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Friday, 15 January 2021

Lamas of the Western Heavens

In March 1844, Christ failed to return and herald the end of the world, a profound disappointment to William Miller of Massachusetts, who’d predicted it. 

On May 24th of that year Samuel Morse made the world a little smaller by tapping out ‘What hath God wrought’ – the world’s first telegram.

Lamas of the Western Heavens

And in August 1844, two young French Catholic missionaries set out on a remarkable journey. Dressed as lamas, they started 400 miles from Peking and travelled southwest, trekking across Inner Mongolia to the foot of the Tibetan mountains. There they joined the caravan of a Tibetan ambassador returning to Lhasa from Peking. 

Some of the place names have changed but if you want to trace their journey from your armchair via google, you'll see what an awesome journey it was.

A Lama of Kounboum in yellow mitre and red robes

In Lhasa they were befriended by the regent of the child Dalai Lama and allowed to set up a chapel and preach. They were expelled 46 days later when the Chinese authorities got wind of them and escorted out, travelling through Eastern Tibet and South China to the port of Macao: their adventure thus ending in October 1846.

Ki-Chan, the Chinese ambassador to Lassa 

The two French missionaries were Joseph Gabet and Regis-Everiste Huc.

 Huc wrote two volumes describing their adventures in meticulous detail and this in turn has been condensed into ‘The Lamas of the Western Heavens’ which I thoroughly recommend. It’s a far cry from the wearisome ‘travel program’ freebies given to fading celebrities, a reminder that there was once, and not so long ago, a mysterious and adventurous world.

Huc writes about everything he encounters some of which resonate with and explain current attitudes and events.

“The Mohammedans or Houi Houi are very numerous in China. They say that they first in the Tang dynasty AD618 – 907. They were received by the emperor . . . and benevolently welcomed. The emperor, 

struck by the beauty of their appearance, heaped them with favours and invited them to settle in the empire. It is said there were only two hundred of them to begin with, but they have so multiplied that today they are a numerous race feared by the Chinese. …There are even some places where they are in a majority over the Chinese. . . They have a certain force of character which is rarely found in the Chinese. Although they are few in comparison with the enormous population of the empire, they nevertheless know how to make themselves feared and respected . . . no one would dare to criticise their religious beliefs or practices to their faces."

Huc writes of them with respect but has less respect for the Chinese themselves: ‘. . . a nation of shopkeepers, with hard, greedy hearts who will even sell a glass of cold water to the traveller.’

As I said, Huc wrote about everything, including the respective qualities of animal dung – a matter of life and death in the harsh, Tibetan winters. 

Dung lamas or more politely Argol lamas – robes hitched up to their knees, wicker baskets on their backs—collected dung from the herds. The dung was carried to an agreed spot where the raw material was kneaded and pressed into cakes and left in the sun to dry for winter fuel. When dried they were piled into large heaps and covered with straw to protect against rain and sold in the markets come winter.

The dung or argols were classified with the finesse of a connoisseur. There were four different categories. The highest grade was sheep and goat argol for it reached very high temperatures and was used for smelting. "The residue of this argol is a green, transparent substance as brittle as glass. It leaves no ash."

Camel argol gave a good flame but emitted less heat. Bovine argol was dry, burned easily, was smokeless, and was the argol most commonly used. The lowest form of argol was that of the horse because it spent less time in the ruminative process and came out as mashed up hay. It gave off black smoke when burned and was mostly used for getting a fire going. 

Green energy at its best, my friends, if you are happy to sleep in its odour.

And it was the smell of argol, mixed with charcoal and body smell Gaby and Huc encountered each time they entered the Mongol or Tibetan version of a tavern. Dominating the centre of the room was the Kanga, a raised platform where people ate and slept. Beneath the Kanga argol smouldered keeping those inside warm. 

A typical Kanga 

Huc wrote two volumes condensed into one book. I, in turn, am condensing it into three short blog posts. Sorry, Huc. 

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