet to Amdo or Qinghai. That was a time when Buddhism from India, together with the importation of the Devanagari (Sanskrit) alphabet, began to influence Tibetan culture and language. This spiritual ‘imperialism’ of India, as the Dalai Lama said jocularly in the same interview, was very different from Chinese overlordship.

The influence of India, as the Dalai Lama said, was immensely significant in the forging of Tibetan religious and cultural identity. Buddhism and the philosophical traditions of Nalanda (in today’s Bihar state, where one of the world’s most ancient universities had thrived) had reached Tibetans wherever they lived. Monks of the Nalanda tradition, had contributed significantly to the education of Tibetans in ‘the Nalanda way’, a tradition that had been kept intact for over a thousand years. The Tibetan influence, born of these traditions, had stretched into areas far beyond what was traditionally regarded as the area of Tibet—so the concept of a ‘Greater Tibet’, which the Chinese often accused the Tibetan refugee community leaders of fostering, really meant the extensive area of such Tibetan influence stretching into adjoining Chinese provinces. At the ‘deeper level’, Tibetans could never feel Chinese, because of this distinct civilizational identity, he added. ‘The Chinese Government has to deal with this,’ he said. In the years before the events of 1950–51 and the entry of Chinese troops into Tibet, during the period stretching from 1911 onwards, Tibet had practised what the Dalai Lama called ‘de facto independence’, free of Chinese interference.

When the Chinese PLA entered Tibet in 1950, there was a distinct sense of unease in India. The ‘Chronology of Events in Tibet’ prepared by the Political Officer in Gangtok, Sikkim— when the proclaimed intention of the Chinese Communist Government to ‘liberate’ Tibet during 1950 became known— documents that strong protests were made by the Government of India to Beijing. On 13 August 1950 the Government of India represented to the Government of China that they felt ‘concerned at the possibility of unsettled conditions across the border and would therefore strongly urge that Sino-Tibetan relations should be adjusted through peaceful negotiations.’ But these political concerns seemed to emanate more from the Indian establishment’s concern about the impact that the Chinese entry into Tibet would have on the peace and security of India’s frontiers with Tibet. The Indian officials led by Prime Minister Nehru were less concerned about Tibet’s own status as distinct from China, than about the need to adjust relations in order to accommodate the resolution of ‘unsettled conditions’ in the border areas which would directly affect India. The aspect that related to Tibet as imagined by Indian Hindus and Buddhists and which predominated in public opinion, was obscured. This was much more than the image of isolation and seclusion that Tibet signified for the rest of the world. For India, Tibet was the abode of the sacred, the spiritual, and everything sanctified by religion. The affairs of Tibet had traditionally exerted a deep impact on the spiritually inclined Indian. Tibet was the holy land for millions of devout Indian Hindus and Buddhists, the seat of pilgrimage to such places as Mount Kailash (Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan), considered the abode of the Hindu god Shiva, and Lake Manasarovar (Mapam Yumtso in Tibetan) in the Ngari Prefecture of western Tibet. Tibet, the land of high snow mountains, the source of great, sacred rivers like the Indus and the Brahmaputra, a lofty country of ‘high peaks and pure earth’— this was the image enshrined in the Indian psyche.

Tibet exerted a huge religious and cultural influence on the Himalayan regions. The Tibetans had never regarded mountain ranges, passes, watersheds and river valleys as boundaries, and neither did the pilgrims from the Himalayan regions and various parts of India, who frequented sacred places of worship. To illustrate this point, there is a magnificent example of a traditional Tibetan map in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum in London which originally belonged to Hugh Richardson who received it in 1944 from Tsarong Shape, then a leading political figure in Tibet. It is called the ‘Pilgrimage map for Tsa-ri rong skor’. Working from the westward end, the map ‘follows the course of a major trans-Himalayan river valley system comprising the Lo-ro chu, Bya-yul chu and upper reaches of the Subansiri River’. Painted on a long cotton scroll (thang-ka), it has outlines painted as fine black lines, and landscape features filled in with natural colour washes. Paths and travel routes stand out conspicuously, and monasteries, stupas, shrines, and domestic buildings are also shown. The western sections of the map depict the barren and rolling landscape of the Tibetan plateau, while the eastward sections show thatched huts of the sort used by tribals from Arunachal Pradesh in the upper Subansiri reaches. The scene here shows dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, and a variety of vegetation including bamboo, flowering herbs and different species of trees, reflecting a high-rainfall area. Notes on local monastic estates are also found, and data is provided for a number of places of geographical and cultural interest. The map shows a wealth of data covering both the northern and southern banks of the river valleys depicted, and is a rendition of a religious and cultural cosmology that had crossed the high Himalaya and descended to lower heights as far as climate and terrain suited—the ‘upland tree-lowland tree’ (trees found in the higher Himalayan altitudes and those that grow in the lower, warmer altitudes) line of pine tree and bamboo, as in the Sikkim and Bhutan Himalaya, for instance. The words of a veteran civil servant and administrator who served long years in these frontier areas sum it up: ‘The cultural boundaries transcend the political boundaries, and always overflow, linguistically, culturally, no matter how much you divide them by McMahon and Durand Lines. On both sides, the people were almost the same and there was free flow of trade and ideas.’


Nirupama Rao is a former Indian Foreign Service officer. She retired as Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, the senior most position in the Foreign Service, being the second woman to occupy the post (2009-2011). She was the first woman spokesperson (2001-02) of the Indian foreign office. She served as India's first woman High Commissioner (Ambassador) to Sri Lanka (2004-2006) and to the People's Republic of China (2006-2009). She was Ambassador of India to the United States from 2011 to 2013.