Monday, May 27, 2013

Michel Peissel's "Tibetan Pilgrimage": Book Review

Nearly half a century of Himalayan and Tibetan exploration and nearly thirty expeditions on, this handsome edition offers nearly a hundred watercolors from a renowned adventurer-anthropologist. The late Michel Peissel illustrates "what the lens of a camera cannot see," and he tries to express the inner construction hidden on the outside of the fortresses, homes, monasteries, cave dwellings,  chortens, and castles he surveys. From the western realms of Zanskar, Mustang, and Guge to the Tibetan heartlands around Lhasa and Tsang, to the sites on the eastern Chinese frontiers, this covers immense terrain.

Skillfully suggesting solidity in his lines, yet open to a range of colors symbolizing monastic affiliations and cultural alliances, the exteriors Peissel documents unfold as the clear and cogent narrative keeps pace. It begins with the Songsten Gampo early-medieval dynasty which forged a national Tibet, and shows how the revival of Buddhism enabled monasteries to emerge as akin to universities. Second sons, freed from the land by relative wealth of farmers under a form of feudalism secured by armed power and remote terrain, became monks. This also kept land freed up, as fewer populated it and as brothers commonly shared a wife.

Peissel terms this a golden age, for four centuries, Greater Tibet could afford to feed its people and defend them, while not letting the balance of humans to resources tip against sustainability. While the Fourteenth Dalai Lama represents a peaceful mien, his predecessor the Fifth ruled ruthlessly, bringing to an end the amity. Peissel reminds us that the Dalai Lama, ruthlessly, dominated a third of Greater Tibet, in earlier times by a far more hostile attitude which alienated and persecuted those who opposed rule from Lhasa. We understand why so many monasteries resemble fortresses.The Fifth lama sided with the Mongol and Manchu patrons; he pushed out right, left, and center competing Tibetan families and powers, spreading opposition to Lhasa and the Potala, which housed a palace and prison.

It's noteworthy how Peissel counters the popular image such as Robert Thurman and New Age proponents simplify of a benevolent realm enduring free of strife. Armies, assassinations, and fear dominate the Tibetan past as much as the recent era, and the cease-fire lines across Kashmir, the borders shutting off ancient trade with Bhutan, and the Chinese crackdowns show all too well. These perpetuate the logistical and diplomatic, as well as expedition and geographical difficulties Peissel tells of in his journeys to Mustang in Cold War Nepal in 1964, a Bhutan facing India's intervention in 1970's Lords and Lamas, and the Minaro (The Ants' Gold") along the Kashmir forbidden zones in the early 1980s.

This elegant, readable narrative is short, but long enough to join Peissel's many journeys across his beloved landscapes. Focusing on the man-made environment it does not attend to the human, animal, or ecological encounters of his travel books but it provides an accessible introduction to his career. A short list of his expeditions and books appends this large-format, appealing collection of art and words which take you into the perspective of an artful tale-teller showing us his favorite sights. (Amazon 2-1-13)

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