Desideri in Tibet
©John Brzostoski, 2002

Who was he?

Ippolito Desideri was an Italian Jesuit. He visited Tibet in the early eighteenth century.

He had traveled through India and Ladakh, reaching Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. This was where he was. A storm was raging and everything was vanishing under wind-driven snow.

As Desideri stared, the image of the mountain persisted. Everyone else had taken to the protection of their tents. The yaks were huddled together, becoming snow-covered boulders. To the Jesuit, Mt. Kailash remained visible. Was it his imagination or was it his memory of the mountain? Now all had vanished except a great vertical crack, which ran down its face. He looked for the crucifix, the cross, which his companion the old Jesuit, had seen on the face of the mountain. Shivering, he could not find it.

The snow closed in. He stared at the empty whiteness. Cold and unable to see, he escaped into the tent. The wind was wed to a demon, howling and whistling in the midst of its thrashing union. The tent was about to shake apart, as if in terror. Father Desideri saw that the older Jesuit was a curled form in his blankets, shaking and praying loudly to Jesus and Mother Mary. The younger Jesuit frowned at this needless fear. That is, he did so until he heard the muffled roar of snow avalanches. How close were they? There had been an earlier near-disaster from an avalanche on the way to Lakadh.

He did not sleep, trying to read the sounds of the storm. Something came, while the cold drilled into his bones, after hours of listening. The storm was quieter. It still screamed, but it was muffled. Puzzled, Father Desideri tilted his head to the right, and to the left. All that he heard clearly was the snoring of the other Jesuit. That old one had received sleep through his prayers. But what had made the storm quieter?

Of a sudden, Desideri tried to open the tent. He could not. Heavy weight prevented him from doing that. Snow? They were being buried by the storm! For a moment, he panicked and started to dig the loose snow at the entrance with his bare hands. He broke through and in from the darkness came biting wind with sharp particles striking his face. It roared in greeting with the voice of death. His imagination was chastised. With all of his strength, Desideri closed the tent again.

Now it was his turn to say his rosary, his turn to remember how he had gotten to this place in time, miles above the sea, so close to the sky. He felt that he had lived a millennium of hardships since he had seen Italy. He was circles of cold hells away from Rome, where he had received permission from the Pope to take the holy teachings to Tibet.

Half in dream and half in recollection, his mind fought the sounds of the storm. He remembered kissing the ring of the Pope. How many had kissed that ring? Were they in the Americas, or Africa? Were they alive or dead? Had the hand of Christ really led them there? Yes, of course. Yes, it did.

Father Desideri was filled with a sense of mission. He looked forward to his adventure with a mixture of elation and pride. His was a work for God, but also one which would bring an immortal place for himself, and glory to the order of Jesuits. He thought about his trip into the unknown, and he felt that he could not fail. If he died at the hands of the very barbarians whose souls he wished to save, even then, all would not be lost. He would be raised, wrapped in the brilliance of God’s blessing, given a special place in Heaven.

On earth it would be another story. He would be lost in the cracks of history, or have the cloak of martyred sainthood placed upon his name. He mourned his own death by some sea fever which could pre-empt his martyrdom in Asia. These thoughts, mixed with thoughts of everyday matters of travel and delay, ran through his mind, without self-consciousness, without too many traces of humility marring their flow. At last. His life in all of its aspects, with service to God, and salvation to man, had found its path, that straight highway which led to the top of the Himalayas, to the foot of the Lord’s sky.

He calmed himself, and made his mundane arrangements. His flesh was hot and his eyes gleamed with the shine of potential ecstasy. He was surprised that no-one could see his elation.

He had to travel on a Portuguese vessel, for the Portuguese had a monopoly on the sea routes to India. His ship went west, and avoided the Turkish pirates who were waiting for ships at the Gates of Gibraltar. For safety from storms, they had swung far out into the Atlantic. Who was the man who had died in the heat of the doldrums? Was the water bad? Wipe away the surface scum, it was goodness itself.

After so long, avoiding the storms, they arrived at Mozambique and rested. There he found a small population of Roman Catholics, and hardly anyone else. Located there was a well-fortified center for the slave trade. Father Desideri was glad to hear that all of the Blacks were baptized before they were sold. He was not glad to remember that the priests received one coin for each soul thus saved. But these souls (Desideri’s teeth gnashed), did not know the language, and so did not understand why they now had new names.

The snowstorm remained muffled, and the weight of the fallen snow pressed in, shrinking the interior of the tent. The old Jesuit slept like a babe. Desideri’s eyes were wide open, but he did not see anything which was actually before him, seeing instead his incredibly hot journey to India.

The images, smells, and sounds of India fell hard upon Father Ippolito Desideri. Despite his having been warned by the writings of others, he had to stay intent upon his evangelical mission. He put aside the clamorous insistence of the sensations striking him, fearful, that they might deflect his mind from his pious purpose.

Making landfall on the western coast, he then arrived at Surat, the mercantile gateway to the sub-continent, here his journey was stopped short. He could proceed no further due to the unsettled conditions in the country. It was too dangerous to travel. There was a rising level of chaos as pretenders to the Moghul throne battled amongst themselves. Hot irons put out the eyes of many a princely contender. Cruelty and terror reigned everywhere.

Although Father Desideri had originally landed in September, it was not until March that he could resume his way northward through the country of the Rajputs. These Pagans’ faith forbade the killing and eating of animals, but that did not prevent them from being bloody warriors. Apprehension moved with the Jesuit priest on his way to his destination, Delhi, the capital of the dissolving Moghul empire. An unknown emperor, the dispenser of the hot irons to eyes, was now there to greet him in an unknown manner. It was a previous ruler on the Peacock Throne who had placed seeds of hope for the success of his mission.

On November 22, 1712, Father Ippolito Desideri had left Italy. However, alas, also in 1712, the sympathetic Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah, had died.

Who was he?

He was a Moghul prince named Shah’Alam, son of the Emperor Aurangzeb. But more important than that for Desideri was his relationship to Donna Juliana Diaz da Costa, whose family he had protected after they had fled the Dutch at Cochin, their former home.

When the prince fell out of favor, Donna Juliana continued to serve his family — wife and mother. When he had gone and suffered in exile, she had gone also. This loyalty was rewarded after Aurangzeb died, and Shah’Alam returned to rule under the name of Bahadur Shah. Her influence became great, and she became teacher, doctor, and Christian miracle worker. She taught princes and princesses, settled disputes, and healed the sick. She was critically involved at all levels in Delhi — personal, spiritual, and political.

The emperor thought she was a holy woman who could do everything. Although this was a Moslem court, the ruler prayed to images of Jesus Christ. When Bahadur Shah died, Donna Juliana continued to enjoy the favor under succeeding emperors. But in those cases, religion played a lesser role than politics. The emperors appreciated her intellectual insight and her advice.

Thus she remained strong and influential. As a consequence of her power, foreigners tried to woo her by honoring her. This included her old enemies, the Dutch, as well as the Portuguese, the British, and the Vatican. The Jesuits, missing no opportunity, made her a member of their society.

This was where Ippolito Desideri came, at the right time and right place. Although he old emperor was dead, Donna Juliana became the young Jesuit’s patron, and helped to finance his evangelistic journey to Tibet.

Seeing her intelligence, beauty, and power in a Pagan court, the young Desideri was impressed. He adored her, thinking of her as a jewel of the Holy Faith, and, of course, a shining jewel in his own heart. She was a remarkable vision of a Catholic woman who inspired him on his path.

He tried to keep the image of her in his breast. It warmed him as the wind picked up again outside the tent.

If Donna Juliana could be so successful in Pagan Delhi, what could he, a man of the cloth, not do in any of the Tibets? First Tibet, or Second Tibet, or Western Tibet? He could barely hold that thought in his mind. The wind swept across the unknown size of Tibet, and struck his tent as if to question his right to be there.

Hand in hand with the treasures to finance his journey, Father Desideri received an unwanted companion. Another priest was required to join him, not as an assistant, but as the leader of the expedition. Desideri was aghast. Donna Juliana and the Jesuits both said that this was necessary, so there was little that he could do.

Emanoel Freyre was a veteran of twenty years experience in India, and it was felt that an older priest should be in charge. Desideri did not see how years on the hot plains of India would be of any use in the high mountains of Tibet, but he had to agree to these arrangements. It rankled him, and deep within he felt it was a question of Italian and Portuguese rivalry again.

Ah. If only Pope Clement were there to strengthen his hand! But Fr. Desideri did this himself, thorough prayer. The old Jesuit would be the tutelary head, he resolved, but he, Ippolito Desideri, would truly govern their steps. This came to him almost as a vision while he knelt before a flickering candle, while his eyes were upon a crucified Christ hanging above the flame.

Once they started north, Desideri found the old monk an unenthusiastic, sour and disagreeable partner. Could it have been that the Jesuits in India merely wanted to be rid of his presence? Desideri had laughed at the thought. With the old priest in Tibet, they certainly would be rid of his piercing eyes and critical tongue. But he did not think of the opposite case, that the old priest would be free of the religious politics of India and the new bureaucratic frills which now adorned his beloved Christ.

While in Delhi, Father Desideri had heard more of the man who, long ago, had started the Jesuit’s attempts to penetrate Tibet.

Who was he?

Father Antonio de Andrade had heard of lost Christians in the Himalayas. Were they Nestorians, and were rumors of their existence true? In 1624 he had the opportunity to follow his obsession. He and a lay brother named Manuel Marques left on a reconnaissance toward Tibet. They were able to do this by joining a caravan of Hindu pilgrims, disguised and undetected. They went through great forests of cypress and chestnut trees following the indications of the Ganges. Later, Father de Andrade would reach the source of that holy river, but before that he would experience the hardships of the pilgrimage.

The trails clinging to the edges of cliff faces were suicidal, narrow, and slippery. The plunge down to the bottom of canyons accepted many a tired migratory on the Wheel of Rebirth. Of the risk of death, the old pilgrims were very much aware, almost welcoming the idea of death under such spiritual circumstances.

Wild flowers greeted them just as the Christians’ disguises were penetrated. Caught, they were thought to be spies. Revealing their priestly purposes did not help. They were released, but then pursued again. Past holy Badrinath, with its hot springs, they traveled. Captured again, de Andrade escaped to reach the Mana Pass, at 18,390 feet. Marques soon caught up to him, but it easily could have been their end.

Snow bridges led them across crevasses, and then collapsed without them. It was a terrible frozen desert; no trees; no humans; just continuous snow. Frostbite was discovered when de Andrade noticed spots of blood appear on the path next to him. It was bursting from his fingers. Eating snow did not alleviate their thirst. Snow blindness finally struck them when they reached the dazzling pool, which was the source of the Ganges. It seemed as if that would be their last sight in life.

As it turned out, it was not. Their eyesight recovered by the time they reached Guge. The King and Queen of Tsaparang, and the inhabitants, were all very suspicious of these strangers who had come to their country. This was especially so since they were traveling through such dangers, and were not even merchants looking for material benefits. When de Andrade explained their wish to bring the holy teachings of their Lord, the King and Queen changed their attitude and welcomed them. The Tibetans were much impressed by this noble motivation for the facing of such dangers.

Although they stayed at Tsaparang in Western Tibet for only a month, the Jesuit party completely captured the mind of the King. He wrote a letter for them to take back with them expressing his enthusiasm. They left before the passes were completely closed by snow, taking with them two youths, on the one hand to prove where they had been and on the other, so that the young men could tell what they had seen in the world of the Jesuits when they returned home to Tsaparang.

Of course, the Jesuits had not found any traces of lost Christians, but that did not matter now that they had opened new fields for conversion. Their superiors agreed, and the Jesuits returned with Father Gonzales de Sousa, and were soon joined by the Fathers Jao de Oliveira, Alano dos Anjos, and Francisco Godinho. There were some questions raised as to the practicality of the conversion of so sparsely populated a place. But de Andrade pointed out that it was the gateway to other countries, especially Utsang, Central Tibet, farther to the east. Marque left Tsaparang before Christmas of 1625 and Godinho, supposedly in ill-health went with him.

Late in 1627, Marque guided Father Antonio Pereira to the new mission. The church building had been finished and decorated by the others. Jesuit India was getting impatient, for only twelve natives had been baptized at Tsaparang, and this did not include the King and Queen: a bad sign. What made matters worse was the royal favor brought unsuspected danger to the hopeful Jesuits.

The King was curtailing gifts to the head lama, his own brother, and was thinking of secularizing all lamas so they could not continue to avoid serving in his army. de Andrade paid little attention to the local tensions, however, since he thought very little of the lamas, dirty purveyors of superstitions, manipulators of magic. He dismissed them as an unlikely force, sitting and playing with their bone rosaries. Had he stayed longer, he would have noticed the signs of danger, but he was recalled to govern the mission at Goa.

The reason for this move is unknown. There, de Andrade ruled as well as he could. But his heart was in the Himalayas. He also ran afoul of the Inquisition, which he felt was becoming extreme. The happiest time of de Andrade’s life had been at Tsaparang. He never returned. He was killed by an assassin, some deranged person who had no motive.

Thereafter, the viability of the Tsaparang mission came under constant question. Father Nuno Coresma was sent with six other priests to investigate the feasibility of continuing to maintain the mission. On the way, they passed through country in the midst of famine, and two priests died. Three others became ill, and they were sent back.

Coresma went on with Father Correa. At Tsaparang the mission was not converting souls fast enough. The royal family, though helpful, had not become Christians. The lamas were agitating the populace, pointing to the Jesuits as being the cause of nearby famines. Within one month, Father Coresma, having hardly recovered from his hard journey, decided that there had been no progress. His was a sour view, and he reported that the mission should be relinquished. But his advice was not taken by the Jesuits at that time.

Meanwhile, to the east, using an easier approach, Christians were able to establish a presence in Shigatze, one of the major cities of Greater Tibet. This was six weeks distance from Tsaparang, and had an easier connection to India, without the necessity of crossing passes which were closed by snow for so much of the year. But Father Joao Cabral, and his two associates, Fathers Diaz and Cacella, had even less success in Shigatze than the others did in Tsaparang. Cabral left through Nepal, a country which he never realized existed. God took Diaz. And God took Cacella, but not until he had forced his way back to Shigatze.

The King was saddened by the death of this courageous man, but that sadness only found form in Buddhist prayers for the dead. Thus, the mission in Shigatze evaporated. The Jesuit superiors closed the book there, believing that it was too expensive to continue, and that the King merely wanted presents from them.

In Tsaparang, it was another matter. The Tibetans closed the mission.

The King fell ill, and there was a local revolt aided by the Ladakhis. The few Christian converts were isolated, and could only stay alive if the Jesuits fed them. Because of the famine, prices had increased a thousand fold. The church was sacked, and the mission was in terrible danger.

Local politics, to which the Jesuits had paid little heed, had raised the flames of destruction. Marques was captured, and although the Queen of Lahore tried to interceded, his pitiful letter asking for help, to be saved, was the last that history heard of him. There is no doubt that he was tortured and died a horrible death, alone in the rarified air of Guge.

Thus, the mission closed itself, without the blessings of the Jesuits in India. It evaporated like water into the dry air of the Tibetan plateau, leaving no trace.

All of this Ippolito Desideri knew when he started his journey north.


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