TRAVEL Reviews

‘Bells of Shangri-La — Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet’ review: On the steps of intrepid travellers

Parimal Bhattacharya’s Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet opens with a vivid description of Shimla that a person familiar with the hill town would savour. In fact the first few pages are devoted to descriptions: of Mall Road, an antique bookstore, a kabari store in another hill town (Darjeeling).

‘There was a river!’

In the antique bookshop, Bhattacharya finds a copy of the Report of Pandit Kinthup’s Exploration of Yarling Tsangpo — priced at a whopping ₹18,000 — which leads him into his own explorations of how Tibet was ‘discovered’ by the British. “I felt like the marriage guest in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The ancient mariner... clasps the marriage guest’s wrist and snaps: ‘There was a ship!’...And here a dowdy tailor had emerged from the pages of yellowing documents and had gripped my mind with the words, ‘There was a river!’”

Bhattacharya does not just recount the history of the exploration — beginning with Kinthup’s exploration of the Tsangpo in the early 1880s, which confirmed that this was the river Indians knew as the Brahmaputra, to Sarat Chandra Das’ trips to Tibet and their grisly conclusion — he intersperses it with his own travels along the paths the intrepid explorers took giving the reader a sense of then and now along with eye-witness accounts of Sikkim’s initiatives to develop tourism.

Bhattacharya also tracks down Sarat Chandra Das’ relatives; as they evade his calls and miss appointments, he suspects they were holding back “some dark secret.” In an anti-climax, he finds that “they didn’t have anything to show.”

Sarat Chandra Das came back to some measure of success. A trained civil engineer he had brought back a huge wealth of knowledge in the form of “topographic data, draft maps and glass plate negatives.” Unfortunately Kinthup, who had been sold off as a slave and barely managed to escape with his life, was not believed when he came back. He returned to his tailor’s shop and had to wait until the Bailey-Morshead mission confirmed his findings.

In the final pages, Bhattacharya finds himself in Arunachal Pradesh as he travels in Bailey’s footsteps.

Stranded in a village due to snowfall, he finds a veteran of the Indo-China war and hears a sorry tale of young men from the “flat green plains of north India” who “had come this far, to these lonely mountains, only to die.”

Bells of Shangri-La: Scholars, Spies, Invaders in Tibet; Parimal Bhattacharya, Speaking Tiger, ₹450.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 3:57:18 PM |

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