Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 2

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 2 – Sven Hedin

One of the most important travel books ever written is the story of Dr. Sven Hedin’s discoveries and adventures in Tibet, which he has brought out in two volumes under the general title “Trans-Himalaya.” Besides being a closely woven, carefully prepared account of the achievements of a scientific explorer, geographer, and ethnologist, this work is an entertainingly told story of startling experiences, exciting adventures, and really remarkable achievements in the field of exploration. The expedition of this Swedish explorer started in August, 1906, entering the Forbidden Land from the northwest. He thoroughly explored the country, penetrating with the aid of his thirty-seven Asiatic followers into sections in which not only had no Western man ever trodden, but in which the existence, even, of Europe was unknown. Dr. Hedin’s description of his meeting with the Tashi Lama shows that head of the Buddhist church to be not a divinity in human form but a man who in kindness of heart, innocence, and purity approaches as near as possible to perfection. This is volume two out of two.

Trans-Himalaya - Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 2

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 2.

Format: eBook

Trans-Himalaya – Discoveries and Adventurers in Tibet, Vol. 2.

ISBN: 9783849663230  (eBook)


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We had heard of a lama who had lived for the last three years in a cave in the valley above the monastery of Linga, and though I knew that I should not be allowed to see either the monk or the interior of his ghastly dwelling, I would not miss the opportunity of at least gaining some slight notion of how he was housed.

On April 16, 1907, eighteen months to a day after I had left Stockholm, dreary windy weather prevailed, with thickly falling snow and dense clouds. We rode up to Linga, past rows of fine chhortens, left the last dormitories behind us, saw an old tree-trunk painted white and red, passed a small pool with crystal-clear spring water thinly frozen over, and heaps of mani stones with streamer poles, and then arrived at the small convent Samde-puk, built on the very point of a spur between two side valleys. It is affiliated to the Linga monastery, and has only four brethren, who all came to greet me heartily at the entrance.

It is a miniature copy, outwardly and inwardly, of those we have seen before. The dukang has only three pillars and one divan for the four monks, who read the mass together, nine prayer-cylinders of medium size which are set in motion by leathern straps, a drum and a gong, two masks with diadems of skulls, and a row of idols, among which may be recognized several copies of Chenresi and Sekiya Kōngma, the chief abbot of Sekiya.

A few steps to the south-west we passed over a sheet of schist with two stone huts at its foot containing brushwood and twigs for burning. In Samde-pu-pe were two small temples with altars of mud. In one of them were idols of medium size and sea shells, and before them incense smouldered, not in the usual form of sticks, but in powder. It was strewn in a zigzag line, was lighted at one end, and allowed to smoulder away to the other. Within was a statue of Lovun with two lights before it, and a shelf with writings called Chöna. Rainwater had percolated in and formed white vertical channels in the plaster, and under the ceiling kadakhs and draperies fluttered in the draught. Here the mice were less disturbed than in the ghostly castle Pesu.

Close at hand at the foot of the mountain is the hermitage, dupkang, in which a hermit spends his days and years. It is built over a spring which bubbles up in the center of the single room, a square apartment with each side five paces long. The walls are very thick, and are in one solid mass, unbroken by windows. The doorway is very low and the wooden door is shut and locked; but that is not enough, so a wall of large blocks and smaller stones has been built before the door, and even the smallest interstices between them have been carefully filled up with pebbles. Not an inch of the door can be seen. But beside the entrance is a tiny tunnel through which the hermit’s food can be pushed in. The amount of daylight which can penetrate through the long narrow loophole must be very small; and it does not shine in direct, for the front of the hut is shut in by a wall, forming a small court, which only the monk who brings the anchorite his daily ration may enter. A small chimney rises from the flat roof, for the hermit may make himself tea every sixth day, and for this purpose some sticks of firewood are pushed through the loophole twice in the month. Through the chimney, too, a feeble light may fall, and by means of these two vents the air is renewed in the cell.

“What is the name of the lama who is now walled up in this cell?” I asked.

“He has no name, and even if we knew it, we durst not utter it. We call him merely the Lama Rinpoche” (according to Köppen, lama means quo nemo est superior, one who has no one over him; and Rinpoche means gem, jewel, holiness).

“Where has he come from?”

“He was born in Ngor in Naktsang.”

“Has he relations?”

“That we do not know; and if he has any, they do not know that he is here.”

“How long has he lived in the darkness?”

“It is now three years since he went in.”

“And how long will he remain there?”

“Until he dies.”

“May he never come out again into the daylight before his death?”

“No; he has taken the strictest of all oaths, namely, the sacred vow only to leave the cell as a corpse.”

“How old is he?”

“We do not know his age, but he looked about forty.”

“But what happens if he is ill? Cannot he get help?”

“No; he may never speak to another human being. If he falls ill, he must wait patiently till he is better again or dies.”

“You never know, then, how he is?”

“Not before his death. A bowl of tsamba is pushed every day into the opening, and a piece of tea and a piece of butter every sixth day; this he takes at night and puts back the empty bowl to be filled for the next meal. When we find the bowl untouched in the opening, we know that the immured man is unwell. If he has not touched the tsamba the next day our fears increase; and if six days pass and the food is not taken, we conclude he is dead and break open the entrance.”

“Has that ever happened?”

“Yes; three years ago, a lama died, who had spent twelve years in there, and fifteen years ago one died who had lived forty years in solitude and entered the darkness at the age of twenty. No doubt the Bombo has heard in Tong of the lama who lived in the hermitage of the monastery Lung-ganden-gompa for sixty-nine years, completely shut off from the world and the light of day.”

“But is it not possible that the prisoner may speak to the monk who pushes the tsamba dish into the loophole? There is no witness present to see that all is correct.”

“That could never happen and is not allowed,” answered my informant with a smile; “for the monk outside would be eternally damned were he to set his mouth to the loophole and try to talk to the recluse, and the latter would break the charm if he spoke from within. If the man in there were to speak now, the three years he has passed there already would not be put down to his credit, and he would not like that. If, however, a lama in Linga or Samde-puk falls ill, he may write his complaint and a request for the anchorite’s intercession on a piece of paper, which is placed in the tsamba bowl and pushed into the opening. Then the recluse prays for the sick man, and if the latter has faith in the power of prayer, and holds no unseemly conversation in the meantime, the intercession of the Lama Rinpoche takes effect after two days and the patient gets well again. On the other hand, the recluse never makes any communication in writing.”

“We are now only a couple of paces from him. Does he not hear what we are saying, or, at least, that someone is talking outside his den?”

“No, the sound of our voices cannot reach him, the walls are too thick; and even if it were the case, he would not notice it, for he is buried in contemplation. He no longer belongs to this world; he probably crouches day and night in a corner, repeating prayers he knows by heart, or reading in the holy books he has with him.”

“Then he must have enough light to read by?”

“Yes, a small butter lamp stands on a shelf before two images, and its light suffices him. When the lamp goes out it is pitch-dark inside.”

Filled with strange thoughts, I took leave of the monk and went slowly down the path which the recluse had only passed along once in his life. Before us was the splendid view which might never delight his eyes. When I had descended to the camp, I could not look up the monastery valley without thinking of the unfortunate man sitting up there in his dark hole.

Poor, nameless, unknown to anyone, he came to Linga, where, he had heard, a cave-dwelling stood vacant, and informed the monks that he had taken the vow to enter forever into darkness. When his last day in this world of vanity dawned, all the monks of Linga followed him in deep silence, with the solemnity of a funeral, to his grave in the cave, and the door was closed on him for the rest of his life. I could picture to myself the remarkable procession, the monks in their red frocks, silent and grave, bending their bodies forward and turning their eyes to the ground, and walking slowly step by step as though they would let the victim enjoy the sun and light as long as possible. Were they inspired with admiration of his tremendous fortitude, compared with which everything I can conceive, even dangers infallibly leading to death, seems to me insignificant? For, as far as I can judge, less fortitude is required when a hero, like Hirosé, blockades the entrance of Port Arthur, knowing that the batteries above will annihilate him, than to allow oneself to be buried alive in the darkness for forty or sixty years. In the former case the suffering is short, the glory eternal; in the latter the victim is as unknown after death as in his lifetime, and the torture is endless, and can only be borne by a patience of which we can have no conception.

No doubt the monks escorted him with the same tenderness and the same sympathy as the priest feels when he attends a criminal to execution. But what can have been his own feelings during this last progress in the world. We all have to pass along this road, but we do not know when. But he knew, and he knew that the sun would never again shine warmly on his shoulders and would never produce lights and shadows on the heaven-kissing mountains around the grave that awaited him.

Now they have reached their destination and the door of the tomb stands open. They enter in, spread a mat of interlaced strips of cloth in a corner, set up the images of the gods, and lay the holy books in their place; in one corner they place a wooden frame like those go-carts in which infants learn to walk, and which he will not use till death comes upon him. They take their seats and recite prayers, not the usual prayers for the dead, but others which deal with the glorified light and life of Nirvana. They rise, bid him farewell, go out and close the door. Now he is alone and will never hear the sound of a human voice except his own, and when he says his prayers no one will be there to hear him.

What were his thoughts when the others had gone, and the short hollow echo had died away of the noise he heard when the door was shut for the last time, only to be opened again when he was a corpse? Perhaps something like what Fröding has expressed in his verse:


Here breaks the soul from every bond

That fetters to this life its pinion;

Here starts the way to the dark beyond,

The land of eternal oblivion.


He hears the brethren rolling the heavy stones to the door with levers, piling them up one on another in several layers, and filling up all chinks with smaller stones and fragments. It is not yet quite dark, for there are crevices in the door, and daylight is still visible at the upper edge. But the wall rises. At length there is only a tiny opening through which the last beam falls into the interior of his tomb. Does he become desperate; does he jump up, thrust his hands against the door and try to catch one more glimpse of the sun, which in another moment will vanish from his sight forever? No one knows and no one will ever know; not even the monks who were present and helped to block up the entrance can answer this question. But he is but a man and he saw how a flagstone was fitted over the hole through which a last ray of daylight fell; and now he has darkness before him, and wherever he turns there is impenetrable darkness.

He assumes that the other monks have gone down again to Samde-puk and Linga. How shall he pass the evening. He need not begin at once to read his holy books; there is plenty of time for that, perhaps forty years. He sits on the mat and leans his head against the wall. Now all his reminiscences come with great distinctness into his mind. He remembers the gigantic characters in the quartzite, “Om mani padme hum,” and he murmurs half dreaming the holy syllables, “Oh! thou jewel in the lotus. Amen!” But only a feeble echo answers him. He waits and listens, and then hearkens to the voices of his memory. He wonders whether the first night is falling, but it cannot be darker than it is already in his prison, his grave. Overcome by the travail of his soul, he sleeps, tired and weary, in his corner.

When he awakes, he feels hungry, crawls to the opening and finds the bowl of tsamba in the tunnel. With water from the spring, he prepares his meal, eats it, and, when he has finished, puts the bowl in the loophole again. Then he sits cross-legged, his rosary in his hands, and prays. One day he finds tea and butter in the bowl and some sticks beside it. He feels about with his hands and finds the flint, and steel, and the tinder, and kindles a small fire under the tea-can. By the light of the flame, he sees the interior of his den again, lights the lamp before the images, and begins to read his books; but the fire goes out and six days must pass before he gets tea again.

The days pass and now comes autumn with its heavy rains; he hears them not, but the walls of his den seem to be moister than usual. It seems to him a long time since he saw the sun and the daylight for the last time. And years slip by and his memory grows weak and hazy. He has read the books he brought with him again and again, and he cares no more for them; he crouches in his corner and murmurs their contents, which he has long known by heart. He lets the beads of his rosary slip through his fingers mechanically and stretches out his hand for the tsamba bowl unconsciously. He crawls along the walls feeling the cold stones with his hands, if haply he may find a chink through which a ray of light can pass. No, he hardly knows now what it is like outside on sunny paths. How slowly time passes! Only in sleep does he forget his existence and escape from the hopelessness of the present. And he thinks: “What is a short earthly life in darkness compared to the glorious light of eternity?” The sojourn in darkness is only a preparation. Through days and nights and long years of solitude the pondering monk seeks the answer to the riddle of life and the riddle of death, and clings to the belief that he will live again in a glorified form of existence when his period of trial is over. It is faith alone which can explain his inconceivable fortitude of mind.

It is difficult to picture to oneself the changes through which the lama passes during successive decades in the darkness of his cell. His sight must become weak, perhaps be extinguished altogether. His muscles shrink, his senses become more and more clouded. Longing for the light cannot pursue him as a fixed idea, for it is in his power to write down his decision to curtail his time of trial, and return to the light, on one of the leaves of his books with a splinter dipped in soot. He has only to place such a paper in the empty tsamba bowl. But the monks had never known a case of the kind. They only knew that the lama who had been walled in for sixty-nine years had wished to see the sun again before he died. I had heard from monks who were in Tong at the time that he had written down his wish to be let out. He was all bent up together and as small as a child, and his body was nothing but a light-grey parchment-like skin and bones. His eyes had lost their colour, were quite bright and blind. His hair hung round his head in uncombed matted locks and was pure white. His body was covered only by a rag, for time had eaten away his clothing and he had received no new garments. He had a thin unkempt beard, and had never washed himself all the time or cut his nails. Of the monks who sixty-nine years before had conducted him to his cell, not one survived. He was then quite young himself, but all his contemporaries had been removed by death, and new generations of monks had passed through the cloisters; he was a complete stranger to them all. And he had scarcely been carried out into the sunlight when he too gave up the ghost.

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