Gyantse, Tibet, Kum-bum Chorten, 1937. A photo by Fosco Maraini, author of Secret Tibet. From Maraini: Acts of Photography, Acts of Love (Joost Elffers Books: New York, 1999)
Gyantse, Tibet, Kum-bum Chorten, 1937. A photo by Fosco Maraini, author of Secret Tibet. From Maraini: Acts of Photography, Acts of Love (Joost Elffers Books: New York, 1999)

Secret Tibet
Fosco Maraini
The Harvill Press: London, 2001
425 pp.; $35 (cloth)

There is something about traveling in Tibet that makes Westerners reach for their pens. But of the literally dozens of travelers who have described their Tibetan adventures, few have possessed Fosco Maraini’s talent for writing. Maraini describing his bus journey across town would be enjoyable enough; to read his evocative account of traveling in Tibet is a real pleasure. His style, a blend of poetic speculation and careful observation, might well be described as “Herman Hesse meets Bruce Chatwin,” and like a great composer, he knows when to expand a theme and when to leave space for the listener’s own imagination.

Maraini, an Anglo-Italian, Tibetan-speaking anthropologist, traveled in Tibet in 1937 and again in 1948. This book is a synthesis of the two expeditions made before the Communist Chinese takeover in 1949 irrevocably changed Tibetan society. In that bygone era, the journey from Europe began with a sea voyage to India, while Tibet was traversed only on foot or horseback. Although it was not the Forbidden Land of popular mythology, access to Tibet was strictly controlled by the Tibetans and the British Government of India, who cooperated to protect the Tibetan Buddhist system from both Chinese territorial ambitions and the onslaught of modernity. Few nonofficial visitors were permitted to cross the Indo-Tibetan border. But as an assistant to the great Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, Maraini was a privileged visitor, though even he was denied permission to accompany the “Buddhist” Professor Tucci as far as Lhasa.

Maraini’s Tibetan travels were actually fairly modest. He was only permitted to journey along the main trade route from British-controlled Sikkim to Gyantse (120 miles southwest of Lhasa), where a British outpost offered comparative comforts. But if this was the “main road” for European visitors to Tibet, none had studied the temples and monasteries along the route with the thoroughness of Tucci, and few were at home among the Tibetan people to the extent that Maraini was. His descriptions of his encounters with Tibetans are the most fascinating parts of this book, and bring to the fore his gift for relaying conversations. While he does outline the key features of Tibetan society, Maraini’s real concern is with people. “Who,” he asks, “can take an interest in abstraction when there are men of flesh and blood to get to know?”—and it is a rich pageant of characters that he meets.

Fosco Maraini's 1948 photo of a masked dancer, Chumbi Valley, Tibet
Fosco Maraini’s 1948 photo of a masked dancer, Chumbi Valley, Tibet

The great joy of this work is that Tibetans are portrayed as individuals, not as occupations, classes or tribal groups. This is a portrait, not of textual ideals or of Shangri-La, but of Tibetan life as it was lived in all its beauty and ugliness. As Maraini’s Tibetan muse, the Princess Pema tells him:

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