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A Journey in Thibet
During my sojourn in India, I often had occasion to converse with the Buddhists, and the accounts they gave me of Thibet excited my curiosity to such an extent that I resolved to make a journey into that still almost unknown country. For this purpose I set out upon a route crossing Kachmyr (Cashmere), which I had long intended to visit.
On the 14th of October, 1887, I entered a railway car crowded with soldiers, and went from Lahore to Raval-Pinidi, where I arrived the next day, near noon. After resting a little and inspecting the city, to which the permanent garrison gives the aspect of a military camp, I provided myself with the necessaries for a journey, where horses take the place of the railway cars. Assisted by my servant, a colored man of Pondichery, I packed all my baggage, hired a tonga (a two-wheeled vehicle which is drawn by two horses), stowed myself upon its back seat, and set out upon the picturesque road leading to Kachmyr, an excellent highway, upon which we travelled rapidly. We had to use no little skill in making our way through the ranks of a military caravan—its baggage carried upon camels—which was part of a detachment returning from a country camp to the city. Soon we arrived at the end of the valley of Pendjab, and climbing up a way with infinite windings, entered the passes of the Himalayas. The ascent became more and more steep. Behind us spread, like a beautiful panorama, the region we had just traversed, which seemed to sink farther and farther away from us. As the sun's last glances rested upon the tops of the mountains, our tonga came gaily out from the zigzags which the eye could still trace far down the forest-clad slope, and halted at the little city of Muré; where the families of the English functionaries came to seek shade and refreshment.
Ordinarily, one can go in a tonga from Muré to Srinagar; but at the approach of the winter season, when all Europeans desert Kachmyr, the tonga service is suspended. I undertook my journey precisely at the time when the summer life begins to wane, and the Englishmen whom I met upon the road, returning to India, were much astonished to see me, and made vain efforts to divine the purpose of my travel to Kachmyr.
Abandoning the tonga, I hired saddle horses—not without considerable difficulty—and evening had arrived when we started to descend from Muré, which is at an altitude of 5,000 feet. This stage of our journey had nothing playful in it. The road was torn in deep ruts by the late rains, darkness came upon us and our horses rather guessed than saw their way. When night had completely set in, a tempestuous rain surprised us in the open country, and, owing to the thick foliage of the centenarian oaks which stood on the sides of our road, we were plunged in profound darkness. That we might not lose each other, we had to continue exchanging calls from time to time. In this impenetrable obscurity we divined huge masses of rock almost above our heads, and were conscious of, on our left, a roaring torrent, the water of which formed a cascade we could not see. During two hours we waded in the mud and the icy rain had chilled my very marrow, when we perceived in the distance a little fire, the sight of which revived our energies. But how deceitful are lights in the mountains! You believe you see the fire burning quite near to you and at once it disappears, to reappear again, to the right, to the left, above, below you, as if it took pleasure in playing tricks upon the harassed traveller. All the time the road makes a thousand turns, and winds here and there, and the fire—which is immovable—seems to be in continual motion, the obscurity preventing you realizing that you yourself modify your direction every instant.
I had quite given up all hope of approaching this much-wished-for fire, when it appeared again, and this time so near that our horses stopped before it.
I have here to express my sincere thanks to the Englishmen for the foresight of which they gave proof in building by the roadsides the little bengalows—one-story houses for the shelter of travellers. It is true, one must not demand comfort in this kind of hotel; but this is a matter in which the traveller, broken down by fatigue, is not exacting, and he is at the summit of happiness when he finds at his disposal a clean and dry room.
The Hindus, no doubt, did not expect to see a traveller arrive at so late an hour of the night and in this season, for they had taken away the keys of the bengalow, so we had to force an entrance. I threw myself upon a bed prepared for me, composed of a pillow and blanket saturated with water, and almost at once fell asleep. At daybreak, after taking tea and some conserves, we took up our march again, now bathed in the burning rays of the sun. From time to time, we passed villages; the first in a superb narrow pass, then along the road meandering in the bosom of the mountain. We descended eventually to the river Djeloum (Jhelum), the waters of which flow gracefully, amid the rocks by which its course is obstructed, between rocky walls whose tops in many places seem almost to reach the azure skies of the Himalayas, a heaven which here shows itself remarkably pure and serene.
Toward noon we arrived at the hamlet called Tongue—situated on the bank of the river—which presents an unique array of huts that give the effect of boxes, the openings of which form a façade. Here are sold comestibles and all kinds of merchandise. The place swarms with Hindus, who bear on their foreheads the variously colored marks of their respective castes. Here, too, you see the beautiful people of Kachmyr, dressed in their long white shirts and snowy turbans. I hired here, at a good price, a Hindu cabriolet, from a Kachmyrian. This vehicle is so constructed that in order to keep one's seat in it, one must cross his legs in the Turkish fashion. The seat is so small that it will hold, at most, only two persons. The absence of any support for the back makes this mode of transportation very dangerous; nevertheless, I accepted this kind of circular table mounted on two wheels and drawn by a horse, as I was anxious to reach, as soon as possible, the end of my journey. Hardly, however, had I gone five hundred yards on it, when I seriously regretted the horse I had forsaken, so much fatigue had I to endure keeping my legs crossed and maintaining my equilibrium. Unfortunately, it was already too late.
Evening was falling when I approached the village of Hori. Exhausted by fatigue; racked by the incessant jolting; my legs feeling as if invaded by millions of ants, I had been completely incapable of enjoying the picturesque landscape spread before us as we journeyed along the Djeloum, the banks of which are bordered on one side by steep rocks and on the other by the heavily wooded slopes of the mountains. In Hori I encountered a caravan of pilgrims returning from Mecca.
Thinking I was a physician and learning my haste to reach Ladak, they invited me to join them, which I promised I would at Srinagar.
I spent an ill night, sitting up in my bed, with a lighted torch in my hand, without closing my eyes, in constant fear of the stings and bites of the scorpions and centipedes which swarm in the bengalows. I was sometimes ashamed of the fear with which those vermin inspired me; nevertheless, I could not fall asleep among them. Where, truly, in man, is the line that separates courage from cowardice? I will not boast of my bravery, but I am not a coward, yet the insurmountable fear with which those malevolent little creatures thrilled me, drove sleep from my eyelids, in spite of my extreme fatigue.
Our horses carried us into a flat valley, encircled by high mountains. Bathed as I was in the rays of the sun, it did not take me long to fall asleep in the saddle. A sudden sense of freshness penetrated and awoke me. I saw that we had already begun climbing a mountain path, in the midst of a dense forest, rifts in which occasionally opened to our admiring gaze ravishing vistas, impetuous torrents; distant mountains; cloudless heavens; a landscape, far below, of wondrous beauty. All about us were the songs of numberless brilliantly plumaged birds. We came out of the forest toward noon, descended to a little hamlet on the bank of the river, and after refreshing ourselves with a light, cold collation, continued our journey. Before starting, I went to a bazaar and tried to buy there a glass of warm milk from a Hindu, who was sitting crouched before a large cauldron full of boiling milk. How great was my surprise when he proposed to me that I should take away the whole cauldron, with its contents, assuring me that I had polluted the milk it contained! "I only want a glass of milk and not a kettle of it," I said to him.
"According to our laws," the merchant answered me, "if any one not belonging to our caste has fixed his eyes for a long time upon one of our cooking utensils, we have to wash that article thoroughly, and throw away the food it contains. You have polluted my milk and no one will drink any more of it, for not only were you not contented with fixing your eyes upon it, but you have even pointed to it with your finger."
I had indeed a long time examined his merchandise, to make sure that it was really milk, and had pointed with my finger, to the merchant, from which side I wished the milk poured out. Full of respect for the laws and customs of foreign peoples, I paid, without dispute, a rupee, the price of all the milk, which was poured in the street, though I had taken only one glass of it. This was a lesson which taught me, from now on, not to fix my eyes upon the food of the Hindus.
There is no religious belief more muddled by the numbers of ceremonious laws and commentaries prescribing its observances than the Brahminic.
While each of the other principal religions has but one inspired book, one Bible, one Gospel, or one Koran—books from which the Hebrew, the Christian and the Musselman draw their creeds—the Brahminical Hindus possess such a great number of tomes and commentaries in folio that the wisest Brahmin has hardly had the time to peruse one-tenth of them. Leaving aside the four books of the Vedas; the Puranas—which are written in Sanscrit and composed of eighteen volumes—containing 400,000 strophes treating of law, rights, theogony, medicine, the creation and destruction of the world, etc.; the vast Shastras, which deal with mathematics, grammar, etc.; the Upa-Vedas, Upanishads, Upo-Puranas—which are explanatory of the Puranas;—and a number of other commentaries in several volumes; there still remain twelve vast books, containing the laws of Manu, the grandchild of Brahma—books dealing not only with civil and criminal law, but also the canonical rules—rules which impose upon the faithful such a considerable number of ceremonies that one is surprised into admiration of the illimitable patience the Hindus show in observance of the precepts inculcated by Saint Manu. Manu was incontestably a great legislator and a great thinker, but he has written so much that it has happened to him frequently to contradict himself in the course of a single page. The Brahmins do not take the trouble to notice that, and the poor Hindus, whose labor supports the Brahminic caste, obey servilely their clergy, whose prescriptions enjoin upon them never to touch a man who does not belong to their caste, and also absolutely prohibit a stranger from fixing his attention upon anything belonging to a Hindu. Keeping himself to the strict letter of this law, the Hindu imagines that his food is polluted when it receives a little protracted notice from the stranger.
And yet, Brahminism has been, even at the beginning of its second birth, a purely monotheistic religion, recognizing only one infinite and indivisible God. As it came to pass in all times and in religions, the clergy took advantage of the privileged situation which places them above the ignorant multitude, and early manufactured various exterior forms of cult and certain laws, thinking they could better, in this way, influence and control the masses. Things changed soon, so far that the principle of monotheism, of which the Vedas have given such a clear conception, became confounded with, or, as it were, supplanted by an absurd and limitless series of gods and goddesses, half-gods, genii and devils, which were represented by idols, of infinite variety but all equally horrible looking. The people, once glorious as their religion was once great and pure, now slip by degrees into complete idiocy. Hardly does their day suffice for the accomplishment of all the prescriptions of their canons. It must be said positively that the Hindus only exist to support their principal caste, the Brahmins, who have taken into their hands the temporal power which once was possessed by independent sovereigns of the people. While governing India, the Englishman does not interfere with this phase of the public life, and so the Brahmins profit by maintaining the people's hope of a better future.
The sun passed behind the summit of a mountain, and the darkness of night in one moment overspread the magnificent landscape we were traversing. Soon the narrow valley of the Djeloum fell asleep. Our road winding along ledges of steep rocks, was instantly hidden from our sight; mountains and trees were confounded together in one dark mass, and the stars glittered in the celestial vault. We had to dismount and feel our way along the mountain side, for fear of becoming the prey of the abyss which yawned at our feet. At a late hour of the night we traversed a bridge and ascended a steep elevation leading to the bengalow Ouri, which at this height seems to enjoy complete isolation. The next day we traversed a charming region, always going along the river—at a turn of which we saw the ruins of a Sikh fortress, that seemed to remember sadly its glorious past. In a little valley, nestled amid the mountains, we found a bengalow which seemed to welcome us. In its proximity were encamped a cavalry regiment of the Maharajah of Kachmyr.
When the officers learned that I was a Russian, they invited me to share their repast. There I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Col. Brown, who was the first to compile a dictionary of the Afghan-pouchton language.
As I was anxious to reach, as soon as possible, the city of Srinagar, I, with little delay, continued my journey through the picturesque region lying at the foot of the mountains, after having, for a long time, followed the course of the river. Here, before our eyes, weary of the monotonous desolation of the preceding landscapes, was unfolded a charming view of a well-peopled valley, with many two-story houses surrounded by gardens and cultivated fields. A little farther on begins the celebrated valley of Kachmyr, situated behind a range of high rocks which I crossed toward evening. What a superb panorama revealed itself before my eyes, when I found myself at the last rock which separates the valley of Kachmyr from the mountainous country I had traversed. A ravishing tableau truly enchanted my sight. This valley, the limits of which are lost in the horizon, and is throughout well populated, is enshrined amid the high Himalayan mountains. At the rising and the setting of the sun, the zone of eternal snows seems a silver ring, which like a girdle surrounds this rich and delightful plateau, furrowed by numerous rivers and traversed by excellent roads, gardens, hills, a lake, the islands in which are occupied by constructions of pretentious style, all these cause the traveller to feel as if he had entered another world. It seems to him as though he had to go but a little farther on and there must find the Paradise of which his governess had told him so often in his childhood.
The veil of night slowly covered the valley, merging mountains, gardens and lake in one dark amplitude, pierced here and there by distant fires, resembling stars. I descended into the valley, directing myself toward the Djeloum, which has broken its way through a narrow gorge in the mountains, to unite itself with the waters of the river Ind. According to the legend, the valley was once an inland sea; a passage opened through the rocks environing it, and drained the waters away, leaving nothing more of its former character than the lake, the Djeloum and minor water-courses. The banks of the river are now lined with boat-houses, long and narrow, which the proprietors, with their families, inhabit the whole year.
From here Srinagar can be reached in one day's travel on horseback; but with a boat the journey requires a day and a half. I chose the latter mode of conveyance, and having selected a boat and bargained with its proprietor for its hire, took my seat in the bow, upon a carpet, sheltered by a sort of penthouse roof. The boat left the shore at midnight, bearing us rapidly toward Srinagar. At the stern of the bark, a Hindu prepared my tea. I went to sleep, happy in knowing my voyage was to be accomplished. The hot caress of the sun's rays penetrating my little roof awakened me, and what I experienced delighted me beyond all expression. Entirely green banks; the distant outlines of mountain tops covered with snow; pretty villages which from time to time showed themselves at the mountain's foot; the crystalline sheet of water; pure and peculiarly agreeable air, which I breathed with exhilaration; the musical carols of an infinity of birds; a sky of extraordinary purity; behind me the plash of water stirred by the round-ended paddle which was wielded with ease by a superb woman (with marvellous eyes and a complexion browned by the sun), who wore an air of stately indifference: all these things together seemed to plunge me into an ecstasy, and I forgot entirely the reason for my presence on the river. In that moment I had not even a desire to reach the end of my voyage—and yet, how many privations remained for me to undergo, and dangers to encounter! I felt myself here so well content!
The boat glided rapidly and the landscape continued to unfold new beauties before my eyes, losing itself in ever new combinations with the horizon, which merged into the mountains we were passing, to become one with them. Then a new panorama would display itself, seeming to expand and flow out from the sides of the mountains, becoming more and more grand.... The day was almost spent and I was not yet weary of contemplating this magnificent nature, the view of which reawakened the souvenirs of childhood and youth. How beautiful were those days forever gone!
The more nearly one approaches Srinagar, the more numerous become the villages embowered in the verdure. At the approach of our boat, some of their inhabitants came running to see us; the men in their turbans, the women in their small bonnets, both alike dressed in white gowns reaching to the ground, the children in a state of nudity which reminded one of the costumes of our first parents.
When entering the city one sees a range of barks and floating houses in which entire families reside. The tops of the far-off, snow-covered mountains were caressed by the last rays of the setting sun, when we glided between the wooden houses of Srinagar, which closely line both banks of the river. Life seems to cease here at sunset; the thousands of many colored open boats (dunga) and palanquin-covered barks (bangla) were fastened along the beach; men and women gathered near the river, in the primitive costumes of Adam and Eve, going through their evening ablutions without feeling any embarrassment or prudery before each other, since they performed a religious rite, the importance of which is greater for them than all human prejudices.
On the 20th of October I awoke in a neat room, from which I had a gay view upon the river that was now inundated with the rays of the sun of Kachmyr. As it is not my purpose to describe here my experiences in detail, I refrain from enumerating the lovely valleys, the paradise of lakes, the enchanting islands, those historic places, mysterious pagodas, and coquettish villages which seem lost in vast gardens; on all sides of which rise the majestic tops of the giants of the Himalaya, shrouded as far as the eye can see in eternal snow. I shall only note the preparations I made in view of my journey toward Thibet. I spent six days at Srinagar, making long excursions into the enchanting surroundings of the city, examining the numerous ruins which testify to the ancient prosperity of this region, and studying the strange customs of the country.
Kachmyr, as well as the other provinces attached to it, Baltistan, Ladak, etc., are vassals of England. They formerly formed part of the possessions of Randjid Sing, the Lion of the Pendjab. At his death, the English troops occupied Lahore, the capital of the Pendjab, separated Kachmyr from the rest of the empire and ceded it, under color of hereditary right, and for the sum of 160,000,000 francs, to Goulab-Sing, one of the familiars of the late sovereign, conferring on him besides the title of Maharadja. At the epoch of my journey, the actual Maharadja was Pertab-Sing, the grandchild of Goulab, whose residence is Jamoo, on the southern slope of the Himalaya.
The celebrated "happy valley" of Kachmyr (eighty-five miles long by twenty-five miles wide) enjoyed glory and prosperity only under the Grand Mogul, whose court loved to taste here the sweetness of country life, in the still existent pavilions on the little island of the lake. Most of the Maharadjas of Hindustan used formerly to spend here the summer months, and to take part in the magnificent festivals given by the Grand Mogul; but times have greatly changed since, and the happy valley is today no more than a beggar retreat. Aquatic plants and scum have covered the clear waters of the lake; the wild juniper has smothered all the vegetation of the islands; the palaces and pavilions retain only the souvenir of their past grandeur; earth and grass cover the buildings which are now falling in ruins. The surrounding mountains and their eternally white tops seem to be absorbed in a sullen sadness, and to nourish the hope of a better time for the disclosure of their immortal beauties. The once spiritual, beautiful and cleanly inhabitants have grown animalistic and stupid; they have become dirty and lazy; and the whip now governs them, instead of the sword.
The people of Kachmyr have so often been subject to invasions and pillages and have had so many masters, that they have now become indifferent to every thing. They pass their time near the banks of the rivers, gossiping about their neighbors; or are engaged in the painstaking work of making their celebrated shawls; or in the execution of filagree gold or silver work. The Kachmyr women are of a melancholy temperament, and an inconceivable sadness is spread upon their features. Everywhere reigns misery and uncleanness. The beautiful men and superb women of Kachmyr are dirty and in rags. The costume of the two sexes consists, winter and summer alike, of a long shirt, or gown, made of thick material and with puffed sleeves. They wear this shirt until it is completely worn out, and never is it washed, so that the white turban of the men looks like dazzling snow near their dirty shirts, which are covered all over with spittle and grease stains.
The traveller feels himself permeated with sadness at seeing the contrast between the rich and opulent nature surrounding them, and this people dressed in rags.
The capital of the country, Srinagar (City of the Sun), or, to call it by the name which is given to it here after the country, Kachmyr, is situated on the shore of the Djeloum, along which it stretches out toward the south to a distance of five kilometres and is not more than two kilometres in breadth.
Its two-story houses, inhabited by a population of 100,000 inhabitants, are built of wood and border both river banks. Everybody lives on the river, the shores of which are united by ten bridges. Terraces lead from the houses to the Djeloum, where all day long people perform their ceremonial ablutions, bathe and wash their culinary utensils, which consist of a few copper pots. Part of the inhabitants practice the Musselman religion; two-thirds are Brahminic; and there are but few Buddhists to be found among them.
It was time to make other preparations for travel before plunging into the unknown. Having purchased different kinds of conserves, wine and other things indispensable on a journey through a country so little peopled as is Thibet, I packed all my baggage in boxes; hired six carriers and an interpreter, bought a horse for my own use, and fixed my departure for the 27th of October. To cheer up my journey, I took from a good Frenchman, M. Peicheau, the wine cultivator of the Maharadja, a big dog, Pamir, who had already traversed the road with my friends, Bonvallot, Capus and Pepin, the well-known explorers. As I wished to shorten my journey by two days, I ordered my carriers to leave at dawn from the other side of the lake, which I crossed in a boat, and joined them and my horse at the foot of the mountain chain which separates the valley of Srinagar from the Sind gorge.
I shall never forget the tortures which we had to undergo in climbing almost on all fours to a mountain top, three thousand feet high. The carriers were out of breath; every moment I feared to see one tumble down the declivity with his burden, and I felt pained at seeing my poor dog, Pamir, panting and with his tongue hanging out, make two or three steps and fall to the ground exhausted. Forgetting my own fatigue, I caressed and encouraged the poor animal, who, as if understanding me, got up to make another two or three steps and fall anew to the ground.
The night had come when we reached the crest; we threw ourselves greedily upon the snow to quench our thirst; and after a short rest, started to descend through a very thick pine forest, hastening to gain the village of Haïena, at the foot of the defile, fearing the attacks of beasts of prey in the darkness.
A level and good road leads from Srinagar to Haïena, going straight northward over Ganderbal, where I repaired by a more direct route across a pass three thousand feet high, which shortened for me both time and distance.
My first step in the unknown was marked by an incident which made all of us pass an ugly quarter of an hour. The defile of the Sind, sixty miles long, is especially noteworthy for the inhospitable hosts it contains. Among others it abounds in panthers, tigers, leopards, black bears, wolves and jackals. As though by a special misfortune, the snow had covered with its white carpet the heights of the chain, compelling those formidable, carnivorous beasts to descend a little lower for shelter in their dens. We descended in silence, amid the darkness, a narrow path that wound through the centennary firs and birches, and the calm of the night was only broken by the crackling sound of our steps. Suddenly, quite near to us, a terrible howling awoke the echoes of the woods. Our small troop stopped. "A panther!" exclaimed, in a low and frightened voice, my servant. The small caravan of a dozen men stood motionless, as though riveted to the spot. Then it occurred to me that at the moment of starting on our ascent, when already feeling fatigued, I had entrusted my revolver to one of the carriers, and my Winchester rifle to another. Now I felt bitter regret for having parted with my arms, and asked in a low voice where the man was to whom I had given the rifle. The howls became more and more violent, and filled the echoes of the woods, when suddenly a dull sound was heard, like the fall of some body. A minute later we heard the noise of a struggle and a cry of agony which mingled with the fierce roars of the starved animal.
"Saaïb, take the gun," I heard some one near by. I seized feverishly the rifle, but, vain trouble, one could not see two steps before oneself. A new cry, followed by a smothered howling, indicated to me vaguely the place of the struggle, toward which I crawled, divided between the ardent desire to "kill a panther" and a horrible fear of being eaten alive. No one dared to move; only after five minutes it occurred to one of the carriers to light a match. I then remembered the fear which feline animals exhibit at the presence of fire, and ordered my men to gather two or three handfuls of brush, which I set on fire. We then saw, about ten steps from us, one of our carriers stretched out on the ground, with his limbs frightfully lacerated by the claws of a huge panther. The beast still lay upon him defiantly, holding a piece of flesh in its mouth. At its side, gaped a box of wine broken open by its fall when the carrier was torn down. Hardly did I make a movement to bring the rifle to my shoulder, when the panther raised itself, and turned toward us while dropping part of its horrible meal. One moment, it appeared about to spring upon me, then it suddenly wheeled, and rending the air with a howl, enough to freeze one's blood, jumped into the midst of the thicket and disappeared.
My coolies, whom an odious fear had all the time kept prostrated on the ground, recovered little by little from their fright. Keeping in readiness a few packages of dry grass and matches, we hastened to reach the village Haïena, leaving behind the remains of the unfortunate Hindu, whose fate we feared sharing.
An hour later we had left the forest and entered the plain. I ordered my tent erected under a very leafy plane tree, and had a great fire made before it, with a pile of wood, which was the only protection we could employ against the ferocious beasts whose howls continued to reach us from all directions. In the forest my dog had pressed himself against me, with his tail between his legs; but once under the tent, he suddenly recovered his watchfulness, and barked incessantly the whole night, being very careful, however, not to step outside. I spent a terrible night, rifle in hand, listening to the concert of those diabolical howlings, the echoes of which seemed to shake the defile. Some panthers approached our bivouac to answer the barking of Pamir, but dared not attack us.
I had left Srinagar at the head of eleven carriers, four of whom had to carry so many boxes of wine, four others bore my travelling effects; one my weapons, another various utensils, and finally a last, who went errands or on reconnaissance. His name was "Chicari," which means "he who accompanies the hunter and gathers the prey." I discharged him in the morning on account of his cowardice and his profound ignorance of the country, and only retained four carriers. It was but slowly that I advanced toward the village of Gounde.
How beautiful is nature in the Sind pass, and how much is it beloved by the hunters! Besides the great fallow deer, you meet there the hind, the stag, the mountain sheep and an immense variety of birds, among which I want to mention above all the golden pheasant, and others of red or snow-white plumage, very large partridges and immense eagles.
The villages situated along the Sind do not shine by their dimensions. They contain, for the greatest part, not more than ten to twenty huts of an extremely miserable appearance. Their inhabitants are clad in rags. Their cattle belongs to a very small race.
I crossed the river at Sambal, and stopped near the village Gounde, where I procured relay horses. In some villages they refused to hire horses to me; I then threatened them with my whip, which at once inspired respect and obedience; my money accomplished the same end; it inspired a servile obedience—not willingness—to obey my least orders.
Stick and gold are the true sovereigns in the Orient; without them the Very Grand Mogul would not have had any preponderance.
Night began to descend, and I was in a hurry to cross the defile which separates the villages Gogangan and Sonamarg. The road is in very bad condition, and the mountains are infested by beasts of prey which in the night descend into the very villages to seek their prey. The country is delightful and very fertile; nevertheless, but few colonists venture to settle here, on account of the neighborhood of the panthers, which come to the dooryards to seize domestic animals.
At the very exit of the defile, near the village of Tchokodar, or Thajwas, the half obscurity prevailing only permitted me to distinguish two dark masses crossing the road. They were two big bears followed by a young one. I was alone with my servant (the caravan having loitered behind), so I did not like to attack them with only one rifle; but the long excursions which I had made on the mountain had strongly developed in me the sense of the hunter. To jump from my horse, shoot, and, without even verifying the result, change quickly the cartridge, was the affair of a second. One bear was about to jump on me, a second shot made it run away and disappear. Holding in my hand my loaded gun, I approached with circumspection, the one at which I had aimed, and found it laying on its flank, dead, with the little cub beside it. Another shot killed the little one, after which I went to work to take off the two superb jet-black skins.
This incident made us lose two hours, and night had completely set in when I erected my tent near Tchokodar, which I left at sunrise to gain Baltal, by following the course of the Sind river. At this place the ravishing landscape of the "golden prairie" terminates abruptly with a village of the same name (Sona, gold, and Marg, prairie). The abrupt acclivity of Zodgi-La, which we next surmounted, attains an elevation of 11,500 feet, on the other side of which the whole country assumes a severe and inhospitable character. My hunting adventures closed before reaching Baltal. From there I met on the road only wild goats. In order to hunt, I would have had to leave the grand route and to penetrate into the heart of the mountains full of mysteries. I had neither the inclination nor the time to do so, and, therefore, continued quietly my journey toward Ladak.
How violent the contrast I felt when passing from the laughing nature and beautiful population of Kachmyr to the arid and forbidding rocks and the beardless and ugly inhabitants of Ladak!
The country into which I penetrated is situated at an altitude of 11,000 to 12,000 feet. Only at Karghil the level descends to 8,000 feet.
The acclivity of Zodgi-La is very rough; one must climb up an almost perpendicular rocky wall. In certain places the road winds along upon rock ledges of only a metre in width, below which the sight drops into unfathomable abysses. May the Lord preserve the traveller from a fall! At one place, the way is upon long beams introduced into holes made in the rock, like a bridge, and covered up with earth. Brr!—At the thought that a little stone might get loose and roll down the slope of the mountain, or that a too strong oscillation of the beams could precipitate the whole structure into the abyss, and with it him who had ventured upon the perilous path, one feels like fainting more than once during this hazardous passage.
After crossing the glaciers we stopped in a valley and prepared to spend the night near a hut, a dismal place surrounded by eternal ice and snow.
From Baltal the distances are determined by means of daks, i.e., postal stations for mail service. They are low huts, about seven kilometres distant from each other. A man is permanently established in each of these huts. The postal service between Kachmyr and Thibet is yet carried on in a very primitive form. The letters are enclosed in a leather bag, which is handed to the care of a carrier. The latter runs rapidly over the seven kilometres assigned to him, carrying on his back a basket which holds several of these bags, which he delivers to another carrier, who, in his turn, accomplishes his task in an identical manner. Neither rain nor snow can arrest these carriers. In this way the mail service is carried on between Kachmyr and Thibet, and vice versa once a week. For each course the letter carrier is paid six annas (twenty cents); the same wages as is paid to the carriers of merchandise. This sum I also paid to every one of my servants for carrying a ten times heavier load.
It makes one's heart ache to see the pale and tired-looking figures of these carriers; but what is to be done? It is the custom of the country. The tea is brought from China by a similar system of transportation, which is rapid and inexpensive.
In the village of Montaiyan, I found again the Yarkandien caravan of pilgrims, whom I had promised to accompany on their journey. They recognized me from a distance, and asked me to examine one of their men, who had fallen sick. I found him writhing in the agonies of an intense fever. Shaking my hands as a sign of despair, I pointed to the heavens and gave them to understand that human will and science were now useless, and that God alone could save him. These people journeyed by small stages only; I, therefore, left them and arrived in the evening at Drass, situated at the bottom of a valley near a river of the same name. Near Drass, a little fort of ancient construction, but freshly painted, stands aloof, under the guard of three Sikhs of the Maharadja's army.
At Drass, my domicile was the post-house, which is a station—and the only one—of an unique telegraph line from Srinagar to the interior of the Himalayas. From that time on, I no more had my tent put up each evening, but stopped in the caravansarais; places which, though made repulsive by their dirt, are kept warm by the enormous piles of wood burned in their fireplaces.
From Drass to Karghil the landscape is unpleasing and monotonous, if one excepts the marvellous effects of the rising and setting sun and the beautiful moonlight. Apart from these the road is wearisome and abounding with dangers. Karghil is the principal place of the district, where the governor of the country resides. Its site is quite picturesque. Two water courses, the Souron and the Wakkha, roll their noisy and turbulent waters among rocks and sunken snags of uprooted trees, escaping from their respective defiles in the rocks, to join in forming here the river Souron, upon the banks of which stands Karghil. A little fort, garrisoned by two or three Sikhs, shows its outlines at the junction of the streams. Provided with a horse, I continued my journey at break of day, entering now the province of Ladak, or Little Thibet. I traversed a ricketty bridge, composed—like all the bridges of Kachmyr—of two long beams, the ends of which were supported upon the banks and the floor made of a layer of fagots and sticks, which imparted to the traveller, at least the illusion of a suspension bridge. Soon afterward I climbed slowly up on a little plateau, which crosses the way at a distance of two kilometres, to descend into the narrow valley of Wakkha. Here there are several villages, among which, on the left shore, is the very picturesque one called Paskium.
Here my feet trod Buddhist ground. The inhabitants are of a very simple and mild disposition, seemingly ignorant of "quarreling." Women are very rare among them. Those of them whom I encountered were distinguished from the women I had hitherto seen in India or Kachmyr, by the air of gaiety and prosperity apparent in their countenances. How could it be otherwise, since each woman in this country has, on an average, three to five husbands, and possesses them in the most legitimate way in the world. Polyandry flourishes here. However large a family may be, there is but one woman in it. If the family does not contain already more than two husbands, a bachelor may share its advantages, for a consideration. The days sacred to each one of those husbands are determined in advance, and all acquit themselves of their respective duties and respect each others' rights. The men generally seem feeble, with bent backs, and do not live to old age. During my travels in Ladak, I only encountered one man so old that his hair was white.
From Karghil to the centre of Ladak, the road had a more cheerful aspect than that I had traversed before reaching Karghil, its prospect being brightened by a number of little hamlets, but trees and verdure were, unfortunately, rare.
Twenty miles from Karghil, at the end of the defile formed by the rapid current of the Wakkha, is a little village called Chargol, in the centre of which stand three chapels, decorated with lively colors (t'horthenes, to give them the name they bear in Thibet). Below, near the river, are masses of rocks, in the form of long and large walls, upon which are thrown, in apparent disorder, flat stones of different colors and sizes. Upon these stones are engraved all sorts of prayers, in Ourd, Sanscrit and Thibetan, and one can even find among them inscriptions in Arabic characters. Without the knowledge of my carriers, I succeeded in taking away a few of these stones, which are now in the palace of the Trocadero.
Along the way, from Chargol, one finds frequently oblong mounds, artificial constructions. After sunrise, with fresh horses, I resumed my journey and stopped near the gonpa (monastery) of Moulbek, which seems glued on the flank of an isolated rock. Below is the hamlet of Wakkha, and not far from there is to be seen another rock, of very strange form, which seems to have been placed where it stands by human hands. In one side of it is cut a Buddha several metres in height. Upon it are several cylinders, the turning of which serves for prayers. They are a sort of wooden barrel, draped with yellow or white fabrics, and are attached to vertically planted stakes. It requires only the least wind to make them turn. The person who puts up one of these cylinders no longer feels it obligatory upon him to say his prayers, for all that devout believers can ask of God is written upon the cylinders. Seen from a distance this white painted monastery, standing sharply out from the gray background of the rocks, with all these whirling, petticoated wheels, produce a strange effect in this dead country. I left my horses in the hamlet of Wakkha, and, followed by my servant, walked toward the convent, which is reached by a narrow stairway cut in the rock. At the top, I was received by a very fat lama, with a scanty, straggling beard under his chin—a common characteristic of the Thibetan people—who was very ugly, but very cordial. His costume consisted of a yellow robe and a sort of big nightcap, with projecting flaps above the ears, of the same color. He held in his hand a copper prayer-machine which, from time to time, he shook with his left hand, without at all permitting that exercise to interfere with his conversation. It was his eternal prayer, which he thus communicated to the wind, so that by this element it should be borne to Heaven. We traversed a suite of low chambers, upon the walls of which were images of Buddha, of all sizes and made of all kinds of materials, all alike covered by a thick layer of dust. Finally we reached an open terrace, from which the eyes, taking in the surrounding region, rested upon an inhospitable country, strewn with grayish rocks and traversed by only a single road, which on both sides lost itself in the horizon.
When we were seated, they brought us beer, made with hops, called here Tchang and brewed in the cloister. It has a tendency to rapidly produce embonpoint upon the monks, which is regarded as a sign of the particular favor of Heaven.
They spoke here the Thibetan language. The origin of this language is full of obscurity. One thing is certain, that a king of Thibet, a contemporary of Mohammed, undertook the creation of an universal language for all the disciples of Buddha. To this end he had simplified the Sanscrit grammar, composed an alphabet containing an infinite number of signs, and thus laid the foundations of a language the pronunciation of which is one of the easiest and the writing the most complicated. Indeed, in order to represent a sound one must employ not less than eight characters. All the modern literature of Thibet is written in this language. The pure Thibetan is only spoken in Ladak and Oriental Thibet. In all other parts of the country are employed dialects formed by the mixture of this mother language with different idioms taken from the neighboring peoples of the various regions round about. In the ordinary life of the Thibetan, there exists always two languages, one of which is absolutely incomprehensible to the women, while the other is spoken by the entire nation; but only in the convents can be found the Thibetan language in all its purity and integrity.
The lamas much prefer the visits of Europeans to those of Musselmen, and when I asked the one who received me why this was so, he answered me: "Musselmen have no point of contact at all with our religion. Only comparatively recently, in their victorious campaign, they have converted, by force, part of the Buddhists to Islam. It requires of us great efforts to bring back those Musselmen, descendants of Buddhists, into the path of the true God. As regards the Europeans, it is quite a different affair. Not only do they profess the essential principles of monotheism, but they are, in a sense, adorers of Buddha, with almost the same rites as the lamas who inhabit Thibet. The only fault of the Christians is that after having adopted the great doctrines of Buddha, they have completely separated themselves from him, and have created for themselves a different Dalai-Lama. Our Dalai-Lama is the only one who has received the divine gift of seeing, face to face, the majesty of Buddha, and is empowered to serve as an intermediary between earth and heaven."
"Which Dalai-Lama of the Christians do you refer to?" I asked him; "we have one, the Son of God, to whom we address directly our fervent prayers, and to him alone we recur to intercede with our One and Indivisible God."
"It is not him of whom it is a question, Sahib," he replied. "We, too, respect him, whom we reverence as son of the One and Indivisible God, but we do not see in him the Only Son, but the excellent being who was chosen among all. Buddha, indeed, has incarnated himself, with his divine nature, in the person of the sacred Issa, who, without employing fire or iron, has gone forth to propagate our true and great religion among all the world. Him whom I meant was your terrestrial Dalai-Lama; he to whom you have given the title of 'Father of the Church.' That is a great sin. May he be brought back, with the flock, who are now in a bad road," piously added the lama, giving another twirl to his prayer-machine.
I understood now that he alluded to the Pope. "You have told me that a son of Buddha, Issa, the elect among all, had spread your religion on the Earth. Who is he?" I asked.
At this question the lama's eyes opened wide; he looked at me with astonishment and pronounced some words I could not catch, murmuring in an unintelligible way. "Issa," he finally replied, "is a great prophet, one of the first after the twenty-two Buddhas. He is greater than any one of all the Dalai-Lamas, for he constitutes part of the spirituality of our Lord. It is he who has instructed you; he who brought back into the bosom of God the frivolous and wicked souls; he who made you worthy of the beneficence of the Creator, who has ordained that each being should know good and evil. His name and his acts have been chronicled in our sacred writings, and when reading how his great life passed away in the midst of an erring people, we weep for the horrible sin of the heathen who murdered him, after subjecting him to torture."
I was struck by this recital of the lama. The prophet Issa—his tortures and death—our Christian Dalai-Lama—the Buddhist recognizing Christianity—all these made me think more and more of Jesus Christ. I asked my interpreter not to lose a single word of what the lama told me.
"Where can those writings be found, and who compiled them?" I asked the monk.
"The principal scrolls—which were written in India and Nepaul, at different epochs, as the events happened—are in Lhassa; several thousands in number. In some great convents are to be found copies, which the lamas, during their sojourn in Lhassa, have made, at various times, and have then given to their cloisters as souvenirs of the period they spent with the Dalai-Lama."
"But you, yourselves; do you not possess copies of the scrolls bearing upon the prophet Issa?"
"We have not. Our convent is insignificant, and since its foundation our successive lamas have had only a few hundred manuscripts in their library. The great cloisters have several thousands of them; but they are sacred things which will not, anywhere, be shown to you."
We spoke together a few minutes longer, after which I went home, all the while thinking of the lama's statements. Issa, a prophet of the Buddhists! But, how could this be? Of Jewish origin, he lived in Palestine and in Egypt; and the Gospels do not contain one word, not even the least allusion, to the part which Buddhism should have played in the education of Jesus.
I made up my mind to visit all the convents of Thibet, in the hope of gathering fuller information upon the prophet Issa, and perhaps copies of the chronicles bearing upon this subject.
We traversed the Namykala Pass, at 30,000 feet of altitude, whence we descended into the valley of the River Salinoumah. Turning southward, we gained Karbou, leaving behind us, on the opposite bank, numerous villages, among other, Chagdoom, which is at the top of a rock, an extremely imposing sight. Its houses are white and have a sort of festive look, with their two and three stories. This, by the way, is a common peculiarity of all the villages of Ladak. The eye of the European, travelling in Kachmyr, would soon lose sight of all architecture to which he had been accustomed. In Ladak, on the contrary, he would be agreeably surprised at seeing the little two and three-story houses, reminders to him of those in European provinces. Near the city of Karbou, upon two perpendicular rocks, one sees the ruins of a little town or village. A tempest and an earthquake are said to have shaken down its walls, the solidity of which seems to have been exceptional.
The next day I traversed the Fotu-La Pass, at an altitude of 13,500 feet. At its summit stands a little t'horthene (chapel). Thence, following the dry bed of a stream, I descended to the hamlet of Lamayure, the sudden appearance of which is a surprise to the traveller. A convent, which seems grafted on the side of the rock, or held there in some miraculous way, dominates the village. Stairs are unknown in this cloister. In order to pass from one story of it to another, ropes are used. Communication with the world outside is through a labyrinth of passages in the rock. Under the windows of the convent—which make one think of birds' nests on the face of a cliff—-is a little inn, the rooms of which are little inviting. Hardly had I stretched myself on the carpet in one of them, when the monks, dressed in their yellow robes, filled the apartment, bothered me with questions as to whence I came, the purpose of my coming, where I was going, and so on, finally inviting me to come and see them.
In spite of my fatigue I accepted their invitation and set out with them, to climb up the excavated passages in the rock, which were encumbered with an infinity of prayer cylinders and wheels, which I could not but touch and set turning as I brushed past them. They are placed there that they may be so turned, saving to the passers-by the time they might otherwise lose in saying their prayers—as if their affairs were so absorbing, and their time so precious, that they could not find leisure to pray. Many pious Buddhists use for this purpose an apparatus arranged to be turned by the current of a stream. I have seen a long row of cylinders, provided with their prayer formulas, placed along a river bank, in such a way that the water kept them constantly in motion, this ingenious device freeing the proprietors from any further obligation to say prayers themselves.
I sat down on a bench in the hall, where semi-obscurity reigned. The walls were garnished with little statues of Buddha, books and prayer-wheels. The loquacious lamas began explaining to me the significance of each object.
"And those books?" I asked them; "they, no doubt, have reference to religion."
"Yes, sir. These are a few religious volumes which deal with the primary and principal rites of the life common to all. We possess several parts of the words of Buddha consecrated to the Great and Indivisible Divine Being, and to all that issue from his hands."
"Is there not, among those books, some account of the prophet Issa?"
"No, sir," answered the monk. "We only possess a few principal treatises relating to the observance of the religious rites. As for the biographies of our saints, they are collected in Lhassa. There are even great cloisters which have not had the time to procure them. Before coming to this gonpa, I was for several years in a great convent on the other side of Ladak, and have seen there thousands of books, and scrolls copied out of various books by the lamas of the monastery."
By some further interrogation I learned that the convent in question was near Leh, but my persistent inquiries had the effect of exciting the suspicions of the lamas. They showed me the way out with evident pleasure, and regaining my room, I fell asleep —after a light lunch—leaving orders with my Hindu to inform himself in a skillful way, from some of the younger lamas of the convent, about the monastery in which their chief had lived before coming to Lamayure.
In the morning, when we set forth on our journey, the Hindu told me that he could get nothing from the lamas, who were very reticent. I will not stop to describe the life of the monks in those convents, for it is the same in all the cloisters of Ladak. I have seen the celebrated monastery of Leh—of which I shall have to speak later on—and learned there the strange existences the monks and religious people lead, which is everywhere the same. In Lamayure commences a declivity which, through a steep, narrow and sombre gorge, extends toward India.
Without having the least idea of the dangers which the descent presented, I sent my carriers in advance and started on a route, rather pleasant at the outset, which passes between the brown clay hills, but soon it produced upon me the most depressing effect, as though I was traversing a gloomy subterranean passage. Then the road came out on the flank of the mountain, above a terrible abyss. If a rider had met me, we could not possibly have passed each other, the way was so narrow. All description would fail to convey a sense of the grandeur and wild beauty of this cañon, the summit of the walls of which seemed to reach the sky. At some points it became so narrow that from my saddle I could, with my cane, touch the opposite rock. At other places, death might be fancied looking up expectantly, from the abyss, at the traveller. It was too late to dismount. In entering alone this gorge, I had not the faintest idea that I would have occasion to regret my foolish imprudence. I had not realized its character. It was simply an enormous crevasse, rent by some Titanic throe of nature, some tremendous earthquake, which had split the granite mountain. In its bottom I could just distinguish a hardly perceptible white thread, an impetuous torrent, the dull roar of which filled the defile with mysterious and impressive sounds.
Far overhead extended, narrow and sinuously, a blue ribbon, the only glimpse of the celestial world that the frowning granite walls permitted to be seen. It was a thrilling pleasure, this majestic view of nature. At the same time, its rugged severity, the vastness of its proportions, the deathly silence only invaded by the ominous murmur from the depths beneath, all together filled me with an unconquerable depression. I had about eight miles in which to experience these sensations, at once sweet and painful. Then, turning to the right, our little caravan reached a small valley, almost surrounded by precipitous granite rocks, which mirrored themselves in the Indus. On the bank of the river stands the little fortress Khalsi, a celebrated fortification dating from the epoch of the Musselman invasion, by which runs the wild road from Kachmyr to Thibet.
We crossed the Indus on an almost suspended bridge which led directly to the door of the fortress, thus impossible of evasion. Rapidly we traversed the valley, then the village of Khalsi, for I was anxious to spend the night in the hamlet of Snowely, which is placed upon terraces descending to the Indus. The two following days I travelled tranquilly and without any difficulties to overcome, along the shore of the Indus, in a picturesque country—which brought me to Leh, the capital of Ladak.
While traversing the little valley of Saspoula, at a distance of several kilometres from the village of the same name, I found "t'horthenes" and two cloisters, above one of which floated the French flag. Later on, I learned that a French engineer had presented the flag to the monks, who displayed it simply as a decoration of their building.
I passed the night at Saspoula and certainly did not forget to visit the cloisters, seeing there for the tenth time the omnipresent dust-covered images of Buddha; the flags and banners heaped in a corner; ugly masks on the floor; books and papyrus rolls heaped together without order or care, and the inevitable abundance of prayer-wheels. The lamas demonstrated a particular pleasure in exhibiting these things, doing it with the air of shopmen displaying their goods, with very little care for the degree of interest the traveller may take in them. "We must show everything, in the hope that the sight alone of these sacred objects will force the traveller to believe in the divine grandeur of the human soul."
Respecting the prophet Issa, they gave me the same account I already had, and I learned, what I had known before, that the books which could instruct me about him were at Lhassa, and that only the great monasteries possessed some copies. I did not think any more of passing Kara-koroum, but only of finding the history of the prophet Issa, which would, perhaps, bring to light the entire life of the best of men, and complete the rather vague information which the Gospels afford us about him.
Not far from Leh, and at the entrance of the valley of the same name, our road passed near an isolated rock, on the top of which were constructed a fort—with two towers and without garrison—and a little convent named Pitak. A mountain, 10,500 feet high, protects the entrance to Thibet. There the road makes a sudden turn toward the north, in the direction of Leh, six miles from Pitak and a thousand feet higher. Immense granite mountains tower above Leh, to a height of 18,000 or 19,000 feet, their crests covered with eternal snow. The city itself, surrounded by a girdle of stunted aspen trees, rises upon successive terraces, which are dominated by an old fort and the palaces of the ancient sovereigns of Ladak. Toward evening I made my entrance into Leh, and stopped at a bengalow constructed especially for Europeans, whom the road from India brings here in the hunting season.
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