"Secret Tibet" by Fosco Maraini

New theme on my blog is now making me look very lazy. For, the dateline says “Posted … days/weeks/months ago” instead of just showing the date posted. I mean it doesn’t let others do the maths, which I’m sure most of us won’t. I don’t necessarily look at the date when reading blog posts from some of my favourite blogs. Although, due to RSS subscription I normally catch them within a few hours of posting. Anyway, I’m off the track here, so let me come back on track.

I finished reading this book – Secret Tibet by Fosco Maraini (Translated in English by Eric Mosbacher and Guido Waldman) on 27 January, and have given a taster of the book here, while I was still in my early days of reading this book. I have been meaning to write about it for a while (my usual line it has become now!) and finally on a cold morning in York, I have taken time off writing about biodiesel to write about Secret Tibet, which is definitely much more fun, as well as challenging. I have placed so many bookmarks on this book – on pages, paragraphs and pictures that have caught my eyes, thinking they would be good to quote while writing about the book later on (i.e., now). Since there are just too many of nice, strange, interesting things to read about in this book, I will just say that it is one of the must read books for those interested in Tibet, especially for an on-the-ground account of Tibet, its culture, tradition and its people before the Chinese invasion. The book is a travelogue but at the same time much more than that. It gives you a sense of reading a history book, but from the ground up. We all are used to reading the “victor’s history”, but this book is altogether different. It tells the story of ordinary Tibetans, as seen by an Italian anthropologist (and photographer) during his trips in 1937 and 1948. The book was first published in 1951 and has been updated with new facts (and additional commentaries) in the 1998 edition.

…the supreme and final goal of every civilization is the creation of God.

Well, I am not going to comment on Maraini’s statement above, but there are just so many of similar one-liners throughout the book that I thought I should quote one! Anyway, it is fascinating to read Maraini’s account of his experiences in Tibet as an assistant to his “guru” – Prof Giuseppe Tucci. While reading the book I kept wondering how Maraini found so much time to observe, meet, record, and write about ordinary Tibetans while working as an assistant to Tucci. But I guess being an anthropologist, it came to him naturally, its what anthropologists do. And, we are treated in this book with not just his excellent writing, but also some great photographs, snapshots of Tibet that mostly don’t exist anymore.

Maraini is brutally honest in his writing, whether in expressing his disgust at the dirtiness of some of the Tibetans he met during his travels or in expressing his profound admiration for the same people for their hard work and for the happiness/satisfaction they show in their non-materialistic life in a very harsh environment, and for their ability to enjoy the life. Being a book on Tibet, Maraini of course writes about Tibetan Buddhism, their art and architecture (thankas and pagodas) and the Lamas. And he presents a brief history of Buddhism (and its spread in Tibet), and a brief history of Tibet itself at the end of the book. These two chapters are great sources of reference (also for the links to the sources Maraini cites here) for those who want to learn more about Buddhism and Tibet (and about Tibetan Buddhism!). Maraini provides a categorised bibliography at the end, which helps find works on Tibet and Buddhism in the area we are interested in without the feeling of being lost, which usually happens when we look at Bibliography sections of great works.

I can’t end my post without mentioning how much sadness, disgust and frustration Maraini expresses at the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese, and destruction of most of the arts and architecture, their culture and traditional way of life. This revised 1998 edition has additional information and commentary on post-Chinese-invasion Tibet, and it helps us to see what has been lost (and “gained” as Chinese would call it!) during the Chinese rule. There is a set of photographs of one of the monastery complexes before and after the Cultural Revolution – the former shows the complex in all its glory, whereas the latter shows the ruins of the complex, almost completely flattened by the Chinese! No wonder Maraini expresses such profound grief (and disgust) at such acts by the Chinese. He writes:

…a people’s freedom is an asset that is of transcendent value, an asset that nobody is entitled to confiscate. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that the “capitalist, reactionary, imperialist” world has fully recognized this fact for close on fifty years and acted upon it. All its colonial empires have been dismantled, dismembered, dissolved. The only colonial empire still extant is that of the Chinese “socialist and progressive” world, which, with its fine speeches and lovely doves of peace is in practice acting like the reviled colonial powers of the nineteenth century.

Once again, this is a great book and I can’t recommend enough. A must read!