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Images of the Lost Years

International Association for Ladakh Studies
11th colloquium Leh, 21-25 July 2003

Douglas 1895 in Ladakh
by HJ. Trebst
Erlangen, Germany

Prof. J.A. Douglas is a key person for the assessment of the alleged finding by Notovitch of the Issa manuscript in Hemis, relating a sojourn of Jesus in India. Douglas interviewed the abbot of Hemis Gonpa in 1895 resulting in a complete denial of Notovitch's assertion. In this paper the role of political influences and the government, the relation between representatives of the Christian Church on one side and Buddhism on the other side, special personal situations and the important role of Douglas' interpreter are described. They provide the background for Douglas' interview and could have been influential on his results.
In 1894 Nicholas Notovitch, a Russian traveller, published a book with a story of a sojourn of Jesus in India, which he maintains to have got from a book in the Hemis Gonpa. His allegation was much objected to by Christian scholars; a crucial basis for the objections is the statement made by Prof. Douglas.

The chain of events starts with the renowned Prof. Max Müller, who questioned whether Notovitch had actually been in Ladakh. Next one of the Moravian missionaries at Leh, Fr. B. Shawe, wrote a letter to a newspaper stating that Notovitch had not been in Leh. Before that the missionaries will have read a brief report on Notovitch's book in a newspaper, so they will have known only little. The other missionary, Br. Weber, went to Hemis and asked the head lama whether a Russian traveller had been there and if they had a Tibetan book on the Christian religion. Both were answered in the negative to the best knowledge of the lama: he had not realised Notovitch's nationality and neither the missionary nor probably he knew the year of Notovitch's visit; and it is only our knowledge of a development which, guided by St. Paul, transformed a natural person called Issa or Jesus to Jesus Christ, the son of God, and a story of Issa to a religious book. To the lama this did not apply. Yet this was the first step which pushed him into a particular position.

Notovitch had attempted to counter the accusation that he has not been there, by referring to Dr. K. Marx, the physician and missionary at Leh. Notovitch did not know that in the meantime Dr. Marx had died. The newly installed physician at Leh was an Indian Christian, who wished to clarify the Notovitch story. He investigated the papers of Dr. Marx in the hospital and found them to be very detailed, but without any mention of Notovitch.

This seems to speak against Notovitch. But we should take into account an extraordinary situation of Dr. Marx at this time. He had run into difficulties which culminated in his dismissal from the service in the mission. Perhaps he had initially laid too much stress on medical success with resulting requests for more money for the hospital, and he is described as having become mentally disordered. A few days only after Notovitch's visit he had to leave Leh and it is very likely that he carried out no orderly medical practice in the days before, and that he neglected the files. (Nearly one year later Dr. Marx was again admitted to the mission.)

Continuing his search for a trace of Notovitch the new physician asked the British Joint Commissioner to write to Hemis. From the statements of other people involved, we can deduce the topics dealt with in this letter. He will have asked,

whether the lamas at Hemis violated the order, in case of injury or sickness of a (western) visitor to inform the government at Leh and bring him to Leh,
whether the lamas assisted a Russian?
The above mentioned report in the newspaper had wrongly suggested that Notovitch had spent a long time with a broken leg in Hemis, whereas he had already left it after two days. So the lamas were quite right in answering the first question in the negative, irrespective whether they remembered Notovitch or not. But for the missionaries this strengthened their conviction of the falsehood of Notovitch's report.

Douglas discusses the question as to whether the lamas could have known of Notovitch's nationality, and answers with "no". They will have seen every European visitor as an Englishman. Although on a photo Notovitch does not look very British, he could have come from any European country. But the question was tricky. In this time the British and the Russian struggled for influence in Central Asia, including several reconnaissance actions; this was known as "the great game". The Indian physician repeated the rumour, Notovitch was arrested as Russian spy at Shimla. This is not true as we know from a letter from Shimla, but it illustrates the overall atmosphere.

In effect, the lamas had to defend themselves against the double suspicion of having worked against the government: to have violated the order how to treat injured visitors and to have supported a spy.

In the meantime the missionaries may have learned the year of Notovitch's visit and found an entry in their logbook from 1887 which briefly mentions him. Thereupon they stated that Notovitch had been in Ladakh and visited Hemis, but his story is pure nonsense and fraud. All facts they knew supported that.

At those times, at the summit of colonialism, the Europeans felt superior to all other people and of course Christianity superior to other religions. Christianity has the tendency to expand among people of other religions, as does Islam. "It was a well known fact that missionaries had ever been to the front in entering new countries with the Gospel, and by their peaceful operations had made the way for trade and civilisation to follow." Some of the affected might add that also soldiers and rulers followed. Prof. Max Müller wished to help the mission by his work of translating and making known the holy scriptures of the East. One spoke of an "exceedingly corrupt form of Buddhism", a "religion of blank despair". The missionaries in Ladakh stated:

The power of Buddhism is great in this country, the people are sunk in superstition, service of false gods and demons, subjugated by the priests who govern their whole life and suppress the thinking of the people by 'making religion' for the ignorant people, who also direct every detail of their ordinary life and anxiously try to keep out everything new or foreign.
Although the missionaries did much for the benefit of people in Ladakh, they despised Buddhism and felt compelled always to fight against it.
Of course this evoked opposition in the proponents of Buddhism, even hatred. They struggled against the actions of the missionaries, e.g. they disturbed and hindered their school, they tried to get a law which would interdict any conversion. Every convertite was banned, lost his house and property.

One of those converted was Samuel Joldan, who acted as interpreter for Prof. Douglas.

Joldan, the Tibetan postmaster in Leh, is a Christian of spotless reputation. Everyone places unlimited confidence in his integrity and truthfulness, and his religious sincerity has been attested by many sacrifices. He is a Ladakhi, and the family property was at Stok, a few miles from Leh. He was baptised in Lahaul at twenty-three, his father having been a Christian. He learned Urdu, and was for ten years mission schoolmaster in Kyelang, but returned to Leh a few years ago as postmaster. His ancestral dwelling at Stok was destroyed by order of the wazir, and his property confiscated, after many unsuccessful efforts to win him back to Buddhism. After­wards he was detained by the wazir, and compelled to serve as a sepoy, till [the missionary] Mr. Heyde went to the council and obtained his release. His house in Leh has been more than once burned by incendiaries.2
The law of Kashmir did not allow a native Christian or a European to own a house or fields. This explains, in the words of the missionaries,
how hopeless is at this time the situation for those natives who become Christian. The state laws as well as the representatives of the Buddhist and Islamic erroneous belief, supported by the prejudices of a slavishly obeying crowd, strive to suppress a native Christian, to cut off his ability to earn a living like everybody else. ...
In this large family Samuel is the only one earning an income. For many years Br. Heyde did not shrink from training him so far that he would be qualified for the position of a small functionary. And here in Ladakh, where a Christian can possess neither house nor land and therefore has little possibility to earn anything, the missionary had striven to obtain him the position as postmaster.

In the course of years the postal business increased and the management became more complicated and difficult. Then Samuel was no longer able to perform his duties, he made mistakes and in consequence received reproaches, warnings and fines, so we [the missionaries] feared he would lose his position. ...

But in addition to the problems mentioned above he had sometimes kept money from the post office for some days. .. We had warned him, but debts pressed him so hard, that in August [1894] he took 200 Rs. to pay them, hoping to return them in a few days. But he was already under suspicion and legal actions were taken against him. He was taken by two soldiers to Srinagar to the court and sentenced to one month or a fine of 50 Rs."3

Douglas discusses thoroughly the problem of a suitable Tibetan interpreter. He explains how well Joldan is suited for this job, quite contrary to Notovitch's interpreter. This will be right concerning Joldan's intellectual abilities. But let us now regard the situation when Douglas was at Hemis in 1895 interviewing the head lama with the help of Joldan.
This was already the third time after Br. Weber's inquiry and the letter from the British Joint Commissioner that Europeans asked about Notovitch and a book on Jesus or Issa. There was the question whether the lamas had violated the order about dealing with injured visitors and the suspicion that they had supported a hostile spy. They had already been manoeuvred into a certain position by answering these questions as well as they could when answering in the negative.

Prof. Douglas investigated much more thoroughly. The lamas may now have remembered Notovitch and the events related to him. But they had learned that this topic excited the Europeans and could lead to unpleasant problems. Douglas was for them a follower of the hated Christianity with the British government backing him. He was apparently ignorant of these problems and pleased by the politeness of the lamas. Another missionary stated, referring to Hemis, "they know here very well that we are the open enemies of their religious system, but in a sort of chivalrous politeness they treated us honourably."4 Accompanying Douglas and directly talking to them was Samuel Joldan, whom they despised as a traitor to the creed of his ancestors and who in addition had just scarcely escaped jail. And a visit of the British Joint Commissioner at Hemis was also expected.

The head lama of Hemis answered all of Douglas' questions about Notovitch and the existence of the Issa manuscript negatively. Now, does that mean that he really knew nothing, that there was nothing? Or could it perhaps mean only that he did not want to get involved in any way in those topics?

The answer to this question remains open. But if in 1895 the lamas at Hemis denied Notovitch's story from fear of complications, this would remove an important argument against Notovitch's story about Jesus in India and would increase the interest in the quest for the Issa manuscript from Hemis.

1. Articles in English newspapers on missionary Annie Taylor,

2. Isabella L. Bishop: Among the Tibetans, Oxford 1894; pp. 101-102.

3. Missionsblatt Bautzen, 57. Jahrgang, 1893, pp. 84, 216, 219-220, (a magazine of the Moravian Church, based on the annual report of the Moravian Mission at Leh, kept at the mission archive at Herrnhut).

4. A.H. Francke: "Ein Besuch im buddhisitischen Kloster Hemis," in: Globus, Illustrierte Zeitschrift f. Länder- u. Völkerkunde, Braunschweig, 1898, 1-7.

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