Message from Shangri-La

On October 6, 1939, on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Hugh Richardson, who is now ninety-three and the West’s foremost living Tibetanist, saw the arrival in the city of the five-year-old boy who in early 1940 would be installed as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It was the end of a three-month journey by palanquin from the boy’s village in eastern Tibet, where he had been identified as the incarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had died on December 17, 1933.

A member of the elite Indian Civil Service, in 1939 Richardson was representing Britain in Tibet, where the British were competing with China for influence. He was determined to see for himself what the newest Dalai Lama was like; although the previous Dalai Lama had lived long, many of the earlier incarnations had died suddenly and young; the ensuing periods of uncertainty often presented an opportunity for China to exert influence over Tibetan affairs. British India saw this as a threat to its borders. After the almost six-year interregnum following the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, it was important to the British that Tibet be stable enough to remain independent. Although only five, the fourteenth Dalai Lama seemed to Richardson to be a potentially useful force against Chinese ambitions.

In 1991, Richardson described to me his first impression of the Dalai Lama during a long conversation which I recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the house of Emily and Roderick MacFarquhar. Michael Aris, Britain’s leading academic Tibetanist, who is at Oxford, was also present. (That morning he had heard that his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Rangoon, had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)

“He came down in a very small party,” Richardson recalled. “There were a few dusty Chinese foot soldiers. Then he was taken up into the monastery, given a bath and new clothes, and came back down in a golden palanquin. It was obvious he was accepted with great reverence. He was the real thing. He behaved so beautifully. Wonderful. When I clapped eyes on him I went up to his throne and got his blessing. A child of four-and-a-half with gorgeous officials and tents and everyone prostrating themselves. He sat up on his throne for three-and-a-half hours, absolutely self-possessed, without turning a hair.”

It seems astonishing that Richardson, one of the scholarly and adventurous young men sent out to rule India, is still thinking and writing on every aspect of Tibet, from its difficult classical language to the Chinese occupation. High Peaks, Pure Earth is a collection of sixty-five of his papers, the first one written in 1945 and the final ones in the early 1990s, and as Michael Aris, who has edited this volume, says in his introduction, “He continues to devote energy to yet further plans for publication.”

Born in 1905 in Scotland into a family with enough Indian connections that “India was always in the conversation,” Hugh Richardson entered the Indian Civil Service…

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