Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”Now the Living Buddha was approaching. He passed quite close to our window. The women stiffened in a deep obeisance and hardly dared to breathe. The crowd was frozen. Deeply moved we hid ourselves behind the women as if to protect ourselves from being drawn into the magic circle of his power.
We kept saying to ourselves, ‘It is only a child.’ A child, indeed, but the heart of the concentrated faith of thousands, the essence of their prayers, longings, hopes. Whether it is Lhasa or Rome--all are united by one wish: to find God and to serve Him. I closed my eyes and hearkened to the murmured prayers and the solemn music and sweet incense rising to the evening sky.”
14th Dalai Lama as a child
Heinrich Harrer was part of a four man team who were the first to successfully scale the North face of the Eiger. They reached the summit on July 24th,1938. Harrer had been a member of the Nazi party for just two months. He had also joined the SS with the rank of sergeant. After the ascent he and the rest of the team had a photo op with Adolf Hitler. They were national heroes. His life could have very easily spiraled toward an early death on the battlefield or he could have been compromised in the many atrocities perpetrated by the SS during the war.
As it turned out, the only day he wore his SS uniform was the day he got married.
The one with the cheesy moustache is Adolph Hitler. Standing on his right is Heinrich Harrer. Harrer renounced any association he had with the SS stated that he was too young to be making those decisions.
Harrer was in India with a four man team scouting the viability of climbing the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat when war broke out in 1939. They were picked up by the British and interned in a detention camp. In 1944 after several failed attempts to escape Harrer, Peter Aufschnaiter, and two others are finally successful. They strike out for Tibet. The other two men, after experiencing the hardship of travel with improper clothing, inadequate food supplies, and a nagging doubt about what life will be like once they do reach Tibet, decide to go back. Harrer and Aufschnaiter press on.
They rely on the kindness of strangers. Lucky for them, by nature, Tibetans are kind.
Their ultimate goal is to reach Lhasa, but there are public officials, miles of red tape, and many hazards to be faced before they reach that destination.
Princess Coocoola, wife of the governor of Tibet is one of the many beautiful Tibetan women.
They meet a young couple on the road. A young woman fleeing her THREE husbands. She dutifully married three brothers and took care of their household until a handsome young stranger appeared. The couple were fleeing her husbands to start a new life. Most cultures still do or once did allow men, usually wealthy men to collect wives, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a culture that allows a wife to collect three husbands. The problem, of course, is always choice, and she wasn’t a willing participant to marry the three brothers.
When the proverbial traveling salesman comes to town she takes the opportunity to escape.
January 15th, 1946 they finally reach their destination.
”We turned a corner and saw, gleaming in the distance, the golden roofs of the Potala, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and the most famous landmark of Lhasa. This moment compensated us for much. We felt inclined to go down on our knees like the pilgrims and touch the ground with our foreheads.”
Because of their uncertain status Harrer and Aufschnaiter, despite the pleasant welcome they received, were always worried that they would sent back to India and internment. They receive reassurances followed by neck snapping counter orders to leave. They begin to ingratiate themselves to the government by designing and producing better irrigation for the city. Harrer builds a fountain for the backyard of one of his friends and soon all the nobles want a fountain (seems to be a human tendency regardless of country to compete with the Jones’s). There are various levels of nobles who are very wealthy, happy; and yet, pious people. There was an uprising and several people were arrested, too many for the local jail. The nobles had to each take responsibility for a prisoner.
”As a result one found in almost every house a convict in chains with a wooden ring round his neck.”
Talk about putting a damper on your social situations.
The Tibetans have a rather gruesome, especially to westerners, way in how they dispose of their recently departed.
”The decorated pine tree which stood on the roof was removed and the next day at dawn the body was wrapped in white grave cloths and borne out of the house on the back of a professional corpse carrier. We followed the group of mourners, who consisted of three men only. Near the village on a high place recognizable from afar as a place of ‘burial’ by the multitude of vultures and crows which hovered over it, one of the men hacked the body to pieces with an ax. A second sat nearby, murmuring prayers and beating on a small drum. The third man scared the birds away and at intervals handed the other two men beer or tea to cheer them up. The bones of the dead girl were broken to pieces, so that they too could be consumed by the birds and that no trace of the body should remain.”
To them the body of the deceased is an empty shell. The consciousness has already moved on towards yet another in a series of countless lives. Their belief that the fly that lands on the rim of the rancid butter tea, that they like to drink, could be their grandmother causes Harrer no ends of problems when he is asked to build a movie theater for the Dalai Lama. Every worm that is disturbed by the shovels must be carefully relocated back to a safe spot.
”The more life one can save the happier one is.”
Harrer becomes a paid government official, a translator and court photographer that along with his side projects gives him a satisfactory income. He becomes close to the Dalai Lama, instructing him in Western culture and the way the world works beyond the Tibetan borders. There is even a scene that had me chuckling with the Dalai Lama wanting to shadow box with Harrer. It was just hard for me to imagine this national treasure with his fists raised dancing around throwing punches.
In October 1950 the army of the People’s Republic of China invade, defeat a Tibetan army, and take over the country. Harrer and his friend Aufschnaiter have to abandon their peaceful lives and return to Europe. As he leaves he waves up at the roof where he knows the Dalai Lama, possibly one of the most lonely people in the world, is watching him depart through the singular eye of his telescope.
In 1959 during a Tibetan uprising the Dalai Lama fearing for his life, fled to India where he established a Tibetan government in exile. Harrer continued to go on mountaineering expeditions around the globe and wrote twenty travel books about his exploits. His photography is considered to be among the best records of Tibetan culture ever obtained. This book was a huge bestseller in America showing the hunger that people felt, and continue to feel to know more about Tibetan culture. It certainly has inspired me to want to know more.
Friends for life.
A movie was made of Seven Years in Tibet in 1997 starring Brad Pitt. The movie focuses more on Harrer’s abandonment of his wife and child (not a subject he discusses in the book), and also revealed an arrogance and a selfishness that is not in the book either. We see the movie version of Harrer become a better person under the influence of the people he came to know and love in Lhasa. The movie is visually stimulating and was the reason I decided to read the book. I hope that others who see the movie will be encouraged to explore the subject matter further as well.
”Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.”
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