May 02, 2005 15:07]
|Nayan Prakash Subba profiles
Sarat Chandra Das, Darjeeling’s very own British secret agent,
who donned a Lama’s disguise to travel into inhospitable terrain
and became a pioneer explorer and an emissary of ancient wisdom
Two kilometres south of Darjeeling town, just below the NH 55
Tenzing Norgay Road is a fairly large village called Lhasa Villa.
The word ‘villa’ might surprise you until you know that the
village has actually adopted the name of a house of one of its
most famous sons. ‘Lhasa Villa’ was the name of the cottage of
Sarat Chandra Das the famed explorer and distinguished scholar who
was once synonymous with Darjeeling. The first we hear of Das was
in 1874 when he was appointed headmaster of the Bhutia Boarding
School (Darjeeling Government High School). Here in 1878 he met
Ugyen-gyatso, the school’s Tibetan teacher who later became his
guide into Tibet. Das had named his house ‘Lhasa Villa’ after
returning from Lhasa on 27 December 1882 after a gap of over one
Today, surprisingly enough, the residents of the village Lhasa
Villa have forgotten all about Das. No one was able to point out
his house. The cottage, still in fairly good shape, now belongs to
one Sudeep Tamang.
When Das went to Tibet it was a land without electricity,
bicycles, automobiles or clocks. Time stood still for 8 frozen
months a year and on the high hills the wind was strong enough to
knock you off a horse. But the lure of the forbidden and
mysterious city of Lhasa, the world’s highest capital city at
3658 m (12,000 ft) had always been irresistible for Sarat Chandra
Das was born in 1849, in Chittagong of the then East Bengal. As a
brilliant student of the Presidency College, Kolkata, Das came to
the notice of Sir Alfred Croft, the then director of public
instruction of Bengal. Croft guided him in geographical and
literary works and it was through his representations to the
Government of India that Das’ dream of journeying into Tibet
became a reality.
During his two journeys to Tibet, Das was guided by Lama
Ugyen-gyatso who was related to the royal family of Sikkim.
Gyastso was first sent to Tibet by the British Government in 1874
to visit the great monastery of Tashilunpo at Shigatse the premier
seat of Tibetan culture and learning. He succeeded in secretly
getting a passport for Sarat Chandra Das from the prime minister
authorizing his entry into Tibet. Das reached Tashilunpo for the
first time on 7 July, 1879 and stayed there for six months. He
explored countries north and northeast of Kanchenjunga, the
hardships confronting him very nearly crossing the limits of human
endurance. Das also spent time studying many ancient Tibetan
works, so that when he returned it was with a number of Tibetan
and Sanskrit books.
On 7 November 1881 Sarat Chandra left Darjeeling in the guise of a
Lama and reached Tashilunpo for the second time on 9 December
after an extremely tiring and difficult journey. FS Smythe
renowned mountaineer and leader of the Kanchenjunga Expedition of
1930 wrote that the crossing of Jongsong La, a high glacier pass
by Das was a great feat and one of the boldest journeys on record.
During his second visit he visited the ancient monastery of Sakya
and found rare books in Sanskrit hundreds of years old that had
been believed to be lost forever. These he brought back to India.
On the way to Lhasa he discovered a huge lake which he named
“Yamdo Croft” after his mentor Sir Alfred Croft.
Those were the days when people silently crossed over to Tibet
disguised as holy Buddhist monks rotating prayer wheels and
endlessly chanting the sacred Buddhist mantra “Om!Mani Padme
Hum!” Inside the cylinders of the prayer wheels they carried
mysterious scribbling and sketches made during their journeys.
Their tin trunks had false bottoms to hide miniature sextants and
the tops of their walking sticks accommodated thermometers and
pendants to hide mini-telescopes. Buddhist rosaries had 100 beads
instead of 108 to measure distances and many other ingenious
gadgets which were never really discovered by the Tibetans.
Devious efforts to win the extraordinary race between travellers
of many countries to reach Lhasa for its secrets, wealth and
specially the trade route.
Many great expeditions and adventures have sometimes ended in
calamity, Das’ journey to Tashilunpo and Lhasa was not spared of
misfortune. Tibet was then hell bent on discouraging the illegal
entry of foreigners and terrible retribution was meted out to
persons who had knowingly or unknowingly helped such outsiders.
Soon after Das left Tibet, Tibetan authorities swung into action.
The prime minister of Tashilunpo who had secretly issued a
passport to him was thrown into prison, and his servants were left
to die in agony after their legs and hands were cut off and their
eyes gauged out.
An equally dreadful punishment was apportioned to Lama Sengchen
Dorjechen, Das’ guru during his stay at Tashilunpo. It was
alleged that Lama Sengchen Dorjechen had divulged national secrets
to a foreigner. As punishment he was ordered to be flung into the
raging torrents of the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) alive but with his
hands tied and his feet weighted down with a large stone, till
What followed is one of the most cherished legends. In front of a
huge crowd of sobbing followers, the most learned Lama Sengchen
Dorjechen was slowly lowered from a high rock into the turbulent
river after he finished reading some sacred texts. After the
stipulated time the Lama was pulled out of the water, but to the
astonishment of all present he was still alive. The Lama was
immersed for a second time for a longer period with no different
result. The executioners then hesitated to proceed any further in
the matter. At this juncture to the amazement of the huge crowd
the great Lama is said to have opened his eyes and spoken out
loudly and clearly . Saying that it would not be correct to mourn
his death because he would reincarnate again. He said that his
task was done and it was time for him to depart. He blessed the
spread of Buddhism in Tibet and requested the executioners to make
haste to sink him under the water.
Colonel Young Husband who headed a military mission reached Lhasa
in 1904. After a treaty was signed, as a token of peace, all
Tibetans who had been imprisoned for their dealings with the
British were released. Among them were an old man and his son who
had been imprisoned in a dark dungeon for more than 20 years; for
showing hospitality to Sarat Chandra Das in 1882!
In 1885 Das had assisted Colman Macauley to set up an embassy in
China; he was given the title Rai Bahadur and CIE in recognition
of his work. The report of Das’ journey can be found in his
books entitled “Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet”, and
“Journey Round lake Yamdok, and in Lhokha, Yarlung, and Sakya.”
Das is also credited for having written the ‘English - Tibetan
Dictionary’. After his return to Darjeeling from Tibet on 27
December 1882 he sat down to write his experience in Tibet, his
contribution to literature was enormous. He had brought with him
over 200 volumes of manuscripts and block prints obtained from the
greatest libraries of Tibet. The Royal Geographical Society
awarded him the “Black Premium” for his geographical research.
When Das heard the news of his guru’s death he was overwhelmed
with grief and never really recovered from shock. For him it was a
desire for knowledge of the unknown, a dream to reach the
forbidden city of Lhasa and a spirit of adventure which had driven
him to take such terrible risks and face appaling hardships in one
of the cruelest environments on the earth. Das was a scholar par
excellence and his quest for knowledge led him to travel in a
country where winds screamed and howled sweeping the plateau for
miles, where dust devils consisting of sands and small stones blew
and battered one’s body, where cold winds froze flesh and trees
were stunted, dwarfed and bent by hurricanes.
If an European explorer had done half of what Sarat Chandra Das
had done he would have been put up on a high pedestal and showered
with medals. There would have been monuments, roads and schools
named after him. Today sadly, Das is all but forgotten even in his
The wonderful achievements of Sarat Chandra Das have been best
summed up by W W Rockhill who said that Sarat Chandra Das justly
deserves to take the place beside Csoma de Koros, as one of the
greatest pioneers of exploration and discovery in Tibet.