Sunday, August 03, 2014

In The Long Shadow of History

Portrait of a Nepal-Tibet battle. Courtesy: Nepal Army
The controversy sparked by Nepal’s flip-flop over the cremation of a revered Tibetan monk ended, mercifully, with another flip.
Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the 14th Shamarpa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, eventually had his wishes fulfilled and was cremated in a special ceremony at the Shar Minub Institute he built in Kathmandu.
After the lama’s death in Germany in June, the Nepali government permitted his followers to bring his body to Kathmandu for cremation. But the government immediately withdrew that permission amid purported concerns that Tibetan exiles would use the funeral to protest Chinese rule over their homeland.
Denying reports of Chinese pressure, the Nepali government explained the reversal on account of the deceased holding Bhutanese citizenship, something it had not been aware of while granting the initial permission.
Amid growing international media coverage – mostly negative – the government restored the original decision, citing the Shamarpa Lama’s great contributions to Buddhism. In the end, there were no protests at the funeral. The geopolitics of it all turned out to have been hyped.
Does that mean the concern was wrong? Throughout the controversy, Maila Baje ruminated on the life and times of an earlier Shamarpa Lama, Mipam Chödrup Gyamtso (1742-1793).
The 10th Shamarpa Lama, a stepbrother of the 6th Panchen Lama, had hoped that the Tibetan government would reinstate his sect’s monasteries seized in the preceding century. Before anything could happen, the Panchen Lama, away on a visit to Beijing at the invitation of the Qing emperor Qianlong, died of smallpox there.
Out of reverence for the Panchen Lama, his spiritual teacher, Qianlong offered a large quantity of gold coins to the brothers and sisters of the deceased. The keepers of the Panchen Lama’s Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatze, for their part, claimed the gifts were the property of the shrine. They went on to accuse the Shamarpa of plotting a rebellion against the Tibetan government to regain his monasteries.
Breaking house arrest, Shamarpa fled to Sikkim and subsequently arrived in Kathmandu, where tensions were already brewing with the Tibetans over debased currencies and other commercial and political issues.
Prince Bahadur Shah, the regent for King Rana Bahadur Shah, appointed the Shamarpa an adviser as part of efforts to resolve those disputes. According to British and Tibetan sources at the time, the Shamarpa was said to have strenuously urged Bahadur to invade Tibet and seize Tashilhunpo’s riches in compensation for Nepali grievances.
After a series of failed negotiations, Bahadur ordered the invasion of Tibet in 1789, which soon resulted in the Kerong peace treaty. After a brief lull, Nepal accused Tibet of reneging on the terms of the treaty and sent the Shamarpa as part of negotiating team. The Tibetans, firm on their interpretation of the treaty, promptly arrested him.
Bahadur ordered a second invasion of Tibet in 1791, and this time the Nepalis sacked the Tashilhunpo monastery. An infuriated Qianlong sent troops to repel the Nepalis, chasing them all the way back to the outskirts of Kathmandu. Realizing that its appeals for assistance from British India were not forthcoming – at least not until Kathmandu granted concessions to the East India Company – the Nepali court sought peace terms from the Chinese.
As peace was being negotiated in 1792, Beijing demanded the return of the Shamarpa, his family and loyalists, as well as the plunder from the Tashilhunpo monastery. By this time, however, the Shamarpa had died. Some claimed he committed suicide, others said he had succumbed to jaundice.
With that kind of history hovering over us, were our latest fears all that irrational?