(PART 2)

They aimed first for Kashmir, and soon discovered the hardships resulting from their choice. What was this journey but foolishness? At every step, danger. At every step, pain. With the snow, everyone faced blindness. Without the snow, seeing rock, trails, people, it was blindness still. Arguments amongst the blind: to go on to futility or to return to futility? Which was the trail? Which the correct way?

Ask one person, ask two. Get as many answers as they think the questioner wishes, always the one which they thought, they believed, was wanted. Was there no truth? Which was the correct direction? How narrow the way! How crooked! Indeed, the razor’s edge, feet cut and bleeding, lips cracked.

Who could speak the truth under such conditions? Could anything spoken be the truth under such conditions? Cold! Pain! Blindness! And the trail was only one way, for there was no way at all to turn back, even if there were a wish to do so.

Even when they were snowblinded, the old Jesuit’s eyes were piercing, colder than the glacial streams the party had to wade, sharper than the ice surfaces they inevitably cracked through to immerse their limbs in such new-born water. Desideri, when he could see, would not look at the other Jesuit. Desideri, when he could not see, could see nothing else but the pain-filled eyes of the other. He thought of saving the souls of Tibetans, but he did not wish to think that there was one closer to him who needed attention. After all, the other priest was already saved.

The valley of Kashmir was a welcome relief. It was a fertile place with a Muslim population with a more relaxed manner than most Muslims elsewhere. The women did not go about veiled. It was a place of lakes and gardens.

To Desideri, it was a place to recuperate from the arduous journey. To the elder Jesuit it was a swamp, dirty and inhospitable. He could not see how his young companion could be so fooled by the greed of the natives.

Desideri did not overlook any of the characteristics of the Kashmiri. He just appreciated the respite. He had developed dysentery, and any place where he could rest was paradise. No place was paradise to the other. Desideri was also keenly aware that the valley touched upon two of the Tibets. It was just a matter of choice where they went next. Little Tibet (Baltistan), or Great Tibet (Ladakh), first and second Tibet, respectively.

It was to be Ladakh. But getting there was no easy task.

The trip to Ladakh was a terrible repeat of their original trip north. In the snows, their hired men begged Father Desideri to turn back. But the again-snowblinded young Jesuit could not conceive of such a decision.

As Desideri’s party traveled from Srinigar, it was only near the river, if even there, that concentrations of people were to be found. Dras and Kargli were two of these miserable examples of human habitation. The young Jesuit had been afraid that the villages of Ladakh, especially Leh, would be as poorly off as these others. But once they were over the high passes, once they passed Mulbeck, with its huge image carved into the gigantic boulder, things were a little better.

Although the country was still basically desert, and cold, here the inhabitants were of Tibetan stock, and seemed to have found in a lifestyle of cooperation a way of dealing with the adversities of their environment. This is not to say that it was not a desperate life in that frozen desert. The mountains were like none Desideri had ever seen before. They were fingers, they were teeth. The river canyons were like mouths, like gaping entrances to perdition. The colors — it had nothing to do with the atmospheric conditions — changed from hour to hour. Violet crags, oxidized green sentinels, dark stone upthrusts of the remnants of volcanic cores. Everything tilted independently of a proper up and down. The work of ages, through wind and water erosion was so blatantly evident that, when the wind blew, one could imagine it happening at that very moment, feel the earth tilting, see the mountains pushing.

And on top of it all, there was the snow — at first only in the distance, but then they were within those distances themselves, with the trails that were half-imagined into existence by ancient travelers.

Even walking on these scratches upon the sides of mountains in this treeless expanse, no one could be sure that he would not step off into thin air at any moment. And this was no mere poetic fear, for many of the trails were in mid-air, resting as they did upon a stack of flat stones held aloft by pilings driven into the mountainside by some ancient saint.

These rare bits of wood were cracked with age and sometimes were missing altogether, the stones balancing upon each other over emptiness. This could be felt in crossing them. This could be heard when they gave way, crashing downwards. Luckily, this happened to no men, but precious animals vanished into the abyss in this fashion.

Through the cold hells they moved, and, surviving, they reached Leh, the capital of Ladakh. By the standards of other capitals, it was a village — a small village, dominated by the great slab of a fortress, an imitation mountain.

But the power that it represented was no imitation.

The King of Leh was very open to the Jesuits, welcoming them without looking at any of the letters of reference which they brought with them. He honored them as lamas, and gave them his protection. Kashmiri merchants became jealous of the rapport which made it easy for the Jesuits to visit the King informally. They spread lies that the Jesuits were rich merchants in disguise and had many precious things.

It took much protestation by the Jesuits, and repeated insistence that the King’s brother examine their possessions, before these doubts were put to rest. The King himself later examined their medallions, images and manuscripts, and expressed pleasure as to the true purpose of their journey.

The Kashmiri merchants were forbidden to visit the King or the court.

It seemed that the King’s invitation for the Jesuits to stay in Ladakh might convince them that this idea was a good one. It almost happened. But after consultations and hard thinking, they decided to go on to Third Tibet, the seat of the false sect, and do their work there.

The old Jesuit was strong in this position, for he secretly hoped to leave that place by an easier route down through Nepal. He did not wish to go back the way they had come, through those cold hells.

The King of Ladakh gave them many letters to governors under his rule, and helped them with the buying of horses and other things needed for their trip, and in August of 1715, they left Leh. They first traveled through inhabited mountainous regions, but soon reached the plains called Chang Thang. This was a difficult place to cross because of the lack of good water. There were many stagnant pools and sulphurous springs, and both water and air were dangerous, causing inflammation of gums and lips. But herbs helped to keep this condition from becoming fatal to man or beast.

In September, the Jesuits arrived at a town on the frontier, well-fortified, and called the Abode of Mirth. The letters from the King of Leh caused the lamas and governor there to greet them warmly. Beyond this place was a terrible desert which would take three months to cross — that is, once they had a guide. But none came forth, and they could not attempt it alone. The governor did his best to find someone to help them.

Finally, help came from a place called Gartok, two days away. The two Jesuits praised God for not abandoning them.

There was a body of Tibetan troops stationed there, protecting the region. They were now going to return to third Tibet, since new troops had come to replace them. The commander of the troops was the widow of the original commander, a Tibetan prince. She was a princess named Casal, and after the Jesuits were presented, she agreed to help the holy men on the long and difficult journey.

They left Gartok in the second half of October in a great caravan, composed of squadrons of cavalry, servants, ministers, officers of the army, the princess, and her ladies. Desideri and his companion generally rode with the second group of cavalry. After them came the baggage train, provisions, and men on foot. Across the desert named Ngnari-Giongar they traveled, until they came to the Kailash region, a place of terrible ice and snow, a place of sacred caves and shrines, with a few monks who served in those precincts.

There was excitement among the Tibetans as they approached Mt. Kailash. They felt that this pyramid of stone was a perfect Mother Mountain. Unlike the Hindus, who believed that Shiva lived atop it, they felt that it was the home of the great Bodhisattva. They had mentioned the name, but Desideri did not remember it, for he did not understand what a bodhisattva was. The princess Casal, in whose company they frequently traveled, often turned in her saddle towards him and smiled, her eyes locking onto his. From her, he learned that the mountain was the source of all the great rivers, all the water of the world. For some reason, he remembered her words the best. The other priest had muttered something about the Trinity and prayed aloud, as if to prevent any of this talk from entering his mind.

Desideri said nothing. He also did not pray to prevent anything. He was absorbing the great spaces of western Tibet, and reflecting the light from the white pyramid of the mountain. The Tibetan woman said little else, but her voice remained in the clear air around his head. Desideri’s eyes became inflamed by the glare from the snow surfaces of Mt. Kailash. Taking the advice of the princess, he avoided snow blindness by rubbing them with snow.

Now it was much later. After a cold night amidst the howling of the now-still storm, Desideri exited his tent. He saw the sky changing, growing a deeper blue into which the stars faded. With the arrival of the sun, the snow began to soften, grow heavier, and slide off the tents. The grunting yaks shook themselves out of their white coats, and the rest of the travelers began to waken.

They were unseen at first. First he could hear talking, then laughing, and soon one person after another came out to squint at the wide land. Their expressions seemed to be of people who were surprised to be in Tibet. This of course was not true. Eyes met eyes, but said nothing. Unspoken words came out of mouths as white clouds.

Desideri looked across the great calm lake. Then, turning, he again saw the white mountain raise its pyramid crisp and clear in the distance. His right hand rose, as if to reach out and to touch it. But he caught himself, turning the gesture into the sign of the cross. In the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Ghost. He did not say it aloud.

Barely audible, he heard some Tibetan in back of him mumble his own prayer, Aum Mani Padme Hum, in response to the sight of the holy mountain.

Then the men were chasing the animals, rounding them up, shouting to grab this tail or grab that nose, laughing not to be afraid.

Soon the journey started again, and it continued to be difficult. The wind, when not seen as the wind, was a threat to sanity, a threat to belief, an invitation to self-pity, a voice of pride which tempted the Jesuit into considering his mere discomfort akin to the suffering of his crucified Lord. But then, most of the time, the wind, no matter how fierce, was merely the wind.

On the road to Lhasa

Although it was a grim way to travel, it was better than during warmer months when they would have sunken, bogged down in a morass of muddy landscape. The further they penetrated into the country, the more the old monk dreamt of leaving it. These thoughts affected his energy and affected his sleep at night, which was interrupted and fitful. Awake, he would lie with his eyes open, staring into the midnight blackness. What had awakened him? He did not know, but he knew the thoughts racing through his mind.

Another time he would have stopped them, but now he let them run. And he watched. Watched. Was his Lord dead? Was he dead to Him? Was love given and love returned? Was the Church dead? Was he in Tibet for no purpose?

He held his arms up in the darkness, thinking he might see his hands. He could not, but he knew that something was there. But it was not his hands. He had no hands, or so it seemed. He felt nothing. No hands. No love. No bitterness. He felt that he was dead.

He thought of his brother’s small children. But they must be grown with children of their own by now! They had no cousins, for he had no children. This time, he imagined them as toddlers. He had to shake them out of his mind. He did not care. No wife. His upheld arms ran with aching muscles. He did not question his thoughts. No children. No home. His arms ached. No body. No one. All were dead.

If they had been alive, if they could have been alive, they were now all cold and still. He opened his mouth and felt the cold air which he inhaled pass his hot lips. Coldness entered deeply into him. Dead. All history, he felt, was gone. As if it never had been. He lowered his arms, fingers interlaced upon his abdomen. But he did not sleep. His eyes did not close. The images were so sharp!

Back in Italy, the old Jesuit had been falsely accused. The young man had declared his charges hysterically. The Portugese’s superiors had never made it clear what they believed to be the truth. They only acted for what they thought would be the best.

In the privacy of the Jesuit’s confessional, he had never said anything about the matter, perhaps to the chagrin of his confessor, his listening ear connected to God. Truly, he had only confessed to an innocuous self-criticism. In it, he hoped that somehow, inadvertently, he had not signaled the spawn of the devil, that sodomite.

But was the other man truly possessed of the devil? Or was it God’s work, a test for him, one which he had passed so triumphant, so pure? He nodded in the dark. But if that were so, why was he not pure in the eyes of the church, of the brotherhood? He wept. It was his cross. India came first. He muttered. This forsaken world with these other lost souls was his lot. Was it destiny? A journey through the darkness to the light?

It was difficult for him to think. The wind came in spurts, in whistles, and was so cold. And he, he felt alone, so forgotten by all on earth and in Heaven. In his dreams, ancient waters were burning, ice-falls crackling, glacial eyes opening. Mountain mouths whispered, and moments barely moved. Weakness everywhere brought a falling to the knees, and a rolling upwards of unseeing eyes.

The journey was made easier by the kind princess who took an almost maternal interest in their welfare. Because they had difficulty in finding fuel for fire and fodder for their horses, she was always interceding so that they should not be wanting for anything. This was not a country for horses. Only two of theirs reached Lhasa, and one died immediately upon seeing the Potala Palace.

Frequently, Desideri would dine with the princess while his servants and the old Jesuit were slowly catching up with the caravan. On the twenty second of November this was again the case. When Desideri left her, he found that the others had not yet arrived. Very late, three of the servants arrived with the baggage horse. The other Jesuit was not with them. His horse had fallen, exhausted, into the snow, and he had remained with him, waiting for him to recover.

Alarmed, Desideri alerted the princess, who sent horsemen out into the dark night looking for the priest and the interpreter. They found them by shouting along the trail. The old Jesuit was brought to the camp half-frozen, but to him it was worse than that. He was embarrassed at his close call with death. He was humiliated that he could not manage for himself, and had to be rescued.

As they cared for him, he felt total helplessness. There was nothing he could do for himself. He felt that all the experience of his status, his self-controlled maturity, was falling away from him. The eyes of the princess looked down upon him softly, and he almost cringed at the depth of the caring that he found there. He closed his eyes, but she remained within his mind. He felt her brushing away the snow. He felt her arm behind his head, felt her closeness and felt her swaying. He thought he heard her murmuring, more a song than conversation. He did not know what it meant.

He thought that he was going to die. Now, he thought, he wanted to die. He thought that he was a helpless child, a baby being cradled somewhere. But then, a change came. If this ended, he could not live. Here it was soft and warm. Was Mother Mary near? Had he become infant Jesus? Sighing, he slept cradled in her arms, wrapped in sheepskin and feeling her bodily warmth.

Princess Casal gave the old priest his life. Her concentrated attention did that. She did not delegate it to anyone else, but did it herself. In the beginning the half-frozen Jesuit almost struggled against the touch of her arms, her fingers, which loosened frozen garments. Then he exhaled, relaxing, for he had no strength to do anything else. Soon he was muttering a string of incoherent Hail Mary’s. At that time, Desideri was there, anxiously watching, so when the princess requested that the translator ask him the meaning of the words her patient was saying, Desideri told her that he was praying to the Mother of God, Mary.

The princess’s face remained still, and then smiled. The translator had done his best, but she received the message that he was invoking the mother goddess, Tara, who had been created from the compassionate tears of Chen-re-zi, the bodhisattva of compassion. While she smiled in deep empathy with the stricken old man, a tear did appear. And, for all practical purposes, she was the goddess Tara, gentle mother to sentient beings, those subject to suffering. Desideri left, and Goddess-princess rocked the now warm old man to sleep, singing a shepherd’s song. It was so quiet and lulling that only his heart could hear it.

Desideri had mixed feelings about arriving at Lhasa. He knew the princess was going to continue northward, and he would see her no longer. This he regretted. He had hoped that his language would improve miraculously so that he could thank her for her kindness by converting her to the one true religion. But this was not to be. She stayed at Lhasa, at the court, for only a short while, and then left to join a convent and become a Buddhist nun.

Desideri prayed constantly to God to repay her for all her kindness, give her eternal salvation and to illuminate her. It was really not necessary for him to do so.

These were his thoughts and prayers on the approaches along the river Tsang Po towards Lhasa.

The old Portuguese, with the weariness of saddle travel, was immersed in his own thoughts, every jolt on the trail another reminder that he was in an empty land. The mind, that tormentor, that deceiver, where did it take him? Where did it go? Into the past, to find wounds. It left the places of peace and rushed to points of pain. Memories of old suffering seemed more real now than when they were born. Burning. This was hell’s fire. But why? He was like a babe innocent of anything to confess. But no confessions were required.

He was being tortured nonetheless. The wind did not bring it. The broad treeless landscape did not bring it. Was he full of weakness caused by the journey, or was it strength that declared he was ready for a confrontation? He tried praying to Mother Mary, but found himself jealous of the baby Jesus on her lap. Without planning to, he edited the babe from his vision, and felt better — became calmer.

All the while, he did not realize that the face of the Madonna had changed to that of the substitute goddess, Princess Casal. His breath came easier. Freed from false memory, freed from wild imagination, his mind was in what he saw now, the treeless landscape of Tibet. His breath was rising before his face as a cloud. Did it hide the cross on Kailash?

They traveled from the west, past the great carved Buddha near the river. The Tibetans stopped to pile stones in offering at its feet. Some of them threw kata (white scarves) up towards its face, hoping they would cling there auspiciously. Princess Casal and many of her party did prostrations and lit sticks of incense which appeared from their baggage. Desideri watched from afar, noticing how the painted Buddha appeared reflected, upside-down, on the surface of the still river. The old Jesuit looked at his horse’s ears.

Passing the monasteries of Drepung and Netchung, Ippolito Desideri was impressed. They were so large! Seeing the rooftops of the Potala glistening with gold in the fading light, his breath was caught in astonishment at the sight. It appeared as a man-made mountain in the center of the valley which vanished into the twilight as they camped on the outskirts of the city. Everyone had a sense of excitement except the dour old Jesuit. The following morning, they entered through the great gate, through the tunnel within it, the monumental chorten which contained relics and held scriptures hidden in its sculptured stone and mortar.

The chorten was a form of sun upon moon, triangle upon circle, upon steps, upon cube. All of the holy elements were there, and the caravan moved through them. Passing the stairways of the Potala, all Desideri could do was to stare. Would he truly enter that edifice and see the King? Was it possible? Yes, of course. It was his mission!

The old Jesuit would not look. He refused to be impressed. He pretended to doze. A Tibetan cavalryman rode beside him to prevent him from falling off his horse. But that was not necessary.

The princess found the priests a place to stay. She also made arrangements for the younger Jesuit to meet with government officials after he had rested a suitable time. She then said farewell, and was gone before Desideri half knew it. She had given him some incense for his new altar, and he had given her one of his rare candles for her shrine. And she was gone.

The trip across Chang-thang had been cold. But in Desideri’s heart, at that moment, it was much colder.


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