Review: The Buddha and the Borders by Nirmalaya Banerjee
A rich travelogue that covers the eastern Himalayas shows that the Buddhist Himalayan Belt stands resolutely with India in the new Great Game played out between Asia’s two dominant powersUpdated: Jul 01, 2020 18:25 IST
The recent border standoff between India and China along what is the Indo-Tibetan border has captured international news headlines. In this standoff, China enjoys several advantages in terms of military strength, infrastructure, road and an expanding rail network which will link Nepal with Tibet, although India is fast catching up. China also has the advantage of sitting atop the world’s highest and largest plateau, the source of Asia’s six major rivers which China plans to dam and divert, regardless of downstream concerns. But these advantages are offset by India’s staying power and its ancient and deep-rooted cultural and spiritual bonds with the Buddhist Himalayan belt, which irreversibly identifies with India. The only exception to this is Nepal, which is willingly falling on the lap of the Chinese motherland.
In a visit to Northeast India in 2012, the Dalai Lama once referred to the Buddhist Himalayan belt as India’s “frontline,” totally oriented towards India’s open, plural society and the freedoms that go with it.
A part of the belt, India’s northeast, is explored by Nirmalya Banerjee in his leisurely and rich travelogue, The Buddha and the Borders. He has covered for himself and for India the whole of the eastern Himalayas, Kalimpong, Sikkim, the kingdom of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. In all of them, Banerjee found a common cultural thread, the lama dances performed by monks whose “lives revolve around the monasteries dotting the entire stretch of the eastern Himalayas from Bhutan, Sikkim, Kalimpong up to Tawang.”
One place Banerjee explores in fascinating detail is Kalimpong, which the writer considers “a jewel in the Himalayan crown.” Kalimpong once served as an entree-port for Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. Those were the days when “the mule train” operating between Tibet and the Indian hill station ferried wool from Tibet on its onward journey to Calcutta and shipped to Britain and America.
Banerjee writes, “Prior to the 1962 border war between India and China, Kalimpong was a major urban centre close to the meeting point of India, Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim… Because of its locational advantage, Kalimpong had emerged as a convergence centre of trade and commerce, governance and regional politics, a playground of international intrigues evocative of Kipling’s Great Game. What was once a silk route to Tibet is now a blind alley running into a Chinese wall.”
Since the fall of Tibet in 1950 to 1959 when Tibetans rose up against Chinese rule, Kalimpong because of its close proximity to Tibet served as a listening post to interested parties eager to know what communist China was up to on the Roof of the World. India’s first Prime Minsiter Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru in his non-aligned exasperation called Kalimpong “a nest of spies.”
In his exploration of the cultures and sentiments of the people of the Northeastern Himalayas, Banerjee makes it abundantly clear that in the new Great Game played out between Asia’s two dominant powers, the Buddhist Himalayan Belt stands resolutely with India. The region’s cultural cohesion and the spiritual depth and links with India are something China can only envy. It seems for the author, a dedicated and equally fascinated explorer of the eastern Himalayas, the Buddha guards the border for India. In fact, Banerjee is one of a few scholars to make a convincing case for the link between the immense stability of the Himalayan Belt and Buddhism. He credits the “quiet region of eastern Himalayas hallowed by the benign presence of Buddhism in “the footsteps of lamas down the centuries.”
Looming large behind Banerjee’s narrative of the eastern Himalayas is the question of Tibet. Independent Tibet shared the longest unguarded border in the world with India. Freely crossing the border down the centuries were pilgrims, traders, scholars and students from both sides. They were not hassled by checkpoints, border patrol or any visa requirements. It was one of the most open borders in the world between two countries with a shared culture and based on trust and mutual respect.
In considering the situation in Tibet and this side of the Himalayas, a reader of The Buddha and the Border is left with a question. Why is Tibet racked by constant turmoil and the Buddhist Himalayan Belt not? Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of governance in Tibet and the Buddhist Himalayan Belt. In Tibet Beijing’s rule is enforced by brute force and down south by the rule of law.
Thubten Samphel is an independent researcher and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute.