Seto Gumba (Druk Amitabh Mountain)- The White Gomba of Nepal

Seto Gumba
Last week we drove up to the Seto Gumba (Druk Amitabh Mountain)- The White Gumba in Kathmandu, locally referred to as Nepal’s Potala Palace. The trip up the mountain was a little fraught. The monastery only opens to the public on Saturdays, and is a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike. The road up the mountain is narrow in places, and the traffic gets a little clogged.
However, it is well worth the effort. Entry is through the wide gate beautifully decorated with dragons and Buddhas, and from which there are spectacular views back across the valley. Entry to the site was free, which was surprising considering the huge expense it must take to maintain the monastery and sculptures. The White Gomba was constructed fairly recently, and on a grand scale. We walked around the beautifully landscaped grounds marvelling at the numerous huge gold statues of Deities including Padmasambhava, Tara, and several statues of the Buddha. The monastery itself is large and consists of a number of white buildings in Tibetan style. Approximately 300 nuns reside and practice in Seto Gumba. Everyday, they wake up at various Buddhist 3am and finish their day at about 11pm. The youngest nun is about 9 years’ old and the oldest, about 60 years’ old. They come from remote places in Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul, Bhutan and Sikkim.
The main temple room is a wonder (no photos allowed here) with finely decorated ceilings and walls of copper statues, and another huge Padmasambhava statue. From the large open spaces around the white buildings you can look out over the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The White Gumba is a “must see” for visitors to Kathmandu.

White Gomba

White Gomba

Seto Gumba


Did Hendrix, Marley or Lennon visit Nepal?

Henrix in Nepal

Well actually it almost certainly isn’t true, although it is a shame to let the facts spoil a good story.

Most young Nepalese have grown up with the ‘legend’ that the great rock legends visited Nepal, following the hippie trail of the1960s. The slogan above was used on a poster by the Nepalese Tourist Board – without the question mark. Unfortunately there is no credible evidence that either John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley visited the country.

In the remote mountainous region of Jomsom in Nepal there is a stone plaque on which are scribbled the words “If I don’t see you in this world I’ll see you in the next one don’t be late – Jimi Hendrix – Jomsom Oct 67 “. However, even a cursory look at the Hendrix biography shows that he was very busy with his burgeoning career that year, flying between concerts in America and Sweden and spending the remaining time in the recording studio. Neither did he appear to conform to the ‘hippie-seeker’ stereotype. There is no evidence that he ever showed any interest in visiting the Indian sub-continent, or Nepal itself.

The same could be said for Bob Marley who co-incidentally is said to have visited the same area in 1970. As he was busy trying to earn a living in Jamaica that year, he would not have had the time, resources or inclination to travel to remote mountain regions in Nepal. Yet in Muktinath there are numerous commercial establishments claiming he ate or slept there. This of course hints at why the ‘legend’ has been perpetuated. It seems for Nepalese businessmen in Jomsom, a rock legend is the next best thing to a Yeti. When he was able to travel for pleasure, in 1978, Bob Marley went to Africa to explore his Rastafarian roots, rather than follow the hippie trail.

John Lennon, a man with more conventional hippie sensibilities, certainly travelled to India, with the other Beatles, for spiritual enlightenment. Their travels are well documented, and it is known that they didn’t quite make it to Nepal. John does mention Kathmandu however , in his lyrics for “Nobody Told Me”.

The Buddha From Space

Buddha from Space

Earlier this year we were presented with a swastika-emblazoned statue, apparently 1,000 years old, that had been carved out of a meteorite and looted from Tibet by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer in the late 1930s. The story and chemical analysis appeared in an article from the Meteoritical Society’s publication “Meteorics and Planetary Science”.

Of course fallen meteorites have been interpreted as divine messages by many ancient cultures since prehistoric times, and they were often used to carve works of art. In Tibet, meteoritic iron (regionally referred to as namchag meaning “sky iron” in Tibetan language) used to be carved, but that tradition died out a long time ago, and only ancient artifacts are known. However, figurative sculptures of gods carved from meteorites are unknown. This sculpture made of a meteorite (approximately 10.6 kg in weight and approximately 24 × 13 × 10 cm in size, was thought to be unique in both religious art and meteorite science. Known as the “Iron Man,” the seated figure is wears a large “swastika” on his midsection. It was thought the statue might portray the Buddhist “diety” Vaiśravana and originated in the Bon culture of the eleventh century. The swastika, in this case backward facing, holds a number of religious meanings in Hindu and Buddhist culture (see our earlier blog).

The narrative was, however, just a little too good to be true. There were a few slight catches. According to two experts who have since given their verdict on the mysterious Iron Man, it may have been a European fake. It was probably made in the 20th century, and it may well not have been looted by the Nazis. The bit about the meteorite, though, still stands.

According to Buddhism specialist Achim Bayer, the statue bears 13 features which are easily identifiable by experts as “pseudo-Tibetan” .

These include the 24cm-high statue’s shoes, trousers and hand positioning, as well as the fact that the Buddha has a full beard rather than the “rather thin” facial hair usually given to a deity in Tibetan and Mongolian art. In his report, Bayer says he believes the statue to be a European counterfeit made sometime between 1910 and 1970.

It had been claimed that, having been brought back by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer from Tibet in 1938, the “Iron Man” remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007. But the German historian Isrun Engelhardt, who has studied Schäfer’s trip to Tibet in depth, has cast doubt on this suggestion, questioning the statue’s absence on the date, place and list of items brought back.

Buchner, the author of the original article, stresses that his team was only looking into what the statue was made of – a rare form of iron with a high content of nickel – not where it had come from. While they felt able to say the material most likely came from the Chinga meteorite, which crashed to earth 15,000 years ago, the researchers admitted that “the ethnological and art historical details … as well as the time of sculpturing, currently remain speculative”.

Nepalese Royal Family Massacre – The Conspiracy Theory

Nepalese Royal Family

Some people just love a conspiracy theory. How many books, not to mention blogs have been spawned by those who seek to perpetuate the so-called “mysterious circumstances” surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landings, or even the real author of Shakespeare’s plays?  Now Nepal is nurturing one of its own, based around the tragic massacre of the Nepalese Royal family in 2001.

The story has all the elements for a classic political conspiracy theory – The tragic death of a beloved national figure and his family set against a backdrop of national unrest and external political influence.

The facts were pretty shocking. The King and Queen of Nepal were shot dead after the heir to the throne went on the rampage with a gun before turning it on himself. Eleven people died in the incident which started when Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly had a dispute with his mother over his choice of bride.

The other victims included three of the King’s children, his two sisters and one more member of the family by marriage.

Crown Prince Dipendra, who was educated at Eton College, is reported to have been in conflict with his family over his choice of bride for some time. Queen Aishwarya is said to have been the real power behind the throne and allegedly threatened to remove her oldest son from the line of succession, although this would not have been allowed under the constitution.

All the protagonists and the main witnesses were killed in the incident, although Crown Prince Dipendra himself died some 30 hours after the shootings. Many Nepalese doubt it was he who fired the shots.

Riots followed the killings as conspiracy theories about coups flourished. Two leading Maoists tried to blame India for conspiring with the Nepali government to undermine the country’s sovereignty. There followed an upsurge in violence by Maoist rebels which led to a state of emergency in November 2001. It was said that India’s plan to kill the entire Royal Family was only thwarted because the King’s brother and successor, Gyanendra, was unexpectedly not at the event where the massacre took place. Gyanendra had been out of town and was allegedly was on the way back to the massacre site for the dinner.

In a new book ” Maile dekheko darbar” (The Palace as I saw it) General Bibek Shah asserts that although it was Crown Prince Dipendra who pulled the trigger, he was acting under influence of foreign powers. Apparently India was against King Birendra’s plans to begin procuring, and perhaps even manufacturing German weapons rather than those supplied by India.

Even more far-fetched, are the claims by a palace soldier Lal Bahadur Lamteri, who implicates Gyanendra’s unpopular son Paras, now second in line to the throne. He says he saw Paras arrive at the palace with another man wearing a Dipendra mask. It was the masked man who committed the massacre before shooting Dipendra himself, who was in a drunken state in his private rooms. Lamteri states that Dipendra had six bullet wounds in the back of the head. The attending doctor said there was just one to the front of the head indicating suicide, although it has been further claimed that this bullet hole was in the left temple rather than the right, as would have been expected in a suicide attempt.

Conspiracy theories often arise following the death of popular national figures in tragic circumstances. This story has echoes of theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, or the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps the national sense of loss is too great to accept the facts at face value. Such figures are seen to be too important to be taken by a simple accident or random act of malice.

A specially elected assembly dominated by anti-royalty Maoists abolished the 239-year-old monarchy in 2008 and turned Nepal into a republic.


The British Invasion of Tibet

The British Army encamped outside the Phari fortress

The British Army encamped outside the Phari fortress

Whilst we are constantly reminded of the Chinese annexation of Tibet, little is said of the British invasion of Tibet which had profound consequences for the region. The British expedition during 1903 and 1904 was an invasion of Tibet by British Indian forces, whose mission was to establish diplomatic relations and trade between the British Raj and Tibet. The Expedition was also to quell any possible Russian influence in Tibet, despite Russian reassurances that they had no interest in the region. The entire British force numbered over 3,000 fighting men and was accompanied by 7,000 sherpas, porters and camp followers. The British authorities had also thought of the difficulty of mountain fighting, and so dispatched a force with many Ghurka and Pathan troops, who were from mountainous regions.

The first military confrontation on December 12 1903 became known as the massacre of Chumik Shenko. The Tibetans did not stand a chance as their essentially medieval army faced the British armed with maxim guns and bolt-action rifles. There were over 600 fatalities amongst the Tibetan forces, compared to only 12 on the British side. The British soldiers mowed down the Tibetans with machine guns as they fled. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general’s order was to make as big a bag as possible,” wrote Lieutenant Arthur Hadow, commander of the Maxim guns detachment. “I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away.”

During this battle and some to follow, the Tibetans wore amulets which their lamas had promised would protect them magically from any harm. After the battle, surviving Tibetans showed profound confusion over the ineffectiveness of these amulets.

In the following two months, there were a number of more minor skirmishes and eventually the British forces successfully overcame the main Tibetan stronghold at Gyantse Dzong, which gave them control over the road to Lhasa.

The British leader Colonel Francis Younghusband then led 2000 troops to Lhasa to negotiate a treaty with Tibet. This was complicated by the fact that the Dalai Lama had fled to Outer Mongolia. For this, the Chinese government stripped him of his titles and had their own representative, or amban, post notices around Lhasa that the Dalai Lama had been deposed, and that he was now in charge. It seems he was largely ignored however and Colonel Younghusband intimidated the regent, Ganden Tri Rinpoche, and any other local officials he could gather together as an ad hoc government, to sign a treaty drafted unilaterally by himself, known subsequently as the Anglo-Tibetan Agreement of 1904. It allowed the British trade in the region, called for Tibet to pay a large indemnity of £500,000, and declared that Tibet would not have any relations with any other foreign powers (converting Tibet into a British protectorate).

The amban publicly repudiated the treaty, and Britain later announced that it still accepted Chinese claims of authority over Tibet. The indemnity was subsequently reduced by two thirds and the terms were considerably eased in other ways as well. The provisions of this 1904 treaty were revised in the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 signed between Britain and China.

The Chinese themselves invaded Tibet in 1910 only to leave again in 1913 following the overthrow of the Quing Dynasty. The First World War isolated Tibet and reduced Western influence and interest there with the communist takeover in Russia. During 1950, neither the British nor the Indians were able or willing to become involved against the return of Chinese forces.

The consequences of the British invasion are not to be underestimated. It has been said that it had “a profound effect upon Tibet, changing it forever, and for the worse at that, doing much to contribute to Tibet’s loss of innocence.”

The Chinese interpretation of the historical events are very different to ours. Chinese historians write of Tibetans opposing the British heroically out of loyalty not to Tibet, but to China. They assert that the British troops looted and burned, that the British interest in trade relations was a pretext for annexing Tibet, a step toward the ultimate goal of annexing all of China. They claim the Tibetans destroyed the British forces, and that Younghusband escaped only with a small retinue.