The Lost World of Tibet

Yesterday was the seventy-fifth birthday of the Dalai Lama, and it seems an auspicious time to call your attention to one of the finest documentaries I’ve encountered recently, one in which the Dalai Lama is a major participant. “The Lost World of Tibet” – a co-production of the BBC and the British Film Institute, and recently released on a BFI DVD – features rare color films made in Tibet in the 1930s through the 1950s, before and up to the time of the Chinese invasion of the country. Hosted by Dan Cruickshank, a familiar host of BBC documentaries on art and architecture, the documentary provides a window into a way of life now long past. (See below for details on the DVD itself, which hasn’t been released in the United States.)

These old films, gathered by the BFI over the last several decades, were taken by a British diplomatic delegation that spent time in Lhasa in 1936 and 1940, a Scottish medical officer, a botanist, and a member of the Chinese legation to Tibet. They are supplemented by some propaganda documentaries China produced after their invasion of Tibet (or, as they would put it, their liberation of the Tibetan people) in 1950.

“The Lost World of Tibet” is an utterly fascinating look at a country that, until the political, spiritual, and cultural turmoil of the Chinese invasion, was ruled by aristocratic families and Buddhist monks. Isolated between China and the British empire, Tibet was very religious, conservative in outlook, and, according to Tibetans themselves, resistant to modernization. Much of what we see in 1940s Tibet probably looked very similar centuries before.

Buddhism was of course a major force. Twenty percent of young Tibetan men became monks, their activities and monasteries supported by alms-giving by farmers and peasants, and fully 68 days of the year were dedicated to religious festivals. We get to see parts of some of these festivals, with invaluable commentary and context provided in modern-day interviews with Tibetan monks, some of whom actually took part in those festivals. In the Great Prayer Festival, which celebrated Buddha’s first teaching of the Dharma (the laws of the universe as taught by the Buddha), the Tibetan parliament turned over control to the monks, who for the next month watched over the behavior of monks and lay people alike, meting out gentle punishments for the wearing of foreign shoes, singing in public, or having a dirty house. The big New Year’s Festival featured elaborate, ornamented costumes whose designs date back centuries, along with oracles, processions, ritual fires, dances, and military reviews. We also get a look at everyday, secular activities, including an annual summer opera festival and wrestling, weightlifting, and horse racing competitions. A brief glimpse of the flag of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists) reminds us of the civil war then raging in China.

Along with this footage of everyday Tibetan life, the documentary also examines the early career of the 14th Dalai Lama. Chosen as the new incarnation at age three, the Dalai Lama made his first trip to Lhasa with his family two years later. His tender and humorous reminiscences about his family (and the rare films of them that we view along with him) are among the highlights of the DVD. He was enthroned as a child, but wasn’t actually expected to take full political power until after he came of age and completed his monastic education. We see his two main residences, the Potala and the Norbulingka (summer) palaces, as well as the grand procession of the Dalai Lama and his large retinue between them.

All this changed with the invasion, then little noticed by the international community, of parts of Tibet by thousands of Chinese troops in 1950. The sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama was given power to negotiate with the Chinese, even though his studies were not yet completed. In 1954 he was invited to Beijing to meet Chairman Mao and other high officials. We see his departure by boat, watched by huge crowds of people apprehensive about whether the trip was a wise idea. After his return and further studies, in 1959 the Dalai Lama had to take his final monastic examinations – which we are also privileged to see (with his very amusing present-day commentary) – in front of thousands of assembled monks. This is happening even as the Chinese presence in Lhasa and throughout Tibet was growing. A palpable sense of tension, recounted vividly by the Dalai Lama and monks who were there at the time, accompanied rumors of atrocities against Tibetan citizens and the destruction of sacred sites. The Chinese military seemed to be everywhere, including at the Dalai Lama’s last examination.

The Dalai Lama returned to the Norbulingka palace as the famous invitation to a Chinese dance performance arrived. Crowds assembled around the palace, and as Chinese soldiers were rumored to be preparing to attack, the Dalai Lama finally made the decision to leave Tibet. Escaping in the night disguised as a Tibetan soldier, he journeyed through the Himalayas and reached northern India two weeks later. Many thousands of Tibetan refugees joined him in Dharamsala, India, where he and the Tibetan government-in-exile continue to reside today. By then the Norbulingka was being attacked and destroyed, later to be turned into military barracks. Monks and nuns throughout Tibet were made to abandon their faith, monasteries were destroyed, thousands were imprisoned in labor camps, and Tibetan culture began to be wiped out. As one of the commentators, the wife of the Dalai Lama’s brother, remarks, “We were just so engrossed in our little pond…”

These decades-old films are in surprisingly good shape, although there are occasional irregularities, like the tops of people’s heads being cut off, due to the conversion to the widescreen format. The DVD also features as supplements other bits of film from Tibet as well as a segment on daily life today in and around Dharamsala. To repeat: this is a remarkable and special documentary, very much worth seeking out. It isn’t currently available in the United States, but it can be ordered easily from Amazon U.K. and other online sources. As it is region-coded for Great Britain and in PAL format, Americans must either watch the DVD on a computer or – always the best option for film fans! – purchase a region-free DVD player with NTSC-PAL conversion.

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