Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Early explorations in the Karakoram-Himalayan

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This article was published in The News on Sunday in January 2006 was written as if by a reporter in the year 1906. The reporter’s beat was exploration work being done by Europeans, mainly the British, in India and Chinese Turkestan. It notes the major expeditions in the works for the year 1906 with some reference to recently finished work.

Aurel Stein
So far as archaeological exploration in Central Asia is concerned, 1906 promises to be remarkable year. This year promises wonderful discoveries and quantum additions to our knowledge on the history of this area as two of great names of Central Asiatic exploration head out into the region once again.

We have Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer, already famous for his epoch-making work in trans-Himalayan regions. He is the man we have to thank for, among several others, the discovery of the source of the mighty Brahamaputra River. Unable to reach Lhasa in two earlier attempts, he prepares to try yet again to enter the Forbidden City in 1906. His earlier attempts were thwarted by Tibetan xenophobia and suspicion of everyone who is either not Tibetan or Buddhist.

Consequently, having lost to the Japanese scholar and Buddhist monk Ekai Kawaquchi in the attempt to enter Lhasa, Hedin hopes to make his 1906 endeavour a success. The Dalai Lama having already exited Lhasa under duress when British troops entered the town back in 1904, Hedin hopes to encounter the Tashi Lama. In anticipation of this historical meeting with the new guide of the spiritual needs of Buddhists not only of Tibet, but from as far away as Korea and Japan, Hedin carries with him a gift of a specially made aluminium medicine box. A successful entry into Lhasa will certainly win the renowned explorer accolades.

Fanny Bullock Workman
On the other hand we have Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeological explorer who began his professional life in the great and wonderful city of Lahore. Stein’s fascination with Central Asia began with a childhood fascination with the celebrated 7th century Chinese Buddhist traveller, Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsiang). In May 1900 Stein, having been unable to raise institutional sponsorship, financed his own expedition to the Taklamakan Desert. The outing lasted two years and took the explorer to several Buddhist sites in the footsteps of his hero Xuanzang.

It may be recalled that having uncovered the lost city of Niya in the Taklamakan, Stein found Buddhist paintings, sculptures and, most remarkably, Sanskrit texts. The more than one hundred wooden tablets, shaped exactly like the takhti used by vernacular school children in India to practice calligraphy, bear official orders as well as ordinary day to day transactions and even letters by common folk. This was the first ever discovery of Indian documents of day to day life. And the remarkable thing was that the discovery was made in far off Turkestan.

The most interesting aspect of this discovery is that these texts support the claim of Xuanzang concerning the conquest of this region by the Indians. According to the Chinese traveller’s account, this conquest took place about the year 250 BCE.

Other finds during that expedition include an ancient walking stick, part of a guitar, a bow that works, a mouse trap, a beautifully carved stool and a rug with a very elaborate design. It must be noted that these items dating back to the beginning of the Christian era were maintained in good fettle by the extremely low humidity of the desert region of Taklamakan. These extraordinary discoveries made the hitherto unknown Stein a celebrity virtually overnight and the Indian government has now agreed to fund his second and forthcoming Central Asian expedition.

This expedition that will be getting underway this year is targeting the areas of Lou Lan and Dunhuang. It will be recalled that subsequent to Stein’s earlier discoveries Germany and Japan also sought to enter into a kind of race to unearth their share of ancient Chinese treasures. It may well be that this could be the outset of yet another great game, not of the imperial kind, but one to uncover and possess ancient treasures.

Closer to the subcontinent, exploration in the Karakoram-Himalayan region proceeds apace. Dr William Hunter Workman and his energetic wife Fanny who are not unknown among Himalayan explorers will be following the footsteps of Dr Sillem to the Nun Kun region of the Punjab Himalayas. Though they have done some pioneering photography in the Karakoram Mountains, it has to be conceded that they, sadly, do not possess that topographical acumen that should make their surveying work reliable. However, Godspeed and all success to their enterprise for whatever is done, even faulty, will enhance our understanding of this little known region of the greatest mountain chain in the world.

The several surveying expeditions into region from Chitral in the west to Nepal in the east that took place in 1905 will spend the current year in consolidating their data and updating existing maps. A good deal of time will also be taken up in planning expeditions for the coming year. Consequently, other than the expedition of the Workmans, there will be little field work in mountain exploration 1906.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Untimely deaths and other oxymorons

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 September 2014 at 16:11, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Ah, the classic travelers and their discoveries.

At 18 September 2014 at 17:42, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir for me you are the great who made me read all about travelers and discoveries they made. It all is a knowledge for me

At 19 September 2014 at 07:19, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Great piece. Here is a piece on Rai Bahadur Lal Singh that I covered on my Blog. He had accompanied Aurel Stein in his journey to Taklamakan region.

At 20 September 2014 at 09:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nayyar and Athar,
Wonderful red, Amardeep.


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