Ippolito Desideri in Tibet

Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733) was an Italian Jesuit best known for his work in Tibet. He volunteered for the mission immediately after his ordination in 1712, and received permission to go in 1713. He set out from Goa in 1714 in the company of Father Emanuel Freyre. (Filippi 28) They trekked first to Kashmir, then once inside Tibet joined the caravan of a princess bound for Lhasa.
Once in Lhasa, Freyre returned almost immediately to India. His orders were not to help establish a Jesuit missionary presence in Tibet, but to gather intelligence on the activities of the rival Capuchin missionaries. (Sweet 7) This left Desideri to spend the next five years living, studying, preaching, and debating among the Tibetans. By his own account he was well received by the king in Lhasa, and seems to have had great intellectual freedom. During that time he produced three books in Tibetan meant to disillusion the Tibetans and convert them to Catholicism. He also kept a lengthy diary of his observations.
Desideri was eventually forced to leave Tibet as a direct result of the conflict between the Jesuits and the Capuchins. Rome decided that Tibet would be under the jurisdiction of the Capuchins in 1718, and Desideri returned to India under orders in 1721.

His Account of Tibet

The observations are, for the most part, very matter-of-fact. By his own account he had precious little accurate information about the country, and goes so far as to name all the sources he had read before going. (Filippi 302-3) From that perspective, it makes sense that he would note as much information as he could, no matter how banal. He describes everything from building construction and handicrafts to marriage ceremonies and the enforcement of laws. He notes political organization, family structure, and even how to brew a local alcoholic beverage.
Stylistically, Desideri addresses his audience directly, as if the reader would likely be following in his footsteps. In some ways he engages the reader's imagination directly, saying things like , “your bed at night is the earth . . . and your roof is the sky . . .” (Filippi 86) That particular passage is not a romanticization, since he makes his discomfort plain, but it shows a certain reverence for the experience. His purpose in Tibet, though ostensibly religious, is not untouched by a fascination with the newness and otherness of the place.
Desideri's diary is remarkably free of the kinds of judgments and condescensions that often pepper the accounts of other travelers in Tibet. He does not call them dirty or backward in general, even though he is critical of some of their beliefs and practices. His moral judgments come out in more subtle ways, such as describing women's clothing as “modest and decent.” (Filippi 180)

His Books in Tibetan

As a Jesuit, Desideri took a very rational approach to spreading his faith. Since any worldview which denied the existence of the one Christian God was considered logically impossible, Desideri's books were an attempt to explain the incoherence of the Tibetan religions. (Pomplun 162)
The first book was a refutation of the notion of reincarnation, the second dealt with the ontology of God, and the third was written as a dialog between Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. By Desideri's account, the books generated a lot of excitement and scholarly inquiry, and he was invited to take part in public debates over the matter. However, as Trent Pomplun rightly points out, reading the books poses at least one very significant problem: that of translation. They were written by a non-native speaker after a relatively short period of study. Desideri himself talks about the pitfalls of misinterpretation when he discusses ambiguous Tibetan words that can mean God, gods, or aspects of gods. To add to the difficulties of a modern reader, after almost 300 years, Tibetan, Italian, and every other spoken language have evolved and changed.


Sources


de Filippi, Filippo, ed., An Account of Tibet: the Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, S.J., 1712-1727. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1932.

Sweet, Michael J. "Desperately Seeking Capuchins: Manoel Freyre's Report on the Tibets and their Routes (Tibetorum ac eorum Relatio Viarum) and the Desideri Mission to Tibet." Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, No. 2 (August 2006): 1-33.

Christian missionaries in Asia biography of Desideri.
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