As the Russian Empire grew eastward and southward over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, British strategic thinkers worried that this expansion could potentially collide with and threaten British control of India. In response to these concerns, the British developed the idea of strategic pro-British “buffer” of influence in the regions north of India that would keep Russian expansion well away from the subcontinent (MacGregor, 251). To create such a buffer, the British sent diplomats, explorers, adventurers, and soldiers to Tibet, Afghanistan and other places in Central and Inner Asia. They tried to map the places they went, and convince, bribe, threaten, and otherwise bring the often brutal and fiercely independent local leaders they met to their side. The Russians, meanwhile, worked to undermine and counter these efforts and expand their own sphere of influence. This contest came to be known as the “Great Game.”

In this context, Tibet and the “trans-Himalayan regions of eastern Turkestan” assumed a special importance because it was there that edges of the British, Russian, and Chinese Empires all met, making for, as MacGregor writes, “a particularly complicated and explosive situation.” It was, therefore, all the more important that “these regions be explored and charted” (251). For the British, the exploration of Tibet had an added urgency because it was thought that Tibet could provide the Russians with an alternative means of reaching India that did not require going through the brutal Afghan terrain and down through the Khyber Pass (256).

It was also, however, at around this time that access to Tibet and the surrounding area began to close to foreigners. As the death of British explorer William Moorcroft had demonstrated, it was simply too dangerous for an Englishman to wander around Central Asia. Additionally, the Chinese also had political objections to any expansion of foreign influence into Tibet, making getting the necessary permissions and assistance from local authorities for a foreign explorer challenging. As a result, the British turned to native explorers – spies, really – who assumed identities as merchants and pilgrims wandering Tibet and took notes about the areas they went to, covertly measuring and recording geographic details, distances and even altitudes. These men came to be known as ‘pundits’ (257). One of the most enterprising and successful was Sarat Chandra Das.

Das in Tibet
Sarat Chandra Das started out as the headmaster of the Bhutia Boarding School in Darjeeling. Ostensibly, the school was designed to educate “Tibetan or semi-Tibetan” boys living near the border with Sikkim. The school was a means to perhaps improve relations with Tibet. “Unmentioned, however,” writes MacGregor, “was the intention of the British to identify and select from the Bhutia school the more outstanding students for training as pundits” (267).

So Das “plunged into Tibetan studies, fascinated by the little known civilization to the North” (267). He learned the language and established good relations with the Lamas and the Raja of Sikkim, a small state between Nepal and Bhutan, just south of Tibet. He was assisted in these efforts by Ugyen-Gyatso, who MacGergor describes as a “respected Tibetan lama from Sikkim, whose ostensible responsibility it was to instruct the Bhutia students in Tibetan language, literature, and religious studies, but who secretly would serve from time to time as a surveying agent inside Tibet” (267).

In 1878, Ugyen-Gyatso went to Tashilhunpo and Lhasa on a tribute mission from his own monastery, and as Rockhill writes in the introduction to Das’ memoirs, “advantage was taken of this opportunity to ascertain whether permission could not be obtained from the Tibetan authorities for Sarat Chandra to visit Tibet” (Das, v). Unsurprisingly, the regent in Lhasa did not respond but the more independent (and curious) Teshu Lama agreed to allow Das entry.

On this first trip in 1879, Das met briefly with the Teshu lama and made a connection with the Teshu Lama’s Prime Minister, whose “fascination with the West was equal to his [Das’] own interest in Tibet” (MacGregor, 268). He stayed in Shigatse for six months, and in this time made a “careful examination of the rich collections of books in the great libraries” at Tashilhunpo (Das vi), In 1881, Das planned a second visit to Tashilhunpo, and this time was determined to make his way to Lhasa. Das took great pains to travel discreetly, living quietly with the First Minister who he had met on his previous trip in order to avoid attracting the attention of the Chinese Ambas making their annual trip to Tashilhunpo (MacGregor, 269).

He managed, eventually, to meet the wife of a Tibetan minister, and impressed her by helping heal her from some sort of sickness (Das, 119). Then, with her support and patronage, was able to make his way to Lhasa (138-9). There, he met the Dalai Lama, explored the city, and gathered a tremendous amount of information about the nature and structure of Tibetan government and society before he was eventually forced to leave by a combination of political pressure and a growing smallpox epidemic.

After Lhasa, according to MacGregor, Das “explored the valley of the Yalung, where Tibetan civilization is said to have first made its appearance” (vii). In January of 1883, fourteen months after leaving India, he returned home (vii). Later, he accompanied an 1885 British mission to Beijing to try and obtain authorization for another expedition to Tibet. The mission, however, was never sent.

Das’ account of Tibet
According to MacGregor, Das was to focus on the “religious, economic, and political facets of contemporary Tibet,” while Ugyen would “conduct a detailed geographical survey of the route, and otherwise bear the scientific burden of the journey” (MacGreogr, 268). The work of both men is apparent in Das’ writings.

For instance, partly as a consequence of his own observational skill, but more often as a result of the assistance of Ugyen’s help, Das is able to be very precise in his notes about distances, sizes, and numbers – two “stout” flag poles are “20-25 feet high” (149), the Tibetan army consists of “6,000 men, 3,000 being under arms and the other 3,000 at home on half-pay,” “the great Tsung-la khang of Tashilhunpo is about 300 yards long and 150 feet broad” (114), “the castle…of Gyantse stands on top of a hill nearly 500 feet above the town,” and the base of one temple they examined was Das and Ugyen “found by actual count, 50 paces square,” and so on. Das also often recounts in detail the history of some of the events or places he meets, describing for instance conflict that led the Kashmiris to pay a semiannual tribute to Tibet.

Most importantly, however, Das provides a rare account of Lhasa itself, a city denied to westerners for many years. He visits the Potala palace, describing the view from it as “beautiful beyond compare” and noting the “beautiful tapestries and satin hangings” framing the Dalai Lama’s throne (166). The Dalai Lama himself was “a child of eight with a bright and fair complexion and rosy cheeks. His eyes are large and penetrating, the shape of his face remarkably Aryan though somewhat marred by the obliquity of his eyes” (167).

In addition to describing his own experiences and observations, Das also devotes a whole chapter to the “Government of Lhasa,” in which he details with remarkable specificity the various incarnations of the Dalai Lama dating back to 1474, the role of the Dalai Lama’s regent and his Chinese-appointed advisors, Tibet’s judicial and tax systems, and the general structure of the Tibetan government and society in Lhasa. Das seems to have been especially interested in the Chinese Ambans and their complex and often contentious interaction with the Tibetans they theoretically ruled (Das, 51, 61, etc). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his mission, Das also devotes considerable space to the size, armament, structure, and pay of the Tibetan army.

Writing specifically about Das’ descriptions of Lhasa, MacGregor concludes that “his valuable notes are a most important addition to the descriptions left us by previous travelers.” Then, MacGregor continues, before he returned to India, in the valley of the Yalung, Das gathered “everywhere, with the usual thoroughness which distinguishes his work, valuable information concerning each locality traversed” (vii).

- D. Chinoy

Das, Sarat Chandra. Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet. Ed. W.W. Rockhill. London: John Murray, 1902.

MacGregor, John. Tibet: A Chronicle of Exploration. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.