Monthly Archives: April 2012

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.



Amulets- Magic and Medicine


Small Blessings: Amulets, Magic and Medicine


We attended a short talk on the amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford at the weekend . The museum is using a recent award from the Designation Development Fund (DDF)  to explore and interpret their huge collection of religious and folkloric amulets collected by the French ethnologist Adrien de Mortillet more than a century ago and acquired by Sir Henry Wellcome before its transfer to Oxford.

The 2500 objects in the collection came from various cultures from around the world. Often completely unique and personal, utilizing auspicious materials and symbolism, amulets were made for various purposes, e.g., to avert evil or disease, or to bring good luck in harvests, journeys, or war. Yet a theme that unites them, and one which the project will seek to explore, is that the people who created and used them believed they had the power to alter or affect the world around them. In this sense amulets can help us understand the human need for well-being and the universal concepts of hope and belief.

Windhorse Imports often acquire Tibetan amulet boxes. Tibetan Amulet boxes or “ghau” are generally made from metal in a repousse style of construction. The purpose and function of these is for protection when travelling. They sometimes have a small window on the front with a religious image inside. Typically the front is very ornate and decorated with the Eight Auspicious Symbols and other motifs. Amulet boxes are also commonly used to store all manner of sacred materials such as small texts, blessing cords, consecrated medicine, relics, and the like. Objects such as this were generally carried when travelling some distance away from home, such as on pilgrimage, or for extended business trips.

The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan

Lost Buddhas

It was announced by UNESCO last year that Afghanistan’s historic Bamiyan Buddhas would not be reconstructed. The monuments were destroyed by the Taliban 10 years before as part of its campaign to rid Afganistan of pre-Islamic structures, Whilst experts were split on the feasibility of reconstruction, UNESCO would not support a rebuild project, citing concerns over funding priorities and authenticity. Replicating the colossal monuments could cost between eight and 12 million dollars. Less than half of the original stone used to build the statues remains. The decision is a serious disappointment to Hazara people as the statues were potentially a huge tourist attraction that could have brought wealth back to the region. However recent archaeological research has uncovered significant new finds in the area and even raised the possibility that a there is a third monument awaiting discovery.

In 632 B.C. a learned Chinese monk named Xuan Zang travelled by land from China to India in search of the original Buddhist scriptures and teachings. Xuan Zang’s travelogues offer a unique insight into the political, social and religious conditions of this region in those times. Xuan Zang had travelled to India through present day Afghanistan, and he was keen to visit Bamiyan and the huge Buddha statues there. According to Xuan Zang’s detailed descriptions however, there were three images of Buddha. In addition to the two standing images there was a third image of a reclining Buddha at the base. This reclining Buddha was described as being 1000 feet long, although it finds no mention in subsequent history anywhere.

The smaller standing image was 114 feet high and the taller image was 165 feet high. They were not completely carved from stone, but had their detailing finished in a cement formed by grinding earth, hay and horse’s hair. They were then painted in colourful colours. Afghanistan’s extremely dry climate ensured that this cement coating and paint layer survived for centuries. Xuan Zang stated that the smaller image was painted gold. The Buddhas would have had Greek influences(see our earlier blog on Greco-Buddhist Art). Beside the rough hewn shelter in which the Buddha images stood, there were many small cave like structures cut in the adjoining walls which had wall paintings, enhancing the grandeur of the scene.

The Buddha images had survived a number of serious upheavals in the region. Bamiyan suffered from the ravages of Genghis Khan in 1272, and signs of the destruction are still visible in form of some of the ruined local forts. However, Genghis Khan’s soldiers were scared of touching the Buddha images and they were saved. Subsequently the Mughal Emperor Aurangjeb in the 17th Century, attempted to have Bamiyan Buddhas disfigured, although his soldiers were not able to achieve much, except for some slight damage to the Buddha faces. In modern era, Iranian king Nadir Shah Afshar, (Assassinated 1747) and Amir Kabul Dost Muhammad Khan (1843-1864) carried out several attacks on the Buddha statues with cannons.

Finally in 2001, despite International outrage, the Chief of Taliban in Afghanistan, Mulla Umar ordered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas. Using local forced labour the Taliban planted powerful mines near the Buddha images and they were both destroyed. At the time they were blown up, the statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world

In 2003, United nations declared Bamiyan as a world heritage site and efforts were started to save whatever remained at Bamiyan. Although the statues are now gone, efforts are now on to save the caves which once housed them. A joint Japanese-Afghanistan group has been working for the last four or five years on the excavation and restoration of Bamiyan antiques. In September 2008 an archaeologist from this group, Anwar Khan Faize found <span> </span>some remnants of a reclining Buddha at the foot of the standing Buddha images. Further excavations found it to be 64 feet long, but it can not be considered as the figure in Xuen Zang’s description. Recently some traces of a Buddhist Vihara and a palace were also discovered. The sleeping Buddha described by Xuan Zang in 632 CE has not yet been found. Since Xuan Zang is famous for his accurate description, many historians firmly believe that the figure exists. If these traces are discovered, the world can have some consolation from the incalculable loss suffered by the mankind after having lost it’s cultural heritage; the Bamiyan Buddhas.