Friday, December 21, 2012

Michel Peissel's "Lords and Lamas": Book Review

Subtitled "A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan," this 1970 account of this renowned explorer's September 1968 trek over four hundred miles of footpaths reveals the realm at a crucial moment of transition from a feudal, medieval society to one finishing the first span of an east-west highway that will change the nation irrevocably. India's fear, in the Cold War, of Chinese threats south of Tibet caused them to fund a paved road to connect the shorter ones coming up steep valleys from India. Peissel, after six failed attempts to get royal and bureaucratic approval, finally is allowed in the country at this moment. Bhutan admits him as its first traveler to carry in foreign currency, and he resolves once inside to follow Captain Robert Boileau Pemberton's 1838 route across the six ranges and passes dividing the center of the difficult to traverse land.

As with this French-born, English-raised scholar-adventurer's 1967 report from a similar land, the nearby principality of Mustang, where he went with another breakthrough journey when he could not get into Bhutan back in 1964, Peissel emphasizes the comparisons with a peasant European past dominated by lords and clergy. Like Mustang, he finds Bhutan more in the company of its lords rather than its lamas. His knowledge of Tibetan enables him to more or less communicate well, and his guide Tensing forges ahead to lead the challenging way. He takes 650 lbs of luggage and over a hundred cartons of cigarettes, and he gives out fountain pens to win over lamas and lords on the way.

Peissel's testiness erupts. He rants against the West he loves and hates as much as parts of the East in equal doses. These qualities endear him to me, but others may find him boastful or irritable. He in Mustang and Bhutan opens up best as he connects the vanished customs of Europe with those still surviving fifty-odd years ago in the last feudal enclaves on the planet. He explains how not hereditary but acquired merit achieves status for many lords of the Law, those who rule the mountain fortresses alongside monastic figures, in the traditional Bhutanese model that places the administrative center and religious functions together, in great walled towers, in each district. It's a feudal democracy, he tries to show, in that peasants keep freedom while they must contribute labor and taxes to the state, and this equates even favorably, he surmises, with the harmony there recalling the medieval mentality and economy of Europe.

Wealth lacking, in what was then a barter economy, Peissel determines that "prestige and privilege are the true difference" between men. Rank is crucial, but a peasant can rise to be Lord of the Law if not the king. Each generation, therefore, could advance by an individual's own ambition. He also shows the more disturbing side of the old regime. "Zaps" as hostages or descendents of prisoners of war were made by the whip to dance at Tongsu, and twice he sees prisoners in chains at dzongs. Peissel muses on the efficacy of punishment carried out in public vs. locking up inmates as we do. 

He notes how those he meets may be as excited to buy modern machinery and consumer goods as he is to leave them behind for a tent beyond that ever-expanding road, where at its end a human pace and not a jet or jeep still determines how the rugged landscape unfolds before him. At Wangdu Photrang, the frontier opens: "Beyond it stretched the immensity of our planet reduced to the dimensions of man, to the pace of his feet and the size of his body." (65) Living in Tibet or Bhutan in "permanent uncertainty," furthermore, he reasons, beats the relentless scheduling of the West. The hinges, tools, and fashion, too, shows how technology may evolve parallel in many items and gadgets to adapt to a terrain similar to Switzerland, even though no contact was made between the two regions.

The adventure over thirty-one days, as with that in Mustang, unfolds unevenly. While this book is much shorter than that on Mustang, it shares a slow build-up in a Hindu land first, tangles with meddling officials that delay his departure, and an itinerary that due to his problems accumulating with altitude and fatigue weeks on end shorten in the descriptions and pace the entry into the most faraway hamlets of another daunting place off the map. The harrowing Ruto-La pass at 12,600 feet signals a decline in many ways as the endless trudge wears him down mentally and physically, and one closes this wondering how much Peissel left out from weariness or despair on the last stages across the eastern ridges and gorges that he saw as the first European since Pemberton in 1838. (Amazon US 12-5-12)

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