Remote and largely inaccessible until recent times, Tibet never experienced Western colonial rule. Few westerners traveled there before the twentieth century.The first Europeans in Tibet were Jesuit and Capuchin fathers posted in Lhasa in the 17th and 18th century. They described Tibetans as "idol worshipers.” When they first heard about Tibet while they were in Goa they thought it might be the long-lost Christian kingdom of Prester John.

In the 1710s, the Italian priest Ippolito Desideri became the first Westerner to lay eyes on Mt. Kailas. He remained in Lhasa for five years before he was ordered to leave. A Catholic mission was abandoned in 1745. A Scotsman named George Bogle arrived with a expedition in Shigatse in 1774 and became so friendly with the Panchen Lama he married one of the lama’s sisters. Soon after that the Tibetan authorities closed Tibet to Westerners.

Alexander Csoma Koros explored Tibet in the a 19th-century. Regarded as the father of Tibetan studies in the West, he began his journey searching for his Hungarian roots. His original destination was Xinjiang but he got sidetracked and ending up spending a decade in western Tibetan lamaseries, where he wrote the first English-Tibetan dictionary and did a number of pioneering studies on Tibetan culture. Soon after he resumed his journey to Xinjiang he died of malaria.

Early European Descriptions of Tibet

Ed Douglas wrote: Europe’s discovery of Tibet was enmeshed with missionary intent: it was Franciscan monks who brought Europe many of the first descriptions of the country. In 1245 Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, a companion of St Francis of Assissi, was the first European to report back on the Mongol court in his Ystoria Mongalorum, sent east by the pope in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of Europe. Like Marco Polo he noticed the Tibetans there, an intrinsic element in the spiritual life of the elite, and described aspects of their lives, including jhator, usually described in the West as sky burial, the ritual dismemberment of the dead for consumption by carrion but a term many Tibetans dislike. Another Franciscan, Odorico Mattiussi, better known as Odoric of Pordenone, included a whole chapter on Tibet in his account of visiting China in the 1320s: ‘Concerning the Realm of Tibet Where Dwelleth the Pope of the Idolators.’ Odoric’s claim to have visited Tibet may be true, although much of his material was clearly gleaned from encountering Tibetans outside the country, and the suggestion he visited Lhasa is widely discounted. [Source: Ed Douglas, Daily Beast, April 24, 2021, Excerpted from “Himalaya: A Human History by Ed Douglas. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020]

William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. On the Tibetans he encountered he Rubruck wrote: “Beyond these are the Tebet (Tibetans), a people in the habit of eating their dead parents, so that for piety's sake they should not give their parents any other sepulcher than their bowels. They have given this practice up, however, as they were held an abomination among all nations. They still, however, make handsome cups out of the heads of their parents, so that when drinking out of them they may have them in mind in the midst of their merry-making. This was told me by one who had seen it. These people have much gold in their country, so that when one lacks gold he digs till he finds it, and he only takes so much as he requires and puts the rest back in the ground; for if he put it in a treasury or a coffer, he believes that God would take away from him that which is in the ground. I saw many misshapen individuals of this people. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

Jesuits in Tibet

Ed Douglas wrote:“It was the Jesuits, with their pragmatic zeal, who really got stuck in towards the end of the sixteenth century. Jesuits at the Mughal court of Akhbar were well aware of Tibet. Rodolfo Acquaviva, shortly before he was butchered in Goa during the Cuncolim Revolt, wrote of the land of ‘Bottan’ beyond the Himalaya in 1582. [Source: Ed Douglas, Daily Beast, April 24, 2021, Excerpted from “Himalaya: A Human History by Ed Douglas. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020]

“In the Mongolicae legationis commentarius of 1591, Antonio Monserrate wrote of lost vestiges of Christianity hidden in the remote valleys of the Himalaya where priests read from the scriptures and distributed the bread and wine, although he discounts the possibility that these were Tibetans, who he describes as being governed by magicians. They discovered the existence of Lake Manasarovar and of a city nearby: the book is accompanied with a crude map showing the lake with the legend Hic dicunter Christiani habitare: ‘here it is said there are Christians living.’

“It would be easy to overstate the scale of the Jesuit interest in the lost world of Prester John. Tibet was mostly a footnote to their main concerns: China, Japan and India. In 1596 Matteo Ricci, leader of the Jesuit mission to China, did call for for an exploration of the lands between the Mughal and Manchu empires.

“The Jesuit attempt to convert Tibet might have been overly optimistic but it was determined. In February 1627, two more Jesuits, Estevão Cacella and João Cabral, became the first Europeans to enter Bhutan, where they were soon robbed and thrown in prison. They did encounter the first king of Bhutan, the Kagyu monk Ngawang Namgyel, and following Monserrate’s lead, asked about neighboring regions in hopes of locating any lost communities of Christians. They were told about Shambhala, which they mistook as being Cathay, whose location was a question of burning geographical interest to Jesuit missionaries across Asia. (Was Cathay the same as China? Or somewhere else?) Their account of this journey included the first reference from a European to this mythical paradise, its origins in the half-forgotten shamanic past of western Tibet. This lost world of perfection, such an obvious parallel to Eden, and the tenuous linking of Christianity and Buddhism, would become a compelling subject to adventurous spiritual seekers in the late nineteenth century. Switched on to Tibet by growing academic and philosophical interest in Buddhism – Hegel was fascinated by the notion of emptiness – new-age mystics climbed on board the bandwagon, including the Theosophist Helena Blavatsky, whose concocted band of enlightened beings, the Masters of the Ancient Wisdom, she claimed to have met Tibet.

In 1707 Capuchin friars established a Catholic mission in Lhasa, and the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733) lived there from 1716 to 1721. The Catholic mission was abandoned in 1745. Soon the Tibetan authorities closed Tibet to westerners.

António Andrade

In 1624, Father Antonio del Andrade, a Portuguese Jesuit, made his way to the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge. He established a church and reportedly won so many Catholic converts that local Buddhists called in a force from Ladakh and drove the Christians out. The Ladahkis obliged by not only getting rid of the Christians but also conquering the Guge.

Ed Douglas wrote: And Monserrate’s description of a lost Christian congregation living in the Himalaya certainly inspired the Portuguese António Andrade, head of the Jesuit mission in Agra where Jahangir Khan was in the last years of his reign. Andrade joined a party of Hindu pilgrims to Badrinath, in the modern Indian state of Uttarakhand, traveling with his fellow priest Manuel Marques up the Alaknanda river towards the Tibetan border. Leaving Marques behind, Andrade followed the valley. Traveling in the shadow of the mountain Kamet, only fifteen miles north of Badrinath, he reached the Mana Pass at 5600 meters, suffering from snowblindness and the ‘noxious vapors’ Andrade believed was the source of his altitude sickness. He saw before him the high barren plateau of Tibet: the first European to describe the wearying reality of Himalayan travel. He must have thought himself on another planet.

“Andrade returned to Badrinath and after a month retraced his steps, this time with his companion, entering Tibet to witness the dying embers of the Guge kingdom. Much of its power had drifted east to Lhasa and west to a resurgent Ladakh. The king of Guge was nevertheless open to the idea of Christianity. It was possible that Bodhisattvas might have arisen in the West. And since truth could not harm truth, why shouldn’t Andrade preach the gospel and challenge the teachings of Buddha? Andrade returned home and in 1625, with permission and funds from his superior in Goa, established a chapel at Tsaparang, the astonishing citadel and monastic complex in the Sutlej valley. A small number of priests struggled to keep the mission going through the late 1620s and their accounts provide valuable insights into the religious and economic life of Guge. Andrade was intrigued at how closely the Tibetan monastic orders resembled Christian ones. Yet their efforts were in vain.

“In 1630, Tsaparang fell to the great Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal, who built the impressive palace at Leh and founded Hemis monastery. He enslaved the few hundred converts the Jesuits had made including two of the priests: it took a concerted diplomatic effort to extract them from Leh. The kingdom of Guge began its swift decline into the obscurity Tucci witnessed in 1933.

Efforts by Europeans to Reach Tibet

European missionaries generally had a rough go of it in Tibet. Monasteries were intolerant of outside religions; foreigners were attacked by brigands; priests were murdered; and missions were burned down. On January 20, 1846, two French priests, Father Évarist Huc and Father Gabet arrived in Lhasa, Tibet after a two-year journey from China through Mongolia, and were immediately expelled. Huc wrote about the similarity of Lamanist and Catholic rites and other observations in his travelogue "Recount of a Trip Through Tartary, Tibet and China" . Swedish explorer Sveb Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers.

In the 19th century Tibet was involved on the periphery of the Great Game politics of Central Asia, when Britain and Russia challenged one another for influence in the region. According to the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism: British India and Russian Central Asia, abutted Tibet. Despite British suspicions of Russian designs on Tibet, however, Russia had little influence in Lhasa. Britain, on the other hand, was eager to develop trade with Tibet, but the Tibetan government rebuffed British diplomatic contacts. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Tibet's isolation after Tibetan leaders decided to close Tibet to foreigners only seemed to spur foreigners on as explorers, spies, missionaries, colonial officers and Buddhist devotees began attempting to reach Lhasa. In his book “Virtual Tibet” Orville Schell wrote, “A large element of Tibet’s historical allure grew precisely out of is isolation, that it was untouched by the modern world and did not welcome incursions.”

The history of Western attempts to reach Tibet in the 19th and 20th centuries are recounted in “Trespassers on the Roof of the World”. Many that made it into Tibet endured blizzards and bandits only to be stopped at the gates of Lhasa by armies of Tibetans led by high-ranking monks. Some were taken prisoner and tortured. In 1879, Col. Nikolai Prejevalsky, a Russian official accompanied by an escort of armed Cossacks was forced to turn back 150 miles short of Lhasa by Tibetan officials. In 1899, British adventurers Henry Savage Landor was captured on his way to Lhasa. His torture session included 24-hours in a rack. After returning home he wrote a bestseller about his experiences.

Nain Singh and the Pundits

Many of those who made into Lhasa did so in disguise: Indian spies hired by Britain posing as holy men, a Japanese Buddhist who posed as a Chinese doctor.

The 'Pundits' were heroic explorers-spies who were native hillmen in the border region of India and Tibet who were trained by British map surveyers in India. They used cover stories and disguises to secretly map Tibet's vast unknown plateau. In the mid-19th century, when Tibet was closed and British Indian officials feared a Russian invasion of India, desperately wanted intelligence on Tibet. According to PBS’s Frontline: On their maps, Tibet was one huge white blank. But travelling into Tibet was treacherous for Europeans: murderous tribes, armed bandits, extreme terrain and weather, and border guards who waited at every pass. [Source: Orville Schell, PBS, Frontline]

It would require foolproof disguises, deception and secrecy. The ingenious technique devised by British surveyers was to train the Pundits to take precise footpaces (thirty-three inches exactly in the case of Nain Singh, see below), use a Buddhist rosary to keep exact count of the paces in a day, or between two landmarks, and use prayer-wheels fitted to hide their notes and conceal compasses.

Nain Singh, a former schoolmaster, was arguably the greatest of all the Pundits. (His code name 'the Pundit' - or schoolmaster - later became the general term used for all the native explorers.) The British compared him to such giants of exploration as Livingston and Grant. In his third and final secret penetration into Tibet, Nain Singh was known to border officials and needed extra precautions to ensure his disguise. From July to November 1874, pacing his route, he covered 1,095 miles from Leh to Lhasa - then turned south and mapped an unknown part of the great Tsangpo River, crossed the main Himalayan chain at a16,000 foot pass, and took a route through Tawang to British India, ending in Udaiguri on March 1, 1875. In disguise, and mapping virtually unknown country, Nain Singh had covered 1,405 miles.

Alexandra David-Neel

Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), a French woman fluent in Tibetan, was the first Western woman to set foot in Lhasa, in 1923, and was the first European to visit many remote parts of Tibet. Born into a middle class Parisian family, she arrived in India in 1911 and became the first European woman to interview the Dalai Lama, who was living in Darjeeling at the time. After traveling around Tibet she settled into a cave and lived their for two years. After emerging from the cave in 1916 David-Neel disguised herself as a Tibetan peasant and became the first European woman to enter Lhasa, in 1923. She described her adventures in "My Journey to Lhasa", a book she wrote after returning Europe. At her side during most of her travels was Yongden, a Tibetan she met at a monastery when he was 15. She died at the age 100.

According to the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology: David-Neel learned Sanskrit and studied the various forms of Buddhism and Lamaism. Although skeptical regarding the supernatural, she gained firsthand experience of Tibetan ghosts and demons and saw the paranormal feats of mystics. In her book With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1931), she revealed how Tibetan mystics acquired the ability to live naked in zero temperatures by generating a protective body heat (tumo ), how they learned to float in air and walk on water, and how they brought corpses back to life or created thoughtforms that had independent existence. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 2001 The Gale Group Inc.]

“She described such feats as "psychic sports," acquired by special mind and body training. Amongst such feats was the lung-gom training of "inner breathing" and meditation, which enabled an individual to travel at high speed for days and nights without stopping, sometimes with the feet hardly touching the ground. David-Neel herself witnessed a lung-gom-pa, or swift traveler. She described the special training necessary for feats of levitation and for thought-reading and telepathy ("sending thoughts on the wind"). |~|

“She successfully experimented in the creation of a tulpa or phantom thoughtforms. After a period in isolation following special concentration techniques, she claimed that she succeeded in creating a phantom monk, who became a guest in her party, seen and accepted by the others. But in the course of time, this phantom form changed from a fat jolly monk, becoming lean, mocking, and somewhat malignant, and it was necessary for her to concentrate on special techniques to destroy a phantom, which was beginning to take on independent life. |~|

“She explained that Tibetans believed that such psychic phenomena were the result of utilizing natural forces by the powers of the mind. Her experiences seem to have been the result of a long and intimate association with Tibet and its peoples in a period when magic and mystery were more common. Few subsequent travelers have reported such remarkable phenomena, and her books survive as a unique record of a Tibet that has largely been destroyed. However, they helped create the image of Tibet as a place where the most successful mastery of the occult arts had been made. The spread of Buddhist masters to the west has done much to offer a more mundane picture of Tibetan life. |~|

Britain Invades Tibet

British forces marched into Lhasa in 1904 — during the Great Game period when Britain and Russia vied for control of Central Asia and Britain believed Russia had plans to take over India — to counteract fears of Russian expansion and forced the 13th Dalai Lama to open up to the outside world. Only months before a Russian advisor visited Lhasa.

The British forces entered Tibet through Sikkim and arrived in Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. The British attacked a 12th century monastery. The British, armed with Maxim guns and Enfield rifles, shot their way into Lhasa in a brutal military invasion. Led by Sir Francis Younghisand (1863–1942), they killed hundreds maybe thousands of Tibetans during their march from India to Tibet.

The British entered Tibet with such brutality and force in part because they believed that the Russians already had toehold there. But they found no Russians there because the 13th Dalai Lama (1876–1933) had been successful in keeping Tibet sealed. But it was this success and lack of information from inside Tibet that led to British ideas of Tsarist plots and schemes. The 13th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Mongolia.

Britain in Tibet

The British established a consular office in Lhasa, the only Western country to do so. Tibetans were forced to sign a treaty with the British, which allowed the posting of British trade agents within Tibet. The British did their best to keep other foreigners out. They urged the Tibetans not to trade with anyone without British their permission and urged Tibet to declare independence from China.

The British only stayed two months in Lhasa and made an agreement with the Dalai Lama’s representative. Britain was able to get control over much of the Himalayan region with the help of Nain Singh, a Bhutanese who often traveled in disguise and provided British mapmakers with important data. In 1947, upon independence, India inherited the British mission in Lhasa

The Qing leadership objected to the British-Tibetan accord on the basis it implied that Tibet was an independent state able to handle its own foreign relations. The British government signed a separate agreement in 1906 with the Qing dynasty, which recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The Chinese invaded Tibet in February, 1910 and the Dalai Lama fled to Darjeeling in British-controlled India.

Nazis in Tibet

In 1938, Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of Germany's Nazi party and a key architect of the Holocaust, sent a five-member team to Tibet to search for the origins of the supposed Aryan race. Vaibhav Purandare wrote in the BBC: A little over a year before World War Two began, a group of Germans landed surreptitiously along India's eastern borders. They were on a mission to discover the "source of origin of the Aryan race". Adolf Hitler believed that "Aryan" Nordic people had entered India from the north some 1,500 years earlier, and that the Aryans had committed the "crime" of mixing with the local "un-Aryan" people, losing the attributes that had made them racially superior to all other people on earth. [Source: Vaibhav Purandare. BBC, September 15, 2021, Vaibhav Purandare is the author of Hitler And India: The Untold Story of His Hatred For the Country And Its People, published by Westland Books]

:Hitler regularly expressed deep antipathy for the Indian people and their struggle for freedom, articulating his sentiments in his speeches, writings and debates. Yet, according to Himmler, one of Hitler's top lieutenants and the head of the SS, the Indian subcontinent was still worth a close look. This is where Tibet came into the picture. Those who swore by the idea of a white Nordic superior race were believers in the tale of the imagined lost city of Atlantis, where people of "the purest blood" had apparently once lived. Believed to have been situated somewhere between England and Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, this mythical island allegedly sunk after being struck by a divine thunderbolt. All the Aryans who survived had supposedly moved on to more secure places. The Himalayan region was believed to be one such refuge, Tibet in particular because it was famous for being "the roof of the world".

In 1935, Himmler set up a unit within the SS called the Ahnenerbe - or Bureau of Ancestral Heritage - to find out where people from Atlantis had gone after the bolt from the blue and the deluge, and where traces of the great race still remained and could be discovered. In 1938, he sent a team of five Germans to Tibet on this "search operation" Two of the team's members stood out from the rest. One was Ernst Schafer, a gifted 28-year-old zoologist who had been to the India-China-Tibet border twice earlier. Schafer had joined the SS soon after the Nazi triumph of 1933, long before Himmler became his patron for the Tibet expedition.

Schafer was crazy about hunting and loved to gather trophies in his Berlin home. On one hunting expedition, while attempting to shoot a duck from a boat he and his wife were in, he slipped when taking aim and shot his wife in the head accidentally, killing her. The second key man was Bruno Beger, a young anthropologist who had joined the SS in 1935. Beger would take measurements of the skulls and facial details of Tibetans and make face masks, he said, "especially to collect material about the proportions, origins, significance and development of the Nordic race in this region".

By the end of 1938, the five Germans, with swastika flags tied to their mules and baggage, had entered Tibet. The swastika was a ubiquitous sign in Tibet, known locally as "yungdrung". Schafer and the team would have seen plenty of it during their time in India too where, among Hindus, it had long been a symbol of good fortune. Even today, the symbol is visible outside homes, inside temples, at street corners and on the backs of tempos and trucks.

In Tibet, meanwhile, things were changing. The 13th Dalai Lama had died in 1933 and the new one was only three years old, so the Buddhist Tibetan kingdom was being controlled by a regent. The Germans were treated exceptionally well by the regent as well as by common Tibetans, and Beger, who made face masks, even acted as a sort of stand-in doctor for locals for a while. What the Tibetan Buddhists did not know was that in the perverse imagination of the Nazis, Buddhism, just like Hinduism, was a religion that had weakened the Aryans who had come to Tibet - and had resulted in the loss of their spirit and strength.

Just when it appeared that Schafer and the others could spend more time exploring for their real "research" in the guise of carrying out scientific investigations in areas such as zoology and anthropology, the German expedition was abruptly cut short in August 1939 by the inevitability of the war. Beger had, by then, measured the skulls and features of 376 Tibetans, taken 2,000 photographs, "made casts of heads, faces, hands and ears of 17 people" and collected "the finger and hand prints of another 350". He had also gathered 2,000 "ethnographic artefacts", and another member of the contingent had taken 18,000 metres of black-and-white film and 40,000 photographs. As their trip was cut short, Himmler made arrangements for the team to fly out of Calcutta at the last moment and was himself present to greet them when their plane landed in Munich.

Shangri-La, Heinrich Harrer and Seven Years in Tibet

“Seven Years in Tibet”, a film starring Brad Pitt and directed by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, is the story of Heinrich Harrer, a real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama (See Above). The Dalai Lama is played in the film by a young Bhutanese actor named Jamtsho Wangchuk. The Dalai Lama mother is played by the Dalai Lama’s real sister, Jetsub Pema. See History and the Dalai Lama.

“Seven Years in Tibet”, the film starring Brad Pitt, was based a 1953 autobiographical book by Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) , a selfish, real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Harrer had been a Nazi and a S.S. officer before setting off for Asia on a climbing expedition, leaving his pregnant wife behind. The book “Seven Years in Tibet” has sold 4 million copies and been translated into 48 languages. [Source: Lewis Simmons, Smithsonian magazine, H.G. Bissinger, Vanity Fair, October 1997]

The term "Shangri-la" was coined by English novelist James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon”. It refers to a beautiful mystical place discovered by four Westerners who crash land in an airplane there. “Lost Horizon” was published the year that Hitler rose to power and topped the best seller list for two years. Frank Capra did a 1937 film version of the novel, which starred Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It won several Oscars but seems quite silly and dated when viewed today.

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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