June 22, 2006
Nepal vs. the British in Tibet from 1769 to 1861
From The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet & Central Asia, by Derek Waller. 1990 (paperback, 2004). The University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 0-8131-1666-X.
The East India Company viewed trade with Tibet both as desirable for itself, particularly with respect to Tibetan exports of gold and silver, and also as a back door to the lucrative markets of China proper, bypassing the officially sanctioned entry point of Canton.
Unfortunately, this interest on the part of the East India Company coincided with the closing of many of Tibet's doors to the outside world. This occurred partly as a result of the increasing imposition of the Chinese authority and partly because of the overthrow, by 1769, of the traditional Newar rulers by the Gurkhas and the establishment of a Hindu kingdom in Nepal. Racial and religious bonds between Nepal and Tibet were broken, and the traditional trade routes through the Nepalese passes between India and Tibet were largely closed. In addition, the Gurkhas did not look kindly on the British, who had rendered military assistance to the Newars. As a result, the East India Company began to look for alternative routes through Bhutan or Assam which could open Tibet to trade and which did not pass through Nepal.
Nepal invaded Tibet in 1788 in search of the treasure housed by wealthy monastaries. Unable to oppose them, the Tibetans sued for peace and promised to pay an indemnity. The Gurkhas then withdrew, but not before Tashilhunpo had appealed for help from Lord Cornwallis, who had replaced Hastings as governor-general in 1785. Cornwallis declined, promising only that he would not assist the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas invaded again in 1791, on the grounds that Tibet had not fulfilled the agreement over the indemnity. Shigatse was captured and Tashilhunpo was sacked. A strong Chinese army then entered Tibet and defeated the troops withdrawing to Nepal. Now it was the turn of the Gurkhas to request aid from the British. Cornwallis again refused, though he offered to provide mediation, which aroused the suspicions of the Tibetans and angered the Gurkhas. Cornwallis had succeeded only in alienating all three parties -- Tibetan, Chinese, and Gurkha. A large Chinese army now occupied the most populous part of Tibet, and Britain was not to regain its influence there until the twentieth century. The Chinese Emperor Qian Long closed the frontiers of Tibet to the outside world, thus imposing on Tibet an exclusionary policy similar to that already enforced for China proper, one which kept nearly all foreigners away by restricting trade only to the port of Canton.
The closing of the borders stimulated British interest in Tibet. As the nineteenth century progressed, curiousity increased with the occupation of territory along the Tibetan border, acquired as a result of the deteriorating relations with Nepal. With the Chinese firmly in control of Tibet and closing its borders to Bengal, the East India Company looked initially to revive the trade routes to Tibet through Nepal. This was despite the failure of the mission of Captain William Kirkpatrick, who had been sent to mediate between the Gurkhas and the Tibetans in 1792. A second mission under Captain Knox was dispatched in 1801. Knox became the first British Resident in Kathmandu and, on behalf of Britain, signed a treaty with Nepal shortly after arrival. However, as a result of internal political developments in Nepal, Knox withdrew in 1803, and the treaty was dissolved. The continued forays by the Gurkhas into areas of British interest and protection ultimately lead to the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816. The British were victorious and, by the treaty of Segauli, were given possession of territory to the west of Nepal in Kumaon and Garwhal, thus giving British India a common frontier with Tibet for the first time. Relations between Britain and Nepal, however, remained cool until a change of regime in Kathmandu in 1846. Treaties in 1817 and 1861 with Sikkim, another Himalayan state on the frontier of Tibet, gave Britain influence in that area. Sikkim was also a major trading route from Bengal to Lhasa. Further to the east, Britain acquired the province of Assam, after victory in the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. This opened up the possibility of alternative routes to Lhasa and southwest China. In the extreme western part of Tibet, British interest in pashm, used to make fine cashmere wool, led to the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road between 1850 and 1858. Designed primarily to improve trade, the road went from the plains of India through Simla, the summer capital, before passing through Bashahr and terminating at Shipki on the Tibetan border.
Read my review of Trespassers on the roof of the world by Peter Hopkirk for more on China, Britain and Tibet in the early part of the 20th century.
Mongols vs. the Chinese in Tibet
From The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet & Central Asia, by Derek Waller. 1990 (paperback, 2004). The University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 0-8131-1666-X.
At the time of the establishment of the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty in China in 1644, Lhasa was ruled by Mongols from the Koko Nor area. They built up the Dalai Lama as a religious power, and it was the Dalai Lama who also began to assume secular authority following the death of the Mongol leader in 1655. His policies were generally in accordance with those of the Qing, particularly the policy of keeping a rein on the hostile Dzungarian Mongols of the Ili region. But with the demise of the Dalai Lama in 1682, a complex dispute arose around the question of his successor, intertwined with the possibility of a Mongol reunification under Tibetan auspices threatening the power of the Qing emperor. In 1717, the Dzungarian Mongols invaded Tibet. At first welcoming the invaders, the population soon turned against them and sought assistance from the Chinese in expelling them. The Emperor Kangxi was only too happy to oblige and sent an army to Tibet, which was roundly defeated by the Mongols in 1718. A second, larger Chinese force was more successful and occupied Lhasa in 1720. The Chinese army was warmly received as the savior from the Mongols and the restorer of the new Dalai Lama to his rightful position. The foundation of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet had been laid in a masterful manner, and with the cooperation of the Tibetans themselves.
Read my review of Trespassers on the roof of the world by Peter Hopkirk for more on China, Britain and Tibet in the early part of the 20th century.
May 09, 2006
Vladimir the Able
As if Vladimir Vapnik was not cool enough, it turns out according to Vapnik's wikipedia entry that he did his Master's degree in math in 1958 from Uzbek State University in Samarkand.
It's not so cool to explain a joke: but the title of this entry is supposed to be an antonym of Timur the Lame, who is certainly one of the other famous residents of Samarkand.
Update: Thanks to cosma for the new title (originally was "Vapnik the Able").
September 28, 2005
The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 by Thomas Barfield
The nomads of Inner Asia have remained a subject of fascination and controversy into modern times: the stereotype of barbarians who were both feared and despised, or romantically portrayed as wild and free by those who admired them. However, most histories fail to make the region and its people comprehensible. These accounts consist of seemingly random events presented chronologically, with one obscure tribe following another. When the nomads did make an appearance on the stage of world history by invading their neighbours, such events were treated as a form of natural history, like a plague of locusts.
Barfield's thesis is simple, and its basic premise is laid out in the introduction itself: the creation of a powerful state by the seeming consolidation of the steppe tribes was a result of a natural opposition to its sedentary neighbours, particularly China, with whom they had a complex relationship of extracted tributes and mutual distrust. In their long shared history, a collapse of the Chinese dynasty usually resulted in the collapse of the nomadic one. The great expansion by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century is explained by Barfield within the framework laid out by this theory. However this is not a popular history book -- far from it. The prose is terse and assumes a lot of the reader.
However, if you have ever despaired at the simplistic or harebrained documentaries about Chinggis Khan, or if you want to get further insight into how nomadic cultures in Central Asia were organized and the complex history of the region, then this book is a must-read. While it takes quite a bit of effort to read, the finely textured detail of history will shine through and dazzle the patient reader.
Other notable books in this topic are: Owen Lattimore's classic "Inner Asian Frontiers of China".
- Introduction: The Steppe Nomadic World (Nomadic Pastoralism, Tribal Organization)
- The Steppe Tribes United: The Hsiung-nu Empire (Foreign Affairs - the Han connection, Hsiung-nu Civil Wars)
- The Collapse of Central Order: The Rise of Foreign Dynasties (Hsien-pi ``Empire'', Ch'in and Liang, the T'o-pa, the Jou-jan, the Sinification of the T'o-pa Wei)
- The Turkish Empires and T'ang China (A Chinese Khagan, the Uighur Empire)
- The Manchurian Candidates (The Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Jurchen Chin Dynasty conquers China)
- The Mongol Empire (The Rise of Chinggis Khan, the YŁan Dynasty)
- Steppe Wolves and Forest Tigers: The Ming, Mongols and Manchus (Mongolia in Post-YŁan Era, the Oirats and the Ming, Altan Khan and the Ming Capitulation, the Rise of the Manchus, the Early Ch'ing state)
- The Last of the Nomad Empires: The Ch'ing Incorporation of Mongolia and Zungharia (Manchu conquest of China, the Zunghars -- last of the Steppe Empires)
- Epilogue: On the Decline of the Mongols
%T The Perilous Frontier %T :Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 %A Thomas J. Barfield %I Blackwell %D 1989 %G ISBN: 1557863245 (pb) %P 325 %K history, anthropology
Review written: 2002/02/23
August 16, 2005
Arslan by M. J. Engh
But driving west on Illinois 460, he had received the answer. Nizam had caught up with him, bringing the confirmation that he could accept from no one else: Moscow was docile, Washington was well in hand; those generals who had shown themselves uncooperative had been rendered harmless. For the first time (perhaps the last), Muzaffer Arslan Khan knew himself to be the master of the world. The place where he found himself became the universe's center.
The premise is this: Arslan is a young general, half-Uighur and half-Uzbek, the leader of his country (Turkistan: a fictional creation of Engh's based on the existing ethic groups in Central Asia). By sheer strategic brilliance, Arslan manages to conquer the entire world (a world that is not too different from the one that existed in 1976).
As the novel begins, Arlsan sets up his headquarters in a small town called Kraftsville in Illinois. The takeover of the town is efficient and without much resistance. There are atrocities, however, conducted by Arslan personally. Surely he must be a monster to casually perform public acts of rape and pederasty. This is the question that Franklin Bond asks himself. He is the principal of the local school and the only authority figure in Kraftsville recognized as such by Arslan. The blurb on the book excerpted from the New York Times review of the book summarizes the reader's emotions on reading this book: `Engh creates a truly shocking situation, introduces a monstrous character, and then refuses to satisfy any of the emotions he has aroused ... Engh's performance is as perversely flawless as Arslan's.'
The first act of the novel is narrated by Franklin Bond which lays out the cruel efficiency of Arslan's command. There are very subtle allusions to all the major perpetrators of war crimes: Chinggis Khan (an obvious one given Arslan's ethnicity) but also Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon and Hitler.
The narration then shifts to the voice of Hunt Morgan. Hunt is introduced early as a young boy, kept by Arslan as a catamite. He grows into the role of his lover, and then simply a consort. As a consort, he narrates his emotions and his experiences with Arslan as he journeys away from Kraftsville. The voice of Hunt is one so earnestly literate, as one who has learnt everything vicariously through reading, even though his own experiences rival anything in those books.
A science-fiction novel that hasn't dated in 25 years is one that deserves an automatic recommendation. But, even without that, there is much to admire in this masterful work in an otherwise barren genre of military/political SF.
There is a distinct philosophy that pervades this book. While it is difficult to articulate (that's why it needs a novel) it seems to me to be at times overwhelmingly nihilistic while at others it is profoundly humanistic. Whatever you might think of these contradictory philosophical attitudes, the viewpoints are so unique and presented with such command over the prose itself that it is a treat to ponder the motivations behind the actions of the men in this book (despite being written by a woman, there are no major characters in this novel who are women).
Kudos credits to M. Dras for recommending and lending me his copy of this novel.
%T Arslan %A M. J. Engh %I Tom Doherty Associates %D 1976 %D :reprint edition 2001 %G ISBN: 0312879105 (pb) %P 296 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/07/15
June 17, 2005
The Silk Code by Paul Levinson
It is a common observation that a detective story is a natural setting for a hard-sf story, because of the notional parallels with the scientific method. But it is rarely the case in science that the problem posed is much more interesting than the solution. The scientific and historical speculations dominate the earlier part of the book, but the book ends with a lacklustre detective story.
Paul Levinson starts with an interesting idea of moving away from technological sf towards hard-sf without much futuristic technology. This is risky business, because if the hard-sf details fail to be impressive then you are stuck with nothing, not even cool gadgets -- and this is what happens here. One is stuck between the absurdity of pinning all of the speculative science in this book on dubious things like cold fusion and the use of blowpipes which would be exciting perhaps in a Sherlock Holmes story.
The initial half of the book was so promising that the disappointing end was agonizing. Three dead bodies turn up, in New York, Canada and London, each of them have the physical characteristics of Neanderthals, are carbon dated to thirty thousand years but who have clearly died within the last 48 hours. Phil D' Amato, a forensic detective in the NYPD, has to figure out how this could occur. To make matters more stereotypical, investigators related to this event are being killed off mysteriously.
The first part of the book prefigures to a large extent the conclusion of the book in which genetic scientists are linked together throughout the millenia, from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania where the Amish live to the origin of homo sapiens sapiens. The speculative science, unfortunately, makes no effort to reconcile itself with all the evolutionary and fossil evidence of human origin that has been collected. It was as if the author was ignorant of these facts, or considered scientific fact unimportant to the speculations created.
The historical speculations are much more creative, elaborate and conform to the known facts in the area. The wonderful second part of the book opens in the Tarim Basin circa 750 A.D. in a settlement of Tocharians. This is the strongest part of the book. The fact that the real history of the `procurement' of Tocharian documents by Aurel Stein from Central Asia forms an important clue in the detective story was a nice touch. For more about the history behind the Tocharians, read "The Tarim Mummies" by J. P. Mallory and Victor Mair. For more about the exploits of Aurel Stein, read "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.
Another intriguing idea, which was not fleshed out in the detail it deserved was the idea that the capacity for human-like language evolved only once: in the dance-like language of bees and moths. The Neanderthal species using various eugenic experiments managed to breed this capability into themselves, causing a new species to emerge which had the modern human capacity for language. This new species more adaptive than the Neanderthals, proceeded to eliminate their progenitors from the map.
The same kind of ideas and themes pursued in this book was also explored in "The Calcutta Chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh. That book was less obvious in construction and (to its detriment) more opaque as well.
Some interesting books mentioned in this novel were: "Partner of Nature" by Luther Burbank, and a book about the Silk Route called "To the Ends of the Earth" which was mentioned without authorship. I could not determine exactly which book this might be based on although I only did a quick library search.
%T The Silk Code %A Paul Levinson %I Tom Doherty Associates %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0312868235 (hc) %P 319 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2000/11/21
February 07, 2005
The Tarim Mummies by J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair
Early European explorers of the Silk Road like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin found some astonishing mummified corpses buried in an elaborate ritual style in the Tarim Basin. The ancient oasis cities that skirt the Taklamakan desert have such dry weather that ancient bodies buried in the desert have preserved perfectly for thousands of years.
In later years, Chinese archaeologists have discovered many such burial sites and recovered an amazingly large number of mummies from various sites. For example, the Qizilchoqa cemetery was discovered by Wang Binhua in 1978. Victor Mair, on noticing the strangely Caucasoid appearance of the well-preseved bodies embarked on the pursuit of an answer to their origins and whether they had any contact with prehistoric Chinese civilizations, a topic close to his academic life. The search would be most effective if it involved the fields of archaeology, historical linguistics and genetics. To this end, he enlisted the efforts of J. P. Mallory, a noted scholar in the study of the hypothesized Proto Indo-European language and Paolo Francalacci who assisted in the DNA analysis of the mummies. In the end, the most promising clues of DNA analysis could not be applied since they were able only to analyse and report results on a single specimen. Hence, the focus of the book is mainly on the archaeological and linguistic facts.
The astonishing Chinese discovery of wonderfully preserved four-thousand-year-old human bodies with clothing in perfect condition in the Tarim Basin of western China is fully described by Mair and Mallory in this fascinating and well-researched account. They reach the daring, and perhaps provocative conclusion that these were `the first Europeans in China' -- a view certain to prove controversial.
I'm not aware if the authors had anything to do with this quote being at the back of this book. But this blurb encapsulates the kind of writing style that made the first half of this book exasperating for me. This notion of `the first Europeans in China' is belied by the conclusions they they reach as the most plausible at the end of the book (reproduced below):
- The earliest Bronze Age settlers of the Tarim and Turpan basins originated from the steppelands and highlands immediately north of East Central Asia.
- These colonists were related to the Afanasevo culture which exploited both open steppelands and upland environments employing a mixed agricultural economy.
- The Afanasevo culture formed the eastern linguistic periphery of the Indo-European continuum of languages whose centre of expansion lay much farther to the west, north of the Black and Caspian seas. This periphery was ancestral to the historical Tocharian languages.
- By about 2000 BC the Afanasevo culture, which was at the time being absorbed by the Andronovo culture from its west and other cultures in the Yenisei region, pushed southwards and came into contact with settled Indo-Iranians to the northwest of the Tarim Basin. ...
- Many of the Bronze Age mummies preserved in the archaeological record of East Central Asia may be assigned a probable (Proto-) Tocharian identity.
There are few more conclusions that are drawn, but even from these points it can be seen how incorrect the blurb at the back of the book is and it shows the hype used to promote this book is mostly misplaced. It does not detract from the actual findings, but it seems that even in academic writings the notion of truth in advertising is slipping away.
By `Europe' (when used with or without quotes in this book), they mean the European (sometimes called Eurasian) Steppe, and usually the easternmost part of the so-called Western steppe which forms one part of the overall plain. The Western steppe extends from the grassy plains at the mouth of the Danube River along the north shore of the Black Sea, across the lower Volga, and eastward as far as the Altai Mountains. In this book they seem to place the origins of the mummies as the north-west shore of the Black Sea. In other words, hardly `Europe' as most laypersons would understand the word.
In fact, from the above conclusions the truth is actually even more complicated. The origin of the Caucasoid mummies is placed most plausibly in the steppes immediately north of East Central Asia. Hardly Europe, but despite their own conclusions the first half of this book is littered with hints that the origin of the mummies has to be European.
And here we must face the frequently ignored asymmetry of the Indo-European space-time continuum.
And then there's the goofy style of presentation. For a book aimed at the pedantic audience the authors far too cavalier at several points where you reasonably expect some precision in the writing. The authors spend interminable amounts of text explaining historical details which in the final analysis are completely irrelevant to final conclusions. They take us through their (understandably) tangential thought processes in their search for an answer to the puzzle of the origin of the mummies. They include discussion of Herodotus and ancient Chinese legends. Inspite of this, they fail to introduce to the reader in the earlier chapters the prehistoric Afanasevo and Andronovo cultures from the northern part of East Central Asia which forms a crucial part in their final answer. Also, they change the focus partway through the book to only the prehistoric mummies, ignoring the mummies from later periods (4 B.C to 400 A.D.). However, in earlier chapters they take great pains to explain the environment of the entire known history of the Tarim Basin, even the complex history during which it served as part of the Silk Road.
%A J. P. Mallory %A Victor H. Mair %T The Tarim Mummies %T :Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West %I London: Thames and Hudson Ltd %P 352 %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0500051011 (hc) %K history, archaeology, linguistics
Date written: 2001/02/09
February 01, 2005
Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
In the light of history, I think the Game really was a game, with scores but no substantial prizes.
H. V. Hodson, editor (1950-61) of the London Sunday Times
This book is a recent addition to a short list of books that survey the history of the Great Game. The Game pitted Russia against Britain (especially the Indian Raj) for the control of Central Asia including areas now part of China such as Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Tibet. The Game started in the late 1700s after the British secured a foothold in India and when Russia expanded eastwards and finally concluded when the British Empire disintegrated and when Russia's empire collapsed from internal causes for the second time in the same century.
Comparisions of this book with the many works of Peter Hopkirk on this topic are inevitable. This book is both greater and smaller in the number of topics covered than the several books published by Peter Hopkirk on this period of history (like "The Great Game", "Trespassers on the roof of the world", "Like Hidden Fire" and "Setting the East Ablaze"). Some additional topics to be found here are:
- The strange case of Duleep Singh, Victoria's favorite Maharaja: a ruler without any subjects. He spent his life in Britain after the British annexed the Sikh kingdom founded by his father, Ranjit Singh.
- The stories of people like Madam Blavatsky and Nicolas Roerich who exerted a strong mystical influence on people who determined the foreign policy of many Western nations including Britain, Germany and America.
- The story of the American `Panda hunters', Suydam Cutting, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt.
- The 1943 OSS mission to Tibet lead by Major Ilia Tolstoy (the grandson of the famous Russian author) and Captain Brooke Nolan. They formed Lhasa's first offical contact with Washinton.
- The secret Nazi mission to Tibet under the direction of Himmler's Ahnenerbe, the SS's `Ancestral Heritage' office.
- The American camp in 1961 located in the Colorado Rockies set up to train eastern Tibetan Khampa warriors to fight a guerrilla war against the Chinese Communists. The Khampas were routed by the Chinese and as is common in such cases were soon abandoned by the Americans.
- The Indian attempt under Prime Minister Nehru to annex the Aksai Chin glacier as an attempt at a `forward policy' which lead to a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.
- The last chapter is full of subsequent modern repurcussions of the Great Game as it was played out before the Second World War with a parade of interesting characters who all fancied themselves still playing the Game in the post-colonial era.
This is, of course, far from being an exhaustive list of the many historical facts related to the control of Central Asia which are covered in this book. The most important point is that while other books perceive the events mostly as being a power struggle between the British and the Russian empires, this book includes other global players of the Game including Germany, America and Indians (distinct from the Indians who served under the Raj).
One major attraction for Great Game enthusiasts is also the citation of a fairly large number of recently published facts about the Great Game cited in this book. Some published sources are as recent as 1999 (published the same year this book was).
The other major strength of this book is the detail of the research into the historical fact and a more in-depth analysis of the events than what has been previously attempted.
Sometimes the details can change your entire opinion: after reading so much about the daring exploits of Colonel Younghusband in Peter Hopkirk's book "The Great Game", I was quite disappointed to read his `Kit List' reproduced in this book uncovered by his biographer Patrick French. His kit included sixty-seven shirts as well as nineteen coats (a full dress coat, a morning coat, an Assam silk coat, two jaeger coats, a Chesterfield coat, a poshteen long coat, a Chinese fur coat, etc.) plus a shikar hat, a khaki helmet, a white panama, a thick solar topi, and the imperial cocked hat. This sartorial spendor along with tents, a bath, beds, rifles, swords, were crammed into twenty-nine containers and hauled by locally employed porters (most probably Indian) through `mountain passes, through forests and icy rivers, over dry plains where your eyeballs could freeze in the sockets'.
Other differences with Hopkirk's book are also telling. While the story of Stoddart and Connolly and the infamous Pit of Bokhara forms the centerpiece of Hopkirk's book, their story gets a small mention and more surprisingly in this book the motivations and thoughts behind the actions of the Emir of Bokhara get a larger analysis where others like Hopkirk usually explain the Emir's actions as those consistent with the stereotypical corrupt, evil and parochial Oriental potentate. This far more reasoned telling of this story while not as romantic is far more interesting.
%T Tournament of Shadows %T :the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia %A Karl E. Meyer %A Shareen Blair Brysac %I Washington D.C.: Counterpoint %D 1999 %G ISBN: 1582430284 (hc) %P 646 %K history
Date written: 2000/08/18
December 31, 2004
Mughal India and Central Asia by Richard C. Foltz
The Mughal dynasty ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 upto 1857. There are not many historical studies available that concentrate on their Central Asian roots and their later interactions with their homeland. The British tradition treats the Mughals as an Indian Muslim dynasty, while the Russian and Soviet tradition has predominantly looked at Central Asian history.
Richard Foltz's thesis in this book is that the Mughals had, since the time of Babur, longed to return to their Central Asian roots. He points out the various places in many historical documents where the (usually sentimental) nostalgia for Central Asia is evident. The documents cited in this book come from many sources: the Mughals themselves and also by the many Central Asian holy men, artisans, soldiers and artists who used to travel to India for financial gain.
After the Uzbek takeover of their ancestral homes including the prominent Chaghatai cities like Samarqand, the Mughals expanded into North India and rule this land as their new home.
Richard Foltz makes the case that the Mughals always intended to return to their homelands in Central Asia and were repeatedly unable to do so due to many problematic circumstances. He catalogs the active cultural and political traffic that existed between the Mughals, the Safavids who inhabited modern-day Iran and Afghanistan and the Uzbeks in modern-day Uzbekistan.
A lot has changed, it seems, as it is safe to say that no significant percentage of the Muslim populations of India and Pakistan considers a significant kinship with Central Asia. This is inspite of the fact that Mughal culture has remained a strong influence for all the inhabitants of North India and Pakistan.
Be aware that this is the author's PhD dissertation in revised form, and so is not written for the layman. It is prone to several pedantic interludes and you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of the history of the region to begin reading this book. You need to know, for instance, who the Safavids were (as opposed to the Sassanids and the Saffarids) since such `basics' are never explicitly mentioned (the web is very helpful here). But overall, it is one of the most entertaining books on history I have read -- mainly due to the several quotes taken from historical sources.
%T Mughal India and Central Asia %A Richard C. Foltz %I Karachi: Oxford University Press %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0195777824 (hc) %P 190 %K history
Date written: 2000/05/23
November 22, 2004
The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov
An aerial view of the Syr Darya River near Tyuratam.
Copyright © 2000 by Anatoly Zak
Trains in these parts went from West to East, and from East to West.
And on either side of the railway lines in these parts lay the great wide spaces of the desert -- Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.
The main plot of this novel which is set in Kazakhstan is the heroic story of Burannyi Yedigei's journey to bury his friend Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery following the traditions of his clan. Traditions which seem to have become increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly modernized world that Yedigei has to struggle against.
This `day' during which Yedigei has to complete this burial is contrasted with several much longer spans of time (hence the title) that stretch from his past, to the exploration of outer-space, to the timeless legends of his people.
Yedigei works at a railway siding at Burannyi near a large rocket launch facility, probably meant to suggest the Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam. Yedigei's unwillingness to lose his customs or to permit any kind of change in Kazakhstan due to the modernization brought to his country by Russian influence is contrasted with the human discovery of a utopian civilization by a joint U.S.-Russian space station crew. The utopia is considered dangerous by the two superpowers (Aitmatov is writing when the Soviet Union was still going strong) and further contact with this utopia is forbidden. Don't read this book for its science-fiction sub-plot. Even though Aitmatov is prescient about a joint American-Russian space station, he is simply using the alien civilization as a plot device and the novel as a whole explores some general ideas, but not using the sf genre.
While the novel is about Kazakhs and the past legends of Kazakhs, it should be noted that Aitmatov himself is Kirghiz. The most compelling parts of the book are the legends of Yedigei's clan, such as the legend of the creation of the Ana-Beiit cemetery (Naiman-ana's tragic search for her son lost in war) or the love of the famous bard Raimaly-aga for the much younger Begimai (Aitmatov compares Raimaly-aga with Goethe). These legends are adapted and invented by Aitmatov with inspiration from the great Kirghiz epic poem, `The Manas'.
There are many instances where Stalinist purges are condemned by the characters in the book. However, Aitmatov never directly addresses the Russian influence in Kazakhstan. There are no negative Russian characters, only local Kazakhs who are in positions of power because of the Russians. While Aitmatov himself was the roving correspondent for Pravda in Central Asia and a member of the Supreme Soviet, in this novel he seems to be subtly painting a tragic picture of Soviet Central Asia.
The last part of the book is quite strong, but it might take some effort to make it there if you are not fascinated by the Central-Asian backdrop.
%T The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years %A Chingiz Aitmatov %A :translated into English by F. J. French %I Indiana University Press %D 1980 %D :First Midland Book edition 1988 %G ISBN: 0253204828 (pb) %G ISBN: 0253115957 (hc) %P 352 %K literature, central-asia, science-fiction
Date written: 2000/05/13
November 10, 2004
Trespassers on the roof of the world by Peter Hopkirk
... Lurgan's impassive face changed. He considered the years to come when Kim would have been entered and made to the Great Game that never ceases day and night, throughout India. He foresaw honour and credit in the mouths of a chosen few, coming to him from his pupil. Lurgan Sahib had made E23 what E23 was, out of a bewildered, impertinent, lying, little North-West Province man.
"Kim", Rudyard Kipling
Tibet is geographically isolated, especially from the West. Part of the appeal of this kingdom has been this isolation. In fact, some people have conferred utopian ideals onto this land simply because of this isolation: the famous misnomer of `Shangri-La' invented by James Hilton.
This book chronicles each attempt by spies and explorers to pry open the mysteries of Tibet. The most compelling of these were the Indian spies who mapped large parts of Tibet working under Captain Montgomerie. People like Kishen Singh (code name 'A.K.'), Nain Singh and Sarat Chandra Das collected unparalled amounts of geographical material about Tibet. Sarat Chandra Das was incorporated by Rudyard Kipling into his novel "Kim" as the intrepid Hurree Chunder Mookherjee (sic).
While their exploits were published in the Royal Geographical Society, they were never officially acknowledged either by the British or subsequently by the Indian goverment. Their stories are amazing and even though only part of this book is devoted to them, this was reason enough for me to read this book. The question remains: why did these people perform these heroic deeds so far above the call of duty for the benefit of their British rulers? I suspect the answer is not a simple one: neither monetary incentives or loyalty to the British or an utopian ideal seem to be an answer. Their motivations were, I suspect, not very different from the other explorers from the West. The contributions of these Indian spies and explorers, in terms of maps and local information, were quantitatively greater than most of the other explorers in Tibet but their stories remain largely unknown to this day.
A more exhaustive history of these Pundit explorers in the pay of the British Empire is in the book "Pundits : British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia" by Derek Waller (University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
This book is as exhaustive as possible about the various explorers who tried to storm Lhasa in their own ways and for their particular motivations. There is an amazing variety of them:
- Annie Royle Taylor who wanted to convert the Dalai Lama to Presbyterianism,
- Henry Savage Landor who was captured by the Tibetans and tortured for several days along with his two Indian servants Chanden Singh and Man Singh (who was a leper). They were released at the Tibetan border probably as a warning against further intrusions into Tibet.
- Ekai Kawaguchi, who not only reached Lhasa, but lived there for more than a year in disguise. He was presumed to be in touch with his teacher and one-time British spy - Sarat Chandra Das
- the Canadian Susie Rijnhart who returned from her ill-fated expedition to Tibet without her Dutch husband Petrus Rijnhart and her infant son Charles.
- the Russian Colonel Nikolai Prejevalsky who was turned away from the gates of Lhasa by Tibetan warrior monks.
- the US Air Force cargo plane that crash landed near Lhasa and whose crew were nearly lynched.
There are many such stories in this book. Many of them document stories of torture designed to deter further intrusions into Tibet but also about torture on the citizens of Tibet by the ruling theocracy. These stories, which are almost certainly true due to the multiple sources that report it, were then used by the British and the Chinese as a convenient excuse to invade Tibet. The reasoning provided then is exactly the same as in other colonial "interventions" in history: a double-barreled combination of (a) revenge for real or perceived slights by the ruling power and (b) the liberation of the oppressed populace.
The story of Heinrich Harrer which got a lot of attention from Hollywood (including the movie "Seven Years in Tibet") does not get much attention by Peter Hopkirk and Harrer is dismissed as a footnote in this history and appropriately so.
Most people know of the Chinese invasion of Tibet on November 7, 1950. However, not many historical sources point out the previous history of relations between Tibet and China and especially the role of the British and the Russians. This book is one of the few places which details this history. Since this is so rarely mentioned anywhere, I've included the full account below:
After the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 under the command of Col. Younghusband, the British enforced certain trade treaties with Lhasa and installed Captain O'Connor as the British trade commissioner in Gyantse. The British presence irked the Chinese who were used to having a permanent consul (called the amban) in Lhasa and whose influence was now displaced by that of the British. However, the British were not very comfortable with their position in Tibet and wished to pull out. The British Campbell-Bannerman government signed a treaty with China in April 1906 restoring Britain's recognition of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The British never consulted with the Tibetans on this matter. The following year, the Chinese signed a treaty with the other power in the region, the Russians granting the Chinese `suzerain rights' over Tibet. Again, the Tibetans were never consulted. Soon thereafter, the Chinese advanced into Tibet leaving a trail of slaughtered monks. In February 1910, two thousand Chinese troops seized Lhasa. The Dalai-Lama escaped to Sikkim in British India. After the October 1911 revolution in China, the Chinese garrison in Lhasa mutinied and the Tibetans took advantage of this and started a guerilla war against the Chinese. On January 6, 1913, the last of the Chinese marched out of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama returned to his capital. The Chinese invasion of 1950 cannot be divorced from this history thirty-seven years before and the politics of the powers in the region: Chinese, Russian and British.
It is important to note that most of the explorers mentioned in this book have written books of their own in which they detail their adventures. In fact, it was common for these `explorers' to finance their expeditions in this way. There is a veritable glut of these portraits of Tibet which are in direct contrast with the contemporary portrayal of Tibet in the media. For example, a useful book to read after this one is "Lhasa and its Mysteries" by Col. Austine Waddell (1905) which despite its title demystifies Tibet entirely. Waddell's book is particularly unsympathetic towards the Lhasa theocracy, which is not surprising since he chronicles the 1904 invasion of Tibet by the British. However, his cold prose is an effective counterbalance to the unabashed mysticism usually associated with any current writing about Tibet.
The British and Russian tug-of-war over India that was fought out over Central Asia is documented in "The Great Game" also written by Peter Hopkirk and in "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.
More books on Tibet:
- "The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947" by Tsering Shakya (Columbia University Press, 1999). Recommended by Ian Buruma in his NY Review of Books article "Found Horizon" which reviews the books by Schell and Hilton (see below).
- "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood" by Orville Schell (Metropolitan Books, 2000)
- "The Search for the Panchen Lama" by Isabel Hilton (Norton, 2000)
%T Trespassers on the roof of the world %T :the race for Lhasa %A Peter Hopkirk %I J. Murray %D 1982 %G ISBN: 0719539382 %P 274 %K history
Date written: 2000/06/14
October 28, 2004
The Great Game: the struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game.
"Kim", Rudyard Kipling
The mention of the words `cold war' brings to mind the mostly latent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union which involved many other countries in its wake. That, however, can be considered to be history repeating itself. The original cold war was fought throughout the 19th century including the early part of the 20th in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Tsarist government. The effects of this imperialist struggle are still around today even after the fall of the British Empire and the Soviet Union. This book is a chronicle of that period of history.
`The Great Game' was a term first used by one its protagonists: Captain Arthur Conolly but it only became famous as a term describing the cold war in Central Asia after it was used by Rudyard Kipling in his novel "Kim". I highly recommend reading (or re-reading) "Kim" after reading this book.
It amazes me that India was the land that ignited the entire conspiracy of the Great Game with both the British and the Russians trying to control the `immense riches' of India. A changing economy and a few hundred years of British rule have taken care of that particular tempation towards colonialism and completely changed the image of India in the world.
The time covered by the Great Game is expansive, starting with the treaty between Napolean and the Russians in 1807 all the way to the British invasion of Tibet in 1904. The cast of characters is similarly numerous, but this is not much of a problem as the Game is divided into many individual acts with their own protagonists. The stories themselves are compelling:
- Stoddart and Conolly's internment in the infamous Pit by the Emir of Bokhara;
- the various missions by the many British and Russian spies trying to infiltrate khanates like Khiva, Bokhara and Merv in disguise;
- the `foreign devils' like Aurel Stein stealing treasures on the Silk Road;
- the Russian annexation of Merv which eventually resulted years later in the Russian expansion into the rest of Central Asia;
- the British invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent struggle for power in Central Asia against the Russians;
- the massacre of Tibetan soldiers by the British at Guru during the attack on Gyantse.
The books reads like a contemporary political thriller with spies, treachery, rabble rousing, lies, the politics of greed and all the other good stuff.
Despite his claim earlier in the book that `I have tried, when describing the deeds of both Britons and Russians, to remain as neutral as possible', Peter Hopkirk's sympathies clearly lie with the British and he often apologizes for their actions while condemning equally reprehensible acts by the Russians. However the bias is overt and easily discounted by the aware reader.
Until recently, this book was the most comprehensive chronicle of the Great Game and along with Peter Hopkirk's other books was a comprehensive history of the times. A new book has appeared which covers the same period of history with a broader scope: "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.
"Trespassers on the roof of the world" also written by Peter Hopkirk is a chronicle of various explorers and spies that have tried to infiltrate Tibet which also featured in the Great Game but to a lesser extent and as such was mostly left out of this book.
%T The Great Game %T :the struggle for Empire in Central Asia %A Peter Hopkirk %I Kodansha International %D 1994 %G ISBN: 1568360223 (pb) %P 565 %K history
Date written: 2000/04/30
July 26, 2004
News from Tartary: a Journey from Peking to Kashmir by Peter Fleming
This book describes a trip made in 1935 by the author from Peking to Kashmir through Xinjiang or Chinese Turkistan (what used to be called Tartary). This is a book for those interested in `Great Game' history where Central Asia was the place of intrigue between Russia and the British Empire. There is some interesting political information, often missing from history books, embedded in this travelogue. The uneven writing can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Peter Fleming had to fund his trip by sending regular dispatches to newspapers in London.
Circumstances early on dictate that he has to travel with Ella 'Kini' Maillart, a young Swiss journalist. Kini's addition makes the story more interesting, not only because neither of them wished a travel companion preferring their own company, but also because she was a woman traveler and journalist in a time and place when this was not common. One desire I was left with after reading this book was to read her account of the same trip (published in 1937 as "Forbidden journey: from Peking to Kashmir"; Translated from the French by Thomas McGreevy).
Most of the early part of the book is spent describing the struggle with the `inscrutable oriental' bureaucracy. Since their trip was contingent on the deception of the authorities it wasn't clear to me that the obstacles the various Chinese officials placed in their way was of healthy spite or knowledge of their deception which they could hardly be happy about.
Peter Fleming when he is successful at his writing reminds me strongly of authors like P. G. Wodehouse (who he mentions favorably in this book). Here is an example:
I have travelled fairly widely in `Communist Russia' (where they supplied me with the inverted commas): and I have seen a good deal of Japanese Imperialism on the Asiatic mainland. I like the Russians and the Japanese enormously; and I have been equally rude to both. I say this because I know that to read a propagandist, a man with vested intellectual interests, is as dull as dining with a vegetarian.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Fleming is anti-Russian (a common British sentiment at the time) and shows naive surprise that some of the natives treat the British along with the Russians and the Japanese as equal imperialist threats. In my view, there is little to distinguish British aggression from Russian in this region, although transgressions by the Russians have been more faithfully recorded by historians. He is also virulently abusive to his Uighur guides complete with a great deal of racist invective which is quite jarring with his otherwise debonair attitude.
Peter Fleming is Ian Fleming's older brother; less famous than Ian now ever since the James Bond movie franchise took off, but considerably more famous than Ian when he wrote this book. For more on Ian and Peter Fleming, read Ian Fleming's biography.
For more information about Ella (Kini) Maillart
%T News from Tartary %T :a Journey from Peking to Kashmir %A Peter Fleming %I The Marlboro Press/Northwestern %D 1999 %D :originally published 1936 by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York %G ISBN: 0810160714 (pb) %P 384 %K travel
Review written: 2000/01/02