An initiation into Tibetan history


This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.

The Qianlong Emperor

We walked into a part of the Forbidden City called the Qianlong Garden. A plaque at the entrance told us that this section was built for the use of the Qianlong Emperor after he abdicated. Not being terribly familiar with Chinese imperial history, I had to look this up after getting back to the hotel. It turns out that Qianlong Emperor abdicated in favour of his son after ruling for many years. This was a political move, a show of filial devotion, so that his rule did not exceed that of his grandfather. We read that in actual fact he continued to control the politics of the empire.

From our earlier visit to the Shanghai Museum we knew that the Qianlong Emperor’s time was one where the arts were encouraged and flourished. We entered this section of the palace fully hoping to see wonderful gardens and artifacts. We were not disappointed. Right at the entrance was a wonderful rockery, marred only by large signs asking people not to climb it. Further inside was a gallery lined with panels of beautifully carved deodar wood (see photo above).

pavilionNext to it was this gallery where the not-emperor-in-name would sit with ministers and generals. The channels on the floor (see the photo here) simulated a flowing river down which the company would sail cups of wine for each other. while composing drunken poems. One wonders what matters of state were decided during these parties.

From what I read, the Manchu Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) essentially constructed the modern Chinese nation by conquering a huge territory. He is also said to be responsible for genocide in some parts of his empire. He put the Dalai Lama in power in Tibet, subjugated Xinjiang, Uighurs, Kazhaks. Mongols and Gurkhas. He was unsuccessful in conquering Burma or Vietnam. In his later days, presumably when he spent his time partying, he became dependent on several extremely corrupt officials. This, and his earlier wars depleted the imperial treasury.


Maybe part of this depletion was also due to the fact that he was such a staunch patron of the arts. Museums are full of the creation of this time. The Qianlong Garden holds elegant marvels such as this deer. Apparently a large part of the jade on display in the Forbidden City was collected by him.

He commissioned a catalogue of all important works of Chinese literature. It is claimed that this compilation was a means of destroying or censoring work which objected to Manchu rule over China, or was otherwise critical of the Emperor. It is said that books which were published during the Ming dynasty have suffered especially major changes or destruction.

It is hard to do much research when you are travelling, so I cannot say whether all this information is one-sided. However, if all this were true, then the Qianlong Emperor would be an appropriate symbol of the interesting mixture which makes up China even today.

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