Friday, January 25, 2013

Michael Aris' "Views of Medieval Bhutan": Book Review

The adjective's elastic here, as this Himalayan scholar (who died of cancer in 1999 in Britain while his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under control of the junta in Burma for many years) admits. Still, most Westerners further comparisons to "feudal" dzongs and "medieval" customs such as archery or monarchic and monastic devotion when they encounter Bhutan firsthand, or via photos or books. This handsome 1982 edition features an introduction by Tibetan expert Aris, who tutored the Bhutanese royal family for six years when the nation was opening up to modernization, and in less dense form than his other academic publications, he sets out the careful contexts that Samuel Davis, (1760-1819), captured in his journal and by his skilled drawings. A surveyor and draftsman for the Bengal Army, he accompanied Warren Hastings on the second British embassy, in 1783, to the kingdom.

These elegant depictions attest to the only foreign artist "of distinction" to show Bhutan, and the first outsider to paint scenes from these mountains. Aris notes that his fellow Englishman's "legacy played no part in the development of those imaginary utopias which the west continues to locate in the trans-Himalayan region." (11) Aris annotates and excerpts Davis' journal, and nods to its secular, and largely un-Romantic tone, also a part of the naturalistic art he brings to the plates reproduced here. "If sublime and romantic qualities are sometimes found expressed in his art this is surely because Davis, like most of us, was constitutionally incapable of reacting otherwise to certain combinations of mountains, light, fortresses and forests." 

It's intriguing to see how, at Punakha Dzong, Davis includes in his study of "one of the most ancient and considerable of the Rajah's castles" an analysis of its weak point. However formidably walled, its single entrance, he reasons, weakens it: "The best way of forcing admission might be by breaking open the gate with a petard." (50) He sees the subjection of the lower classes (and all women) to the rulers secular and religious, and wishes to free the peasants from the restrictions which a "monk tax" and fealty to a celibate, corrupt regime force in a manner he compares to Rome. He evinces a sympathy for the poor, and he scrutinizes the rituals of their bickering rulers closely. Certainly the considerable exoticism of this remote and then-nearly unknown realm in Davis' steady hand and pen balances with a cool appraisal of its strategic and military value to the Raj and his employer, the Crown. 

His companion and supervisor, Samuel Turner, suggested that after four months waiting in Bhutan, the Tibetan refusal of Davis to continue to that nation with the expedition that Tibetan suspicion of the pen and ink skills of Davis led to his exclusion from the mission. For more on this and the earlier venture into this region, see (reviewed by me Nov. 2012) The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet by Kate Teltscher. Davis returned to India, to collaborate with Sir William Jones, who made the breakthrough connection between Sanskrit and Indo-European languages, and Davis became a Director of the East India Company and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He kept up his draftsmanship, and the fifty-nine examples Aris presents commemorate the considerable talent this West Indies-born Briton brought, at 23, to Bhutan. (1-6-13 to Amazon US)

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