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Cultural and Political Linkages

Parshotam Mehra

By Alexandre Andreyev
Brill, Leiden, 2003, pp. 433, price not stated.


In the long and chequered annals of Tibet, India to the South and China to the West have played—and indeed continue to play—very significant roles. Expectedly, both have contributed a great deal to the texture of Tibetan life. The Chinese, more demonstrative in food and dress and to a degree in the organization of government; the Indians, deeper and more inward-looking in matters of religion, moral ideas and literary models. Essentially non-military and non-political, India’s major emphasis was on cultural ties; China’s on political linkages.   This is not to say that other countries in Asia have not impacted the land of the lama, much less left it untouched. Thus, both the Japanese, a faraway island nation to the East, or Russia, a huge landmass to the North and West have done so, to no small degree. The Russian contacts go far back into the eighteenth century; the Japanese, more recent, relate principally to the first half of the twentieth. Andreyev’s impressive tome under review deals mainly with the Soviet interlude over a couple of decades.   The body of the work falls into half a dozen slots starting with ‘The Bolsheviks enter the scene’ (Chapter 2) to winding up with ‘The final efforts to win Tibet over’ (Chapter 7). In between are Moscow’s first encounter (1921-2), the Borisov Mission (1923-5), the Chapchaev Mission (1926-8) and Nicholas Roerich’s singularly abortive ‘Western Buddhist Embassy’ (1927). The rest of the narrative is peripheral but by no means expendable. Thus the opening gambit, ‘Tsarist Russia and Tibet’ offers a substantial introduction to the overall theme. The conclusion and the epilogue, though thin in volume furnish an excellent sum up of what the Soviet missions achieved or failed to.   The introductory chapter sets the tone and goes back to the 18th century if not indeed a little earlier when Russia’s bonds with the “Land of Joo (i.e. the Buddha)”, as Tibet was known, were established through its own trans-Baikal Buddhist communities, the Buryats and the Kalmyks. The biggest attractions for the visiting pilgrims were the celebrated monasteries of Gandan and Erdene-Zuu in Outer Mongolia, Labrang and Kumbum in Eastern Tibet (Amdo); Drepung, Sera and Ganden in holy Lhasa and Tashilhunpo near Shigatse in central Tibet. Somewhere towards the closing decades of the century however, Tibet decided to shut its doors especially in the wake of the Gurkha War (1791-2) with ...

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