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Jesuits Trip, Stumble on Shambhala

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The first European to reach India by sea was the Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama, who landed on the southwest coast of India at Calicut on May 20, 1598. The Jesuit missionaries who followed in his wake soon heard rumors about Christians living somewhere to the north of the Indian subcontinent, either in the the Himalaya Mountains or beyond on the Tibetan Plateau, and naturally they were eager to make contact with these supposed co-religionists. One missionary, Antonio de Andrade, decided to investigate these rumors himself.

A few Portugese traders may have ventured from India over the Himalayas into Tibet before the 1620s, but Andrade was apparently the first European to enter Tibet from India and leave a record of his journey. Andrade was born in Oleiros, Portugal in 1580, entered the Society of Jesus on December 15, 1595, and four years later was sent to India, where after stints of missionary work and posts at the Jesuit colleges at Goa he was appointed head of all the missionary stations in the territories of the Great Mogul of Hindostan.

In the spring of 1624, while in Delhi, Andrade learned of a large group of Hindu travelers who were just about to depart on a pilgrimage to a temple somewhere deep in the fastnesses of the Himalaya Mountains. Accompanying the pilgrim group, he decided, would be an excellent way to penetrate the Himalayas, hitherto virtually unexplored by Europeans. Andrade and a Jesuit companion, Manuel Marques, both disquised as Hindus, left from Delhi with the pilgrim caravan in early April of 1624. On the way up the valley of the Ganges River to Hardwar their disquises failed and they were arrested as spies. Eventually released for lack of evidence, the Jesuits rejoined the caravan, but were soon detained again. Finally they admitted that they were on a mission to reach Tibet. At first the authorities adamantly refused to let them proceed, but then, apparently deciding that they were harmless eccentrics, let them go on after they handed over some of their personal possessions as bribes. Around the beginning of June the caravan, with Andrade and Marques in tow, reached their destination, the sacred shines of Badrinath at just over 10,000 in the Himalayas, then as now one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in all of Hindu India.

Badrinath of course was not Andrade's goal. By himself he probed north to the village of Mana, the last stop before the 18,326' Mana Pass to Tibet. Here Andrade encountered traders from the land of Bhot, as the Hindus called Tibet, and from them gathered information on the route into the unknown country. Back in Badrinath, Andrade was then informed that the local ruler, the Rajah of Srinagar, had expressly forbidden him to proceed to Tibet. Setting a precedent for any number of subsequent travelers he decided to ignore this prohibition and sneak into the country. With two servants and a guide from Mana- Marques stayed behind-he pushed on, even though it was the wrong season to cross the pass and heavy snows could be expected. On the third day messengers reached the small party with bad news. The authorities had thrown the wife and children of the Mana guide in jail and unless the he came back they would be killed. The guide understandably abandoned Andrade and returned to his home. Also, Marques would be held as hostage until Andrade himself returned. Andrade, with the stubbornness which would seize so many later Tibetan explorers, ignored the threats and pressed on to the Mana Pass. Soon they were in snow up to their waists, then their armpits. Forced to bivouac in the snow all three developed symptoms of frostbite. Still they pressed on and finally reached the Mana Pass. "It was all dazzling whiteness to our eyes, which had been weakened by snowblindness," noted Andrade of the view from the pass, "and we could make out no sign of the route we were to follow." The immense plateau of Tibet was spread out tantalizingly before the trio, but the two servants were too weak to go forward. Andrade ordered them to go back to the village of Mana, about a six-day march, and seek recruitments for a farther advance into Tibet. He would remain camped on the pass until they returned. The servants rather wisely refused to go back without him. The trio probably would have perished from frostbite and exposure had they not encountered after three days' march a Bhotian (Tibetan) who had been sent to check on their whereabouts by the people of Mana, who were afraid they would be held responsible if any harm befell the foreign travelers. After a few more marchs the party camped in some caves, where they were soon joined by Manuel Marques, who after freeing himself from the Badrinath authorities had brought forward some much needed provisions.

While camped here waiting for the weather to improve Andrade managed to send via more experienced native travellers a message to the ruler of the Tibetan kingdom on the other side of the Mana Pass. Under the impression that Andrade was a trader, and since not an Indian presumably in possession of new, exotic trade goods, the king not only invited the Jesuit to visit him but also sent two guides to lead him over the pass into his kingdom. Little is known about the journey, but Andrade soon become the first become the first European to reach Tibet from India, finally setting foot in the town of Tsaparang, on the banks of the Langchen Khambab (upper Sutlej) River, some time around the first of August, 1624.

At first the king was not thrilled to discover that Andrade was not a trader at all but the representative of a religion other than the prevailing Buddhism of Tibet, but after Andrade explained that he had come to search for his co-religionists who were believed to be living somewhere in Tibet and also to learn something of the religion of the local people, the king, who was himself a deeply religious man, relented. He could not help but be impressed that Andrade had risked his life on such a mission. In fact, he came to enjoy Andrade's company so much that eventually he forbid him to leave until he promised to return the following year. He also authorized the construction of a Christian "house of prayer" in Tsaparang and furnished Andrade with a passport-cum-letter of introduction which read in part: "We the King of the Kingdoms of Potente, rejoicing at the arrival in our lands of [Andrade] to teach us the holy law, take him for our people. We shall not allow anyone to molest him in this . . . " Armed with the king's approbation, Andrade's passage back to Mana Pass proceeded without incident, and after some delays in the village of Mana, he moved on to Jesuit headquarters in Agra, where he arrived the first week of November, 1624. On November 8 he began work on his account of the expedition, Novo Descobrimento do gram Cathayo, ou Reinos de Tibet, pello Padre Antonio de Andrade da Companhia de Jesu, Portuguez, no anno de 1626. Published in Lisbon in 1626, it was the first account in a European language of the country now known as Tibet - assuming we discount the 1330 travelogue by Friar Ordorico da Pordenone which includes a probably apocryphal description of, as he put it, the land "where dwelleth the Pope of the idolators."

Although Andrade never mentions Shambhala either as a physical or mythical place, I have nevertheless included him in the ranks of the Shambhalists-i.e., people who have made some contribution, directly or indirectly, to the Legend of Shambhala-for the following reasons. First, he lead the way into Tibet, the source of so many pieces in the Shambhala puzzle and the lodestone of subsequent generations of Shambhalists. Also his seminal expedition led directly to another exploratory probe of Tibet by the Jesuits Cabrella and Casels during which they would hear of a place which probably corresponds with Shambhala. Then three centuries later the best-selling book Lost Horizons by James Hilton and also the movie of the same name introduced a Shambhala-like place to the general public under the name of Shangri-La. The fictional hero of the book, Conway, while browsing in the library of the monastery of Shangri-La, comes across a copy of Andrade's Novo Descobrimento do gram Cathayo, ou Reinos de Tibet, pello Padre Antonio de Andrade da Companhia de Jesu, Portuguez, no anno de 1626. We will have to look closer at Lost Horizons and how it contributed to the Legend of Shambhala; for the moment, suffice it to say that Hilton may have included this detail in the book as a hint about his sources for his vision of Shangri-La, which as we will see can be seen as a pop culture version of the Legend of Shambhala. Finally, we shall have to return later to Tsaparang and the surrounding kingdom of Guge, because in the 1990s Shambhalist Charles Bell would claim in his book The Search for Shangri-La that it was precisely this area which was the physical location of the the legendary land of Shambhala.

Andrade made good on his promise to return to Tsaparang. He left Agra on June 17, 1625 and after once again being shorn of most of his possessions by rapacious officials through whose jurisdictions he passed arrived in Tsaparang on August 28. From Chinese traders who arrived in Tsaparang with tea, porcelian, and other merchandize Andrade learned more about the geography of the immense "roof of the world" north of the Himalayas: "The kingdom of Potente or Tibet" he later wrote, was comprised of numerous small kingdoms, including the kingdom of Guge, of which Tsaparang was the capital, and the kingdom of Utsang, one and a half month's journey to the east. He also got the impression that these various kingdoms, along with "the great empire of Sopo (Mongolia), which borders on China on one side and one Moscovia on the other," made up a so-called "great Tartary." This was apparently a reference to the great Mongol empire founded by Chingis Khan which at its height did control much of Tibet; however; since the dissolution of the Mongol Yüan dynasty in China in 1368 and the breakaway of the western appandages of the empire in what is now Central Asia there had been no "great Tartary" in a political sense, and the variolus kingdoms of Tibet were by then autonomous.

In none of the kingdoms of Potente, or Tibet, Andrade also learned, where there any Christians, the search for which had been at least in part the original motivation of his expeditions. The rumor had apparently arisen from a superficial similarity between some of the rites of Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism and faulty translation of key doctrinal terms (for example, the Buddhist Three Jewels-the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha-somehow got conflated with the Christian Trinity-the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). The absence of Christians, of course, did not stop from Andrade from proselytizing. The king came through on his promise of construction a "prayer house" for the missionaries and on Easter Day, April 12, 1626, the cornerstone was laid for the first Christian church in Tibet.

News of the "Lamas of the West" now esconsced in Tsaparang soon spread throughout the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Sometime in 1627 the king of Utsang sent Andrade an invitation to visit him in his capital of Shigatse, over a month's journey to the east from Tsaparang. Andrade, at the time setting up yet another missionary station in the Himalayas 130 miles south of Tsaparang and unable to spread himself any thinner, turned from the invitation from Shigatse. In any event, he had already, at least a year earlier, informed his superiors that the kingdom of Utsang might be fertile ground for missionary work, and that an attempt to reach the hitherto unknown country should be made from Bengal, in eastern India.

Thus it was that on August 26, 1626 the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries Stephen Cacella and John Cabral departed from Hugli, a Jesuit post located on a branch of the Ganges delta in what is now Bangladesh. They travelled north through the city of Dekka, crossed the Brahmaputra, and entered the town of Cooch Behar in West Bengal on October 28. Overwintered here, they set out again on February 2, 1627, passed through the city of Alipur Duar, one of the so-called "doors" through the outer ranges of the Himalayas, and then crossed the current-day border of Bhutan near Buxa Duar, thus becoming the first Europeans to enter this still-to-this-day relatively isolated Himalayan kingdom. Sometime in the spring of 1627 the pair reach the town of Paro. Although the accounts of their stay are unclear, it would appear that they then moved to Thimplu, the capital of Bhutan, where they met with the king, or shabdrung, of Bhutan at the Chari Goempa (monastery), which had been established just a few years earlier on the outskirts of the city (it still exists). The king had never met Europeans before and the meeting got off to a rocky start. The missionaries' Hindu translators did not speak the local language, and the audience would have floundered completely if not for the fortuitous appearance of a lama from Tsaparang who spoke some Hindustani and the local dialect and thus could act as a translator. The king found the conversation, disconnected as it must have been, enlightening enough that he wanted it to continue at length. To this end he appointed a tutor to teach the missionaries the local language so they could speak to him themselves. The Jesuits settled in for a stay of several months.

In addition to studying the language (which soon bogged down for want of competent teachers) and religious practises of the Bhutanese, the pair also made geographical inquiries. Cacella soon learned that none of the locals had ever heard of Cathay or China, but added, ". . . there does exist a country, very famous here, which is called Xembala and which borders on another called Sopo (Mongolia), but about its religion the king could give no information. I think this may be Cathay, because it is very large and its border-country Sopo is a Tartar kingdom, which answers to the description of Cathay given in the maps. That the name of Cathay is unknown proves nothing, for neither China, nor Tartary nor Tibet go by these names here . . . "

Cacella, who by then was beginning to have doubts about the probable success of missionary work in Bhutan, proposed to the king that he and Cabrel head westward and rendez-vous with their fellow Jesuits in Tsaparang. Insulting by the insinuation that these visiting worthies, who he considered his personal guests, would find a more favorable welcome in a rival kingdom, the king promised to built them a "prayer house" such as the Jesuits in Tsaparang had procured from the king of Guge. Cacella remained restless, however, and eventually decided to proceed not to Tsaparang, but to Xembala, which at this point he apparently thought was Cathay.

It should be pointed out that most Europeans at the time still believed that Cathay, the country reached overland by Silk Road traders, and China, on whose east coast Portuguese sailors first landed in 1514, were two distinctly different countries. By the time the Portuguese Jesuit Matthew Ricci reached Peking in the late 1590s he had concluded that it was identical with the city of Cambaluc, news of which had reached Europe via the Silk Road, but of which very little had been heard of since the disintegration of the Pax Mongolica in the latter part of the fourteenth century had effectively halted overland travel. Not until the 1602-07 expedition of the Jesuit Bento De Goes, which Ricci initiated, was it demonstrated that Cathay and China were in fact identical, but the news of this geographical discovery was slow in disseminating, and as late of the 1620s many, including apparently Cacella and Cabrels, were unaware of it.

The purported road hither to Xembala/Cathay lead through the kingdom of Utsang, which Cabral already know about from his correspondence with the Jesuits in Tsaparang. The king having forbid the journey, Cacella surreptiously acquired guides and equipment and left Bhutan on his own, the second Jesuit to set off for Tibet without permission. We have no account of his trip, but we do know that he reached Shigatse, the capital of Utsang, twenty days after leaving the king's city in Bhutan. There he had an audience with the king of Utsang, who welcomed him, and even provided him with an invitation for Cabral back in Bhutan. The king of Bhutan, still highly irate that Cacella had decamped off without his permission, finally cooled down and allowed Cabral to depart on December 18, 1627. He rendez-voused with Cacella in Shigatse on January 20.

In a letter from Shigatse Cabral included, amidst descriptions of the king, lamas, and temples, and the environs of Shigatse, some broader geographical information. "To the north it [Utsang]," he noted, is bounded by the territory of the Tartars, with whom the king is sometimes at variance; the religion of the two countries, many say, is the same. Towards the east is Cochinchina, from where much merchandise arrives as well as from China, which is to the north-east. The two latter countries border on Cam (Kham), from where the musk comes. Xembhala (Shambhala) is in my opinion not Catayo (Cathay), but what on our maps is Great Tartarea; Catayo lies more to the north."

Cabrel's brief geographical notice from Shigatse and Cacella's earlier report from Bhutan contain what most authorities believe to be the first mentions of Shambhala, here spelled Xembala, in a European language. Famed linguist, explorer, historian of Buddhism, and Shambhalist George Roerich, son of the even more famous Russian artist, explorer, and Shambhalist Nicolas Roerich-both of whose contributions to the Legend I will examine in great detail-first gave the Jesuits's story a scholarly gloss in a 1931 article in the "Journal of the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute of the Roerich Museum", a Roerich family house organ. Roerich, having read reproductions of the letters of Cabral and Cacella (it is unclear if they were in Latin or Portuguese) came up with new transliteration of "Xembala", rendering it as the more familiar Çambhala, the letter Ç being a linguistic notation for sh.

Roerich's mention of the two Jesuit's Xembala/Shambhala was fairly innocuous, a brief aside in a long article on the religious teachings purportingly emanating from Shambhala. Subsequent commentators would feel free to do some embroidering of their own. Noted Shambhalist Andrew Tomas, author of the 1977 Shambhala: Oasis of Light (and also of We Are Not Alone, an space-alien tome, and Atlantis: From Legend to Discovery, among other vaguely New Age tracts) wrote of the "Catholic missionaries Stephen Cacella and John Cabral, who were the first Europeans in modern history to give an account of Shambhala about three hundred and fifty years ago." He added that "Father Stephen Cacella . . . recorded the existence of this 'famous country' during his stay of twenty-three years at Shigatse where he died in 1650. The lamas had developed such respect for him that they even offered to take him to this secret place, Chang Shambhala, or Northern Shambhala".

While Cacella and Cabral mentioned Xembala/Shambhala, they gave no real account of it, and both seemed convinced that it was indeed either Cathay or "Greater Tartarea". Although the route hither was certainly unclear, they gave no indication that it was in any sense "a secret place" or that any lamas had offered to take them there. It was Cabral, not Cacella, who reported on Xembala from Shigatse, and it seems almost certain that Cacella died in 1630 and not 1650.

Tomas is one of many Shambhalists who have inflated a bit of Shambhala lore before passing it on to others. Thus by the time Victoria LePage wrote her Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-La in1996 she not only reinterates Tomas's assertions (she does credit him in a footnote) but further expands the account of Cacella and Cabral, who have now become "apparently the first Europeans in modern history to bring back informed accounts of the mysterious land of Shambhala that was ruled by the King of the World." Whether what Cacella and Cabral wrote constitutes "informed accounts" is open to interpretation; in any case, the "King of the World", as we shall see, was a much later accretion to the Legend of Shambhala.

In his recent (1998) Prisoners of Shangra-La, Donald S. Lopez Jr, a more mainstream scholar of Buddhism, maintains simply that "the first European reference to Shambhala is generally believed" to have been made by Cacella and Cabral. This modest assertion would seem to be the most accurate appraisal of the Jesuits' remarks. Since they did seem to mention Shambhala we must look closer at what they said.

First of all, both clearly believed that Xembala/Shambhala was a country located in the physical world and not any sort of spiritual, mythical, or imaginary kingdom or realm. Cacella reported from Bhutan that Xembala bordered Sopo (Mongolia) and thus was probably Cathay. Cabrel in Shigatse wrote, "Xembhala is in my opinion not Catayo (Cathay), but what on our maps is Great Tartarea". As we have seen an earlier Jesuit missionary, Andrade, had opined while in Tsaparang, in western Tibet, that the kingdom of Utsang, of which Shigatse was the capital, was included in what he called "great Tartary". Cabral seems however not to have included Utsang in Tartarea; Tartarea or Tartary lay somewhere to the north of Utsang, or of the Tibetan plateau in general, but south of Mongolia. This admittedly broad swath of territory would cover very roughly the modern Chinese provinces of Gansu and Sinkiang, and include the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, the Zungarian Depression, and the mountains which ring these areas, a region in which any number of later accounts, myths, and legends about Shambhala would arise.

Several possibilities present themselves. Perhaps Shambhala at this time or at some point in the past was a physical place, either a region or country located somewhere northward of the Tibetan plateau, or at least north of Shigatse, and the two Jesuits, unable to fit it into what they did know of Asian geography, simply assumed that it had be either Cathay or Tartary, areas already recognised on maps if not precisely delineated. Then also perhaps this physical Shambhala was no larger than an oasis, a remote valley, or a single monastery, and due to faulty descriptions and translations the Jesuits simply assumed that it was a country they were hearing about. Then again maybe Xembala/Shambhala was not a physical place at all but a mythical or spiritual realm. As we shall see, descriptions of such a realm abound in Buddhist scriptures, and the belief in a "pure land" where the teachings of the Buddha flourished under utopian conditions were widespread among educated monks and laypeople alike in the lands where Tibetan Buddhism was practised. Shigatse and its Tashilunpo Monastery was the traditional home of the Panchen Lamas who were (and are) intricately entwined with the Buddhist concept of Shambhala, and it would not have been been at all surprising if Cacella and Cabral had heard something of this legendary realm and again, through faulty descriptions and translations, assumed that a locality in the physical world was being discussed. If this were the case, however, it's odd that the king of Utsang said that he knew nothing about the religion of Xembala/Shambhala. If it was the traditional Buddhist Shambhala they were discussing shouldn't he have known that of course Buddhism was practised there?

In any case, numerous currents of the Legend of Shambhala coalesce in Shigatse. Just for example, in the 1770s the third Panchen Lama wrote his famous Guidebook to Shambhala while headquartered here, and in the nineteeth century the immitiable Russian mystic and founder of Theosophy Madame Helena Blavatsky, who, as we shall see, seeded a new strain of the Shambhala Legend, located her Himalayan Brotherhood here. A standard overnight stop on what is euphemistically called the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Shigatse continues to this day to attract the mystically minded. When I visited Shigatse in the late 1990s I casually asked an English-speaking guide loitering around Tashilunpo Monastery what he knew anything about Shambhala. Rolling his eyes, his voice dripping with sarcasm, he asked "Don't tell me you are looking for Shambhala?" I replied that I was simply interested in the Legend of Shambhala. "Well," said the guide, a young man in his twenties with shoulder-length hair, "back in the late 80s, when Tibet was first opened up to tourists, many Westerners - and Japanese - came here looking for Shambhala. All I can tell you is, they didn't find it."

Little is known about the further adventures of Cacella and Cabral. Apparently Cabral abandoned his plan of travelling on to Xembala/Tartarea. He soon left Shigatse and in 1628 traveled through Nepal - the first European to do - on his way back to the Jesuit mission at Hugli on the Ganges Delta. Cacella's itinerary is even more unclear. Apparently he retraced his steps through Bhutan to Kocho Bihar, where he met with other Jesuits, and then returned to Shigatse. The journey exhausted him, however, and on 6 March 1630, seven days after his arrival in the Tibetan city, he died. Cabral returned to Shigatse in June of 1631, but the Jesuit authorities finally decided that the hardships and costs of maintaining the mission in Shigatse were too great considering the slim chances for successful proselization of Christianity. Cabral was recalled, and by 1632 he was back in India. The Tibetan authorities, one memorandum tersely noted, initially favored the missionaries only in the hopes of prizing gifts out of them. By the late 1630s the mission started by Andrade in Tsaparang had also been abandoned. Christianity had failed to take root in Tibet, but its missionaries had sown the seed of the Legend of Shambhala in the West.