Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Michel Peissel's "Tibet: The Secret Continent": Book Review

This Himalayan explorer's renowned for his four decades in Greater Tibet. In 2002, this serves as a fitting survey of his twenty-six expeditions, and a teaser for his earlier narratives such as from Mustang in Cold War Nepal in 1964, a Bhutan facing India's intervention in 1970's Lords and Lamas, and his stays with the Minaro (The Ants' Gold") along Kashmir's forbidden zones in the early 1980s.

Tibetan Pilgrimage conveys with his watercolors and his architectural emphasis some of the same terrain. What this large-format collection of his photographs and reports adds is an overview of how the vast open territories, as he has it, demonstrate the youthful vitality and energy that has characterized this realm since it was united under the sixth-century Songsten Gampo around 650. After introducing the land, flora and fauna (pandas gain credit for their Tibetan origins), the people and society (ditto, polo), and the rise of the nation, the early medieval period ushers in the empire that burst forth.

Peissel reminds us, if in gentler fashion than some passages in "Pilgrimage," of how later Tibetan progress towards a land wealthy enough to allow first sons to inherit land, but restricted in size and resources so as to steer second and younger sons to study at monasteries. Not cloistered, monks (maybe a third of the male population) were supported by their farming family's plots and in return often returned to help their siblings learn and harvest. This broadens perceptions of Western readers, who may too quickly transfer feudal models of the Church and fealty from Europe to Central Asia.

He later critiques the Dalai Lama, starting with the Fifth, who started an unstable domination by Lhasa over the rest of Tibet, beyond the third of the terrain it ruled directly. A particularly lively chapter shows how the Europeans began to enter the guarded kingdoms, or how they tried to. Peissel emphasizes: "Tibet remained one of the few lands in Asia where the Westerners were neither gods nor masters." (172) The outer areas began to be taken over by British and independence-era India, Bhutan, Nepal, China, and Pakistan.

Later sections unfold the collapse of the Tibetan kingdom. However, Peissel takes pains to present the Chinese side, and he rightly shifts no small blame to the imbalance of power that gave Lhasa and the Panchen and Dalai Lamas too much control, and too many pro-Chinese advisors who feared Britain as the alternative ally. Soon, Nehru's India was courted by the Communist Chinese to counter any politicking the Dalai Lama in exile might make.

As one who witnessed the fate of the Khampa freedom fighters courted before abandoned by the CIA in Mustang during the Cold War, Peissel relates vividly the predicament of those caught on the ground and on borders who could not go along with the elite who appear to continue their "court intrigues" in Dharamsala. "Such people tended to have a greater concern for power and fortune than for prayer, and in the past they had taken their services to the highest bidders, be they Mongol, Manchu or Chinese." The present Dalai Lama by way of his allegiance to the same "monastic theocracy" does not escape diplomatic criticism for the "lack of foresight and for not having established sufficient links with the international community." (203)

This tone infuses the near-present illustrations of Tibet poignantly and honestly. Peissel writes of his love for the people and their homeland, but he does not offer a soft-focus perspective in words or imagery. A couple small slips in proofreading (as in "Greek Marco Pallis" when that mountaineer turned mystic scholar was of Greek parentage but Liverpool-born; see my review of "Peaks and Lamas") do not detract from this volume's value. While parts may appear to gloss over his own encounters, they are often quick snippets gleaned from his past books reporting on regions. This book appeared before his death in 2011, more as a capstone for his career. He stays frank, and he lives up here to his life's ambition, to visit and share Tibet with us.

While the language and largely Buddhist culture endures under pressures exerted all around its heartland by foreign powers, Peissel ends with guarded optimism for the survival of Tibetan mentalities and customs as its peoples realize the fate of the heartland and the frontiers is connected, by their vulnerability and their necessary flexibility--as its art and architecture symbolizes. (Amazon US 2-4-13)

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