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Spying in Lhasa
Statesman [Monday, 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 and culture

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 year.

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.

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 death.

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 own village.

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.


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