Significant tome on Tibet
Reviewed by Parshotam Mehra

Tibet: A History
By Sam Van Shaik. Amyrryllis, New Delhi. Pages 411. Rs 695

Tibet: A HistoryThanks to the Dalai Lama and a sizeable, if also widespread, Tibetan diaspora, interest in Tibet and its affairs has over the past quarter century and more exploded well-nigh exponentially. In the event, there has literally been a veritable flood of books on the country and its people, more especially regarding the turn recent events have taken. Expectedly not all measure to the top echelon and yet not a few do indeed rank quite high. The work under review, a large-size, ponderous tome of a little over 400 pages certainly does.

Shaik’s narrative goes back a millennium and a half and takes up the story from the very outset: 7th- 8th centuries of the Christian era. He talks of the ‘Holy Buddhist Empire (700-797)’ when the country makes its first appearance. As would behove an expert on the early history of Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, his narrative does not take cognisance of the "Rise and Fall of the Dalai Lamas," until he is almost more than half way through. In the event, it is only in the last three chapters (8-10) that he takes note of more recent developments.

Starting with ‘Independence, 1904-50’ (chapter 8), the two that follow are captioned , ‘Under the Red Flag (1950-59)’, 9 and ‘Two Tibets, 1959 to the present’, 10.

Inter alia Shaik heavily underscores the fact tines that a lack of strong leaders between the death of the 13th Dalai Lama (1933) and the accession of the incumbent 14th (1940), Lhasa politics returned to their ‘bad old days,’ with different factions constantly intriguing against each other. In the event, Tibet met the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) "essentially unchanged, politically divided and quite unprepared". (page 251). With its chronic lack of means of communication- antediluvian at best- when the PLA began its advance into Tibet (October 7, 1950), it was five days before the news reached Chamdo, Lhasa’s farthest outpost in Kham (257). Interestingly here, as a British employee of the Lhasa government noted, Tibetan officials and soldiers ‘feared the Khampas more’ than they did the PLA (258)!

In Lhasa, two most vocal critics of the Chinese occupation "spearheaded a resistance movement which called itself ‘Tibet’s People’s Party’ - an ‘ironic snub to the language of Communism." Among other things, the new outfit demanded that Chinese troops leave Lhasa, organised peaceful demonstrations in the Tibetan capital and outside and composed a petition to be presented to the Dalai Lama himself. In so far as Mao considered Tibet’s inclusion within China to be non-negotiable, he drew the PLA’s pointed attention to a directive penned as early as April 6, 1952 wherein he exhorted his commanders to march in slowly and with deliberation into the country. "The longer the delay", he wrote, "the stronger will be our position and the weaker theirs." How politically astute! (269) Shaik reveals that "the only direct role" played by the CIA in the Lhasa uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama was an affirmative reply to the Lama’s request seeking political asylum in India. (289)

The book draws pointed attention to the new space the internet has created in which Tibetans who have access to it can communicate with one another, across vast geographical distances, creating a virtual Greater Tibet. These internet for a allow for the expression of a self-conscious shared identity among young Tibetans. Despite Beijing’s regressive policies and its stringent control over the electronic media they continue to pop up in different places. And allow a means of communication about what it means to be a Tibetan in modern China in sharp, if revealing, contrast to what it means to be a Chinese. As well as allowing a process of self-definition in a wider Tibetan community, such forums allow Tibetans to communicate to the wider world outside albeit beyond a cloak of anonymity.

The author reproduces an anonymous poem which he views as typical of the genre: (327)

I’m a Tibetan

My skin is the colour of ancient bronze but

My favourite colour is dark red


Don’t ask me for my surname

My surname is not Li, my surname is not Wang


My left shoulder is a hawk

My right shoulder is a yak

My body is a lamp, under the statue of the Buddha, never

extinguished. (327)

An expert on the early history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, the author is based at the British Library in London where he works for the International Dunhuang Project. Shaik is also a lecturer at the well-known School of Oriental and African Studies (more familiar as SOAS) of the University of London and is the founder of the website (www.Early Tibet. com).