The Broader Tibetan Cultural World

Like the ancient Romans the Tibetans, too, have a broader cultural world that goes beyond the political Tibet of today. While we know of the communities in the south-western borders of Tibet (the following article, which I wrote in 2007) is about one such communities, called the Sherpas), there has been less attention on the communities to the south-east and east, who include the Jang (Naxi) people, the Muso and even what is being called the Xixia by Chinese and Minyak by Tibetans. I am told there are some Western scholars who study the Minyak people.

Anyway, enjoy the following for the moment.

Anyone Ever Heard of Karma Paul?
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Tibetan Review, October 2007

We Tibetans are fortunate to have a comparatively better international profile in certain fields than our cultural cousins like the Bhutanese, Ladakhis, Mongolians, Sherpas, Sikkimese, etc. However, there is one field in which the Sherpa community far outshines the Tibetans. I am of course speaking about the field of mountaineering.

Think of climbing in the Himalayas and it is natural to think of the Sherpa community.  These “people from the east” have become a brand name in serving as guides and porters to climbers, not to speak of being climbers in their own right.  In August this year, I met two Sherpas while in Wyoming to participate in the International Campaign for Tibet’s Teton Expedition. For the past few years ICT has, with the help of some Everest veterans like Conrad Anker, David Breashears and Jimmy Chin, has been organizing expeditions to raise funds for the Rowell Fund for Tibet. This fund provides grants to Tibetans to undertake creative projects. Information on this Fund can be found on ICT’s website

The two Sherpas that I met had climbed the summit of Chomolungma nearly a dozen times. It was a privilege to talk to them. Coming back from my own first “climbing” experience I wondered about those people who climbed Everest, more so after reading Conrad Anker’s book The Lost Explorer (which he was kind enough to present to each of the participants in Wyoming ).  Conrad’s book deals with the early attempts to climb the Everest by George Mallory and others in the 1920s.

The Tibetan Government was the first government to grant permission for an expedition to explore Everest. The permission letter (from H.H The Dalai Lama through which he granted the permission to British expeditions starting in 1920 to survey the Everest from the north, Tibetan side) can be seen in the museum of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling.  The early climbers of Everest established Darjeeling as their base for trips up north unlike today when it is either Kathmandu or Lhasa.

Reading Conrad’s book also made me wonder about the sacredness of the mountains to the Sherpas and Tibetans while being seen as a point of challenge to be surmounted by others. This mindset can be seen from a report on the history of Everest expedition that gives the reason for the initial attempts to survey the mountain in 1920 as follows: ” Explorers had reached both the North and South Poles, so the next “feat” was Everest.”

But what caught my attention while reading the book were facts about those early individuals who assisted the Mallory expeditions, beginning in 1922 until his passing away in 1924.  If my perception is correct then it was a Tibetan and a Sikkimese who were the first “sherpas” who helped expeditions by Mallory and others.   They were Karma Paul and Gyalzen Kazi.

The London-based Royal Geographical Society, which sponsored several British Everest expeditions, has the following information on Karma Paul. “Fluent in English, Nepali, and Tibetan, Karma Paul was interpreter, recruiter, and general go-between for all expeditions from 1922 to 1938. Born Karma Palden, in Tibet, and orphaned when in Darjeeling, he was cared for by Christian evangelists, but remained a Buddhist. He was an entrepreneur, became a skilled car mechanic, owned taxis, and in the 1950s made a small fortune from horse racing.”

Karma is said to be a Tibetan Christian fluent in Tibetan, English and Nepali who made Darjeeling his base. He assisted all the British expeditions from 1922 to 1938. According to one report, “Aside from  his work as interpreter Paul also served as a recruiter and all-around moderator between the expedition and the native people.”  In addition to assisting expeditions to Everest, Karma also seems to have assisted German expeditions to Kanchenjunga in the 1930s.  The report says, “Following his career on Everest, Paul trained himself to be a skilled  auto mechanic and in the 1950s won a small fortune at the horse races. He retired to Darjeeling.”  Noel Lobo, who worked in the famed St.Paul’s School in Darjeeling, refers to Karma Paul in an article as “great sirdar” to the German expeditions and reports seeing him in Darjeeling. A Sirdar is the highest individual among the people who assist climbers in an expedition. Karma passed away in 1984.

As for Gyalzen Kazi, according to the Royal Geographical Scoeity, “Gyalzen was interpreter for the 1921 reconnaissance and interpreter/sirdar in 1922. He hailed from Gangtok, in Sikkim, and was well read in the Tibetan scriptures. As a Kazi and a landowner, he was a man of some standing.”

The RGS also mentions a Chittan Wangdi, “a Tibetan who had fought with
the Indian army in Egypt” who also helped an expedition in 1921.

Today, more and more Tibetans are being trained as climbers and also to undertake the Sherpa role. In India a few Tibetans have successfully participated in Indian expeditions to the Everest. Talking of Tibetans in Tibet, the first Tibetan woman to climb the summit of Everest is spending her retired life in Jiangsu. Also, a Tibetan Mountaineering School has been established under Nima Tsering and the information is that by 2010 the Chinese authorities will stop giving permission to sherpas from Nepal to work for expeditions to Mt. Everest from the Tibetan side. Currently, sherpas can cross over to Tibet from Nepal to help expeditions along the northern route.


One thought on “The Broader Tibetan Cultural World

  1. Pertaining to Mallory’s Mt. Everest Expedition. If I am not mistaken, I read somewhere that he had shot films of his first expedition and in order the promote the screening of the film he took two Tibetan monks from Tibet to London. The monks were taken on a tour of London. The foreigners at the time were more amazed by the sight of the monks and it even became a front page news in London. A picture of the monks visiting a London zoo appeared on the front page of the major newspaper. After the tour was over, both the monks were scared of returning to their monastery in Tibet in fear of being punished. However, one monk returned and the other one stayed back in Darjeeling.

    I think, those two monks could be the first among the Tibetans to visit Europe.

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