Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Earl of Ronaldshay's "Lands of the Thunderbolt": Book Review

The thunderbolt is the "dorje," the bell-like scepter wielded by lamas in the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, the lands those of Sikkim, Chumbi, and Bhutan, the time, 1920. The Marquess of Zetland's account, while not free of the imperial qualities of its era, given the "practicing Presbyterian" author, nonetheless remains lively. His enthusiasm for leaving the humid plains of Bengal behind, and to begin his ascent at Darjeeling into what at that time was a series of Buddhist-ruled principalities separate from the rest of patchwork British India's jurisdictions, reveals one of the first visitors to the Eastern Himalayas who articulates a modern Western understanding of the mindsets he analyzes.

Lawrence John Lumley Dundas, the Earl (and later 2nd Marquess of Zetland), was the British governor of Bengal, and President of the Royal Geographic Society. His 1923 publication, part of a series on the subcontinent's culture, demonstrates a delicacy of style when delineating nature's colors and patterns over the hillside seasons, which he welcomes after one senses a long stint on the flat, sticky lowlands. He also evinces a sympathy for the atheistic, rationalistic teachings of the Buddha, opposed to the mystical and superstitious "catholicity" of Lamaism. He knows that only but a "stalwart rationalist who had succeeded on atrophying his emotional nature" will be comforted by the cold appeals of "pure" Buddhism's insistence on "an unchallenged self-reliance." (250-1) However, put off as he is by Lamaism's mad insistence on a "perversion of intelligence" (78) that reduces the Buddha's appeal to work out one's salvation one's self to a repetitive mantra, a riot of ritual, and an endless hierarchy of local gods, bureaucratic lamas, and folk practices, he admits the appeal of entering the lands of the thunderbolt, to learn how Lamaism took over Buddhism.

He's very much in the "faux-Protestant" reaction favored by British scholars a century ago who elevated Theravada teachings over a Mahayana panoply of deities, devotions, and disciples. He argues insightfully, within this orientation, for caution regarding the credence given by the unlettered to miracles, attributed once to the Buddha and in his own tenure to Gandhi. Given his own bias for a rigorous regard for Buddhism, he concludes his book with a consideration of its ethical emphasis. (I note that he never discusses Younghusband's massacre by machine guns in the 1904 British invasion of Tibet at Guru, but the Lord does nod to the need for peace in a post-Great War world.)  His narrative can be consulted today as his take on how traditional practices survived into the twentieth century, in ways obliterated in Tibet, and altered in the regions where Hindu influence has spread--and, of course, many more trekkers have flocked in the jet-fueled, hyperlinked decades since the end of the Raj.

The author rarely notices the natives. When he does, it's as the Governor. "Our baggage packed and shouldered by the sturdy Bhutia women who obligingly undertake the duties of pack animals, nothing remained but to grasp our staves and set foot on the tortuous mountain path which we had decided to follow." (15)  From our perspective, it's easy to scoff at this, but he avoids the romanticization common to later observers who elevate these same inhabitants to a mystical height.

Rather, the Earl of Ronaldshay prefers to balance, if in uneven fashion despite his literary skill and intellectual depth, a Sikhim-to-Chumbi (where Tibet juts between Sikkim and Bhutan) trek and then along the Nepal frontier exploration in the autumn of 1920, and a briefer foray through Bhutan from Tibetan Phari to Paro to Ha'a the next fall. At Taktsang, he mentions his party were preceded by only two Europeans to that iconic, and now must-see destination. The trip through a harsh and often unpeopled terrain, on both journeys, may account for the relative lack of encounters, as well as the need for interpreters. An enigmatic Elder ("a man of weight") and also The Cavalry Officer accompany him, but they are shadowy, if alluded to with wit.

So, it can be a detached report of the actual expeditions, but the passionate interest the Lord demonstrates in the natural beauties and bleak summits emerges: "Through a frame of fir trees rose the snow-white cone at Panding, pure and inaccessible like the heart of--a child." (170) In the "suffocating forests" of Sikkim, he compares to Walter Scott's medievalist tales the "tree sprites," "woodland elves," and "gnomes" of the Lepcha attendants in their finery, one as if a "knave of hearts." A man reminds him of "Friar Tuck" and his sturdy daughter a "stalwart wench." Similar to Michel Peissel's "Lords and Lamas" and "Mustang" (both reviewed by me Dec. 2012) in the 1960s, Ronaldshay views these Eastern Himalayan redoubts as feudal enclaves of a society which has vanished from Western Europe. He watches "mummers" at Gangtok in a Black Hat dance, and then it's into the "vault of blue," up into the Himalayas and even over into the disputed border of Tibet.

He notes, being a British official, the wrangles over the last century between the Crown and China, India, Bhutan, and local rulers over this strategic frontier, as around Chumbi. He passes into Bhutan "where the religious hierarchy vies the temporal government in pomp and circumstance," which charmed its first British visitors (see my review Nov. 2012 of Kate Teltscher's "The High Road to China") but repelled finicky Victorians. The Earl recounts in a spirited chapter on Bhutan's history its intricate contentions, and how those promoting the Raj met with liver-plucking, tendon-severing, morally "depraved" royals and serfs bent on practical jokes and diplomatic finagling.

The photos are handsome, the narrative style erudite and nimble, the scope limited but no more than many contemporary accounts narrowed by necessity, expense, and geography. It may be consulted by those wishing to contrast later visitors' reports with one of the first from the past century, at a time when few Europeans had entered these regions. While it documents the mindset of a sympathetic but skeptical British official, its mentality--no less than those books published today on the region--cannot help but preserve how these fabled lands have persisted in the popular imagination as eerie, difficult, and/or captivating. (In slightly altered form to Amazon US 12-15-12)

(P.S. This book cover is an Indian reprint, misspelling the once Lord, Earl, then Marquess' name, but it has a better picture [note the font size for the last of the three lands, tellingly] than the blue jacket with a heraldic design that I read as a 1987 reprint from Snow Lion Graphics, Berkeley CA. Unfortunately, while the author's b/w photos remain, the original's necessary fold-out map is absent. See: Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland [Wikipedia].

P.P.S. The Earl was unable to deliver the awarding of Knight Commander of the British Empire to Bhutan's first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, in 1921 as he was charged to do. As part of the Earl's string of surnames is "Lumley," given the Raj associations, I wonder. For, in 1931, Lt. Col. J.L.R. Weir and his wife returned to give the honor to the successor to the throne, the king's son Jigme. In 1997, their granddaughter, Srinigar-born Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous" fame, followed their three-month-plus trek, in her BBC documentary and book "In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.")

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