Category Archives: Tibet

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”.

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.



Tibetan Nuns

Tibet in Old Photographs


I recently acquired a rather battered and bent version of a book called “Tibet The Sacred Realm” by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa at a local car boot sale. This book, first published by Aperture in 1984 and reprinted in the 1990s, is a collection of rare and very early photographs of Tibet, and an interesting chronicle of the author’s early life in Tibet before the Chinese invasion.

Tibetan Nuns

J Claude White Nuns at Nunnery 1903

As a keen photographer myself (see the Windhorse Facebook pages) I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the photographs in this book and how they record the people and magic of Tibet as it was in the 19th Century and after. The photos are selected from collections of institution archives and private sources in Europe and the United States. They are the  work of several explorer-photographers, including Alexandra David-Neel, Brooke Dolan, Sven Hedin, George Taylor, Ilya Tolstoy, and Claude White. They would had to brave bad weather, the threats of bandits, the objections of the lamas, and countless other hardships, and yet they still managed to capture the essence of Tibet’s mystery and fascination

Officials from Lhasa 1890

Officials from Lhasa 1890

The book is punctuated by interesting quotes including this by Sven Hedin.

“Roads! There are no other paths there than those beaten out by wild yaks, wild asses and antelopes. We made, literally made, our way, while I charted  the country and captured for the pages of my sketch-book as many views as possible of the glorious mountain  giants with snow-capped peaks and labyrinths of winding valleys… Those who imagine that such a journey in vast solitude and desolation is tedious and trying are mistaken. No spectacle can be more sublime. Every day’s march, every league brings discoveries of unimagined beauty.”

Here is another quote from the book.

“Seek a master thoroughly enlightened in spiritual matters, learned, and overflowing with goodness.

Seek a quiet and pleasant place which appears to yo suitable for study and reflection, and remain there.

Seek friends who share your beliefs and habits and in whom you can put your trust.

Think of the evil consequences of gluttony and content yourself, in your retreat, with the amount of food that is indespensible for keeping you in good health. Follow the regime and the mode of living that are calculated to keep you healthy and strong.

Practice such religious or mental exercises as develop your spiritual faculties.

Study impartially all teachings that are accessible to you, whatever their tendencies.

Keep “the knower” within you ever fully active, whatever you may do and in whatsoever state you may find yourself.”  Gampopa


As the technological age threatens to swallow, one by one, the unique civilizations of the world, the lessons to be learned from the age-old traditions of Tibet become all the more valuable. Here we have Tibet’s past superbly illuminated with superb insight and a majestic feast for the eye.

“Whatever the fate of Tibet, the spiritual essence of the Sacred Realm remains in the hearts of the Tibetan people. Our cultural heritage lives, too, in the handful of photographs taken in our country before 1950, all the more precious because they preserve a sense of time and place that now exists only in our memories.”—Lobsang P. Lhalungpa from the Chronicle