An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet was written by Samuel Turner about his 1783 journey to Bhutan and Tibet. Turner, at the time a lieutenant in the East India Company army, was lucky enough to have famous relatives: His cousin was Warren Hastings, the governor general of India. In 1782, the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama had been found, and eager to create a trade route to China through Tibet, Hastings sent Turner to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Panchen, or Teshu Lama. It turned out to be complicated; Turner reached Tibet to find the Lama was 18 months old.
Arthur Conolly did not inspire paranoia about Russian designs on Central Asia, Persia (now Iran) and India until 1829, so Turner’s book predates the stereotypes of the Great Game by at least 40 years. His book is free of cynical musings on the geostrategic importance of Tibet, and has a greater sense of wonder, which would be expected from one of the first white men to visit Tibet.
That doesn’t mean that An Account of an Embassy avoids military matters or stereotyping altogether. Turner refutes the then popular stereotype of the savage Tartar, only to replace it with a generalization of how kindness is essential to the Tibetan character. He is also definitely not the enlightened white India hand that William Dalrymple writes about. He spends the first chapter complaining bitterly about the idle and shiftless “Bengalee native”.
Postcards: (clockwise from down right) Sketches from the book of a yak; waterfalls in Bhutan; and the Teshu Lama’s residence. Courtesy Google Books
Turner’s mood improves later. The man who accused Bengalis of being too lazy to even plant pineapple trees on their own initiative went on to praise the Assamese for their military prowess, the Bhutias for their industrious agricultural practices, and Tibet for its stark beauty and wildlife. Released from a punishment posting, and off adventuring in the Himalayas and beyond, Turner’s disposition became lighter and kinder.
He came to embody a stereotype himself in the end: the man who travels, and, doing so, broadens his horizons.
Samuel Turner’s ‘An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet’ is now in the public domain and can be downloaded from Google Books. Selected excerpts:
An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet: Originally published by G and W Nicol, digitized by the Google Books Project, 473 pages.
Turner dislikes Bengal
The country has a most wretched appearance, and its inhabitants are a miserable and puny race. The lower ranks without scruple dispose of their children for slaves, to any purchaser, and that too for a very trifling consideration; nor yet, though in a traffic so unnatural, is the agency of a third person ever employed. Nothing is more common than to see a mother dress up her child, and bring it to market, with no other hope, no other view, than to enhance the price she may procure for it. Indeed the extreme poverty and wretchedness of these people will forcibly appear, when we recollect how little is necessary for the subsistence of a peasant in these regions. The value of this can seldom amount to more than one penny per day, even allowing him to make his meal of two pounds of boiled rice, with a due proportion of salt, oil, vegetables, fish, and chili.
On European and Bhutanese costumes
A long conversation ensued with the Raja on the dress and customs of the English. He admired, and minutely examined, every part of our clothes; nor did the pockets least of all excite his wonder and surprise, by presenting such a number of comprehensive and concealed resources. He gave due credit to the convenience of our dress, its lightness, and the liberty it left to the limbs; but I could plainly perceive he judged its structure defective, as differing from his own, in shewing too plainly the general outline of the body. Thus it is, that the less enlightened Booteea, accustomed to observe the dignity of human character exist in factitious concealment, looks for importance in exterior ornament: divest his sacred superior of the robe of state, and his pontifical insignia, and he would, no doubt, conclude all authority and religion to be entirely at an end.
The music of religious practice in Tibet
As far as I am able to judge, respecting their ritual, or ceremonial worship, it differs materially from the Hindoo. The Tibetians assemble in chapels, and unite together in prodigious numbers, to perform their religious service, which they chant in alternate recitative and chorus, accompanied by an extensive band of loud and powerful instruments. So that, whenever I heard these congregations, they forcibly recalled to my recollection, both the solemnity, and sound, of the Roman Catholic mass.
The instruments made use of were all of an enormous size. Trumpets above six feet long; drums stretched over a copper cauldron such as are termed nowbut, in Hindostan; the gong, a circular Chinese instrument of thin hammered bell-metal, capable of producing a surprising sound; cymbals, hautboys; and a double drum, shallow, but of great circumference, mounted upon a tail, slender pedestal, which the performer turns with great facility, striking either side with a long curved iron, as the piece requires a higher, or a lower tone: these, together with the human tibia, and sea conch, a large species of the buccinum, compose, for the most part, their religious band. Harsh as these instruments, individually taken, might sound to a musical ear, yet when joined together in unison, with the voices of two or three hundred boys and men, managed with varying modulation, from the lowest and softest cadence to the loudest swell, they produced to my ear an effect extremely grand.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org